Hike to the ruins of the Chosen Family Hippy Commune in Olompali State Historic Park in the Bay Area

In 1967, a successful businessman named Don McCoy grew his hair, sold his business, and started a hippie community.

Called the chosen family, 26 people moved into a mansion in Rancho Olompali, Marin County, where they shared common chores, homeschooled their children, baked bread to distribute in Haight-Ashbury and played music with the Grateful Dead.

For a time, supported by McCoy’s ample fortune, the chosen family was a utopia. But in its second year, things took a turn for the worse: financial pressures intensified and unwanted new members moved in, bringing with them an influx of drugs and alcohol. In 1969, two young children drowned in the mansion’s swimming pool, the house itself burned down, and the commune was evicted.

Since then, no one lives in Olompali. But in the late 1970s, the ranch became a state historic park — and today, you can hike to the ruins of the old mansion.

Burdell Mansion, then home to the Chosen family commune, burned down in 1969.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

Pulling into the parking lot at Olompali State Historic Park on a scorching Saturday afternoon, we found it to be rather empty. We paid for parking, walked a short dirt trail, and immediately came face to face with the remains of the historic mansion.

Marked with a small, moss-covered wood-framed panel, the Burdell Mansion – named after the Burdell family, who remodeled the house several times over the years from 1856 to 1911 – showed few signs of the glamor of its glory days.

“With the addition of electric lighting, the Burdell House became the premier residence in Marin County,” read one sign.

What was once a resplendent 26-room mansion – its white columns lining the facade towards the garden – now swung open, its crumbling innards exposed to the elements.

On the north side of the Burdell Mansion, visitors can see the three eras of the building come together: the original adobe, the Burdells' wooden house built around it, and the stucco mansion their son James built around it.

On the north side of the Burdell Mansion, visitors can see the three eras of the building come together: the original adobe, the Burdells’ wooden house built around it, and the stucco mansion their son James built around it.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

Continuing, we passed a concrete slab where the chosen family was baking bread, as well as historic buildings from Olompali’s earlier past: the living quarters of the Burdell family cook, several barns, the remains of a fountain that was once part of a Victorian Garden and finally, a recreation of a Coast Miwok village – the first occupants of the land.


Then began the more nature-focused part of our hike: the 3-mile loop trail through the lower slopes of Burdell Mountain, where California bay, oak trees and redbarked madrones provided welcome shade against the heat (the more ambitious can take the steeper 8-mile Burdell Trail, which rewards hikers with stunning views of San Francisco Bay, Mount Tamalpais, and Mount Diablo).

A short stretch of steep ascent took us to views of hills to the east dotted with greenery, hawks soaring overhead, and finally an aerial view of Burdell Manor, its puny ruins in the distance. .

Olompali State Historic Park in Marin County is home to both great hiking and thousands of years of history.

Olompali State Historic Park in Marin County is home to both great hiking and thousands of years of history.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

While the ill-fated hippie commune of Olompali continues to fascinate visitors long after its eventful two years have ended, the history of the park begins long before 1967. A village was founded in Olompali around the year 1000, with the people Coast Miwok being among its first inhabitants.

“It was a very wealthy place for the people who lived there. They were very wealthy, in terms of access to food and raw materials,” said Breck Parkman, a retired California State Parks archaeologist who has spent many years studying Olompali. “…They could walk five minutes and catch fish, and they could walk five minutes and hunt deer.”

But when the Spaniards arrived in the region at the end of the 18th century, native life changed forever. Between 1814 and 1816, Coast Miwok people were taken from Olompali to Mission San Francisco.

“The missions were full of disease and they were pretty deadly places,” Parkman explained. “…For a time Olompali was almost completely evacuated by the missions.”

A reconstruction of a Miwok village at Olompali State Historical Park.

A reconstruction of a Miwok village at Olompali State Historical Park.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

The missions closed in 1834, after which a Coast Miwok man named Camillo Ynitia returned and set about reestablishing the village of Olompali. He lived in an adobe structure that still stands today, making it the oldest standing house structure north of San Francisco—encased in the remains of Burdell Mansion.

This is because Ynitia sold the Olompali property to James Black, Marin County’s first tax assessor, in 1852. Black then presented it as a wedding gift to her daughter, Mary Burdell, and her husband, Dr. Galen Burdell, San Francisco’s first dentist.

“I think they despised living in an adobe, so they built a two-story log house,” Parkman said. “The wooden house encapsulated the ancient adobe within its walls.”

The Burdells’ son James added a third layer to the structure in 1911, encapsulating his parents’ wooden house within the walls of a magnificent 26-room stucco mansion.

The Burdell Garden, circa 1874.

The Burdell Garden, circa 1874.

Fornia State Parks, Burdell Collection

“If you go there today and walk around the north side of the structure, you can look across the garden and you can actually see the interior adobe wall, surrounded by some wood, surrounded by stucco, and you can see all three structures,” Parkman said.

But before the electrical fire at the end of the chosen family’s stay in Olompali revealed the inner layers of Burdell Manor’s history, the mansion lived several other lives: it belonged to the Jesuit order in the 1930s, it became the “Olompali Swim Club” in the 1950s, and even hosted the Grateful Dead for six weeks in 1966.

Former Chosen Family member Noelle Barton moved to Olompali when she was 17.

“My mother, Sandra Barton, was one of the original founding members,” she said. “…What made our group unique was that we were five families who decided to find a place to live together, to raise their children away from the hustle and bustle of the mid-60s. … This group of people, who called themselves “the chosen family” because they chose to live together as a family, were middle-aged professionals who decided to drop out.

Members of the chosen family work on the cement slab of the Olompali bread oven.

Members of the chosen family work on the cement slab of the Olompali bread oven.

Courtesy of Noelle Olompali Barton

When the structure burned down in 1969, it created an unintended time capsule of hippie life.

“There were lots of vinyl records, jewelry, props, wine bottles, etc.,” said Parkman, who conducted archaeological research at the site. “So we know a lot more about what people were eating when the fire happened, how they were dressing. …People will say, “Well, you didn’t have to do archeology to understand 1969,” but I tell people that by doing archeology I know things about 1969 that I don’t. wouldn’t have known just from historical records.

He discovered that hippies listened to a wide variety of music, from jazz to showtunes. During the evenings, the commune members sat in the living room, where the adults played guitars and the children – most of whom were girls – did beadwork.

After the “beautiful and all controlled” Chosen Family, the first year, according to Parkman, the commune went from a gated community to an open community, exploding the population to over 80 members. That’s when trouble began, eventually leading to the accidental drowning of the two young girls and the fire that burned down the Burdell mansion.

A band plays on the cement slab in Olompali during the residency of the chosen family.

A band plays on the cement slab in Olompali during the residency of the chosen family.

Courtesy of Noelle Olompali Barton

While the commune’s tragic end resulted in a less than stellar reputation for Olompali, Barton argues that the positive contributions of hippies to modern society are often overlooked.

“A lot of things that people take for granted that are now mainstream, we’re bringing into the mainstream,” Barton said. “We get the criticism of sex, drugs and rock and roll pinned on us like a big rubber stamp, but we’ve done more than that, honey. We’ve been busy doing that too, but we’ve been hard at work with back-to-the-earth organic gardening and environmental awareness.

Parkman agreed.

“You have to understand the contribution of chosen family and people like that to understanding environmentalism, organic food and community living – all things that to survive climate change I think we’re going to have to work with. We are going to have to review our way of life, our way of growing our food. And you know, the hippies said that in the 60s, and the Coast Miwok said that much earlier.

The dining room inside the Burdell Mansion during the chosen family's residence.

The dining room inside the Burdell Mansion during the chosen family’s residence.

Courtesy of Noelle Olompali Barton

Whether you prefer to skip the hike in favor of a picnic among the shady oaks near Burdell Mansion or climb the 1,558-foot Mount Burdell, a visit to Olompali has plenty to offer.

If you still need convincing, just listen to Parkman.

“I’ve worked all over the world, all over California’s state parks, and if I had to pick one place to spend the rest of my life telling stories about history, it would be Olompali,” a- he declared. “There is something for everyone, but sometimes you have to look hard to see it.”

Olompali State Historic Park in Marin County is home to both great hiking and thousands of years of history.

Olompali State Historic Park in Marin County is home to both great hiking and thousands of years of history.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

Olompali State Historic Park in Marin County is home to both great hiking and thousands of years of history.

Olompali State Historic Park in Marin County is home to both great hiking and thousands of years of history.

Madeline Wells/SFGATE

This historical photo shows the pool at Olompali during the residence of the chosen family.

This historical photo shows the pool at Olompali during the residence of the chosen family.

Courtesy of Noelle Olompali Barton

Joan D. Boling