Tucked into the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, Magic Forest Farm boasts 225 acres of hiking trails and organic farmland. While restoring her family’s property, host Joan Mahony spent her nights camping in her tent and tipi, which sparked the idea that one day others might enjoy doing the same. Today, Hipcampers from Boston to Brooklyn experience feeding baby goats, eating farm fresh dinners, and hiking the mountainside at Magic Forest Farm.
From glampsites to indigenous lands, wineries to working farms, Joan Mahony is part of an emerging community of landowners and camp hosts who have generously opened their land to the next generation of campers. Dive in to learn more about Magic Forest Farm, Joan’s plans for an eco village, and a peek at her camp in our interview below.
Photo by Myles Tan
Hipcamp: Why did you join Hipcamp, and decide to allow campers to stay on your land?
Joan Mahony: I actually wanted to open up our property to camping for many years, but I didn’t really know how to reach anybody, as far as marketing. I thought New York City would be too far away for people to come from. Then, one day Hipcamp called us and my partner set it up. It’s worked out great for everyone.
My mom turned the property over to me when I came back from California and I spent the next five years renovating all the buildings and cleaning up the property. While doing that I was camping in my tent and later living in my tipi during the warm seasons. Although it was a little rough at times, I really loved living outside for so long and that inspired me to want to share the experience. When I went camping while driving across the country a few times, I found it was a pretty terrible experience at a normal campground. I always thought I would like to open up this place and allow people to be totally isolated in nature, and yet feel safe and have conveniences nearby. Here, we are just half an hour from Albany, and 15 minutes from several charming small towns.
HC: Your listing describes Magic Forest Farm as a place where people can foster a healthy, collaborative relationship with nature. What kind of activities do campers participate in while staying at Magic Forest Farm?
JM: There’s a lot of hiking trails on the property. People either hang out at their campsites and enjoy the peace and quiet, or they hike some of the trails. We’re working on clearly marking the trails and getting GPS maps laid out because it’s a vast mountain. There are waterfalls, caves and the Catskills are close by.
A few years ago, my partner was renting a room from me in one of the houses and asked me if I would like to start a farm with him. We bought 4 angora goats and a milk cow and started clearing land and hosting volunteers. As that whole element started taking form, the farming aspect really integrated into the whole camping experience. The campers love the animals and it’s really fun to see their reactions.
This summer we’re looking to create some more activities for people to participate in. We are going to offer a number of educational walking tours around the farm and forest. We are going to build a stage, so there will be live music, performances, a place for things like camping weddings or group meetings. We would like to offer vegetarian farm to table cooking classes, and sustainable building workshops. We also have a woodshop that we’re just setting up now. Many people have shown interest in helping with furniture making and creative woodworking. We want to do something a little guided, but let people open it up to their own creativity.
Photos by Myles Tan, bottom left photo by Bekka Palmer
HC: Can you describe the different camp experiences at your Magic Forest Farm Camp, Garden Tipi, and Magic Forest Root Cellar?
JM: The campsites are all very isolated and surrounded by natural forests. We were taken by surprise when people from the city came and they didn’t know how to start a fire, how to set up a tent, or they assumed the campsite included a tent. So we started renting tents and setting them up for people because we’d like them to have a good camping experience. That’s one nice thing about Hipcamp, their outreach to city folks that gets them motivated to go out to the country.
The tipi is a little more high end, but people often mistake it for glamping. There’s a hole in the roof where the smoke goes out and it is still essentially a tent. They come and think they’re going to be warm and cozy, but in cold or stormy weather it can be a rough experience [laughs]. The tipi is lovely and I lived in it for six months myself. It was challenging, comical and uncomfortable at times, but my memories of that summer are very fond and romantic. I lived like that so I could rent out the houses to save money and have the free time to work on the land. Even though there were stormy nights when I seriously questioned my decision to live in the tipi, I’m so glad I did. It was a great adventure!
The Root Cellar is the basement of the main house that we turned into a studio apartment. It has a memory foam bed and handmade furniture with a full kitchen, private bathroom, and wood stove. We built the bed from wood harvested from this land and the bed posts are trees that we pulled up, with the roots sticking up in the air. It has a private courtyard with a koi pond, waterfall, and a beautiful view.
Photos by Myles Tan, bottom left photo by Jesse Harp
HC: Your land has 225 acres of new growth forest, with about 30 acres of farmable open land. How did you find your property?
JM: My family bought the land in the early 70s. My parents and their parents all went in and bought the property together as a weekend getaway. Then, my grandparents retired and moved here from Brooklyn. My mom held onto the property after I left when I was 18. She wanted me to take it over and run it but I never really knew how I could afford to do that, being an artist. I also had a really nice job in California that I loved, so it was hard to make the decision to come back here. At a certain time, many factors came into play that made me see it was time to leave California and take this on. So eight years ago I came back and started dealing with the property with all the knowledge I gained from my 30 years away.
HC: Can you talk more about your work to develop an eco village?
JM: We have a part of the property that we’ve been clearing with that intention in mind. My vision of it would be to structure it like something I saw while I was in Denmark, where you lease the lot for 100 years but it still remains all part of the same property. People can build different houses within set parameters. We can keep the size of the houses within a certain limit, the materials of the houses have to be natural, recycled or sustainable and utilize renewable energy. I’d like the village to be in the line of tiny houses with maybe one main community center and workshop area.
HC: Your listing mentions that for a donation you can provide a garden fresh farm to table meal for campers. What prompted you to offer this to visitors? What kind of produce do you grow on your farm?
JM: People kept asking where they could get a good meal, and honestly, this was the best option! There are a few nice restaurants around here but we always have big meals out on our deck because we have volunteers here all the time. The view is amazing and the stories are fun. We don’t always eat what we grow, but of course when fresh produce is available from our garden or forest, we utilize that. The mountain is abundant with wild edible mushrooms that are a big part of our diet and we also harvest and process our own maple syrup. We usually have a cow that we’re milking, which provides an enormous amount of our dairy needs. We’re working towards getting a kitchen going where we can make cheese and process different prepared foods to sell.
A lot of the volunteers we have are chefs that come from all over the world, so we have incredible meals. Japanese, Indian, European, and several people who were restaurant chefs or culinary students. People come from small towns from somewhere like the Czech Republic and they don’t think that they can cook well, but then they start making food like their mom made and it’s incredible.
HC: Do you have any favorite camping moments or stories from Hipcampers so far?
JM: It’s always really fun to see how excited they get about the animals. It’s never ceases to amuse us. People just melt when they see the baby goats and they love bottle feeding them. They really love checking out the animals, I would say that’s my favorite part.
HC: When is the best time of year to visit Magic Forest Farm?
JM: Every season has its charm. The winters are rough, so you have to be serious about camping if you come in the winter to camp, but The Root Cellar is very cozy and warm with a fire. My favorite time is the fall with the changing foliage, all the incredible colors and in a wet year, the wild mushrooms are prolific. That vivid dramatic season change has always been my favorite time here. Summer is nice too though, nights are comfortable and days are usually in the low 90’s in July and August. The summer night sounds are enchanting and we have a lake nearby that we go swimming in almost every day when it’s really hot. The lake is a short drive away and very secluded. We’re going to dig some swimming holes here someday, but for now there are plenty of nearby waterfalls and swimming holes to cool off in. Spring is beautiful too, as everyone is relieved winter is over and the forest and fields unfold into a new growth cycle
HC: Has hosting campers on Hipcamp complimented all your hard work to keep your land undeveloped?
JM: Yes, it has because the income we receive from allowing people to camp here has freed us up to pursue a lot of the creative building and sustainable agriculture ideas we have in mind.
Before I got back here the buildings and open areas were falling into disarray, all the old fields were growing back with pine trees and bramble. The houses were in rough shape and nearly everything needed to be replaced or repaired. We are just about finished with that phase. We are starting to make items to sell from the materials on the farm; wood products from our forest, the goat fiber, wild harvested mushrooms and plants, with much emphasis on ‘hand made one of a kind’ items.
We also feel it’s important to show alternative examples of how you can live more sustainably because there’s not really a whole lot of that around us in this area. We would like to develop the land more along the lines of dwellings built out of natural or recycled materials. We would like to keep the community small, not having so many people that we’d lose the peace and the privacy here. It is a fine line.
Top photos by Myles Tan, bottom photo by Bekka Palmer
HC: What advice would you give to a new Hipcamp host?
JM: Expect that some people don’t know how to camp. Think about accommodating people that have never camped before. Many city people do not know how to start a fire so you might have to help them. It’s very rewarding though, once you see them enjoying the experience and you feel you’ve opened them up to something beautiful.
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Lisse Lundin is a photographer based in San Francisco. You can follow along with her adventures via Instagram.
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