On a warm August evening, my partner and I pulled into Michael and Catherine (Cat) Donovan’s driveway at their 95 year old property in Idyllwild’s historic district. We were welcomed into their home with two glasses of prosecco before venturing back into the warm evening air for a tour of their tree covered property. Leaving their porch, we followed them down the 1920s-built rock paths, weaving through their two acre forest until we entered a clearing to find their 1955 Trail Chief trailer. Tall, leafy trees and staggered log fences surround the forest opening. This was our first glimpse of Camp Owl Pine, a meticulously crafted campsite with a fully stocked outdoor kitchen, heated open air shower, and redwood deck, all built in just nine days.
As we toured the camp, the Donovan’s explained how they moved one year ago from the Los Angeles Silver Lake neighborhood to Idyllwild, a small mountainous community nestled in the San Jacinto mountains. Since moving last fall, the couple have dove head first into learning more about the history of their new home in Idyllwild. “We had never even heard of Idyllwild before we moved. We sold our house in 10 days and moved here,” Cat began. “It’s pretty crazy to think that you have this area that’s within reach of 23 million Southern Californians. There’s under 4,000 people that live here and no one knows about it. The thing that makes it unique is that it’s surrounded by wilderness, there’s no big resort, no downhill skiing. You come here for the nature.”
The Donovan’s property was originally purchased in 1922 as a summer getaway for Arabella and Grant Bell from Pasadena. Dr. Bell, a hobby botanist, aptly named the property “Fern Valley Gardens,” and brought in plants from all over the world. “It’s amazing to see what’s blooming. We walk outside and we’re always seeing new flowers,” Cat said. Today, the Donovan’s and their two children live in the original Bell family summerhouse, just a few minutes from the camp. Across from their home is the carriage house, once used as a garage for the Bell’s Packard and chauffeur, and today a charming guest rental.
Photo by Stephanie Wiley
Later, in the mid 1960s, the property became known as “Timberlite” when it was purchased by Ann Benedict, a board member of Idyllwild Arts. Benedict was a dry foods innovator who often supplied local hikers and backpackers. “She was tight with Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, all of the super early climbing pioneers. They staged so much here, prior to doing Yosemite Valley,” Michael said. Her company, Dri Lite Foods, also provided the freeze-dried foods used by the first Americans to successfully summit Mount Everest.
Back at their home, Cat went on to talk about the next owner, Mitchell Susnar, a chef and former actor, who purchased the property in 1987. The property name was changed to “The Epicurean,” named after his Florida restaurant, and became a casual dining and retail space for visitors. Cat shows us photographs from the 1980s of the same room we were sitting in, the space was adorned in red and green decorations for the winter holidays. “You could pick out a bottle of wine go down to the cellar, grab it, come up, get a cheese board, and then go hang out on the property or the deck,” Michael said, pointing down to the same cellar they now use in their home.
Jazz music from across the street softly played through their screen door as we heard even more stories about the history of Idyllwild and the Donovan’s property. Restaurants and bars on their street were filled with guests visiting for the 24th annual Jazz in the Pines festival. Held at Idyllwild Arts Academy, a boarding arts high school and summer program, the three-day music festival brings in more than two dozen jazz, R&B, and blues artists. Each August, hundreds of Southern Californian’s and their lawn chairs cover a grassy hillside, gathered underneath billowy parachutes at Holmes Amphitheater.
Events like Jazz in the Pines and The Idyllwild Film Festival continue to attract seasonal waves of tourists to Idyllwild. While Palm Springs and the surrounding valley below have become a trendy destination, Idyllwild might not be too far behind them, likely luring the same urban dwellers looking for a weekend getaway.
After the property passed through the hands of more owners throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the property seems to have found its perfect long term owner in fall of 2016. “Local historian Bob Smith told us this was considered one of the most endangered properties in Idyllwild because it’s on the main strip, it’s so forested and it’s been undeveloped for almost 100 years,” Cat explained. “It’s pretty hard to not develop a property in the center of town. Everyone holds their breath every time a new owner comes in, because it’s really like ‘What’s going to happen?’”
Today, the inside of the summerhouse looks more like a home than an emporium. A mix of new and old objects stay true to the historic character of the house. The property’s landscape is being restored to reveal the 1920s landscaping, some parts which have been buried in decades of fallen leaves and debris. It feels manicured, yet and inviting and natural, exactly how I would imagine Dr. Bell would have kept it during it’s heyday.
Strawberry Creek runs through their land for 250 feet, with a hiking the path leading into town and a natural, shallow pool that’s perfect for quick dips on warm days. “People walk by and they think it’s a park. It’s visually relaxing to have nature and open space, when it literally could have been 12 little condo bungalows and you wouldn’t have any of the trees. It’s so unique that it survived,” noted Cat. The Donovans attribute part of their ability to live and work remotely to sharing economy websites like Hipcamp and vacation rental sites, like Airbnb.
Full time, Michael and Cat work in the business development and public relations industry, but they are part time collectors of all things vintage. Since finding their 1955 Trail Chief, they’ve imagined different ways they could put it to use. “Hipcamp is what we had been unknowingly searching for. It was like finding that lost puzzle piece and saying ‘Boom let’s do it!’” Michael laughs. The pop-up trailer is rare, to put it mildly, something that they nor their fellow collector community have ever seen before. With it’s original aluminum body, canvas walls and fiberglass top, the trailer is a unique sight, regardless of your level of knowledge about vintage trailers.
“Life is short and you think about what can you get done, and what do you want to get done. You can get stuck in planning and thinking mode, especially on a project like building a camp,” Cat said. “Make it how you would appreciate it yourself. It was important to us to not farm it out and bring in a crew. We brought in one person, and he was instrumental. But, when we see it and we walk into it now, you can’t help but see your hands in it,” Michael explained.
After finding the right platform to welcome campers, Michael and Cat decided to build their camp, centered around the Trail Chief, in just nine days. “We saw an early 1900s map of Idyllwild and at the border of our property was a campground. It’s interesting to see it come full circle and have our Hipcamp start next to the original campground here,” Cat mused.
“You could spend forever picking the perfect site. You just have to do it or else you just won’t do anything,” Cat explained. Deciding on the layout was the most difficult part of their nine day build process. “It’s utilizing the space and the trees. It’s almost like a symbiotic relationship with the property where you’re not knocking things down, we’re just going to work with it,” Michael described. “You don’t have to disturb nature to have people come in and enjoy it.”
At the camp, a kitchen deck built out of redwood is stocked with cooking essentials and treats for guests. Chilled cans of LaCroix and other sparkling waters await guests in the cooler. Biodegradable soap by Juniper Ridge can be found in the kitchen and shower with woodsy scents that amplify the outdoor cooking and bathing experience. String lights are draped over two cozy, vintage butterfly chairs on the deck that overlook the trailer and forest.
The interior of the trailer is minimal, but it was a welcoming retreat during the two evenings we stayed. String lights are wrapped around the walls and a thick mattress dressed in linen sheets and a duvet floats above the floor at the back of the trailer. A few paces away, the outdoor shower and compostable toilet are hidden by two doors, repurposed original 1922 window shutters from the property.
Before attending Jazz in the Pines Festival on Saturday morning, freshly baked plum scones, a small bowl of fruit and two lattes were delivered to us at camp. Later that same evening, we joined Michael and Cat for Texas-style brisket, smoked over oak wood from the property for 18 hours. Think smoky crust, with tender, mouthwatering meat. Paired with white bread, homemade barbecue sauce, a kale and potato salad, and green beans–we did not go hungry that night.
At the end of our conversation, Michael and Cat reflect on how they decided to include only the fundamental elements needed for a successful stay. “It’s just getting back to what you need…what’s essential for having a good experience. You need a good bed, you need some shelter, you need to be able to eat some good food or have a cup of coffee and then you need to have an interesting view.” Cat continued, “If you’re sitting on the deck it’s a cool thing to see something built in 1955 that’s survived.”
The Donovans are excited to be the first Hipcamp in Idyllwild, sharing the hidden community with other nature loving campers. “We want to spread the word in a very deliberate, right way, and preserve the spirit of what was going on and why people came here originally,” Michael said, “continuing that kind of stewardship is important.”
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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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