Lesley and John Brabyn have searched all over the world for the perfect ranch to call home. After years of searching, they stumbled upon a 400 acre property burrowed between Bodega and Bodega Bay. Today, that property is home to the Brabyn’s along with grazing cattle, goats, and longstanding redwood groves. After years of working to preserve their land for agriculture, Salmon Creek Ranch is now one of the most sought after camps in Northern California. The Eagles Nest Treehouse, Redwood, and Creekside Camps allow campers to experience the charm and natural beauty of Salmon Creek Ranch. Campers can set up camp in a serene meadow, on the bank of a creek, or perched high above the forest floor inside the cozy treehouse.
From glampsites to indigenous lands, wineries to working farms, Lesley and John Brabyn are 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 Salmon Creek Ranch, their wildlife preservation efforts, and a peek at her camp in our interview below.
Hipcamp: Why did you join Hipcamp, and decide to allow campers to stay on your land?
Lesley Brabyn: Because we’re very blessed to have this land. It has so many unique features, forest, redwoods, a protected salmon habitat with a creek, all kinds of birds and animals, everything. We like sharing it because we are trying to preserve it for agriculture. There’s a disconnect between many of the people who live in cities and how their food is grown. We thought by being able to intimately share our land by having people stay here, they would see how the land and the animals are cared for in a very personal way.
HC: What kind of activities can campers participate in while staying at Salmon Creek Ranch?
LB: We produce organic duck eggs so anybody who wants to help with the processing and gathering of the eggs is always welcome. The other things are trickier because the animals are a little distrustful of people they don’t know. The campers seem to enjoy the baby animals. We have 400 acres of land with half forest and half rolling pasture lands. The property was logged about 60 or 70 years ago so the old logging roads are what we try to preserve as a hiking trails. Doran Beach is a county park that’s just up the road. The coast is dotted with county and state parks. There is horseback riding, deep sea fishing, surfing, wine tasting and kayaking at Bodega Bay as well as trout fishing at Hagemann’s Trout Fishing Farm next door.
HC: How would you describe the differences in camp experience between your three listings?
LB: The Redwood Camps are a little more sheltered, they’re at the end of the meadow and along the creek. Redwood Camp #1 is in a cathedral of redwood trees. It’s very private and can accommodate a lot of campers. Redwood Camp #2 is unique in that it backs up to the creek. Right now the creek is still high, and if you didn’t mind the coldness you could use the creek as a great swimming hole. There are ferns all everywhere, it’s really amazing. The Creekside Camps, are amidst the redwood trees and it’s also private. Number three is quite private. It backs up against Salmon Creek and there’s a tent deck.
HC: In your listing you describe your land as 400 acres of working ranch, half a private forest preserve and half organically certified pasture for production of organic duck eggs, goat meat and grass-fed beef. How did you find your property?
LB: We wanted a ranch. My husband is from New Zealand and he spent a lot of time on a dairy farm growing up. My family has a ranch in Ventura County that’s been in the family since the 1800s. It’s still being farmed and I own it in consort with 16 of my cousins. We’ve been around farming our whole lives. This is what we wanted, a farm. We’d been looking for quite a while. We looked all over the world. New Zealand, England, Sweden, Canada and the eastern part of the US. Whenever we would go on a trip we’d always look.
We spent a lot of time just driving around the area up here. Before moving here, we lived in Mill Valley for over 20 years. On one of our reconnoiters, my husband saw the for sale sign on the ranch. We came to see it and it was way beyond our price range, but we kept coming back to it. Then the recession hit and the seller was able to lower the price and make the financing work and then we were able to buy it. But we still had to hit the ground running to make an income from the land, since we clearly couldn’t afford it. When we bought it, it had a house, a modular that was here since the 70s. The land had been used to graze cattle on, but there was very little cross fencing, no other structures and no barn. We’re still putting in the infrastructure to support an agricultural operation. It’s very, very expensive and we’re still struggling with that.
HC: In your listing you talk about how this land was owned by two brothers in the 1980’s who built the Eagle’s Nest Treehouse, which has been featured in several magazine articles. You also mention it was updated in 2016. Can you talk more about what your inspiration was to move the treehouse and restore it?
LB: In January 2016, a writer wanted to do a story on the treehouse and we tried to discourage her about it. We said it was falling apart, we hadn’t done anything with it, it’s just been sitting there. What do we do with this treehouse? It had a 50ft spiral staircase, you went across two 50ft suspension bridges to the treehouse that had two sets of 9ft french doors. It was amazing. In it’s heyday it had been in House and Garden magazine and was quite something. But through the years it had been neglected and needed fixing or tearing down. After this article came out we decided to look into restoring it. That night we googled “treehouse repair” and the next thing we know we’re on an episode of the The Treehouse Guys television program about repairing the treehouse. The film crew came out and they told us we had 75% of the premium treehouse builders in the country on our property that day. It was very inspirational.
This group was dedicated to symbiosis of trees and treehouses. They were amazing. The technology had completely changed from when the treehouse was originally built because in the 80s, it was only about the treehouse. The way they supported the treehouse was steel bands that girded the tree and then the support structures came out from that band. But after 30 years the bands started to suffocate the tree by killing the bark. Now, it’s more about symbiosis. There are treehouse builder conferences and they test attachments to get these structures up in the tree, but yet allow the tree to keep living and breathing. When we decided to fix up the tree house, the builder was like an elf. He was much more comfortable swinging from the trees than being on the ground. He’s like the treehouse tree whisperer.
He suggested that we move the structure to a healthy span of trees with the new attachment system that would allow the trees to keep growing. In the process we had a 1000 year old redwood log that had fallen on our property about a 100 years ago. It was just enormous in diameter. The builder brought his portable mill out and he made the treehouse from this 1000 year old, old growth redwood log. The richness of the colors inside are absolutely amazing. He cut 16ft long planks that were 3 inches thick. He cut along the natural edge of the tree and put them all together and it’s just a work of art. He used the same frame, the walls, windows, french doors, part of the staircase from the old structure and then strengthened and rebuilt all the support.
HC: Your listing mentions that a portion of campers’ fees are put towards protecting native flora and fauna as part of your private wildlife preservation program. Can you talk more about what your preservation program involves?
LB: A lot of landowners don’t want any outside entities on their property. They don’t want other people on their property poking around in case they find a red-legged frog or something. We’ve chosen to work with the Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District on several projects to repopulate Salmon Creek with Coho Salmon. They come out and they’ll do salmon counts, plant salmon, and they go snorkeling and build little places for the salmon to hide. We let them do that and support that effort. Then with the forest, it’s a right as a landowner that we could clearcut the forest and make a lot of money, but we’ve chosen to preserve it. We want to keep the redwoods going and keep it as a healthy as possible for all the animals and plants that live in it, which is considerable. The Audubon Society also comes out every year for their bird count so we can monitor what species are going through here and to make sure that the forest stays healthy for them.
HC: Has hosting campers on Hipcamp complemented your hard work to keep your land undeveloped?
LB: Land is really expensive here so the more we can get people to appreciate it, the less likely we are to be forced to sell it for development. Every few months we get letters from real estate developers who want to buy our property and turn it into McMansions. It’s a considerable amount of money they’re offering, far more than we could ever earn farming it. With all the rules, regulations, and stipulations, the government has really hogtied small farmers whether you know it or not. It makes it extremely difficult to earn a living farming. So part of the reason why we’re doing camping is to be able to supplement farming income with agritourism so that we can continue to keep our land in agriculture.
HC: Do you have any favorite camping moments or stories from Hipcampers so far?
LB: Oh there’s so many, I mean it’s just amazing. We love the campers that Hipcamp brings us. They just tend to be a really enthusiastic, nature loving, and appreciating group. We love sharing our land with them. There was one weekend where we had a large group of young people from all over the East Coast. They had gone to the same college and convened here for a reunion. They were spread out all over the country after graduation, so they decided to spend a camping weekend to reunite. Well, it turns out that very same weekend some of their friends from their same school were here as well. Then they ran into each other when they were on a hike, that was just amazing and great! We really should keep a journal of these stories because there’s so many. It’s really a small world.
HC: When is the best time of year to visit Salmon Creek Ranch?
LB: I guess that depends a lot on the year. This was a really atypical year because we had so much rain. In May, the creek is still really high. Some of the best times are when it’s so hot everywhere else, and it never gets that hot out here. But it’s unpredictable, when you’re on the coast you really have to be prepared for everything. Hot out here is maybe 78 degrees. Summer on the coast can be ideal or a good facsimile of winter.
HC: What advice would you give to a new Hipcamp host?
LB: I think communication is really important with campers. What they should expect and how to get ahold of you if they need you, so the campers feel like you care about them. You’re not just opening your land and then whatever happens, happens. It’s a commitment to the people that come on your property. And to be friendly, I’ve been at campgrounds where you feel like the camp host doesn’t really care if you’re there or not. You want to make them feel welcome and that they matter. A lot of them will have questions, so just to take the time to talk to them. They seem to really like that.
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