Ismael Cruz is the owner and operator of Camp Cruz, a “redwood paradise” in the Santa Cruz Mountains and one of the first 100 listings on Hipcamp. This is his story of how a community transformed a land. Photos by Jay Kijai, Chelsea Vandergeest, and Leopold Macaya.
In a way, the odds were not in my favor to acquire property with acreage and run a successful glamping retreat as I currently do. As a first generation Mexican-American raised by a full-time working single mom with no college education, I grew up with one kind of future in sight: get a decent paying job in the city working for “the man.” Without deconstructing the socio-economic inequalities in the United States whereby access to resources of wealth, like land ownership, are tangible opportunities for some more than others, this is the story of how an unlikely person such as myself managed to build Camp Cruz Glamping Retreat, a listing featured on Hipcamp.
In 2004 my wife and I became first time homeowners in the midst of starting our family; our first born was 8 months old and our second child was born in our new home not long after. The home was on five acres with a year round creek in a shady, lush canyon of the redwood forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was a humble-size home built almost 100 years ago out of old growth redwood. Most of the homes in the canyon were originally built as summer cabins. Nobody back then dared live in the canyon through the winter. The forest around our home was unmanaged. The sunlight that reached the forest floor through the redwoods, madrones, and oaks was only enough for sword ferns and redwood sorrel to grow in this riparian corridor.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, resources to transform the space into a campground began coming together in the first year we arrived. Wanting to do something about the unhealthy mold that is so prevalent in dark and humid forest canyons, we reluctantly sought to fell some of the big trees on the land. We had no significant capital so we relied on bartering. A friend offered to do the work with my help as a side job. We fell about two dozen trees over 100 feet tall. Then one day a neighbor knocked on our door and offered to mill the logs with my help in exchange for some of the lumber. After two years of logging, the forest floor was a mess and cleaning it up took a lot of time and work. With the help of family and friends, we ground stumps, chipped branches, and lit burn piles in the winter. With the clearing of the trees came new open space and direct sunlight. The inspiration to develop a garden followed. Again, friends generously pitched in, and a hillside of thistles was transformed into a landscaped garden with flowering currants, ceanothus, blueberries, and more. The initial structures at camp were a composting toilet, a 16 ft. tipi, a sweat lodge, and a fire pit. Volunteers often enjoyed sweat lodges by heating up volcanic rocks in the fire then placing them in a wikiup covered with blankets.
Camp remained as a diamond in the rough for a few more years. We felt overwhelmed by this seemingly never ending project while, bear in mind, we were parenting two babies.
A wildfire sparked on a nearby ridge due to extremely strong winds and an abandoned burn pile. Everybody on the mountain evacuated. We sped down the mountain at sunrise with our kids, our dogs, and a few belongings. Driving past several spot fires along the road near our home felt surreal. It seemed hopeless that our home would survive. The winds were so strong that not even firefighters dared go into canyon on the first day. We returned four days later to discover that while our home been spared, several homes around ours had burnt to the ground. In the spirit of community, we immediately decided to help our neighbor who lost everything in the fire by putting on a benefit concert. This led to more camp improvements. We used the lumber from our trees to build a stage, which by the way is the outdoor kitchen today. Interestingly enough, firefighters who spoke to the crowd at the fundraiser said that, without a doubt, all the tree work we had done saved our home from burning in the wildfire. Any feelings of uncertainty that I harbored around our tree felling project were resolved at that time.
In that same year, as effects of the economic recession spread across the nation in 2008, I was laid off from my full-time job as a teacher. Thus began an intense wave of development at camp as I was unemployed and trying to utilize whatever economic resources we had to avoid losing our home to the banks. Feeling some faith and gratitude from being spared by the fire, we carried on. In 2009 I started Growing Up Wild, a grassroots outdoor education program for underserved youth and families living in Watsonville and Santa Cruz. Camp Cruz was and still is the base camp for this nonprofit program. From that point forward, resources started falling into place. I got a few small donations and grants to run the outdoor youth program. Obama’s Make Home Affordable Program approved us for an urgently needed loan modification. As the economy bounced back from the recession, I re-entered into the classroom as a teacher, and a chance to really save our home emerged.
Our land, which we acquired as an unkept forest was transforming into a unique, private campground in a cathedral of redwood trees by a babbling creek. We gave it a special name: Camp Cruz, which makes reference to the Santa Cruz Mountains while also honoring my family surname, Cruz. As word spread about Camp Cruz, support grew from the community. Local college students became attracted to the land and the mission to get people outside. With their help, we improved the camp one project at a time – no different than at the beginning – without virtually any capital. We just had the land and the intention to share it to help people connect with nature.
At the risk of sounding cliché, Hipcamp is a dream come true. We put a lot of sweat equity into transforming our land into a camp without a solid plan on how to gain a return from it. Camp Cruzis one of the first 100 listings on Hipcamp. As a listing for large groups, we have welcomed hundreds of campers since 2013. We have “glamporized” camp using funds generated from Hipcamp. We added a dome, a yurt, a cabin tent, hot showers, and a cover over the outdoor kitchen. Hence, it is now completely winterized for comfortable year round glamping. Further, as Hipcamp expands its services to include add-ons, we will offer some exciting experiences around themes of nature and rejuvenation. Our commitment to have a low impact on the environment led us to the decision to only allow one group at a time no matter how big. Campers, especially couples, are pleasantly surprised to find that they have exclusive use of the whole camp. We invite you to check out our two listings:Camp Cruz Glamping Retreat (up to 10 campers) and Camp Cruz Large Group Retreat (up to 35 campers). For five weeks each summer, Camp Cruz is reserved for our outdoor education youth program, leaving the rest of the year open for hip campers. If you wish to learn more about our nonprofit program for underserved youth, please go to www.growingupwild.org. Either way, I hope you get to connect with the beauty of the Santa Cruz Mountains.
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