First-time family camping at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

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By Gabrielle Ohayon, Partnerships Manager

Last weekend I took my kids camping at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. NBD, right? People go camping all the time. Well, not me. I grew up in Brooklyn and have spent my entire life living in big cities – first New York and now San Francisco. To say I am a city girl is a huge understatement.

I’d never been camping before I moved to San Francisco – frankly, it scared me. I like the outdoors enough but it was always more of a “let’s just visit for a few hours” kind of thing. The irony to all this is that I’ve spent much of my career working to improve parks (New York City’s and now, California’s). I love their ability to bring people together. And now that I have children who are being raised in the city, I want to give them that same appreciation. San Francisco is not the megalopolis that New York City is, but little people need their outdoor runaround. My kids are lucky enough to go to school just a block away from the Presidio (a national park at the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate Bridge), and, almost daily, go on hikes (they call them “adventures”) and explore – their tiny bodies running through the Presidio’s vast landscape, and playing among towering eucalyptus trees. And while I didn’t previously consider it a necessary ingredient to a happy childhood, I see now that my kids are happy, learning and challenged when they are out in the world – in a way that city living doesn’t always achieve. So when my husband suggested a camping trip, I thought it was time to not only bring my children to a challenging environment, but about time to push myself. And because of a personal connection I had formed with Sugarloaf Ridge State Park through my work at CSPF, I suggested we camp there.

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My son Mendel and his friend Noah were excited to play in the tent right after we set it up.

In my role as partnerships manager, I get to work closely with park partners throughout the state, and particularly with the five nonprofit state park operators, one of which is Team Sugarloaf – a coalition of five nonprofits that banded together to keep the park open in 2012. We meet regularly to discuss ongoing operations and provide support. After last October’s wildfires, CSPF wanted to extend a hand beyond our general support, and so we awarded them a $25,000 grant to assist with fire recovery efforts.

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My son Ami eating his blackberries and toast for breakfast by the morning campfire.

Holly Martinez, CSPF’s Director of Programs and Advocacy, and I visited the park on the day it reopened last February, and then a few months later for our Earth Day Restoration and Cleanup, where we were able to see not only the park’s recovery, but the community’s and volunteer staff’s deep appreciation and commitment to the place. But Sugarloaf has mastered the art of community building. They have seen twice as many volunteers at their bi-monthly workdays than before the fires. Their commitment to the community, through the programs they offer, and their level of customer service – the way they treat visitors when they arrive – makes me feel optimistic about the world. That spirit is reflected in the park’s greater community as well: after the disaster, more than 50 volunteers helped rebuild sections of trail damaged by fire breaks for our Earth Day Restoration and Cleanup, ensuring their survival through this upcoming winter.

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Mendel modeling his favorite California State Parks Foundation sweatshirt.

On one of my work visits to the park I had a chance to tour the Robert Ferguson Observatory and knew this was a place I needed to bring my kids. So after we had our dinner and roasted some marshmallows, we and the friends camping with us armed our five kids with neon glow sticks for a walk under the full moon up to the observatory. The walk alone was magical. The kids were bursting with excitement, pretending to be superheroes fighting with light sabers as they ran up the hill. But as soon as we got to the observatory, they were silent. They got to see billions of stars, Saturn and the moon and somehow, they knew that what they were looking at was bigger, grander than they were. That’s an experience I think they – and I – will remember for a long time. And that is, I think, what our state parks are ultimately all about: no matter how old you are, feeling a little small, a little quiet, and part of something a lot bigger than yourself.

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My friends and family enjoying ice cream at the visitor center.

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