Behind the scenes of a Park Champions first workday

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Philip Oakley Otto, Southern California Field Consultant

California has 280 beautiful state parks, though many need consistent, sustainable volunteer to support to help maintain that beauty. Our Park Champions program was created to help with just that. Last year we hosted workdays in over 50 state parks across California, and this past year we were thrilled to be able to add new parks to that list!

One of these parks was Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Thanks to the artful planning by park staff and the energy and enthusiasm of our volunteers, we were able to complete over 140 feet of fencing, exceeding expectations and achieving a marked visual impact at the McCoy House. We caught up with Philip Oakley Otto, our Southern California Field Consultant, to talk to him about first workdays and what goes into bringing a new park into the Park Champions program.

Could you describe the process of getting a park to sign on for a Park Champions workday?

Philip: A huge part of Park Champions’ success lies in our relationships with the Department of Parks and Recreation staff. After some phone calls and emails with our park contact, I’ll schedule a site visit with them to get to know the park and see the projects they’ve identified as possible Park Champions undertakings.

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Volunteers with park staff at the first workday at South Carlsbad State Beach on August 11, 2018

What are your responsibilities around a first workday?

Philip: I work with park staff and volunteer Core Leaders to develop the workplan and order any supplies, tools or rentals needed for the workday. I like to attend the first workday at a new park, but thanks to the amazing support of our Core Leader superstars, I’m often playing more of a supporting role, learning about the individual park dynamics and thinking about any areas of improvement for future workdays.

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Core Leader Ken assisting volunteers at the first workday at Asilomar State Beach on May 24, 2018

Do first workdays differ in any way from established workdays?

Philip: We have some amazing super regular volunteers who are always excited to visit and volunteer in a “new” park. There’s definitely some extra excitement and talking in the morning kickoff as the workday team and I make acknowledgements and introduce the park and project. There are also typically first-time volunteers for whom the new park afforded the discovery of the Park Champions volunteer program.

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One of our youngest volunteers at the first workday for Old Town San Diego State Historic Park on August 4, 2018


Why do you believe it is important to have new parks join the Park Champions program?

Philip: We have 280 State Parks in California. Park Champions is active in over 50 of those, but there are still many more that could benefit from the help of our hardworking and enthusiastic Park Champion volunteers.

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Volunteers at the first Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park workday

What has been your favorite first workday you have participated in?

Philip: Picacho State Recreation area, a remote park on the Colorado river (closest town: Yuma, AZ) has a special place in my heart. As part of the site visit to plan the first workday, the ranger took us up river in a pontoon boat which provided an ideal vantage for viewing the extent of the park, much of which is only (easily) assessable from the river. A few miles up, we got out and floated back down to the campground. Our first workday weekend, which focused on campground maintenance and fencing installation, included a sunset hike through the rocky terrain that reminded me of Joshua Tree but with epic views of the Colorado river and multiple close sightings of wild burros.

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Volunteers at the first workday for Picacho State Recreation Area

Interested in joining the excitement of a Park Champions workday? Click here to register for an upcoming workday near you!

An “epic” road trip of California state parks

by Rachel Norton, Executive Director

California has 280 state parks, and my long-term goal is to visit all of them. In 2017, my first year as Executive Director of the California State Parks Foundation, I was able to visit such far-flung state parks as Mitchell Caverns and Providence Mountain State Recreation Area, Topanga State Park, Mount Diablo State Park and Los Angeles State Historic Park.

My visit to Mitchell Caverns last year was almost a religious experience, because I can’t get enough of the spare, majestic beauty of the Mojave Desert. The visit stirred my wanderlust and sense of adventure as I started thinking about my 2018 adventures.

So, late one night this spring I started looking at the map with the goal of visiting more of the system’s most remote and spectacular parks.  Soon I was mapping out an epic road trip, starting and ending in San Francisco, traveling almost 1,000 miles and visiting seven California state parks, one National Historic Site and one U.S. Forest Service site.

I am fortunate to be from a family with other adventurous spirits. As soon as I told my sister about my road trip plans, she wanted to go. And as soon as my sister was going, my mom wanted in too. So, we made our plans, rented an SUV and headed out one foggy morning in June. Four hours later, we were in warm, sunny South Lake Tahoe, enjoying Lake Tahoe’s clear water and sandy beaches.

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Rachel at Emerald Bay State Park

The next morning we set off for Vikingsholm and Emerald Bay State Park, about 30 minutes north on highway 89. Vikingsholm is the former summer home of Lora Knight, located at the end of the stunningly beautiful Emerald Bay. The narrow, rock-lined channel reminded Mrs. Knight of Norwegian fjords when she bought the property, so she hired a Swedish architect and built a lovely castle retreat there in 1929. She and her guests enjoyed every summer at the property before her death in 1945. The property passed to the state of California in the 1950s, and thank goodness it did, as Emerald Bay might look very different today if it had not been protected from development (I was told by one Tahoe denizen that at one point the state planned to build a bridge over the mouth of Emerald Bay, routing Highway 89 right across the scenic channel). Many thanks to Heidi Doyle, Executive Director of the Sierra State Parks Foundation, for taking us on a very informative insider’s tour of the property and its surroundings (including the lovely D.L Bliss State Park and Eagle’s Point campgrounds).

We left Tahoe and drove southeast across the Sierra Nevada to Bridgeport, stopping for a picnic in Washoe Meadows State Park. The next morning we drove to Bodie State Historic Park, the deserted boomtown that the Department of Parks and Recreation has preserved in a fascinating and eerie state of “arrested decay.” At one time Bodie had a population of 10,000 people, and a reputation as a rough and tough frontier town. Eventually, however, the mining industry that fed the local economy collapsed, and the town was deserted. You can peek into homes and shops, left much as they might have been when the last residents left almost 100 years ago.


Bodie State Historic Park

The next day, we headed to the Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve, established to preserve the striking and very delicate limestone towers, known as tufas, and important habitat for the estimated 2 million birds that use the site as a breeding ground and rest stop. My mom, a passionate birder, was in heaven – especially when we spotted an eagle’s nest.

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Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Preserve

We headed further south on Highway 395, enjoying the stunning views of the east side of the Sierra Nevada as we drove. We made a brief detour up to Mammoth Lakes to visit the Minaret Vista, a National Forest Service site that showcases a gorgeous view of these rugged peaks.

Then it was off to Manzanar, a National Historic Site. Manzanar was one of the camps where the Federal government imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II. It was sobering to visit, and remember the injustices, humiliation and deprivation that these American citizens endured in the hysteria that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor.

After Manzanar, it was time to head back west, and we followed State Route 178 over Walker Pass and through the lovely Kern River canyon before stopping for the night in Bakersfield. We had saved the most interesting and least-known park for last: Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.

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Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park

The next morning, we drove north on Highway 99 for about an hour, eventually turning off on a little-traveled road to arrive at the park. Colonel Allen Allensworth was born a slave, eventually escaping and joining the Union Army during the Civil War. Self-educated, he eventually became a Navy chaplain before retiring with military honors. Dedicated to the idea of economic self-sufficiency for African-Americans, Col. Allensworth, his wife and four other African-American investors bought land to establish a town that would help former slaves and their descendants live in dignity and build wealth. Established in 1908, the town of Allensworth was for a time a beacon of hope and prosperity. Unfortunately, the project eventually failed due to dwindling water supplies and the loss of railroad business. Today, the site has been lovingly restored (with some maintenance help from our Park Champions volunteers), and represents an important chapter in the history of California’s African-American community. I highly recommend a visit!

Overall, this summer’s state park road trip was immensely rewarding – beautiful scenery, quality time with family and a great learning experience. It embodied everything that Californians and visitors want from our incredible state park system! My only question is: how am I going to top it next year?

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