Boy Scouts at Camp Emerson, the first of Idyllwild’s many camps. Photo courtesy of Idyllwild Area Historical Society
First-time visitors to Idyllwild are likely not aware that our largest and longest-lived industry is organized camps. A largely nonprofit enterprise, it remains nearly invisible, because campers rarely venture from their grounds. Yet a remarkable proportion of today’s residents and tourists got their first taste of our mountains at summer camp.

At least 28 camps have operated in this area at various times, 13 of which are still active. The movement got its start in 1921, when Idyllwild developer Claudius Lee Emerson began donating land to religious and Boy Scout organizations. This was an essential part of his strategy for encouraging a stable, family-friendly community.

Emerson’s first gift was five acres to the Riverside County Boy Scout Council on Strawberry Creek, where he’d been allowing camping sessions since 1919. Camp Emerson at age 92, now expanded to well over 150 acres, remains perhaps the oldest scout camp west of the Mississippi River.

A wave of new camps followed. In 1923 Harriet Snyder opened her Peak and Pine girls camp, which stressed equestrian skills. In 1924-25 Emerson donations and cut-rate land sales seeded the still-thriving Idyllwild Pines religious camp and Long Beach Boy Scouts’ Camp Tahquitz. 1929 saw the Los Angeles County Christian Endeavor Union create Tahquitrz Pines Conference Grounds, while the Seventh-Day Adventist Church launched JMV Pathfinder Camp on borrowed land near Idyllwild Pines as a prelude to buying 16 nearby acres in 1932.

The Depression and World War II stifled further development. But even in wartime Riverside Girls Scouts managed to open their Azalea Trails camp high in remote Dark Canyon, while Pasadena YWCA bought the charred remains of Tahquitz Lodge resort near Mountain Center to create Camp Tahquitz Meadows (now Living Free animal sanctuary).

Service at Idyllwild Pines Camp. Photo courtesy of Idyllwild Area Historical Society

Peacetime then stimulated a second wave of startups. As Americans acted on a long-suppressed urge to get away from home, over a dozen new camps appeared through the 1960s.

Religious and youth organization sponsorship continued to dominate. Riverside YMCA perched Camp Lackey on the north face of Fuller Ridge. The Reorganized LDS Church started Buckhorn Camp at Dutch Flat, while the Advent Christian Church created Camp Maranatha near the state park campground in town. Idyllwild Pines expanded by buying nearby property.

In Garner Valley, Orange County Girl Scouts created Camp Joe Scherman on the old Wellman Ranch, and the Boys Club of Palm Springs started Pathfinder Ranch on the site of a 19th-century gold rush. Long Beach Girls Scouts turned an old apple farm at Vista Grande into Skyland Ranch.

In addition, a new wave of entrepreneurs followed Harriet Snyder’s example, typically pursuing personal ideals. Harry James started his rugged Trailfinders Camp (now the James Reserve) at Lake Fulmor to stimulate character development in boys. Ann Lay founded Idyllwild Institute-Fiesta as a combined finishing school and citizenship program for Junior ROTC girls.

At Hurkey Creek, Dan Slater built Camp Roosevelt for children and families (now Camp Ronald McDonald). Beverly Hills attorney Oscar Lawler deeded his elegant lodge in Dark Canyon to Riverside County for a youth camp. Most recently, Guided Discoveries Inc. bought the former Desert Sun School campus on Saunders Meadow in 1991 to house the science center known as Astrocamp.

With changing economic times and founders’ deaths, some camps closed. Camp Tahquitz became part of the county park and neighboring Cedar Glen subdivision in 1958. Peak and Pine Camp’s 40-year lifetime ended in 1962 ; its subdivided site today houses the Rainbow Inn. JMV Pathfinders Camp moved out to Pine Springs Ranch near Garner Valley in 1961, and its Idyllwild property was soon acquired by the Jewish organization Habonim Dror for the 20-year run of Camp Gilboa (now incorporated into Idyllwild Pines).

Getting away from everyday cares to meet new friends, however temporary, absorb the mountain environment, and focus attention on higher ideals can be an exhilarating experience at any age. Its importance only increases as society becomes more urbanized. While balancing idealistic aims with adolescent hormones can be a challenge, and exhilaration fades once back in the routine, fond memories persist. Again and again, they lure us back to Idyllwild.

The Store at Tahquitz Pines Camp. Photo courtesy of the Idyllwild Area Historical Society