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Students Will Reap Outdoor Ed Benefits
High Sierra Acreage
San Joaquin County Office of Education STEM Director Annie Cunial and Project Leader Neil Saunders are shown at the new Sky Mountain site for San Joaquin County students to attend Science Camp. Photo Courtesy Of SJCOE

The San Joaquin County Office of Education (SJCOE) announced this past week that it has acquired the Sky Mountain Outdoor Education Center. Situated at the top of the North Fork of the American River in the Sierra Nevada in Tahoe National Forest in Placer County, the property will become the new home for Science Camp for San Joaquin Valley students.

Sky Mountain includes cabins, a gymnasium, lodge, and other facilities surrounded by acres of forest alongside a pristine mountain lake. The 62.68-acre parcel was donated by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) to SJCOE. Pre-existing infrastructure, capital assets, and $2.5 million to support code compliance and infrastructure reinforcement were donated by the Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council. In 2016, the SJCOE applied to become a grantee of the property through the Stewardship Council, which oversees more than 140,000 acres of watershed lands owned by PG&E to ensure they are used to benefit the residents of California.

As part of the transaction, the SJCOE will work closely with the Wildlife Heritage Foundation (WHF), a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and enhancing wildlife habitat and connecting Californians to the outdoors. As the holder of the conservation easement, the WHF will oversee the protection of the ecological habitat and ensure the appropriate use of this natural open space.

Sky Mountain will be the new location of Science Camp, as the SJCOE outdoor education program has been known to students for over 60 years who have come to the Santa Cruz Mountains through a contract with the YMCA at Camp Jones Gulch.

“We are grateful for the long-standing partnership we have had with the YMCA and Camp Jones Gulch. The memories and traditions created there are shared by generations of our county’s residents. It is difficult to close this chapter in our history, but Sky Mountain allows us more opportunities to provide outdoor education experiences to students year-round,” San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools James Mousalimas said. “We are excited to offer Science Camp at Sky Mountain beginning in the 2021-2022 school year as we develop the next generation of innovative, ecologically literate community stewards and leaders. The possibilities are endless.”

By owning Sky Mountain, the SJCOE will have the flexibility to offer year-round programs to students of all ages and provide other opportunities for educators and community partners.

“I think it will be a great opportunity for San Joaquin County students,” noted Escalon Unified School District Superintendent Ron Costa. “It looks like a very nice camp that the county will be able to manage better than the current camp.”

Peter Ottesen, the former director of science camp for 35 years, believes the new site at Sky Mountain will allow the award-winning resident outdoor school to flourish in the years to come.

“The opportunity to acquire Sky Mountain, complete with modern living spaces and food service facilities and a travel time not encumbered by dense traffic, provides assurances that the popular program will continue well into the future,” said Ottesen. “The change of sites couldn’t happen at a better time.”

Since 1976, the Sky Mountain property has been leased from PG&E for a camp and conference center. During the planning phase of this new project, the SJCOE is working on renovating the pre-existing facilities and designing a new curriculum specific to the unique ecosystem that aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards and makes connections with California’s Environmental Principles and Concepts.

“Students will learn about different ecosystems and how watersheds are connected. Snow is connected to rivers, rivers are connected to the Delta in San Joaquin County, and the Delta is connected to the ocean,” SJCOE STEM Director Annie Cunial said. “And year-round activities will range from canoeing and archery in the summer to snowshoeing in the winter. These activities will enhance students’ experiences as they learn about the history of the land from the Native American tribes to early California explorers, as well as flora, hydroelectric dams, conifer forests, wildlife, industries, careers, and more.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has changed how field trips can be offered, programming information for the new center will not be available until the 2021-2022 school year. The SJCOE will provide an update once programming begins.

Located 45 miles northeast of Auburn and 28 miles west of Truckee at an approximate elevation range of 5,500-6,000 feet mean sea level, the Sky Mountain parcel encompasses many scenic lakes in the high elevation mountains of the Sierra Nevada. It is surrounded by National Forest System lands managed by the Tahoe National Forest and private property. The parcel is accessible via Lake Valley Road, which is accessed from the Yuba Gap exit off of Interstate 80.

The Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council is a private non-profit foundation with a small staff led by a diverse board of directors made up of representatives from state and federal agencies, water districts, tribal and rural interests, forest and farm industry groups, conservation organizations, the California Public Utilities Commission, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). Learn more at

The Wildlife Heritage Foundation (WHF) is a non-profit dedicated to protecting and enhancing wildlife habitat and connecting Californians to the outdoors. WHF is a statewide land trust currently preserving over 100,000 acres of ecologically significant land and water resources and regularly engages and cooperates with land trusts, conservation organizations, public agencies, project proponents, and other land stewards that require expertise in the area of the protection of wildlife and open space habitat in perpetuity. Learn more at

Canoeing, hiking, outdoor activities and learning through nature await San Joaquin County students, with a planned return to Science Camp for the 2021-22 school year. Photo Courtesy Of SJCOE