Caring For Camp Shelly

Nestled in the trees near the southwestern side of Lake Tahoe sits Camp Shelly—a 25-site family campground operated by the Livermore Area Recreation and Park District (LARPD) and staffed by its park rangers. Located about 175 miles—or a three-and-a-half hour drive, southeast from the campground in the San Francisco Bay Area—the special district leases the 7.7 acres through a special-use permit from the U.S. Forest Service.

In its more than 50 years operating Camp Shelly, LARPD has learned a variety of tricks about running a campground that have helped make it the intimate, special spot it is today. But that doesn’t mean things have always come easy. These park rangers have learned through trials and tribulations of the many benefits in planning for some bumps in the road.

Expecting The Unexpected

Camp Shelly is open from mid-June through Labor Day weekend. Until recently, staff headed to the campground about a week before opening day to prep the grounds—until off-season problems popped up. In one recent year, the rangers discovered someone had broken in and appeared to be living in the small one-room cabin where staff members stay during the summer. Another surprise was the discovery of copper piping stolen from the bathrooms. A plumber was there fixing the problem the night before opening day.

Another part of avoiding last-minute surprises is planning ahead at the end of the previous season. LARPD Park Ranger Eric Whiteside, who is on duty for the entire camping season, works with a district ranger maintenance specialist to disassemble bathroom faucets and flushing mechanisms so pipes don’t freeze in Tahoe’s winters. Fire barrels, community tools, the camp’s Ping-Pong table, volleyball net, and other amenities are stored in the off-season.

“Anything that isn’t a picnic table or a fire ring, we stash away,” Whiteside says. “We can only prevent so much, but we just go up early and deal with issues.”

“Prep work” isn’t only about allowing extra time, but also about setting aside budgetary funds. LARPD Chief Ranger Pat Sotelo, the primary Camp Shelly ranger for 20 years starting in 1993, suggests having an ongoing maintenance budget and a contingency budget for when problems arise.

“We just have to plan that we’re probably going to do some maintenance every year,” Sotelo says. “Those Tahoe winters are hard.”

In addition to working around unexpected issues, rangers also do routine work before the camp opens, such as leveling tent pads, setting up the trailer where rangers stay, and getting amenities ready for the season.

Trees, Bees, And Bears

With camping come the joys of nature, along with the challenges. When Sotelo first started at Camp Shelly, the area was thick with trees. They were later clear cut, and the forest that grew back was tightly packed with trees of the same age, fighting for sunlight, nutrients, and water. Bark beetles became a problem, as did the smog, and by 1994 many trees were dying. The campground was closed during the 1995 season as part of a larger Forest Service clearing project, cutting out 2,000 trees, but making the forest healthier. Some prescribed burns were also performed near Camp Shelly.

While the overall tree issues are managed, rangers still deal with the occasional fallen tree, which is often left in place unless it is blocking a path or an amenity within the campground. Sotelo says leaving nature in its place is part of the goal “to work with the Forest Service to keep it a clean, natural campground.”

As the flora are managed at this rustic campground, so are the fauna—and prevention is the key. Yellow jackets are common to the area, not exactly something that makes for a pleasant camp experience. Staff members put up traps in the spring to catch the queens, which nest in rotted trunks or in the ground, before they start building a colony. Dealing with pests before they multiply is crucial.

“You can put up traps when it’s bad, but by that time it’s really too late,” Sotelo says.

And though some animal confrontations can be prevented, others are going to happen at some point or another. There is a steady population of black bears in the area, and the numbers have become more pronounced over the years as Tahoe developed and was full of food for the taking.

In 2014, Camp Shelly staff finished installing bear-proof trash receptacles for the entire campground, plus bear-proof food lockers. The district consulted with a wildlife biologist from Yosemite to research the best bear-proofing available, which included spring-loaded handles instead of gravity-based mechanisms that bears were learning to use. Bear-proofing the trash containers also allowed staff to do the daily garbage run in the morning instead of after dark.

And a large part of preventing bear encounters comes from education.

“If you don’t tell people it’s a serious deal to put stuff away, they’ll be more lax about it,” Ranger Whiteside says. As for bear encounters, “Normally, you just tell people to wave their hands and bang stuff, but that doesn’t always help. They can actually be pretty dangerous.”

The rangers staffing Camp Shelly often see the same bears throughout a season, and talk with other agencies and nearby campgrounds to report encounters and share tips. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife also handles “problem” bears at times, Sotelo says.

People Problems

Plants and animals aren’t the only unpredictable elements at Camp Shelly. Registered guests can pose issues, as well.

LARPD makes serious efforts to communicate to every guest upon check-in that the campground is family-oriented with a strong sense of community. Many of the campers are from nearby Livermore, though people from all over the world have visited. Enforcing the quiet hours of 10 p.m. to 9 a.m. is necessary to maintaining a positive experience for most campers.

“It’s really important to create the culture you want the campground to have,” says LARPD Park Ranger Amy Wolitzer, who works two to three weeks at Camp Shelly each summer.

Rangers maintain good relationships with local law enforcement, including the El Dorado County Sheriff and Forest Service law enforcement, calling them if issues escalate, which usually involve intoxicated partiers who won’t cooperate.

“You want to take control of the situation, but you don’t want to get in over your head,” Whiteside says. “That’s the worst part of the job for me, but it doesn’t happen a lot—we’re lucky. People have been coming for years because they like the atmosphere of the place.”

Selecting The Staff

The main element making Camp Shelly so unique is its employees. The camp employs trained park rangers on duty, typically two at a time. Ranger Whiteside stays on site the entire season, with other rangers doing three-week shifts.

“Spend money on the staff to get quality, and it will pay off,” Chief Ranger Sotelo says. “I’d rather have dependable staff members up there. When Eric goes up, I don’t have to worry about the campground; I know it’s fine.”

LARPD Park Rangers offer programs to campers, which allow Camp Shelly to be classified as an organized camp, which also helps reduce the annual Forest Service fee. Staff members offer wildflower walks, stargazing nights, ice cream socials, and a yearly musical campfire. Wolitzer tried more structured, in-depth programs for a while, but discovered that more casual, drop-in programs attract more campers.

And keeping the staff happy is part of the plan—“as long as the workload is shared, it works out,” Whiteside says.

Wolitzer agrees, adding that staff members need to take some time out during the week. “It gets tough being on duty 24/7,” she says. “It’s important to balance time for yourself and set boundaries for campers.”

When Sotelo started at Camp Shelly, he was the only person on duty because of budget constraints. “That was exhausting, and it wasn’t safe to only have one ranger up there,” he says. “It’s a lot of work, and you’re ‘on’ all the time. To be ‘off,’ you have to leave the campground.”

Whether there is a fire, a bear, a clogged toilet, or a loud group, the task of handling the issue falls to the staff.

But the rangersenjoy their work at Camp Shelly, which is, in large part, the cause for the campground’s success. The interpretive nature programs and community-building activities set it apart.

“Camp Shelly’s a very unusual campground,” Wolitzer says. “We put a lot of work into it. We’re part of the community there. It’s not just where we work, it’s where we live during that time we are there.”

To learn more about LARPD’s Camp Shelly, visit or call 925-960-2400.

Lea Blevins is a Public Information Officer for the Livermore Area Recreation and Park District in Livermore, Calif. Reach her at