ESCONDIDO — Nestled between the ridges and valleys of Daley Ranch is an old family ranch house and farmstead under the watchful eye of new caretakers.
In February 2022, Deb and Zach Bright and Deb’s 7-year-old daughter Abby became the first Daley Ranch park hosts, a city-owned 3,201-acre conservation area.
While the ranch had previous caretakers in the past looking after the home and various farm buildings, the Brights, who live next door to the area, are the first stewards of the entire park.
The couple purchased 20 acres of property behind Iron Mountain in Ramona about a year ago with plans to build a home. Deb sold her condo to help pay for construction services and purchased a van for the family to reside in instead of renting a temporary home.
“We’ve always been interested in van life,” Deb said.
However, the problem with van life in Southern California is that there are minimal places for people to park and sleep in their vans for extended periods under the law. The couple can’t legally spend more than a week parked on their property without active building permits.
But some parks have camp hosts who physically live at a campsite and watch over the grounds in RVs or vans. So the Brights began researching potential sites in federal, state and local parks.
Deb, who grew up in Escondido, first explored possibly serving as camp host at Dixon Lake, another city-owned park with several campsites along the lake adjacent to Daley Ranch. While Dixon Lake did not have an open camp host position, the city had recently installed site hookups near the ranch house. The couple now had a place to stay while they planned their new home, their parked black van barely peeking out behind the trees.
As part of the deal, the couple contributes 20 hours of volunteer time on the ranch, performing various tasks such as emptying the park’s several trash cans, cleaning up litter, maintaining trails, ranch house upkeep, cleaning bathrooms and helping with the Dixon Lake campsite check-ins and outs on the weekends.
“We’re the eyes and ears up here at night,” Deb said. “If the ranch house alarm goes off, we are the first to respond. We’ve also assisted the rangers in catching dirt bikers who ride in the middle of the night.”
Deb works remotely from the van as a corporate communications manager for Thermo Fisher Scientific. Zach, who grew up working on farms and orchards in New York, is often tending to the trails.
“It’s right up Zach’s alley,” Deb said about her husband’s trail maintenance responsibilities. “If a tree branch falls on a trail, he’s got all the tools to take care of it. He’s really good with this stuff.”
Since the Brights are quite literally living between the 25 miles of hiking, mountain biking and equestrian trails of Daley Ranch, they are also the first to respond to injuries on the trails.
“We’ve had broken wrists and collar bones,” Deb said.
After receiving extra first-aid training from the local fire department, the Brights administer basic medical assistance and help guide paramedics to injured hikers.
Beyond their chores, the couple has learned quite a bit about the local wildlife while living on the ranch.
The wildlife is primarily seasonal — rabbits in the spring, rattlesnakes and tarantulas in the summer. But, there are also year-round coyotes, bobcats, hawks and other birds, bats and mule deer that live near the ranch house.
“All the animals have quieted down for winter, so you won’t see as many right now,” Zach said.
The two have also enjoyed observing the local flora highlighted by hillsides blanketed with sage, yucca and scrub, including the parasitic, bright-orange California dodder that punctures and bleeds out its victim plants.
Daley Ranch was originally a settlement of English immigrant Robert Daley, who built a log cabin on the land in 1869. The current ranch house was built in 1928 and was later used as a summer retreat home for the Daley family. In addition, the ranch was used for farming and horse taming for many years.
The city purchased Daley Ranch in 1996 to preserve the thousands of acres of historical land from development.
In the spirit of conservation, the Brights seek to turn 15 acres of their property into a nature preserve. The couple also intends to bolt the many boulders smattering their property for their fellow rock climbers.
Even their new home, constructed out of recycled shipping containers, will match that conservation spirit through environmental stability.
“When I think about what I want to do with my money and life, it’s absolutely preserving nature,” Deb said.
With plans to submit their building permits soon, the Brights hope to continue watching over Daley Ranch for the next few years while they build. Those interested in following the couple’s work on the ranch can visit their Instagram page @daleyranchparkshosts.