'Nakation' in the woods: Inside Oregon's oldest nudist camp

'Nakation' in the woods: Inside Oregon's oldest nudist camp
Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.

ESTACADA, Ore. - The heat was getting to me - there was an uncomfortable feeling of sweat dripping down my back, my face felt flushed and I thought about how good it would feel to strip off my clothes and take in the breeze.

I was, after all, at a nudist camp and it wouldn't be unheard of. But like most folks, the idea of baring it all in front of others is terrifying. Our inhibitions, body image and what we have been taught about what's right and wrong get in the way.

For those who are able to get past those feelings and come to terms with their bodies (no matter what they look like) there is a sense of freedom that comes with wearing only a smile, nude enthusiasts will tell you. That feeling draws folks to Squaw Mountain Ranch, a resort near Estacada that caters to the nudist lifestyle.

People have been shedding their clothes there since 1933 to vacation 'au naturel.' Squaw Mountain Ranch was actually Oregon's first nudist camp and is the oldest one this side of the Mississippi River.

"It started with, I believe, an advertisement in the paper asking for interested people," said Sharron (first name only she requested), president of Squaw Mountain Ranch. "They had a meeting in Portland and then there was a group that kind of got together - they decided they wanted to form a group so they started looking around for land."

What they found was a chunk of property - around 150 acres - in a remote area outside Estacada. Sharron said the group didn't just buy up the land and start walking around nude - they went into town to make sure the community would approve.

"They actually went in and talked to the mayor and other people in the community of Estacada, which was a pretty innovative thing to do back in the 30s," she said. 'It's like they were truly pioneers of nudism."

The townsfolk gave their blessing and the rest is history.

Over the years that followed, most of the property was eventually sold off (there are now 19 acres left) and by the late 1980s, the place had fallen into disrepair.

"When I came here (in 1990), most of the cabins were trashed," said longtime member Ron Coyle. "There were only about three or four of them that people were taking care of. The rest of them - well, vandals had been into them, there was broken glass out of the windows, the doors were knocked in and the inside of the cabins were trashed."

Coyle said in the early 1990s a local nudist group got involved in the property and started renovations. Fast-forward to today and the place is a thriving resort.

There are hiking trails, a small lake for swimming or paddle boating, a miniature golf course, a hot tub, a community fire pit and other amenities. The resort has a lodge with rooms you can rent, cabins that you can purchase and campsites for tents and RVs.

Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.

Squaw Mountain Ranch is really no different than any other resort - it's just that the folks who go there choose to vacation in the nude. And they love it.

"For me, all it took was a cool breeze on my breasts and I was hooked," said Teri Neville, of Portland, who has been vacationing at Squaw Mountain Ranch for 19 years. "This is the way life is supposed to be."

"I would rather be here than anywhere," Neville added. "We quit taking vacations other places about five years ago."

The place isn't a high-end resort - it has a rustic, up-in-the-mountains feel to it.

"If you're looking for fancy, like tennis courts or stuff like that, there are other clubs," said Kenney. "But if you're looking for the woods, nature and peacefulness then come up here."

And it's not just the peace and quiet that draws nudists to Squaw Mountain Ranch. It's also the sense of belonging they get once they arrive at camp.

"I think what keeps people coming back is the friendliness, openness and acceptance of one another, regardless of what your walk of life is outside of here," said Sharron. "It's a very caring and accepting atmosphere."

Nude Life - What's The Draw?

The folks at Squaw Mountain Ranch not only gave me the grand tour, but also took the time to explain what draws them to the nudist lifestyle and some of the misconceptions they deal with.

"The big misconception is that somehow nudity is related to sex or sexuality," said Sharron. "It's not a sexual atmosphere - it's just an openness and naturalness."

"I was a longshoreman - I worked down on the docks and just retired four years ago," said Lynette Kenney of Gresham. She's a board member at the ranch. "And the guys would come up to me because I was real open about it - if you hide it, then you've got to start lying and I wasn't into that. And they said 'well, I wouldn't be able to go up there because I would be excited all the time.' And I said 'no you wouldn't - all the women are issued a tallywacker - they see a tally, they'll whack it."

We all got a good laugh out of that one, but in all seriousness, Kenney said it's just not a problem. "You don't see it," she said. "It doesn't happen."

I asked about the family atmosphere at Squaw Mountain Ranch and what they might say to someone who questions children being exposed to nudity.

"For the kids who grow up in the environment, they have a very different view - it's just normal," said Sharron. "Bodies are normal and I think it really helps with their self-acceptance as they grow up and see that all bodies and shapes are normal."

Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.

"And the kids that come up here have a blast," she added. "My grandsons come up and in fact, they would rather stay here (at the resort) than at my house when they come to visit."

And what about the notion that perhaps sexual deviants are drawn to places like this? That's where the collective comes in. Any sign that something isn't right about a particular person and the rest of the group swoops in.

"They're chased off," said Kenney.

"We're obviously protective of all our members," Sharron added.

And the camp isn't open to just anyone - this is a member resort and there is a lengthy process to get in. The folks who run the place want to make sure those who join are there for the right reasons.

A person must first visit Squaw Mountain Ranch three times to make sure it's right for them. At that point, they can ask to fill out an application, a criminal background check will be done and an interview set up. The person will have to go before a committee, and the panelists ask him or her why the potential member is drawn to the lifestyle, what they hope to get out of it and how they can contribute to the camp, which is operated as a co-op.

Make it through all those hoops and then there is a one-year probation period during which time a new member can lease a campsite. Once the year is up and everyone agrees that the new person is a good fit, they can purchase a cabin if one is up for sale.

What's It Like For First-Timers?

What if you're interested in the nude lifestyle, but a little scared of it at the same time? After all, getting naked in front of others can be nerve-wracking. Kenney admitted that it took her a long time to accept that her body was fine just the way it is.

"It took my husband 20 years to talk me into doing this," she said.

"My first experience - well, I had just had stomach surgery and we had gone down to Rooster Rock," Kenney said. "I didn't want anybody to see the scars and this German lady comes over to me and she goes 'honey, just drop your towel - we're all beautiful in one way or another.' And then she said 'you're beautiful to me.' She almost made me cry."

"So I dropped my towel, but laid on my stomach real fast," Kenney said with a laugh. "And my husband said 'well isn't that something - you wouldn't do it for me, but you'll do it for her.' And I said 'it's the way she said it.'"

Photo by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com.

Sharron said she also struggled a bit with a surgical scar.

"I was a few weeks out of the hospital and I remember thinking 'oh, I've got this scar halfway around my body.' And then what I realized is that the scar saved my life, and that's what's important," she said. "I think that's what nudism gives us - the ability to focus on the things that are important in our lives - relationships, family, having fun, being relaxed, enjoying nature. All of those things are priorities for us and the rest of the everyday stuff kind of falls away."

Coyle said his first real experience with nudity, other than the showers at school, was when he was part of a crew that worked at Bagby Hot Springs years ago. He said he and his fellow workers just got used to stripping down naked and hopping into a hot spring once their work was done for the day. No one made a big deal about it, he said. They all simply soaked for a bit and then went back to camp.

These days, Coyle prefers to be naked as much as he can. "It makes me mad to have to get dressed to go to town," he said.

Neville said her first time experiencing the nude lifestyle was when she was 35 years old. Her father had been doing it for a while, but her mother had never been interested in trying it. Neville said her first time at the camp was a little awkward, to say the least.

"I didn't want to come up here because I didn't want to see my dad naked," she said. "It was weird for about 30 seconds and then it was just fine. Well, maybe a minute," she added with a laugh.

Neville said it took her a little less than a week to get accustomed to being naked herself. She wore a dress the first two days, got nude long enough to bathe in the lake the third day (that was when she found out her father's cabin didn't have a shower) and was brave enough to get in the hot tub on the fourth day.

"By the fifth day I was saying 'how do I become a member?' " she said.

Neville now brings her grandkids to camp now and then, but admits it was a bit of a challenge to get their father to agree to it.

"He fought tooth and nail on it," she said. "He didn't want them up here. So last winter, we got him to come up in the snow with the kids and by the end of the day he said 'you can bring my kids here any day.'"

Interested in the Nude Lifestyle?

To learn more about nude recreation in general, visit the American Association for Nude Recreation website.

If you would like to learn more about Squaw Mountain Ranch, you can visit their website or give them a call at (503) 630-6136.

The ranch is also holding its annual Music Festival this month and the event is open to the public. This is the camp's signature event of the year. The bands that will be performing include Norman Sylvester, Bolt Upright, Mike Branch Band, Party of Four, Pete Ford, Taska Band and 24/7.

There are also two other nude resorts in Oregon besides Squaw Mountain Ranch - Mountaindale Sun Resort in North Plains and Willamettans Family Nudist Resort in Marcola. Our sister station in Eugene, KVAL News, recently spent time with the Willamettans when the nudists there joined a national effort to break a world skinny dipping record. Watch the video:

And in Bend you'll find Alpenglow Ranch, a clothing-optional bed and breakfast.

You can also visit the clothing-optional beach at Sauvie Island (Collins Beach) or the one at the east end of Rooster Rock State Park in the Columbia River Gorge. Just beware - the nudists we talked to said those places tend to draw the gawkers, which can make you feel uncomfortable.