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About Mental Health

Housebound during the pandemic, Silvia Espinoza felt her three kids were developing unhealthy routines. They spent their free time glued to their phones or the TV inside their small home in the Fair Oaks neighborhood of Redwood City.

Silvia Espinoza’s nephew, Ismal (left), and children Yovanni, Julien and Mia. Espinoza says she became concerned that her kids were spending too much time glued to their screens during the pandemic.
Amy Osborne/Special to The Chronicle

Silvia Espinoza’s nephew, Ismal (left), and children Yovanni, Julien and Mia. Espinoza says she became concerned that her kids were spending too much time glued to their screens during the pandemic.
Amy Osborne/Special to The Chronicle

Her older son, a teenager, deals with anxiety. She worried about her younger son becoming diabetic after a weight gain. Speaking to his dietician last fall about holistic interventions, Espinoza inquired, “How can we take steps towards a better lifestyle?”

The physician prescribed a treatment option Espinoza hadn’t heard of, a therapy San Mateo County health care providers are just beginning to experiment with: A free weekend stay at a remote cabin among the redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’d be just Espinoza’s family — no agenda, oversight or strings attached.

The wood-sided cabin sits atop a scenic perch near the tiny town of La Honda, a stone’s throw from the edge of Sam McDonald County Park. It faces south across a canyon toward a grand, conifer-studded ridgeline, with a slice of the Pacific Ocean visible in the distance.

Inside is an airy, 1,000-square-foot modern living space: two bedrooms, two half-bathrooms, a kitchen with new appliances and a large living room with a giant beanbag chair in one corner. It’s more Airbnb than hiker hut, and designed to sleep up to 12 people.

When the Peninsula Open Space Trust bought the 350-acre site there in 2012, the historic cabin — called the Audrey Edna cabin, then in a dilapidated state — came with it. At the time, many Bay Area parks agencies and preservation groups began discussing how they could become more inclusive venues and draw visitors from the region’s urban cores.

“We always look at land for what its highest and best use is, and in the past that’s meant conservation and habitat preservation — saving nature for nature’s sake,” said Marti Tedesco, chief marketing officer at POST. “But we’ve started to think differently here: What is the highest and best use of this cabin? And then, how do you execute that?”

The initial idea was to refurbish the cabin as a publicly available hiker hut. Then COVID hit, underscoring the health imperatives of getting outdoors and casting the issue of equitable access to nature parks and preserves in sharp relief.

The cabin “became an opportunity to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to visit (the area) and have an immersive nature experience,” said Bryanna Whitney, POST’s public access project manager.

POST pitched San Mateo County’s health department on establishing the cabin as a therapeutic refuge for low-income residents dealing with stress, depression or other ailments. It has since become a centerpiece of the county’s nascent Park Rx program, which fosters collaborations between public land agencies and health care providers. Such programs tend to provide more modest activities — community-center yoga classes or nature walks, for instance — so the cabin is a unique asset.

“It gives families in the county’s low-income communities a great introduction to the outdoors as well as the benefits of nature to reduce stress and blood pressure. This is a quiet, safe place where they can just be,” said Gloria Cahuich-Gonzalez, community programs specialist with San Mateo County Health. “I haven’t heard of anything that would compare to this experience.”

After a pilot program last year, POST and the county officially opened the cabin this spring. About 50 families, including Espinoza’s, have been prescribed weekend respites for stress-related maladies like high cholesterol and hypertension, Gonzalez said.

A guest book inside the front door is filled with gracious handwritten notes. Translated from Spanish, an entry from November reads, “Thank you for giving us the opportunity to be in this beautiful cabin.”

While set aside for Park Rx patients on weekends, the cabin is widely available to rent for weekday stays, starting at $100 per night, through a partnership with HipCamp.

When patient-families have questions about the cabin, they call Gonzalez. Some have asked whether they’ll encounter bears or lions or snakes, and she tells them no, they’re more likely to see deer and rabbits and birds. Many families follow up with notes of thanks or text Gonzalez photos of their children hiking happily in the woods, she said.

On their weekend last November, Silvia Espinoza’s family played board games, walked together on a nearby fire road, and enjoyed early-morning views of the valley from a pair of log benches.

The family had never stayed in a cabin before, and, “We usually don’t have that much time to talk as a family, especially about a view,” Espinoza said.

Her older son, working through anxiety, expressed to her how much fun he’d had, and that he wants to set aside time for a family activity every week, she said.

“It opened him up and made me think there’s a child in there that wants to come out and enjoy life, not just be on the phone or in front of a TV,” Espinoza said. “It made me think about all three of my kids — we need to come up with more of these things to do with them.”
Written by:  Reach Gregory Thomas: