There’s No Place Like Camp Tuolumne

Damage at Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp

Very bad news tonight for the thousands of East Bay families who are fans of Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp. It burned down today, according to John Miller, spokesman for the US Forest Service. Owned and operated by the City of Berkeley, the beautiful and popular camp along the Tuolumne River near Yosemite National Park has been around since 1922. But today, it was the victim of the massive Rim Fire, which is still burning out of control in the Sierra.

Berkeleyside, 8/25/2013

Not just East Bay families.

I’ve been watching the bad news all week. Not quite in shock, but definitely not news I wanted to hear on the eve of my departure from California. A lot of our speculative plans have involved thinking about what California experiences we want the boys to have once they get older. The Berkeley Tuolumne Camp was in the mix there and to see it be destroyed is hits both my childhood memories and my parenthood plans.

I didn’t go to Camp Tuolumne every summer so I don’t claim to be a regular.* But I went four times between the ages of 7 and 14—more than enough to have it be a key memory of my childhood. It was a great place to be a kid. Wild enough to be worth exploring. Safe enough for parents to let you run off on your own. Big enough to always have new things to discover. Small enough that you felt like you owned the place.

*Compared to Packer Lake which I did visit each year as a child and have continued to visit each year (when possible) to the point where it’s not really summer if I don’t go.

It was as close to the stereotypical summer camps you see in movies as I think you could get in real life. A great swimming hole with a jumping rock big enough to be intimidating but safe enough to conquer. Arts and crafts galore. A nature center. Badminton. Ping Pong. A giant dining hall which rang the big bell each mealtime so the entire camp knew when to attend. A small canteen where you could buy Now and Laters, Jolly Ranchers, or Sioux City Sarsaparilla.*

*Complete with a sign advising parents that despite the bottle, it was actually soda.

You never had to leave camp. Though if you did, Yosemite Valley was a quick day trip down the road.

I was looking forward to taking the boys and showing them the same camp I went to when I was their age, and which their grandfather went to when he was their age. And being able to tell them it was all the same—even down to the fact that when I was their age, I was also the only kid running around in Stanford gear.

Yeah. My dad grew up in Oakland with a view of Berkeley out of his bedroom window. I grew up in the middle of South Bay suburbia.* While I pull San Francisco and Peninsula with a lot of my local preferences, there are still occasional East Bay things** which creep in. A major one of these is my continued loyalty and affection to the Berkeley Tuolumne Camp.

*Hence my attraction to Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz.

**e.g. Fentons being better than Mitchells.

I hope they rebuild. Even though there’s no way it will be “the same.” But I still see myself returning there rather than looking into the San Jose Camp or, shudder, the Stanford Sierra Camp.

We’ll still be singing the same old songs.* Beaverhead will still be there. The green chair circle will be back. Cabins will still be tents. Quiet hour will still confound and frustrate the kids. Parents will still get more lanyards and tandy leather keychains** than they know what to do with.

*My son and I have already been singing “The Stars at Night Go Twinkle-inkle-ink” for over a year.

**My dad still uses the one I made him in 1985.

And maybe my kids will tell their kids how much the trees have grown up since they were their age.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

2 thoughts on “There’s No Place Like Camp Tuolumne”

  1. Not fair, Nick. Everytime I stop tearing up, something like this comes along and grabs me by the throat. Beautifully put, and I’m so glad you have the same memories I have. It will be rebuilt, green chairs and all.

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