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Only San Franciscans are allowed at this Yosemite getaway

Camp Mather | Courtesy San Francisco Recreation and Park Department

In the mid-1920s, San Francisco founded its own Yosemite getaway—one only available to city residents. Named Camp Mather after the first director of the National Park Service, the retreat offers an idyllic and affordable weeklong nature experience as an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. 

“It’s really incredible to see people who are all from the city all together in this separate place,” said Mission resident Autumn Brown Garibay, who attended the camp for the first time this summer with her family. The camp is open to anyone with proof of city residency via a lottery system and includes meals and plenty of traditional camp activities—like tie-dyeing, archery and swimming. 

Tie-dye projects dry in the sun at Camp Mather. | Courtesy Autumn Brown Garibay

Garibay learned about the existence of Camp Mather over a decade ago, when she was moving into the city with her husband—no kids—and her landlady told her that one day she would be taking her kids there. Yeah, cool. I don’t even have kids, Garibay thought at the time. 

Nearly 12 years and three kids later, Garibay found herself at the storied retreat for the first week of June. Walking into the camp’s mess hall for the first time, she saw a familiar face—the daughter of her former landlady, now serving food at the camp’s cafeteria. 

“It was the most beautiful full-circle moment,” Garibay said. “It was just so bananas.” 

It speaks to the generational tradition of Camp Mather. Parents bring their young children to the camp, who grow up to work at the camp and then someday bring their own children. 

For Garibay, the dream of going to Camp Mather was a long time coming. She first landed a spot in the camp in 2020, when it closed due to the pandemic. The camp didn’t open at all in 2021, and in 2022, she again secured a spot—but it was closed the week she was supposed to attend because of a Covid outbreak among staff. 

“It was my fourth time trying,” she said. “And I finally got to go.” 

Children perform in a talent show competition at Camp Mather. | Courtesy Autumn Brown Garibay

Behind the scenes, Recreation and Park Department staff have been working 10-hour days in two-to-three-week shifts to get the camp ready for the summer season. 

"It’s an incredible place with a rich history," said Tamara Aparton, a spokesperson for the Recreation and Park Department. "Between the fires and the pandemic, we had a difficult couple years, but we’re so happy to be back."

New this year is an onsite project manager, Danny Weller, who is in charge of leading long-term improvements to the camp in honor of its 100th anniversary next summer. 

Projects for this year include the assembly of a yurt, new ovens, restroom repairs and kitchen refurbishing—as well as ongoing facility issues. One of the coldest and wettest winters in recent memory created additional challenges, as excess snow led to delays and a smaller window to complete all of the necessary seasonal repairs. 

It’s not the only family camp game in town, and the ones around are beloved. When the city of Berkeley’s Tuolumne Camp burned to the ground in the 2013 Rim Fire, residents held a vigil in its honor and committed to rebuilding the camp—it reopened in 2022.  Oakland also has a family camp and the University of California Berkeley has one, too. 

Such a camp strengthens the bonds between city residents and gives them a common place, a “third place,” under towering trees and beside crystal waters, where they can create different kinds of memories together. 

“It reminds you that kids do live here,” Garibay said. “Kids do grow up here.”