San Francisco’s Camp Mather – Best Kept Secret?


Where did you spend your summer vacation? We spent a week at Camp Mather which prompts the question, “What is Camp Mather”? Camp Mather is a family camp located outside of the Yosemite Valley, owned by the City of San Francisco, run by the Recreation and Park Department and originally housed the workers building the Hetch Hetchy Damn.

O’Shaunasey Damn Spill way

I first heard about it from parents in my son’s kindergarten class. Seemed like everyone knew about it but us. As a child my parents brought us to a family camp called Camp Blue and as I listened to the description of Camp Mather I was transformed back to those happy childhood days of singing “If I had a Hammer and Kum Ba Yah while toasting marshmallows, making hideous arts and crafts and running free.

Our childhood vacations consisted of two destinations. Shipped off to LA to swim in a pool and learn good manners from our Aunt or car camping. Loved the Encino life with pools, movie stars and shopping malls but camping was my favorite. Camp fires, marshmallows, swimming in lakes and the freedom of the outdoors.

After listening to Camp Mather stories for 9 years, we finally made it to the infamous Camp. Was it everything we had hoped for? Yes!

400-500 San Francisco residents descend on the grounds for one of 12 weeks. The registration process starts in January with a semi-complicated sign up routine on the Rec and Park website and a $100 deposit. This places you in the lottery for a spot and then you wait. When we were accepted I did feel like we won the lottery.

Digs for the Week!

The camp has a tumultuous history. First opened for recreation in the mid 20’s when construction of the damn was complete and the facilities were no longer needed. It became a place reserved for the families of Firemen and Police officers and other city workers. SF families were not having it and sued for equal access. A second round of suits resolved the bias and the lottery system was born.

The beauty of Camp Mather, as a family camp, is there is truly something for everyone. The older kids (including our teenage boys) have free reign. We caught glimpes of them at the lake chatting up the ladies, or at the cabin to collect something or when they needed money for the store otherwise they were on their own. Teenage heaven!

Man Made Lake at Mather

The kids spend many of the daylights hours floating and swimming in the man made lake, riding bikes around the grounds or participating in the many sports and craft activities. There are morning and evening hikes of every level. Horseback riding is available for an added fee. You can also venture into the valley and enjoy the wonder of Yosemite.

The Friends of Camp Mather, a volunteer group, dedicated to providing news and information to campers,  bring additional benefits to the camps landscape.

They raise money to supplement the upkeep, maintain and run a General Store that carries everything from ice to rafts for the lake to toiletries. There is even a well stocked ice cream, smoothie and espresso bar! My son raved about the Vanilla Sundae with Whip Cream, Carmel Sauce and a shot of espresso. Right!

Exciting night of Bingo!

Tuesday was BYOBB night (bring your own bottle bingo) where you can play several heated rounds of bingo while sipping a lovely bottle of Cabernet. Our dear friend Abraham won the round of worst card and followed his win up with a celbratory dance!

If you get tired of eating off a cafeteria tray and waiting in line for your meals you can head a mile up the road to the Evergreen Lodge. They have a wonderful menu full of comfort food, a full bar and game rooms with internet access (we tried to keep this secret from our boys for as long as we could but they finally discovered it on their own). Also a great destination for future visits and guests can obtain day passes to the Camp Mather facilities.

We all enjoyed our first visit to Mather. We lounged by the lake, played many rounds of scrabble, double solitaire, 99, Hand & Foot, played Bingo, did not make any tye-dye t-shirts, helped with a jigsaw puzzle, played bocce ball, volleyball, hiked to Wapamo fallsand the oldest SF owned building, met many lovely families, watched the talent show, attended the family dance and raffle, drank some great wine, had dinner at Evergreen Lodge, and spent a much needed week “off the grid”.

Is Mather San Francisco’s best kept secret? Probably not but remains unknown by many SF residents. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “camper”, have never camped but remain curious it’s a great way to experience the outdoors without the cooking and cleaning. We all agree it’s worth another trip.