Ginger's Tuolumne Tips
Archived Q&A and Reviews
- Reserving your Spot
- Driving Time
- The Trip There
- Tuolumne Ranger
- Happy Hour
- My Five Favorite Things
- The Trip Back
- Ginger's Packing List
- More Advice about Camp Tuolumne
A few tips from someone who's been going to Tuolumne for more than 15 years ...
Do not put this off. If you are not on the mailing list, call now to get on the list (see their website for info). You'll be on the list if you attended camp last year. The applications are mailed out in the fall, as early as September or October, for the following summer. As soon as you get yours, immediately call your sister or your friend or your spouse and set a date. Everybody should fill out the application immediately and send it in. Berkeley residents get priority up to Nov 15 and then it's open to non-residents, first-come first-served. The most popular dates (like July 4 week) fill up within the first month of registration. Many or most other weeks will be full by February. This year (2006), I overheard someone say at a Christmas party (note: this is pure gossip so don't quote me) that camp was completely full already except for the first week. So you have to plan for next year almost as soon as you leave camp this year. Try to anticipate which friend or which nephew might want to go next year. Do not assume you will be able to add more people to your cabin later. In past years this was never a problem, but the camp has gotten much stricter about enforcing the max occupancy rate, for the safeguard of the septic system apparently. Last camp session we tried to add my sister in late spring but the max occupancy rate had already been reached, so include anyone in your cabin that you think may be going.
From Berkeley Highway 13, the drive is about 3 hours, including one bathroom stop. If you want to get there by lunch on the first day, plan on leaving home by 8:30am.
Note! You do not want to arrive at camp between 1:00 and 2:30pm, because that is Quiet Hour and you will not be able to unpack or walk around or anything. In fact, you may be asked to leave and come back after 2:30. So, if it's looking like you won't arrive till 1pm, stop in Groveland for lunch.
Even though it's only 3 hours it IS a bit boring for little kids. Here are some tips to make the drive go faster, some places to stop, and things you can watch for to make it more interesting.
- Car music: every one gets a turn playing two tracks in a row of their choice. Start over when everyone's had a turn. Everyone agrees to listen politely to the others' music without making faces or complaining. The time goes by a lot faster, you might hear something you like that you thought you didn't, and nobody has to suffer through 3 CDs of Weird Al just because that's what the driver wants to hear.
- On 580, past Livermore and thru the Altamont Pass: what are all those windmills? why are they facing in all different directions? For older kids, put on the Stones and explain the significance of Altamont.
- Tracy: is it lunchtime? If so, see The Trip Back below.
- Manteca: there's a water park here if you are so inclined and have the time. Get out and see what the rest of America looks like! There's also a Home Depot for last-minute camping items and a Starbucks too. Things to look for: an OLD drawbridge.
- Near Ripon: Vineyards and fruit trees and almond trees and Pooh's House of Cactus!
- Escalon: what a lot of churches in such a little town! How many different denominations can you spot? Hey - it's the Van Allen School! (if anyone in the car knows the significance of Van Allen, give them a kiss and tell them they are a nerd.)
- Just before Oakdale: can you spot the Big Red Barn?
- Oakdale: Gas!! Fast food!! Longs Drugstore!! Big 5 Sporting Goods!! Check out Bucksworth Western Wear on the outskirts. Here's your chance to get a real authentic cowgirl hat!
- Past Oakdale: what are those fields of pointy little boulders sticking up out of the ground? (glacier detrius) Look for bee hives. Count cows. Did you spot the old farm house with grass growing on its roof? Do you see some giant solar panels next to a grove?
- Even more past Oakdale: HUGE stack of logs. Where did all those logs come from? Why is water being sprayed on the logs?
- Groveland: You're almost there. Cute little town with cafes, ice cream, markets, and a motel. Stop here for lunch if you won't make lunchtime at Tuolumne. Last chance to check email on the laptop you shouldn't have brought.
- Don Pedro Resevoir: You're only 23 miles from Tuolumne now.
- Short Cut: Right after Moccasin Creek, take Old Priest Grade Road. Turn off the AC, open the windows, and everybody lean forward as your car climbs the steep, steep hill. Ha ha - look at all the losers taking the longer windey road over there! Do you see the jugs of water that say H2O 4 U? Who put them there?
- Watch for the sign to camp. It says something slightly unexpected, like Berkeley Camp. Did you miss it? Take the next right and go past the 7-11 and yurts. You'll get there!
So, you've made the trip from Berkeley, and you're almost there. Does your heart start beating faster as soon as the tent cabins come in to view? Hurry! Hurry! Somebody is already in the office! right at this minute! about to take that special cabin that YOU could have had, if only you'd arrived 5 minutes sooner! And there are 3 more cars behind you, who will beat you to the office and get a better cabin than you! Hurry! Park anywhere, ignore the kids' pleas to use the toilet, and run to the office as fast as you can, if you want to snag a decent cabin! No time to waste!!!!!!!!
No, no, no, you don't want to go there. Take a deep breath, and repeat Sherry Reinhardt 's mantra: Every cabin is a good cabin. Every cabin is a good cabin. Every cabin is a good cabin. Now, walk to the office, wait for your turn, and then find out which cabins are available. Look on the map, or walk around camp and see them for yourself. Here's what I've learned about cabins:
- Nobody has ever snagged the better cabin while I was walking around checking out the available ones. Take your time and don't get all in a tizzy over this.
- River cabins: I have tried many different strategies to get one of these. None of them has worked. I've tried arriving super early in the day, arriving on a particular day of the week, trying to discover some special insider connection, and just plain old dumb luck. Twice in 15 years I've gotten a river cabin by staying in a different cabin for the first 3 days and then moving. This is a big enough pain that I haven't done this again. It's possible that those golden people in the river cabins started off in a different cabin and then moved. Worth it if you're coming for 2 weeks, but not worth it on a 5-night stay (well, maybe once in a lifetime it is worth it!) The river cabins are lovely but ... they get a LOT of afternoon sun, most of them are close to the noisy center of the camp, and the river noise may bother some people.
- Sun City: I've stayed many times in Sun City. Pros: it's quieter, it has the least crowded bathrooms and best showers in camp, and the cabins on the river side have a lovely view. There's a big rock in the clearing where at night you can see all the stars, and there is a small playground just for SC. Cons: roadside cabins get street noise (OK, one car per hour maybe at night) and mosquitoes are worse there in the early summer. And of course, it's hot. The real scorcher is that little cabin right on the beach just below the Sun City bathrooms. The location is great for beach lovers but be warned: the cabin is an inferno!
- Up the Hill vs. Near Camp Center: If you have little kids, it's a lot more convenient to be closer to the center of camp near the play structure, dining hall, bathrooms, bridge, etc. Little ones like the shorter distances - they complain about walking up and down the hill. And, it's great for a four or five-year-old to be able to visit the bathroom or play structure by himself while you watch from your porch. However, closer to the action means more noise and less privacy. Also, if your stay includes one of the stage shows (Sat. Staff Show or Thurs. Table Night) and you have a little one with an early bedtime, you probably don't want to be in one of the cabins next to the stage. People with older kids or no kids may prefer the quieter, more private cabins off the main drag - further down the river or up in the trees. There are some great, very large cabins tucked up there for those who don't mind the hike up. However, beware: the further up the ridge you go, the more mosquitoes! My personal faves are the smallish cabins halfway up the main drag that straddle the creek. However, these are not for everyone! One year, I got one one of these when the previous occupant bailed because the trickling water sound was making her kids have to pee all night long.
- Every cabin is a good cabin. Every cabin is a good cabin. Every cabin is a good cabin.
Remarkably good food served family style by friendly teenagers in a big, noisy dining hall. The noise and frenzy may bother some people. If this is you or your kid, try coming 15 minutes late. Each table seats 12-14. In 2006 camp got stricter about limits on max occupancy, so the dining room was MUCH calmer and quieter, with more elbow room.
As everyone says, the food is great. Here are two examples of dinners served in 2006: 1) ratatouille for the veggie option, salmon baked in foil, fresh asparagus, mushroom risotto, 2) roasted lamb, baked zucchini & fresh tomatoes with mozzarella and parmesan, rice w/almonds, and spanikopita for the veggie option. There is a salad bar at lunch and dinner (mixed greens or romaine, and rotating ingredients such as cherry tomatoes, artichokes, cucumbers, sprouts, beans, feta, etc.). Watch for the delicious wasabi dressing. Lunches included homemade pizza, make-it-yourself burritos, spaghetti, hamburgers & hotdogs (all w/veggie versions). There's a Picky Eater Table with sliced bread, packets of peanut butter and jelly, a big bowl of fresh seasonal fruit, and yogurt. This table is open all day, and coffee, tea, water, and hot chocolate are also available all day. You can also sign up to make take-away lunches if you're planning a day trip to Yosemite or the environs.
Here are dinner times. The bell tolls 45 minutes and again 15 minutes before meals.
Walk around camp and see where all the showers are. Most of them are very woodsy and open to the sky, have plenty of room for an extra little kid or two, and have ultra-extreme flow regulators. But I have never personally run out of hot water, at least! Wear your flip-flops. Don't look too closely at what's lodged under the rubber floor mats. Be a good citizen and pick up shampoo caps, soap slivers, and ponytail ties that others leave behind. In Summer 2006 the showers next to the laundromat, near the stage, were closed. Those had been my favorites in 2005. This year there were new showers in the main camp, but my very favorite showers turned out to be the ones in Sun City, also recently re-done. Very comfy and roomy with wow! a decent sized spray! A good time to get a shower is after swimming opens (around 10:30am and in the afternoon at 2:30-ish). Bad times are just before, during, and after mealtimes.
It took me a while to figure out how this works. For years I watched all the other kids getting their Tuolumne Ranger hats and salutes at lunch, and figured I just didn't have the right insider information. Well, the trouble was, we never made it up to the Nature Center. So, here's the scoop: if your kid can write (age 6 or so) and wants to be a Tuolumne Ranger (not all do), then visit the Nature Center on your first day in camp. It takes a couple days to accumulate all the necessary stuff needed to pass the ranger requirements (for example, they have to do a nature walk and identify stuff, pick up trash around camp, draw a picture, that kind of thing). Kids 4-6 can be Tuolumne Detectives - they get a certificate but you will likely be doing all the work. Don't forget your mosquito spray when you take them on the nature scavenger hunt.
I didn't find out there was a Happy Hour until I had been going to Camp Tuolumne for many years. Now I know: Happy Hour begins at 5:15, which is when the first bell for dinner is sounded. It also happens to be, very conveniently, 15 minutes after the start time of the last Kiddie Camp of the day. But you may want to begin preparing for Happy Hour before 5:15. Personally, I note at 4:30 that it is starting to get close to Happy Hour, so I alert my friends and family, start gathering my things, and head up toward the cabin. Where is Happy Hour? It's in your cabin. Or in your friend's cabin if theirs is on the river, or is less of a walk uphill, or is next to the play structure, or if they have more chairs, or better snacks. One popular drink at Happy Hour is gin & tonic because 1) it's cold, 2) it's not too sweet or sticky 3) it's way happier than beer or wine. But you could also have beer or wine at Happy Hour. It is acceptable to drink a soda or even bubbly water at Happy Hour. Some people are very thoughtful and pack tasty snacks just for Happy Hour. But, you can get packets of chips and party mix at the little camp store. Making a trip to the 7-11 up the road is not really worth it unless you would like to offer five different types of beef jerky at your Happy Hour gathering. You will not find baguettes or nice cheeses or any kind of nuts besides Beer Nuts at the local 7-11, so be forewarned and save yourself a trip. This may be the Berkeley Camp, but it ain't Berkeley, my friend. So if you need nice munchies for your Happy Hour, better bring them from home. Don't forget to buy ice at the camp store right after lunch so your supplies will be cold by 5:15!
Everyone knows that kids will have a great time at Camp Tuolumne, but what about adults? And what about adults who don't especially like camping, hiking, swimming, sweating, and being dirty? Is there something fun for them to do? Yes! Here are my 5 favorite things.
- Reading. This may seem obvious but it really is the Number One thing I look forward to every year. This is the only time of the year when I can sit, relatively undisturbed, for the better part of the day, with a book. I start planning my book bag a few weeks before camp. Usually I can finish off two books and 5 New Yorkers in a 5-night camp stay. My favorite spot to read is on the island, overlooking the swimming area. My second favorite spot is on the porch of my cabin, while the rest of the family is off doing crafts or swimming or hiking or whatever. (Yes, it is OK to be both anti-social and anti-active at Tuolumne!)
- Yummy hot meals at regular intervals, prepared by someone else, and the only clean-up you have to do is you taking your plate to the wash-up window and tossing it in to the teenager who's doing the actual work. When's the last time you got something warm to eat for breakfast EVERY single morning? Tip: In addition to the main breakfast offering on the table, hot cereal (oatmeal or cream of wheat or even grits) is available at the Picky Eater Table but there may be a long line, so plan accordingly.
- Quiet Hour: sign the child(ren) up for Kiddie Camp, put a cot out on the porch, stretch out with a book under the trees, and alternately read and snooze. Hey! It's so quiet!
- Early morning in the dining hall: coffee ...rocker ... book ... fire ... There's a revolving group of early morning regulars who start the fire, make the coffee, and claim one of the rocking chairs in front of the fireplace. This could be you, if you like to get up before 7am. This is a great place to go if you came with a baby who wakes up at 6am. Once the kitchen staff gets going, you will have the pleasure of listening to early morning grunge rock or hip-hop or oldies, played loud enough to wake up all those 16 year old kitchen hands who are making breakfast for everyone. This is part of the charm of being an early morning regular.
- Happy Hour (explained above). Try to go to Camp Tuolumne at the same time as your friend who thinks of everything and packs the station wagon to the gills with little plastic containers of this and that and a giant-sized ice chest full of goodies, so you can have delicious gourmet snacks at Happy Hour.
The best part of the trip back is stopping for lunch at La Villa in Tracy. On our last day in camp, we eat breakfast at Camp Tuolumne, then pack up the car, round up the kids, and head out by 10:30 or so. By the time we get to Tracy we are ready to have lunch and a bathroom break. This is a nice way to end the vacation!
La Villa 57 E. 11th Street (corner of El Portal) Tracy
This is an old-fashioned, comfortable family-friendly Mexican restaurant with really great traditional food, always busy with both gringos and latinos, but not so packed you have to wait. It makes you feel happy just walking in. The Lunch Special is $5.25 and you can get tacos, enchiladas, chile Rellenos, tamales, etc. with rice, beans, and nice homemade tortillas. You can get your Dos X's or your giant Diet Coke. There's a child's plate for $4. Here are some directions, maybe not the best way to get there since we usually drive around a bit before we find it again ... Leaving Manteca from 120, follow the signs to San Francisco 580/205. At the Tracy city limit, take the exit that says Central Tracy. Take a left at the light to get on Tracy Blvd. Continue down Tracy Blvd for a while, go thru a bunch of lights. You'll pass the intriguingly named Dr. Pomas Park and a hospital. Turn left at 11th Street (there's a light). Go past the KFC, past Parker Ave (light), past Central Av (light). La Villa is on your left and there's parking behind. After lunch, keep going down 11th all the way back to 580 (which suggests there is a faster way to get there than down Tracy Blvd. Maybe next year we will figure this out.)