group lined up between trees
Campers among trees at Berkeley Tuolumne Camp in the 1920s. Photo: Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp

Berkeley may be best known for its dynamic public university, frequent and regular social protests, and its defining imprint on the food scene. But the city is also a pioneer in another way: about 96 years ago, the city leased and purchased land to create three camps in the wilds of California, camps that have provided fantastic outdoor experiences for tens of thousands of residents.

In the 1920s, inspired by the back-to-nature movement that had begun on the East Coast, city leaders established Cazadero, Echo Lake and Tuolumne camps. No other city in the Bay Area has as many camps as Berkeley.

The camps have wonderful and wacky traditions that have lasted over generations, creating a strong community.  Think S’mores, singing around the campfire, floating in the river, hiking in the Sierra, and funny skits.

Mara Melandry only attended the Tuolumne camp as an adult, and only for three summers. But she quickly recognized the camp’s specialness. When a friend suggested she put together a book commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the camps (they were started in 1922, 1923 and 1928), she jumped at the idea.

“I took the bait,” said Melandry. “ I love local history. “

Melandry researched various archives in the Bancroft Library, at the Forest Service and at the Berkeley History Room at the Berkeley Public Library. She found old copies of the Berkeley Daily Gazette online at and combed through the online archived minutes of Berkeley City Council meetings. And she interviewed many current and past campers.

The result is Our Paradise: Berkeley’s Fabulous Family Camps, Cazadero, Echo Lake, Tuolumne. The book, published through Fred Fassett’s Minuteman Press, is a picture-heavy tome that recounts the history of all three camps. The book is available online, as well as through Melandry’s PayPal account at It costs $33, which includes tax and mailing.

There is no tally of how many people have enjoyed the camps, but Melandry’s informal counting puts the number — just at Tuolumne alone — at about 40,000 people.

World events have impacted all three camps over the years. The Great Depression prompted Berkeley to lower camp fees to enable more people to attend. Tuolumne and Echo Lake camps were closed during  World War II; gas rationing prohibited families from driving those distances. And of course, in 2013, the Rim Fire swept through the Tuolumne camp, almost destroying it.

Three former Berkeley mayors at Echo Lake Camp in the mid-80s: Tom Bates (l), Gus Newport (m) and Loni Hancock (r). Photo: Tom Bates

Before Berkeley went to a computerized system, the competition to get reservations was intense. “People would actually camp out at the door of the parks office to be first in line in the AM  when the office opened,” said Melandry. “Now reservations are online and people make sure they sign up early to get the times they want.”

The camps have become such a huge part of many families’ lives that generation after generation attend.

“Little kids go with their parents, then become counselors-in-training, then they become full-fledged counselors,” said Melandry. “When they get married, they then bring their children to camp. The music camp brings young musicians together where they perform under the redwoods and build strong friendships.”

Melandry provided Berkeleyside a capsule history of each camp and described some of their traditions.

people on horseback in a creek
Berkeley Tuolumne Camp. Photo: Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp

Tuolumne’s first year was 1922. It is located about 30 miles west of Yosemite National Park. The city was so determined to open the camp it began construction even before it had a Forest Service permit, the only permit required at the time. There were no facilities at the camp when the city started building tent platforms, pit latrines and an outdoor kitchen; campers ate their meals at picnic tables.  In spite of these primitive conditions, the camp was an enormous triumph, even in its very first year.

In 1922, adults paid $1 a day to stay; this included three meals. Tuolumne developed many adored traditions such as the staff show and talent nights, Tuolumne Rangers and practical jokes played by camp staff on each other. One of the former top traditions at Tuolumne was the fire fall performed in homage to the famous fire fall in Yosemite Valley. Who among older campers can forget the legendary Bill Rhodes, the camp manager from 1942 to 1975?  Three generations of families have attended the camp. Tuolumne should reopen in 2022, in time for its 100th anniversary. The city of Berkeley will contribute $3.3 million to the $54 million rebuilding cost. Most of the rest will come from FEMA and insurance proceeds. The Friends of the Tuolumne Camp Rebuilding CAMPaign is trying to raise $1 million by Oct. 31 and has raised $483,000 so far. (Donate).

Echo Lake Camp in the 1940s. Photo: Paul DeWitt

Echo Lake Camp, opened in 1923, is located south of South Lake Tahoe on Forest Service land and is subject to the federal government’s regulations about environmental issues and civil rights. Adults also paid $1 a day to stay there in the early years. Echo Lake was exclusively a family camp until the 1970s when CAMPS INC. took over and developed a youth camp. Currently, the city operates the camp and it has a mix of programs: youth camps during the week, family camp on some weekends and senior camp on other weekends. Its setting, overlooking Lake Tahoe and within walking distance of Echo Lake, is a big attraction. It has a gorgeous swimming pool. The camp captivates serious hikers, fishermen and boaters and gamblers too: Nevada is close.

Cazadero Camp. Photo: Jim Berry

In the late-1920s, the city began to purchase Cazadero from the Montgomerys, a couple who tried to make their land into a revival camp during the teens of the 20th century. Their efforts failed and they sold the land to the city as a redwood preservation project. The city paid $40,000 for the land over a number of years. It is located west of Guerneville in Sonoma County. From 1927 to the late 1950s, Cazadero was a family camp. It then transitioned to a youth music camp under the inspired leadership of Bob Lutt.  In 1977, when Lutt left, CAMPS INC., a community group, operated Cazadero. CAMPS INC. brought in new programs and encouraged more diversity, in response to the changing times of the 1970s.  In the mid-1990s, the music camp was revived by a non-profit renting the land from the city.  The music camp, affectionately known as CazPac, has been a roaring success.  It sublets to the extraordinarily popular family camp, unusual in that it is a multi-generational performing arts camp.  One favorite tradition at the family camps is Untalent Night when campers perform skits, music and comedy routines. Another tradition — one of the whackier — was Plunge-O, a youngster who performed at Cazadero during the 1990s. He was nicknamed Plunge-O because he used bathroom plungers stuck on his body in his comedy act. Former Tuolumne campers are now going to Echo Lake Camp and are bringing some of their traditions with them, said Melandry.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...