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Camping Out with Takeout at S.F.’s One and Only Urban Campground

How to pull off a stress-free camping trip in the middle of San Francisco.


Twelve city families spent the night at Rob Hill Campground in the Presidio.

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Katie Martinez and her daughter Amelia.

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Mikio Kishi Grover gets a woodcutting tutorial.

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Trina Papini (left) and Katie Hintz-Zambrano.

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Anna Chiu works on her tent with her son Taj.

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Lunch at Presidio Picnic.

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Rheanna Martinez enjoys a camp cocktail.

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Dinner delivered from MF Chicken.

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Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about our relationship with the natural world, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the May 2018 Great Outdoors Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here. 

“Mama, are we at the hotel?”
my four-year-old daughter asked as we rolled up to our campsite. “No,” I explained, “we’re camping, remember? We’re going sleep in a tent.” Was this kid serious? We had been talking about this all week.

“So where is the tent?” she asked, surveying the wood-chip-covered lot, empty except for a picnic table, a fire pit, and an artful collection of logs to sit on. I already knew that as a parent I had fallen embarrassingly short on our camping quota, but I hadn’t thought things were this bad. “We have to build it,” I said.

When I was a kid, vacations meant camping. No resorts, no hotels, and, despite my desperate pleading, no Disneyland. We climbed mountains, we caught fish, and we got eaten alive by mosquitoes. It was at varying moments amazing and agonizing, but by the time I was an adult, I was fully indoctrinated. I believed that camping was the only “right” kind of family vacation—it was the recreational equivalent of eating your vegetables. To be a responsible parent, you must periodically make your children sleep under the stars with an unfortunately placed rock gouging their tiny spines. By these standards, I have been a woefully irresponsible parent, despite my best intentions. Ask my daughter about her earliest vacation memory and she will recount the week we spent at a Nickelodeon-themed, all-inclusive Mexican resort where she attended a kiddie nightclub and danced to electronic music alongside Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob. She was two.

But it’s not completely my fault. We are solidly city people, with no car and limited space for storing camp stoves and multi-room tents. Plus, my magazine editor job takes me to all kinds of places where I am forced to report on the luxurious vacation habits of other camping-averse people (hence the Mexican resort). So when I heard about the one and only campground located within San Francisco’s city limits, I saw an opportunity to finally save my children’s little vacation souls without having to rent an expensive RV, rummage the REI Garage for gear, or even grocery shop for hot dogs and trail mix.

Rob Hill Campground is perched at the highest point of the Presidio, hidden away within the cypress groves approximately 400 feet above Baker Beach. The site’s history as an official campground dates back to just after World War II, when the army turned the old lookout post into a bare-bones campsite for the Boy Scouts. The grounds got a major $4 million facelift in 2010 thanks to the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund; they now feature grills, fire pits, food lockers, picnic tables, clean bathrooms, and potable water. Two of the four spacious sites are almost exclusively reserved for school groups and low-income campers, and through the Camping at the Presidio program, everything from tents to sleeping bags to camp stoves is provided for qualifying organizations. According to Christy Rocca, associate vice president of youth programs at the Crissy Field Center, an average of 6,000 schoolkids spend the night at Rob Hill each season.

For the rest of us, the sites can be booked through the relatively old-school process of filling out a PDF with a few requested dates and emailing it in to the Presidio Trust. Not surprisingly, weekends fill up fast, but on weekdays the sites can be easier to come by. We were able to book two for a Sunday-to-Monday trip just a couple weeks in advance. But because of the large-group configurations—each $125-per-night site can accommodate 30 people—it didn’t make sense for my husband and me to camp with just our two kids. I took it as a sign that I was meant to save the vacation souls of my friends’ kids as well, so I asked 30 of my city friends to come and sleep in the woods with us. Despite it being a school night smack in the middle of the rainy season, it was shockingly easy to fill up the guest list. But many of the enthusiastic responses were footnoted with a few caveats, including “but I have NO camping gear whatsoever.” A call to Sports Basement solved that: The local outfitter rents everything from tents and sleeping bags (both starting at $25 per night) to lanterns and camp chairs and has a Presidio location a mere six-minute drive from Rob Hill. I also told some of the more hesitant future campers not to worry if things went terribly awry; their actual beds were just a $7 Lyft ride away. It was camping without the commitment.

This is how
it came to be that three dozen city folk—kids aged five months to 11 years, couples with children and without, single parents, camping experts, and supreme novices—descended on Rob Hill Campground on a Sunday afternoon in mid-March. People arrived on e-bikes and in Ubers, and more than one kid was bundled up in a bathrobe—the closest thing to a fleece that could be found in the closet. The adults set about assembling tents and unfurling sleeping bags while the kids ran off into the surrounding woods to hunt for banana slugs and the perfect marshmallow-roasting stick. Turns out they were naturals at this camping thing.

We may have been outdoors, but we were still within range of the city’s culinary conveniences. So once we’d set up camp, we ventured down to the Main Parade Ground, where Presidio Picnic’s 25 food trucks served up a stress-free camp lunch. The kids ran and rolled around in the grass like puppies who had been cooped up for too long, and the grown-ups got into official vacation mode at the outdoor cocktail bar that serves up Moscow mules and Bloody Marys. Back at the campsite, games of Wiffle ball commenced, kids took to the paved paths with hunks of colored chalk, and even toddlers were allowed to waddle off unsupervised onto the surrounding trails—all idyllic novelties for kids who have grown up riding BART rather than pedaling trikes up and down a cul-de-sac. Vacation vegetables were being consumed, and they were a hit.

As the setting sun put on a show, dropping into the Pacific and casting an otherworldly magenta glow on our bucolic paradise, we parents opted to do what we always do when there are more than a dozen kids to feed: We opened a delivery app on our phones and ordered dinner. Yes, we were in the woods, but we were also squarely in the delivery zone of thousands of restaurants. Soon our table was set with four roasted chickens, platters of beans and rice, and a steaming pile of tortillas from MF Chicken (thanks, Caviar!).

While we may have skipped a few camping traditions, we hit all the important ones: We built a fire; we sharpened our foraged sticks with pocketknives, roasted marshmallows, and made s’mores; and we shivered in our sleeping bags as the temperature dipped to 40 degrees. There were probably some sharp-edged rocks under us as we slept, but our rented inflatable sleeping pads did their jobs and we barely noticed. (Mom, Dad, were these not yet invented in the ’80s?) In the morning, the sun woke us all up bright and early, which was fine, because most of us had to pack up and get to school and work. The most impressive of our bunch got their elementary-school-aged kids into their classrooms before the bell rang at 7:45 a.m. The rest of us took our time and enjoyed the hot coffee, fruit, and scrambled eggs that we’d had delivered to the site from Cafe du Soleil.

Was this the camping experience that my mountaineering parents had provided for me? No, it was not. But what my kids lack in hot-dog-roasting skills, they make up for with their SFMOMA memberships. And I’m OK with that.


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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