Pinecrest, CA: The Return to a Simpler Life
By Joscelyn Willett

CentralCAPinecrest0910-3.jpgCars with kayaks strapped to their roofs cruise down the street at 25 MPH, slowing to a lazy stop to allow teenagers in bikinis and board shorts to cross. Kids covered in sand and too much sun mosey to the Snack Shack where they stand in line for a 6-inch tall soft serve swirl. When the sun goes down crowds wander across the beach and through a lane of redwoods to gather under the stars, cuddle in warm blankets, and watch the latest flick projected on an outdoor screen.

Is this 1964? A scene from a movie? Nope. This is Pinecrest, the camping-meets-beach vacation spot located in the Stanislaus National Forest, about 30 miles east of Sonora. For Bay Area folks, Pinecrest isn’t exactly a short jaunt. At close to 3 ½ hours, the drive is a bit long, but well worth it (the time warp experienced upon arrival more than makes up for the trip).


Camping spots at Pinecrest are available first-come, first-served, as well as by reservation. There are two main campgrounds that make up the Pinecrest area: Pinecrest and Meadowview. Both are walking distance to Pinecrest Lake – the go-to spot for visitors. Together, the two campgrounds boast approximately 300 campsites. Rates per night vary from $18 - $20, and each site comes equipped with a paved parking pad, picnic table and fire ring. From there, you make it your own home. Tents, trailers, RVs, tent-trailers, and campers litter the place. One family even set up an outdoor bar they named Pinecone Pub that neighboring campers could run to for a cold beer or cocktail. Now that’s camping creativity!

CentralCAPinecrest0910-1.jpgBy day families of all ages flock to the "beach" – the sandy shore of the glistening and gorgeous Pinecrest Lake. Though it’s relatively small, the lake offers an array of recreational activities including pontoon and paddle boating, fishing, and kayaking. Inner tubes, rafts, and inflatable trampolines are also available to rent. A nearby snack bar serves up hotdogs, hamburgers, corndogs, chicken sandwiches, fries, root bear floats, and more.


At night Pinecrest glows with the light of hundreds of tiny campfires, and laughter bellows from the ember and flames into the starry sky. Happy campers fill a tree-encircled amphitheatre to watch movies. (We saw Toy Story 3 in the dark).

The people you’ll find here are traditionalists. One woman we met (an ex-San Franciscan) has been camping at Pinecrest since 1969. Her family makes an annual trip, and together they take up an entire loop – moms, dads, grandparents, kids and grandkids all keeping the ritual alive.
There are a few caveats you must be aware of before you plan to make the haul to Pinecrest. One: If you’re like me and start dry heaving if you’re without email access for more than 15 minutes, you’re going to be in for a painful withdrawal period. There is no cell or Internet connection here. Wi-Fi and 3G mean nothing in Pinecrest.

CentralCAPinecrest0910-2.jpgTwo: Showering is a la carte. As in, your campsite fees don’t cover the cost of them. As in, $5 for 10 minutes! If you have an entire family to bathe, and like to take showers every day, this can get really costly. Three: While there are plenty of bathrooms (with flush toilets!) conveniently situated in-between campsites, the sinks inside do not run hot water. This makes the late night washing up routine somewhat uncomfortable. No one wants to clean the day off their face with cold water.

Okay, Pinecrest isn’t perfect. But, to me, that’s just part of its charm. And by the way, the General Store with the Middle America feel and just about everything you could ever want or need on its shelves helps to balance out the lack of great showering options. So a pack of Oreo cookies costs $7. Eh, who cares, you’re on vacation! Oh, and did I mention the quaint, family-run outdoor cafe? Yep, there to greet you when you finish the 4-mile hike around the lake at 7 AM. I mean, c’mon! Hanging out by the morning fire with a hot cup of Joe that doesn’t taste like dirt - what could be better than that?


*The camping season at Pinecrest ends October 11, so this is your last chance for a late summer or early fall getaway!
*The nearest supermarket is at least 20-30 miles away, so pack well. Ice and firewood are available at the Check-In Kiosk.
*A General Store and small restaurant on the grounds will relieve you in a pinch.
*Evenings are chilly, so bring lots of warm clothes and sleeping bags/blankets. It is also not uncommon for short-lived thunderstorms to pass through.

Contact Pinecrest Campground at (209) 965-3116 for details on camping amenities and nearby activities. You can also visit for additional information.

For reservations, call (877) 444-677 or visit

Joscelyn Willett resides in San Francisco with her husband and three children. She looks forward to returning to Pinecrest and enjoying more occasions where she is forced to leave behind her iPhone.


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