Located on the Merced River in Yosemite Valley with an unusual name, Housekeeping Camp straddles the line between camping and hotel accommodations and inspires fierce loyalty among park visitors. With amenities not usually found in campsites such as three walls, a canvas roof, beds, electrical lights and outlets, as well as standard amenities of picnic table and campfire ring, Housekeeping Camp is perennially popular with visiting families. Many of these families return year after year to the same units for easy access to the Merced River’s sandy beaches and activities like rafting and swimming. By examining the origin of Housekeeping Camp and its odd configuration and designation, it is apparent that this particular type of Yosemite accommodation has had great influence on the evolution of national park campgrounds as we know them today.
In the 1860s, after the signing of the Yosemite Grant by President Abraham Lincoln, the State of California administered Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove as precursor to the establishment of Yosemite National Park. The state instituted the designation of numbered camps in Yosemite Valley to indicate where visitors were setting up camp during their visit. By 1878, the idea of a public campground had taken hold and The Harris Camp Ground located near the present-day hotel, The Ahwahnee, was the forerunner of the current configuration of a national park campground. By 1918, a map of Yosemite Valley indicates Camp 19 as the first Housekeeping Camp and by 1920, the park concession was charging a fee for supplies to be provided to campers who needed equipment. Visitors who brought their own went to the free campgrounds, and visitors who rented supplies stayed in a “Housekeeping Camp” – meaning you kept your own house with no maid service.
From the “1920 Guide to Yosemite” by Ansel F. Hall:
“The Housekeeping Camps Department supplies all kinds of camping or outing equipment at very reasonable rates…About twenty camp grounds have been prepared for the free use of the public by the Park Service. Water is piped to these localities and a sanitation system provided for. Applications for camp sites should be made at the National Park Service office in Yosemite Village. Those without outfits, who desire to establish camps, may arrange at the Housekeeping Camps Department of the Yosemite National Park Company (at Camp 17, a quarter mile east of Sentinel Bridge and north of the river) to rent all necessary equipment. This will be delivered and set up ready for occupancy. It is advisable to arrange in advance for the outfit desired.”
Housekeeping Camp was indicated at its present location as Camp 16 on a map in 1921 and remained designated Camp 16 until the 1970s. In 1923, Yosemite’s most influential concession operator, the Curry family, established Yosemite’s first lower-cost Housekeeping Camp with unfurnished lodging and no meals. This iteration included 10 units and was located in the current employee housing area known as Tecoya dormitory at Yosemite Village. In 1943, a Yosemite park map stated that Housekeeping Tents at Camp 16 come completely furnished from $2.25 daily and $10 weekly – what a deal! Ten years later, Housekeeping Camp was no longer considered a Yosemite campground, instead being listed as accommodations similar to Curry Village tent cabins. Amenities such as laundry facilities and a store were also available by the 1950s.
Yosemite’s housekeeping camps were the beneficiaries of the Mission 66 program where significant funds were invested in the infrastructure of national parks from 1956 to 1966. As a result, in the 1960s, the units were constructed as we know them today with concrete slabs. Two units were built back to back as a duplex. The dividing walls and two side walls were concrete slabs mixed with a conglomerate of Merced River stones. The ceiling, front walls and two side walls were canvas with a nylon fly for protection from sun or rain. The patio kitchen was furnished with a wood-burning stove referred to as a ‘sheepherder’ stove. This experimental design for improvement of guest accommodations in Housekeeping Camp was developed with much thought by Yosemite Park & Curry Company’s Gordon Warren, responsible for the construction of the new units, and architects from the firm Spencer and Lee, among others. In 1964 the ‘laundromat’ building was added to house coin-operated washers and dryers, along with a new shower house.
By 1976, the rest of the campgrounds in Yosemite were operated by the National Park Service. As the only remaining example of a ‘housekeeping camp’, Camp 16 was renamed accordingly and continues to be known as Housekeeping Camp to this day. Sometime in the 1990s, the old sheepherder stoves were replaced by campfire rings. Over time, the number of units have been reduced and the current Merced Wild and Scenic River Plan calls for the removal of more. But for now, you can enjoy 266 units in the heart of Yosemite Valley for a camping experience without all the gear. Housekeeping Camp opens for the 2014 season on April 17th and still offers supplies in the form of bedpacks consisting of 2 sheets, 2 blankets and 2 pillows rented for $2.50 per night – subject to availability. Make reservations online or call 801-559-4884 to speak with a reservation agent.