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Summer Camp Vacations for Kids and Adults

Each year, the Audubon Society, The Sierra Club, The YMCA and other such organizations sponsor inexpensive “sleepaway” camps—and they’re not always for kids!
Image: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Sierra Club's "base camp" locations include the Great Smoky Mountains National ParkAP
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

You approached it through a forest, on a dirt road, beneath a canopy of leafy boughs. You slept there in a rustic cabin or a lean-to made of logs. You ate in a wooden mess hall, at long, communal tables; swam in a lake; sat around an open fire at night.

And paid very little.

Sleepaway camp. Was there ever a better vacation? A more treasured time of childhood? And can those joyful, vibrant, inexpensive holidays be re-experienced at a later time, as an adult?

The answer is a limited yes. Provided you apply soon enough—say, by early spring, before the rolls are filled and closed—you can stay at one of nearly 50 widely scattered camps that operate for people of all ages, 18 to 80, in a setting almost identical to those cherished memories of youth.


These have existed for over 60 years. On a thickly wooded 300 acre island off the mid-coast of Maine, at a lofty ranch in the Wind River Mountains of northwestern Wyoming, beside a cold, clear lake in the pine forests of Minnesota, and in a 150-year-old oak forest of Wisconsin’s Northwoods, the National Audubon Society has enabled adults from all over the nation to enjoy an intense, camp-style experience, for one or two summer weeks, with all forms of plant and animal life: birds and marine mammals, insects, herbs and wildflowers, mink, beaver, otter, and eagles. You go birding or canoeing at 7 a.m., take leisurely hikes through open meadows or on mountain trails, make field trips to a hemlock gorge, and alternate all the outdoor activity with attendance at classroom lectures by expert naturalists. The simple aim is to reintroduce you to nature and its delicate balancing act; to show how all life is interdependent, and what you can do to protect it.

In the undeveloped, wilderness settings of all four camps, you quickly forget all urban concerns, but enjoy a reasonable standard of comfort at the same time: dormitory rooms with air-conditioning and private bath in Minnesota, wood-frame dormitories and a restored 19th-century farmhouse on Hog Island in Maine, slightly more modern facilities and private rooms in Connecticut, and a long, wood-frame dormitory in Wisconsin. Hearty meals are served buffet style, three times a day.

For the summer of 2004, Minnesota's North Woods camp offers five weeklong programs with an option of earning graduate credits.  Some of the programs are "Lake Superior: From Duluth to Thunder Bay," "The Mammals of Badland," and "Boundary Water Canoe Area Field Studies."  The all-inclusive price for the week is $750.

The camp on Hog Island in Maine is open from June to August, and each week has a different focus: “Bird Studies for Teens,” “Natural History of Maine Coast,” “Naturalizing by Kayak,” and “Field Ornithology” are examples. Prices a week’s program, including room and board, range from $660 to $1125. The Wisconsin camp dedicates most of the summer to youth programs, but one week in July is adults-only. The six-day session “Wade into Ecology” is $695.  There is also a family week at the end of June which is $475 for adults and $450 for children ages five to 15.

There’s not another cent to pay (except your transportation to the camp), nowhere at all to spend additional money, and no supplement for single persons traveling alone.

Who attends the Audubon camps? Adults of all ages and backgrounds: an accountant from Atlanta alongside a professional educator from San Francisco, college students, firemen, and retired senior citizens. Their common tie: the urge for a vacation “with more substance to it than sitting on a beach,” in the words of Philip Schaefer, Audubon’s former director of camps and summer programs. Returning to nature, he adds, is an “emotional as well as a learning experience,” and at the final campfire, “there isn’t a dry eye.”

For extensive, colorful literature and application forms relating to these camps, call or e-mail the Audubon offices individually or go to  For Maine: 888/325-5261 or; Wisconsin: 877/777-8383 or; Minnesota: 888/404-7743 or .


Here’s an even older program of adult summer camps, a small part of the much broader year-round schedule of “outings” operated since 1901 by the fierce and powerful (500,000 members) environmental organization called the Sierra Club. In “wild places” of the United States, at least a dozen times each summer, experienced Sierra volunteers establish “base camps” at small cabins or lodges, or at tented camp areas, to which other participants then usually hike in from a road several miles away. Once established at the base camp, to which supplies have been brought by mule or vehicle, campers make day hikes into the surrounding countryside, or simply enjoy the outdoor pleasures of their wilderness base.

Most of the base camps are in California, Utah and Arizona, or the Sierra Mountains of California/Nevada; a few are in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Florida, Virginia, Washington, New Jersey, Idaho, New York, and the Great Smoky Mountain Park of Tennessee/North Carolina. With a minor exception or two, charges are remarkably low, even though all inclusive: as little as $455 for some one-week stays, an average of about $1100, and some topping $3,000. That’s because all campers pitch in to perform camp tasks, including cooking, supervised by the camp staff.

Sample base camp stays planned for 2004: Acadia National Park and Mt. Desert Island in Maine, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada. Though the accent throughout is on fun—the sheer pleasure of removing oneself for a week or two to an untouched, untrammeled wilderness—participants (of all ages, and including families) have the added opportunity to “network” with other kindred sorts, the dedicated environmentalists of our nation.

The full list of base camps appears in a larger directory of club outings bound each year into the January/February edition of Sierra, the club’s magazine. For a copy, or for other specific information or longer leaflets on individual base camps, contact the Sierra Club Outing Department, 85 Second St., Second Floor, San Francisco, CA 94105 (phone 415/977-5630, fax 415/977-5795, e-mail Since base camps are open only to Sierra members or “applicants for membership,” you’ll later need to include your membership application and fee ($25 introductory price, $39 regularly) with your reservation request. A full listing of Sierra Club outings can also be found online at


And then you have the often more comfortable and more numerous adult summer camps of the merged Unitarian/Universalist church, each one of which is open—as a matter of firm church policy—to Americans of all religious persuasions and of none. Acting from the same tolerant impulses that led them to found the American Red Cross, the ASPCA, and much of the public school movement, Unitarian/Universalists have here created a major travel/vacation resource, yet one that is unknown to much of the traveling public.

Why do they invite people of all religious persuasions to make use of their summer camps? Certainly not to proselytize or seek converts—they don’t believe in that. Rather, as it’s been explained to me, because they seek to discover common bonds among all humankind, and common spiritual truths; because their creed is without dogma and broadly compatible with all other faiths. What better place to experience such unity, they theorize, than at a summer gathering, in a pleasant, unstressed, cooperative camp?

Because some of the Unitarian/Universalist camps fill up by summer, you’d be well advised to apply quickly to one of the following:

Star Island Religious and Educational Conference Center, New Hampshire: A rustic, rocky, sea-enclosed marsh connected to the mainland by a single telephone line, Star Island is one of the historic “Isles of Shoals” off the New England coast (reached by ferry from Portsmouth, N.H.). A naturalist’s dream, a photographer’s vision, it has been owned by the Unitarians since 1915, and used as an adult summer camp (swimming, boating, fishing, hiking, tennis, softball) open to all, but mainly patronized by Unitarian/Universalists. From mid-June to early September, singles, couples, and families can opt for “theme weeks” focused on the arts, natural history, international affairs, psychology, and the like. In 2004, these include “International Affairs”, “Religion in an Age of Science” and “Life on a Star”. They stay either in a wooden main building or a number of cottages (comfortable but not modern) at charges from $502 per adult per week for room and full board with a discount for children. (Star Island also operates six-day conferences at charges starting at $448 per adult). Add about $50 to $100 per person for program registration fees. Figure an extra $80 for the ferry and parking. Technically, campers are supposed to register in February for these summer programs, but usually they’ll let people sign up until all the spots are full. Prior to summer, contact Star Island Corporation, 10 Vaughan Mall, Suite #8, Worth Plaza, Portsmouth, NH 03801 (phone 603/430-6272); thereafter, P.O. Box 178, Portsmouth, NH 03802 (phone 603/964-7252, e-mail

De Benneville Pines Camp, near Angelus Oaks, California: Half an hour from the better-known town of Redland on the mid-Pacific coast, in a heavily wooded area laced with hiking trails, is De Benneville Pines Camp. Its Unitarian programs—usually open to all—consist primarily of a “family week” in August, a four-day “Women’s Retreat” in May (with activities ranging from yoga to silk screening to belly dancing), a “Yoga/Meditation” week in September and a weekend “Folk Music Camp: Music in the Mountains” in November. Family week is devoted to classic summer recreations, with the Unitarian theme largely limited to evening campfire discussions of broad ethical themes. Accommodation is in cabins; meals, according to staff, are “honest-to-goodness homemade—i.e., bread done from scratch;” all inclusive weekly charges average $300 per adult for family weeks, much less for children (although there is a complicated price structure, aimed at allowing people of all economic backgrounds to attend). Contact De Benneville Pines, 41750 West Jenks Lake Road, Angelus Oaks, CA 92305 (phone or fax 909/794-1252, e-mail or online at

Ferry Beach Center, on the coast of Maine: For its summer-long, ten-week program of adult activities, open to all without question, Ferry Beach makes use of 30 woodland acres on Saco Bay and adjoining sand dunes and pine groves, with access to bike paths and walking trails in a state park. Though participants are free to romp and relax, they can also attend weekend and week-long conferences from the end of June through the Labor Day weekend. Conference themes for the 2004 season: a four-day "Kayaking for beginners and intermediate paddlers" ($265) and a three-day "Spirit of West Africa: Drumming and Dance” ($300). Expect to pay about $550 per adult for a week’s room, board, registration, and activities, slightly less for children, much less for those occupying tented campsites. Contact Ferry Beach Park Association, 5 Morris Ave., Saco, ME 04072 (phone 207/282-4489 or, for reservations 207/284-8612, fax 207/283-4465, e-mail or online at

Rowe Camp, in the Berkshires of northwestern Massachusetts: A Unitarian children’s camp for much of the summer, Rowe largely replaces the youngsters with adults during three warm-weather periods: for one week in June (“Men’s Wisdom Council”), and the last two weeks of August (“Kindred Spirits” and “Women’s Circles”); the third is a consciousness-raising program for females only, while the second attempts to free all participants—singles, couples, families—”from whatever confines their spirits.” In all three, daily workshops deal with growth in the physical, emotional, spiritual, and political realms; and all is combined with swimming, dancing, canoeing, silk-screening, and picnics—a joyful, dynamic, but intensely spiritual atmosphere. Scattered wooden cabins and main lodges resemble the camps of your own youth. The program cost for a week ranges from $420 to $495 based on your family’s yearly income (the more you make, the more you pay). If you’re willing to work during your stay (helping with meals, changing sheets, carpentry), you can barter for a lower fee, and there are group discounts offered too. Contact Rowe Camp, Kings Highway Road, Box 273, Rowe, MA 01367 (phone 413/339-4954 fax 413/339-5728, e-mail or online at

The classic “summer camp” for adults: Amuuse Camps for Singles. Also Unitarian-sponsored, Amuuse takes place over series of weeks from mid-June to mid-August at three campsites in the upper Midwest (in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio). Mornings are devoted to classes led by “experienced camper facilitators”— in 2003, these included lessons in massage, dream interpretation, and improvisational comedy. Afternoons are left free for more traditional camp activities— swimming, volleyball, golf, ping pong, hiking and crafts. On most evenings, participants meet to watch the sunset, after which the group disperses to a wide variety of scheduled social events— coffeehouses, theme parties and dances, campfires and sing-a-longs. The fee is $450/person per week, inclusive of room, all meals, snacks and most activities. And get ready for “kitchen duty”— all participants are expected to pitch in with chores-cooking, cleaning and organizing events. Contact Amuuse Camps for Singles, AMUUSE c/o Sharon Spinler, 336 Birchwood Court, Vernon Hills, IL 60061(phone 847/816-3356, e-mail Also online at


Like the Unitarian/Universalists, the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) also hosts several summer camps suitable for adults and families. Although Christian in heritage, the YMCA is nondenominational in practice, sponsoring programs that “build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.” Check with your local YMCA to see if it offers any summer camp opportunities. These camps have a high return rate and fill up quickly, so start making inquiries a year in advance.

On the slopes of Mount Davis (the highest peak in Pennsylvania), 90 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, the Deer Valley YMCA Camp has opened its doors each summer since 1957 to singles, couples, and families from June through August for its popular “Family Camp.”

Aquatic activities, such as sailing, windsurfing, and kayaking, take center stage on the 125-acre Deer Valley Lake. Hiking and biking trails wind through the other 600 acres amidst tall pines and maples (FYI- it’s the “Maple Capital of Pennsylvania”). Other available pastimes at this lakeside haven run the gamut from horse-back-riding (for an extra fee) to bacci ball to arts and crafts. A morning daycamp is scheduled for children only with family activities throughout the afternoon; nightly programs like karaoke and murder mysteries are adults-only. Accommodations consist of 36 heated, two-bedroom cabins with private baths (be forewarned: cold water only and no showers) and eight private rooms (but no baths) in the “Lakeview Lodge” for about $1,500 per family of four. Communal shower and bathhouses supplement the rustic amenities. Single adults and couples can arrange to share a cabin or vie for one of the few dorm-style rooms. There are also tent sites available for $20/night.  Meals, served family-style, are all included in the room cost. In addition to the “Family Camp,” Deer Valley sets aside a week in June and another in October for “Women’s Week,” a women-only retreat focused on gender issues, self-improvement, and fitness.

Contact the Deer Valley Camp Office in September to reserve a space for the following summer. For more information or to make reservations, write Deer Valley YMCA Camp, 254 Deer Valley Drive, Fort Hill, PA 15540, call 800/YMCA-FUN (962-2386), or e-mail View their web site at

The YMCA Camp Nawakwa (run by the Metropolitan Chicago YMCA), just 15 miles west of Minocqua, Wisconsin, has also offered an annual “family camp” from Memorial Day to Labor Day for singles, couples, and kid-toting parents, since the 1930s. On 170 acres of thick pine and birch forest, the camp is located on a Native American Reservation, nestled between two crystal-clear lakes, Big Crooked and Little Sugarbush (the camp staff claims you can spot bottom, 15 feet down). Opt for all, some, or none of the camp-organized activities, which range from running and rowing in the camp’s triathlon, to crooning a tune in “songfest,” to visiting a nearby Native American museum. Thirty-three “housekeeping” cabins, all heated and with kitchen facilities, spot the lakeshore, and sleep from four to six people. About a third are “full facility,” with private baths; the others are more rustic (and, consequently, cost less), with only hot and cold-water sinks, but fully equipped bathhouses are nearby. Campers pay by the cabin, from $425 to $625 per family of four (rates depend on type of cabin and time). No meals are provided, but you can cook your own in any of the cabins and there’s a town just 10 minutes away. The low rates of this back-to-nature camp make it a hot ticket— reserve a cabin six months in advance just to be safe. For more information or to make reservations, contact YMCA Family Camp Nawakwa, 13400 Camp Nawakwa Lane, Lac-du-Flambeau, WI 54538 (in summer, phone 715/588-7422, or e-mail View the camp’s Web site at

The St. Paul YMCA chapter hosts another “family camp,” Camp du Nord (once again, open to all), this one on the shores of Burntside Lake in Ely, Minnesota. Amidst a “wilderness” setting of wooded grounds, the wide-ranging activities are all optional. Storytelling, kayaking, sailing, canoeing, and fishing are among your choices. Du Nord is divided into three camp “villages,” that are spread out along a mile of the lakefront property. Pitching your own tent is the cheapest way to go: from only $395/week for the site. If you’d prefer a something a little less rustic, there are 23 “housekeeping” cabins to choose from, and like Camp Nawakwa, you pay per cabin, not per person. Prices start at $800/week for a two-person bungalow without a bathroom and they go up from there, depending on occupancy and amenities (the most expensive sleeps 16 for $2,140/week). If you opt for meals, served buffet-style in the communal dining room, you’ll tack on between $70 and $135 extra, depending on the meal plan you choose. But all cabins are equipped with kitchens and the nearest supermarket’s only a half-hour away. If these prices don’t fit you budget, ask about the sliding scale pricing option, which lets you pay 10 to 20% less, no questions asked. All rates are flexible, structured to allow poorer campers and families to vacation here.

The registration process for this camp is a little complicated (it’s a lottery system), so make sure you contact the office before December (when the drawing takes place) for the following summer. If you’re too late for that deadline, check anyway for cancellations. For more information or to make reservations contact Camp du Nord, 3606 North Arm Road, Ely, Minnesota 55731, call Shirley at the Camp Office 651/645-2136 or the Wilderness Office 218/365-3681, or e-mail View its web site at


For the past 20 years, the non-profit Four Corners School of Outdoor Education has offered “Southwest Ed-Ventures” in the (you guessed it!) four corners area of the United States, combining adventure travel with serious education. Most of the trip leaders have Master’s or doctorate degrees and evenings are spent in lectures or informal seminars. Trips scheduled for 2004 include mapping Native American ruins in Ute Tribal Park, a 26-mile rafting expedition down the San Juan River, and studying rock art and archaeology at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. In June and August the school sponsors family programs. For many of the excursions, you’ll be camping in the field and you’ll need to bring your own tent and sleeping bag. All meals are provided, but if you’re backpacking, be prepared to carry a fair share of food and camp supplies. Trips are rated according to difficulty (from novice to expert) and all cost about $150 per person per day. A few are research-oriented, however, so some of the costs are tax-deductible. Also, ask about discounts for groups of three or more. For more information or to make reservations, call Southwest Ed-Ventures at 800/525-4456 or view its Web site at

From the shores of Maine to the Delaware Water Gap, the 128-year old Appalachian Mountain Club organizes a vast spectrum of outdoor camping programs and workshops throughout the year. Founded on principles of eco-conscious camping, the club’s “leave no trace” mantra prevails in all its outings. Many of the trips are based in the White Mountains and Mt. Cardigan of New Hampshire, the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, the Catskills in New York, and a myriad of rivers and basins throughout the Northeast. They cover pretty much all the outdoor basics (hiking, canoeing, biking, etc) and range from two-day hut-based workshops to 10-day guided hikes through rough mountain terrain. Programs offered in recent years include “Women of the woods,” “The Taste of Tundra,” “Outdoor Cooking and Baking,” “Llama Trekking,” “Tracking: The Art of Seeing,” “Kayaking Coastal Maine,” “Beginner Fly Fishing,” and “Hiking and Yoga.” Professional wilderness experts guide each trip.

Outings cost from $72 day-trips to over $1,000 for longer adventures, but most weigh in under $100/day (some much less). The fee covers all lodging costs (the club provides camping gear and even some sleeping bags are available at no extra cost), instruction, guides and most meals. Because AMC is a non-profit organization, each club trip is run on a “break-even” basis, meaning the fee you pay just covers the administrative costs and your personal expenses. Appalachian Mountain Club members receive a 10% discount on all trips, so it’s worth your while to sign up. Hundreds of trips are offered, so be sure to check out their web site or call for a catalogue for the whole enchilada. For more information, contact the Appalachian Mountain Club, 5 Joy Street, Boston, MA 02108 (phone 617/523-0636, e-mail

Smith College Adult Sports and Fitness Camp, for both men and women, is a highly active week of classroom instruction in fitness, nutrition, and stress management, alternating with active participation in yoga, cycling, hiking, swimming, climbing, tai-chi, canoeing, badminton, squash, tennis, and other forms of aerobics. The college’s facilities for all this are among the best in the nation. One session for 2004 is scheduled from June 12 to 18. Sessions average 30 to 40 participants. A single fee of $1,125 (there is a discount if you register early) per person covers sports, instruction, and room and board (single or double rooms) from dinner Sunday through breakfast the following Friday. Contact Michelle Finley, Adult Sports and Fitness Camp, Scott Gymnasium, Smith College, Northampton, MA 01063 (phone 413/585-3971, e-mail Or view the Web site at


Located on the shores of Lake Champlain near Burlington, Vermont (on the YMCA grounds of Camp Hochelaga), Camp Common Ground is a cooperative, family-camp rooted in its dedication to a strictly vegetarian and organic cuisine. Since its beginning in 1994, families have regularly convened on the lakefront each summer, fulfilling the vision of camp founders “Peg and Jim” (still on the staff) of a community-oriented, family-run summer camp. From kayaking, to dance, to creative cooking, all activities are infused with this cooperative spirit, including daily chores, which the campers also share. Meals are prepared by an “amazing” staff of vegetarian cooks, with years of experience and served family-style.

Between 150 and 160 campers fill the summertime retreat during its two-week run in August. Adults pay $450/week, teens $360, and kids, between $80 and $315 (book after the end of March and you can add $10 to these prices). To encourage diversity (one of the camp’s founding principles) Camp Common Ground offers scholarships to about 35% of its attending families. Bunkbeds in 12 “rustic-style” cabins and 10 platform-tents house most of the campers; the rest bring their own tents.  If you want a solid sleeping structure, be sure to make reservations early.  Private cabins cost an additional $120 and shared cabins cost an additional $15 per bed. Very few of these accommodations come with private baths, so for the others, there are three communal bathhouses (men’s, women’s, and coed). Priority is given to returning families (about 60%) and the rest of the slots are filled on a first come-first served basis. For more information or to make reservations, contact Camp Common Ground, 159 Lost Road, St. George, VT 05495, phone 800/430-COOP (2667) or 802/482-3670, or e-mail View the Web site or register online at


Finally, a group of proud and unrepentant, happy and defiant liberals from all over the nation (of all ages, families and singles) converges each summer on the World Fellowship Center in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for a special vacation. With its 455 acres of forest, mile-long Whitton Pond for swimming and boating, cookouts, campsites and rustic lodge buildings, WFC would seem at first to be a standard resort for standard, warm-weather relaxation. But from late-June to early- September, every week and weekend of the summer there is devoted to such atypical, even unsettling, “resort” themes as “The Science and Politics of Genetically Altered Food,” “War and Violence in Jewish Tradition and Thought,” “The Politics of Food,” “Monopoly Militarism, the US and the Threat of Terrorism,” “Dismantling Corporate Rule,” and “Electoral Politics.” Noted lecturers take to the stump on each week’s topics, and twice-daily discussions, at 10:30 a.m. and after dinner at 8 p.m., alternate with lighthearted blueberry-picking, exercise sessions, swimming, boating and nature and photography workshops. All three meals are included in the room rates, and yet those charges amounted to only $275 to $550 per person per week (depending on room category) or to only $250 per week for people bringing a tent (depending on the meal plan chosen). Children stay with their parents for a fraction of these prices, depending on age. At those price levels, space fills up fast.

For information and applications, contact World Fellowship Center, c/o Andrew Davis & Andrea Walsh, P.O. Box 2280, Conway, NH 03818-2280 (phone 603/447-2280, fax 603/447-1820). You can also e-mail or go online to