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Family Camp: Kayaking, Fishing, Fiddling and More Unique Getaways

Overnight camp might be better when you do it together

Family CampPam Christensen and her husband were so interested in the family camp experience that they started attending one before they had kids. They chose Cascades Camp and Conference Center, a Christian-oriented camp in the foothills of Mount Rainier. “It was a lot of fun because we could do whatever we wanted,” she jokes.

After the Shoreline, Wash., couple had their two boys, the family made attending Cascades’ five-day Independence Day family camp an annual ritual. They fish, boat, ride horses and hike as a family; enjoy camp traditions such as Parents Night Out (kids watch a movie; parents eat a relatively elegant meal together); and celebrate camp milestones, such as the year both boys were old enough that the entire family could do a trail ride together, and the year their oldest scaled the 25-foot climbing wall without a hitch.

Now that the boys are older, the family pursues a mix of joint and separate activities. “I know the staff is there with them and they’re safe, so I can go on a bench and read a book,” says Christensen.

And the combination of quality, unplugged family time with a break from daily chores, she says, is unbeatable — especially the “killer food” cooked by someone else. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

The Christensens probably didn’t know it, but they were on the cutting edge of a growing trend. While family camps have been around as long as summer camps have (wasn’t Dirty Dancing set at a family camp of sorts?), in recent years, says American Camp Association CEO Peg Smith, the biggest growth in camp clientele has been for family camps.

The American Camp Association (ACA) list many family camps on its website, ranging from traditional outdoor camps to camps for grandparents and grandkids, camps for families with special needs, music and arts camps, and more.

From babies to 90-year-olds

One of the most common types of family camp is a traditional sleep-away camp that programs several weekends or weeks each season for family sessions.

Family Camp Lake WenatcheeFamilies can usually choose from a variety of lodgings (cabins, tents, yurts, lodges; shared bathroom or private) and meal options (make your own, eat family style with other campers).

Activities range widely — sports, canoeing, horseback riding, zip lines, crafts, camp games, songs, skits. Unlike summer camp, participation in activities is often optional. (Yes, you can lounge while others tear through camp activities.)

While sleepover camps usually don’t accept kids until they’re in the first or second grade, families can typically bring children of any age to family camps.

“We’ve had babies just a couple of months old and 90-year-old grandmas,” says Tim McElravy, camp director for Lake Wenatchee YMCA Camp, which has run several weekend family camps. He has seen interest in family camps increase; his staff has responded by adding sessions and activities, from themed nights to pirate treasure hunts to fishing derbies on the lake.

Why the interest? Families with younger kids are often looking to test-drive a sleepover camp, and end up coming back year after year as a family. Families with older kids are looking for ways to unplug and reconnect.

And then there’s the cost factor. Compared to other vacations in gorgeous settings with a similar range of activities, family camp is often a bargain.

YMCA Camp du Nord, for example, located on the edge of the stunning Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilder­ness in Minnesota, was voted the best family vacation in Minnesota. It only runs family camps, and it’s so popular that families have to enter a lottery in the fall to reserve a summer camp spot.

“Who needs five-star hotels when you have a beautiful lake, canoes, kayaks, trails and fun people?” says Jeanne Cochran, a Minnesota lawyer and mom who has been going to Camp du Nord with her family for eight years.

A camp for every camper

The family camp experience exists in other forms beyond the traditional outdoor camp experience. A number of years ago, my extended family, including me, my father, my sister, her husband and their two boys (then 12 and 14), attended a weeklong music workshop, the American Festival of Fiddle Tunes, at Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend in early July. Although not described as a family camp, it is very family oriented, with workshops for kids and many children attending year after year (and often quickly outshining the parents in their musical chops).

We rented a house together on “campus,” and spent our days in a mix of shared and separate music workshops: kids’ fiddle for Ezra, my youngest nephew; mandolin for my sister and her oldest son, Simon; guitar for my dad and brother-in-law; fiddle for me.

Family fiddle campThe rewards of the experience included chances for the adults to learn from the kids. A music festival like Fiddle Tunes includes endless opportunities to “jam” with other attendees, a prospect that excited my older nephew Simon as much as it terrified me.

An enduring image from Fiddle Tunes is Simon sitting amid a circle of musicians — guitarist, fiddler, banjo player — doing his best to keep pace with a lively old-time tune on his mandolin. Meanwhile, Ezra courageously immersed himself in a beginning fiddle workshop.

My sister notes that the experience was a “safe way to enter the world of music and gave our family something meaningful and fun to do together,” especially important as her sons were entering the teen years.

As Pam Christensen’s sons grow up, her family treasures their time at  Cascades Camp even more. “As the kids get more involved in other things, it’s really great to have this time to do more than touch base at dinner at night,” she says. “Some of the conversations we’ve had at camp have been very funny, and very deep.

“We have friends who still go with their grown kids.… I hope that’s a tradition we share.”

Find a family camp

Interested in a traditional outdoor family camp? Use the American Camp Association’s Find a Camp database and ask your peeps.

Seattle-area options include Camp Orkila, a YMCA camp on Orcas Island, Camp Indianola, and Lake Wenatchee YMCA Camp, two local Girl Scout camps, Camp St. Albans and Camp Robbinswold, and Cascades Camp. The North Cascades Institute runs Family Getaway weekends at its beautiful lodge at Diablo Lake. Islandwood on Bainbridge is also offering a "Weekend in the Woods" in late April.

Cascades Camp and Conference Center offers severa family weekends with a range of activities.

Family camps can be a great way to explore a new area. Learn to surf at the Family Vacation Center’s weeklong beachside camp sessions in Santa Barbara. Stay in covered wagons by night and learn to ride horses by day at Cheley Colorado Camps near Estes Park, Colo.

Music- or arts-focused camps range from festivals and workshops with tracks for kids, like the American Festival of Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, to dedicated family camps such as Cazadero Performing Arts Family Camp, an offshoot of Cazadero Music Camps that offers two highly popular sessions of arts-focused family camps in California’s Russian River Valley.

Or learn a language together. Canoe Island French Camp offers several family camp weekends.

There are camps for kids with special needs, medical conditions or differences, such as Camp Sealth family camp or Camp No Limits, which has camps around the U.S. for kids with limb loss and their families. Costs for family camps range widely, beginning at around $120 per adult ($80 kids) for a three-day family camp that includes meals and lodging.

And book as early as you can. Family camp sessions can fill up fast.

This article was written in 2013 and updated for 2016.

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