Family Adventure Camps

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Family Vacations, Summer 1997

Family Adventure Camps

On belay, Mom! Eight learning centers where it's recess all day long
By David Noland

Tell any red-blooded American kids that they're going to spend their cherished summer vacation learning stuff instead of hanging out with their buds, and the response will likely be straight out of Beavis and Butthead. (Hint: It won't be "!") But then reveal the class schedule: elementary whitewater kayaking, techniques of mountain biking, rock climbing 101, fundamentals of sailing. No tests, no grades, no detention, no vice principals. Suddenly, school doesn't suck anymore.

The family learning vacation is a good deal for parents as well. Other adults take over as authority figures--not to mention the roles of cook and maid--and you'll watch your kids acquire new skills, self-confidence, and friends. Best of all, you get to learn all that fun stuff, too. Herewith, eight of the best family adventure camps.

Nantahala Outdoor Center
Bryson City, North Carolina
Think of it as the anti-Disneyland: a self-contained family vacation paradise where the thrill rides are managed by God, not Michael Eisner. The Nantahala Outdoor Center complex includes the world's largest kayaking school, a rafting operation, more than 40 miles of singletrack mountain-bike trails, and a 134-bed complex of lodges and cabins.

Twenty-plus kayak courses and clinics target everyone from "apprehensive beginners" to wave-riding rodeo experts. While parents roll and surf, kids 10 to 18 can participate in three- and four-day kayak clinics ($540-$685, all-inclusive), in which kids can bunk with their folks or stay in kid-only digs.

Accommodations include a dormitory-style base camp with bunk rooms that sleep two to eight people; five plain wooden cabins with two, three, six, or ten bedrooms; and a standard-issue motel.

NOC also offers a NORBA-sanctioned mountain-bike camp for kids ages 10 to 15; the three-day (for ages 10 to 12) and four-day (for ages 13 to 15) sessions cost $495 to $620, all- inclusive. Parents, meanwhile, can ride the vast network of dirt roads and the more than 40 miles of singletrack that wind through the woods.

For family togetherness, try NOC's one-day "sampler" programs ($75 per person) of whitewater kayaking, canoeing, sea kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing, or a ropes challenge course. Minimum age for the samplers is 13, except for the ropes course (age 12) and mountain biking (no minimum). Call 888-662-1662, or 800-232-7238 for rafting and lodging information.

Otter Bar Lodge
Forks of Salmon, California

Imagine a family whitewater resort so small and intimate that the Partridges and the Bradys together would fill it, with no room left for Alice. Otter Bar Lodge, set along northern California's Salmon River in the the middle of 1.7-million-acre Klamath National Forest, has four double rooms in the main lodge and three one-room cedar cabins that can accommodate six people. All cabins have hardwood floors; lodge rooms have French doors, large windows, and private decks.

In weeklong sessions from April through September, adults and kids as young as ten can gorge on nonstop semi-private kayak lessons (three students per instructor) on the Salmon (Class II-V) or the nearby Klamath (Class II-IV). Experts prefer the high water of spring; beginners typically choose July, August, and September. In the sessions at the end of July or the beginning of August, kids camp out all week at their own riverside refuge atop a totally awesome jumping cliff. Prices are $750 for kids on their own, $650 with their parents.

In August and September, Otter Bar adds mountain biking to the menu. Nearby are hundreds of miles of dirt roads and singletrack trails suitable for all skill levels; the lodge provides instruction and Specialized Rockhopper Comps with front suspension. Or you can just hike, snorkel, fish for steelhead, or watch the river roll by. Cost is $1,450 per person for the kayak sessions, $1,290 for mountain-bike weeks, including meals, equipment, and instruction. Call 916-462-4772 for more information.

National Wildlife Federation
Conservation Summits

To paraphrase Bill Cosby's old Noah's Ark routine, "Right...what's a conservation summit?" Answer: an annual weeklong workshop in environmental education specifically designed for families with kids as young as three. (Childcare is available for kids under three.) The Adirondacks Summit, held July 5-11, offers classes, field trips, and workshops on topics such as black bears, wildlife ecology, and nature photography. Adults' and kids' programs are conducted separately in the mornings, with family activities--canoe trips, nature hikes, a bat-box construction project--scheduled for the afternoons.

Summiteers stay in a YMCA lakeside retreat with digs ranging from dorm-style bunkhouses to an historic inn. Lodging rates for the week (meals included) range from $419 to $594 for adults, $230 to $258 for kids. Registration fee is $400 for adults, $200 to $325 for kids depending on their ages. Non-NWF members pay an additional $50 for kids, $100 for adults.

For the more adventurous, there's an NWF Summit in Seward, Alaska, June 21-27. Activities include boat excursions in Resurrection Bay to watch whales, sea lions, seals, and sea otters; a field trip to Exit Glacier; and a lecture on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Attendees stay in bed-and-breakfasts, motels, or at a local campground. Room rates range from $60 to $120 per night for double rooms, including breakfast. Costs for the meal plans are $100 to $210. For more information on both summits and assistance in booking rooms in Seward, call 703-790-4265.

Strathcona Park Lodge
Campbell River, British Columbia

If you fondly remember long days out-of-doors at your childhood summer camp, you can relive them family-style at Strathcona Park Lodge, where the theme is outdoor skills training. A secluded lakeside resort set amid old-growth fir trees and ringed by snowcapped peaks, Strathcona offers three Family Adventure Weeks (July 6 and 27 and August 17) for kids six and older and their parents. The package includes lodge rooms, meals, and nonstop instruction in canoeing, kayaking, sea kayaking, hiking, rock climbing, sailing, orienteering, and wilderness skills. The cost is $473 for adults, $303 for kids. The package can also be booked for other dates, but requires a minimum of two families.

For shorter stays, try Strathcona's Best of Adventure half-day and full-day programs in all the above-mentioned activities. Half-day classes are $23 for adults, $18 for kids; full days are $41 and $32. If your clan numbers four or more, save money and hire a private family guide at $114 per day. Lodge rooms run $53-$83; cabins with kitchenettes are $83-$114. Call 604-286-3122 and hope that sunspots aren't playing havoc with the lodge's radio telephone.

Breteche Creek Ranch
Cody, Wyoming

Cowboys writing poetry? Bird-watchers rounding up steers? Breteche Creek Ranch is a dude ranch of a different stripe. In addition to the normal lineup of trail rides, campfires, and cattle drives, it offers some decidedly uncowboylike touches: fly-fishing instruction, bird-watching, geology hikes, whitewater rafting trips, night astronomy classes, fireside lectures on Plains Indian mythology, and workshops in photography, writing, and poetry.

Guests stay in rustic wood and canvas tent-cabins along the ranch's namesake creek. The nearest electricity is at the main ranch office, two miles down the valley, but propane gas provides for hot showers, lights, and meals in a central lodge area. Weeklong sessions are $975 for adults, $825 for kids 12 and under, plus a 15-percent gratuity. Call 307-587-3844.

Crow Canyon Archaeological Center
Crow Canyon, Colorado

Most kids love a treasure hunt, especially if their quarry is a real-life treasure. At Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, a campuslike work-study complex situated in the middle of the homeland of the ancient Anasazi Indians, your family can delve into prehistory in search of artifacts.

During two special Family Weeks, parents and kids age 12 and up attend classes and workshops on Anasazi life and lore; learn to properly wash, sort, and analyze artifacts in Crow Canyon's laboratory; then spend a couple of days out in the field actually digging.

You'll also learn the delicate art of excavation with trowel and whisk broom at Shields Pueblo, an Anasazi site that has seen little previous excavation. (All artifacts are turned over to Crow Canyon.) The week concludes with an all-day guided tour of the exquisite cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park.

Dirt-diggers of all ages stay in four-bunk Navajo-style wooden hogans. Cost is $795 for adults, $475 for kids 12 to 18, including meals. Families usually stay together in one hogan, but Crow Canyon can't guarantee it. Family weeks begin August 3 and 10. Call 800-422-8975.

Outward Bound School

Take the granola-head's touchy-feely philosophy of personal empowerment, spice it with a drill sergeant's tough-love ideal of teamwork and leadership, and you've got the idea behind Outward Bound, the granddaddy of all wilderness schools.

OB's Colorado School offers a seven-day Family Alpine Adventure in the heart of the Rockies. From a base camp near Leadville, "patrols" of two or three families spend the first few days in confidence- and trust-building activities like rock climbing and rappelling.

Accommodations at the base camp may be tents, tepees, or a bunkhouse. On day three, you and the kids will shoulder packs for a four-day backcountry expedition that includes a climb of a nearby 14,000-foot peak. The trek concludes with an overnight "duo," a parent-child variation on OB's traditional "solo" time of solitude and reflection. Courses start June 15, July 13, and August 10. Cost is $895 per person; the minimum age is 14.

OB also runs five- to seven-day family rafting courses (minimum age 14) down the Green and Colorado rivers in Utah. Rafters paddle and set up camp, and each person has a chance to captain a raft through a major rapid. Some courses include rock-climbing instruction. Cost is $595-$945. Call 800-477-2627.

Annapolis Sailing School
Annapolis, Maryland

A family working together like a well-oiled machine. Teenage kids willingly following orders, performing their assigned chores with enthusiasm. Fantasy? Maybe not--for one week, at least.

Annapolis Sailing School's Become a Sailing Family course, for groups of three to six, starts with a weekend of introductory sailing lessons in Chesapeake Bay. Parents and kids 12 and older learn aboard a 24-foot Rainbow sloop, while kids under 12 participate in the KidShip program, which teaches the basics in small centerboard dinghies. Next, the family reunites and, accompanied by an instructor, you'll embark on a five-day cruise aboard a Newport 30, part of the school's flotilla of vessels. Bunks are ashore in a hotel the first three nights. Then, anchoring in coves or marinas, your family will sleep aboard while your instructor disembarks at night. By the end of the week, you'll be a competent, well-coordinated sailing crew. Cost is $2,650-$3,655, depending on your group's size.

In lieu of taking the family course, you can coordinate two-, three-, and five-day adult beginner courses, also on the Rainbow 24, with KidShip Sailing School classes. The two-day course is $225 for a single adult, $430 for a couple. Three-day courses are $340 for a single adult, $650 for two. Prices for the five-day trip are $495 and $945 for an adult or couple. The two-day KidShip program runs $180 for one kid, $340 for two; the three-day program is $275 for one child, $525 for two; the five-day program is $325 for one child, $600 for two. For additional information, call 800-638-9192.

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