Mountains soar off of the valley floor, rising 5,000 feet skyward, but the kids at Tall Timber camp don’t seem to notice.
They’re busy playing a game that has them hyperfocused on using a compass to find a route around an impossibly vivid green lawn.
A few minutes earlier, I had passed another group of kids flinging arrows into straw-bale targets to the sound of neatly snapping bowstrings.
In all directions there were the hallmarks of summer camp: bundles of excited nervous energy, giggles and smiles on the faces of children who had just discovered a new skill.
By all accounts, the camp’s setting in Leavenworth is stunning. It’s hard to remain unimpressed when you’re nestled between two wild rivers and surrounded by national forest on the edge of Glacier Peak Wilderness.
But it was the buzz of activity that had this visitor awash in nostalgia for my own camp days — both as a camper and a camp counselor.
Just walking across the campus conjured a flood of memories — from the shock of jumping into a freezing cold lake to belting out campfire songs at the top of my lungs.
Truly, there’s no better way for kids to experience summer than a week away at summer camp.
During my visit, I trekked through woodsy trails with Dave Saugen, executive director of Tall Timber, to a ropes course where summer staff were preparing carabiners and harnesses for the three-story high-wire walk. In the adjacent clearing, a colossal rope swing rigged between two trees was a sight guaranteed to give the toughest teenagers sweaty palms.
Summer camps are known as places where kids try never-done-this-before activities designed to push them into exploring and overcoming fears and exposing them to new experiences.
“Camp is meant to be a place to give kids incremental opportunities for growth and independence,” says Saugen. “They have good guardrails but not their parent guardrail. They experience the opportunity to learn from failures, not to be crushed by them.”
Tall Timber, a Christian adventure-based camp, is loaded with activities such as hiking, rock climbing and canoeing, with campers taking part in challenges of their choice.
But it’s not about reaching the top of the wall to achieve success, says Saugen. “For some kids, it’s just putting on a harness and thinking about climbing. Then we encourage them to take one step farther.”
Tall Timber has been running for more than 60 years, but recently some of the greatest challenges involve unplugging from technology.
“For some kids, not having a screen for a week is a big shock,” says Saugen. “That challenge may be a real face-to-face conversation. Without cellphones or internet, some kids have difficulty adjusting to real human interactions. When you come away to camp you don’t have that technology security blanket — you’re going to grow.”
It’s those human interactions that give summer camps their staying power through the generations. While, on the surface, the experience seems to be a whirlwind of fun, its real depth is in the relationships the kids will forge.
Campers are surrounded by a caring group of mentors and leaders who have the potential to make a lifelong impact. Through their shared experiences during the week, children have rapid cohesion and forge deep friendships. And camp romances are almost an American rite of passage.
Outdoor camp vs. hobby camp
For those who grew up attending nature-based camps, the increasing popularity of urban activity camps can feel like a watered-down version of the “camp experience.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with robot camp or bike camp or Lego camp. Hobby camps can be great ways to specialize if your child absolutely loves something.
But there’s a temptation for parents to use highly structured hobby camps as resume builders or summer babysitters, says Saugen.
There’s also a danger that these camps replace valuable outdoor time that traditional summer camps offer.
Camp has historically been a cornerstone of childhood, which could be counted on year after year as an opportunity to spend large stretches of time in nature.
Starting a new camp
Kate and Mackenzie Kinsman realized their jobs in downtown Seattle weren’t making them happy. When they thought about their happiest moments working, their time running summer camps always floated to the top of the list.
Ultimately, the ability to impact kids’ lives motivated the sisters-in-law to start Wildwood Ranch, a new 20-acre farm and horse camp in Fall City.
“There’s most definitely a need,” says Kate Kinsman. “When living in Seattle, we saw kids living their whole lives on pavement with few parks or opportunities to explore on their own.
“A lot of kids are in soccer or different activities, but they’re rushed from one thing to another and they don’t have dedicated time to slow down. At camp, you have a week of time to do whatever. You can slow down and listen to yourself, to other people, to nature. And kids really crave that, whether they know it or not.”
Embracing a camper’s penchant to explore is a hallmark of Wildwood Ranch. Kids move through activities such as crafts, small animals and horseback riding. But within that structure, they’re encouraged to explore and roam.
“We joke that it’s barely managed chaos,” says Mackenzie Kinsman. “We encourage as much independence as possible. You see kids with free time on day one, and they don’t know what to do with that. Given a chunk of time, they’re confused. But by the end of the week, they’re the ones romping out in the forest with a group of kids leading imaginary play. It’s really fun to see that transformation.”
Choosing a summer camp
The ParentMap and Macaroni Kid websites are good resources for researching camps. But search engines may not always be the best option, say Wildwood Ranch owners Kate and Mackenzie Kinsman. Many summer camps still rely on word of mouth, they say, so ask friends and neighbors for their recommendations.
Prime weeks at popular camps are likely full for this summer, but joining several waitlists means you could find a last-minute slot if your schedule is flexible.
If choosing a day camp, the location will play a big role since you’ll have to drive there every day. The Pacific Northwest is a diverse place, so a camp even 30 minutes away can feel completely new.
Camps tend to offer activities based on their surroundings. Lakeside camps will have water-based activities such as swimming and canoeing. Mountain locations will have nature adventures. Horses and dirt bikes need lots of room for quality trails.
There’s a range to how active camps will be. Some are scheduled like carnivals, while others are more introspective. All of them will be loaded with fun, but figure out if your child would prefer paintball and laser tag or journaling and quiet reflection.
A large number of summer camps in the West are run by religious organizations, but there are many in the Seattle area that are not, including Camp Fire’s Camp Sealth, YMCA’s Camp Orkila and the Wilderness Awareness School’s overnight camps, among others.
Many camps provide financial assistance or tiered pricing based on income to enhance access for all children.