No longer must we settle for living vicariously through our kids’ or grandkids’ summer camp experiences. Now we can relive, or experience for the first time, the joys of nature and hone our skills or pursue our passions — with like-minded grown-ups.
Today’s adult camps offer everything from music to sports, from cattle ranching to performing arts, and from weight loss to spiritual study. And the timing and costs also cover a wide range: You can go to a three-day day camp for as little as $150 or a weeklong camp with upscale residential quarters for as much as $2,700.
According to the American Camp Association, more than half a million adults attend camp each year, and that doesn’t include people who go to family camp with their offspring. The association has kept records on adult attendance for only the past five years, but it notes that in that period, the numbers are up by 20 percent.
Hitting the Camp Trail
Bruce Henderson is a 60-something school psychologist in North Carolina by day. But by night but he’s an amateur saxophone player whose dream is to perform in lounges and jazz clubs when he retires. Six years ago, in an effort to improve his skills, he enrolled at a summer jazz camp on the campus of California State University, Northridge. It was there he met members of one of his favorite groups, the Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band, who were serving as faculty.
Henderson was hooked. So much so that each summer he checks out a different jazz camp. Last year he discovered Tritone Jazz at Naz at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., which inspired him so much he says he's returning this year.
“Jazz camp is an experience like no other,” Henderson says. “I keep coming back because of the bonding I have with fellow musicians through creating art and sharing a love of musical expression. And it’s not all work — we have some really great laughs.”
Whatever your fancy, there’s probably a summer (or winter) camp that specializes in it. Here’s just a sampling of what’s out there for the kid in us all.
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A typical day at Naz, on the campus’ 150 wooded acres, includes six hours of professional instruction for saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano, guitar, bass, drum, voice and, starting this year, violin.
For 90 minutes each day, campers play in combos and are coached by professional player/educators. Throughout the week they learn and practice the tunes they’ll perform at the final camp concert for a local audience.
As it has for the past 14 years, this camp runs the last full week in July (July 22–27, 2012). Tuition is $775; meals and lodging in the college dorms are an additional $520. Campers can also stay in nearby hotels, motels or B&Bs. Registration ends July 15, and when this story published, there was room for two more drummers, three trumpeters and a bassist.
If you’re traveling near Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif., and happen to see a crowd of people waving brightly colored banners outside a monumental Colonial church building, you’ve found Stagebridge. And if you've ever fantasized about being a carney or joining the circus, this is the camp for you.
The Sixth Annual Performing Arts for Adults 50+ Camp, housed inside that Colonial church, welcomes novices as well as skilled performers. All the instructors have performing arts backgrounds. The clowning teacher, for example, worked with the Pickle Family Circus and is a faculty member at the San Francisco Circus Center.
Intensive classes are offered in acting, storytelling, clowning, mime, movement, Zumba, percussion and more. On the last day of camp, all participants perform in a videotaped “Big Show,” a copy of which is available for $10.
Every summer has a different theme; this year’s is “Under the Big Top: Run Away With the Circus,” and it runs from July 16 to 20 (9:30–4); cost, $285. Participants stay “off-campus” in hotels in downtown Oakland and can drive or take public transportation to Stagebridge. Snacks are provided throughout the day, but attendees are advised to bring a light lunch.
For those who believe space is the place, the Adult Space Academy at the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., will be a dream come true. Surrounded by icons of American history, like the Saturn V restored to its Apollo-era condition, and the Pathfinder Shuttle, campers may actually brush shoulders with famous astronauts.
During the three-day session, participants study historic space flights, train like a real astronaut then apply what they’ve learned in a simulator (though they won't experience weightlessness; that happens only in advanced camp, underwater). Each camper gets to build a miniature two-stage loadstar rocket (23 inches long) and launch it himself. Weather-permitting, the rockets can soar higher than 1,000 feet. While space camp is open to people of all ages, roughly half the 184 participants in 2011 were at least 50 years old. (Space Camp for kids runs all year long.)
Adult Space Camp is from Aug. 24 to Sept. 15 this year and costs $549, which includes room and board. Campers sleep onsite in dorm-style rooms that accommodate up to seven people. Meals are taken communally, and yes, they serve Tang. Currently all slots have openings.
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Vista Verde Ranch might bring Billy Crystal’s City Slickers to mind, but it offers a much more comfortable experience. Situated in the middle of a national forest in Northwest Colorado just 45 minutes form Steamboat Springs, the ranch offers lodging in authentic log cabins and serves haute cuisine. Think of it as an all-inclusive resort, with horses.
Originally built as a private ranch in the 1920s, Vista Verde became a full-fledged dude ranch in the 1970s. Summer season, for guests, runs from June through September; during the off-season, the owners attend to ranch projects.
This summer is Vista Verde’s Fourth Annual Cattle Round-Up, where campers actually ride over the ranch’s 16,000 acres searching for 400 head of cattle. Some days the cows are elusive, but when participants hit the mother lode, they’ll be driving a large herd — in an actual roundup.
The first day campers learn to communicate with their horse, and skills are honed in clinics throughout the week. The resident horse trainer helps riders of all levels improve their skills. All equipment is provided, but guests must bring their own jeans and hats. (Boots and helmets can be borrowed.)
On average, there are 25 guests per week, with more couples than singles, but everyone interacts so no one feels left out. The biggest payoff is the luxurious accommodations in private cabins plus gourmet meals paired with fine wines. A weeklong stay (Sunday to Sunday) costs $2,700 per person.
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Outdoor Recreation Camps
Campers challenge their body and mind at Vermont's Grafton Ponds Outdoor Center, flanked by Bear Mountain and two small reflective ponds at its base. Nearly 1,500 acres of conserved land have been set aside for recreational use and agricultural purposes. Big Kids Camps in Grafton offers hiking, swimming and a low ropes course plus instruction in mountain biking and canoeing. During the session campers visit the local town blacksmith and learn his craft.
But the real draw is the annual biathlon, a competitive event that combines cycling or running around a cross-country track with two to four shooting rounds of a laser gun, half of which are done standing, the other half prone.
Big Kids Camps are offered every Tuesday through Thursday (9–4) from June 25 until Aug. 3. Tuition is $150, which includes lunch. There’s no on-site housing: Campers usually stay in the nearby Grafton Inn.
Traditional Summer Camp — for Adults
YMCA Camp Chief Ouray, in the heart of the Colorado Rockies, is a good old-fashioned summer camp experience, with horseback riding, canoeing, archery, arts and crafts, nature hikes, water aerobics and wood-carving. (Yoga is the most “modern” concession.) Activities take place in Alpine meadows and stands of aspen and lodgepole pines, and campers raft down the mighty Colorado River. (In winter, the camp welcomes cross-country skiers and snow-shoers.)
Campers choose how adventurous or relaxed they want to be. Evening activities include square dancing, games, a talent show, campfires — pretty much everything except Color War.
There is an age limit here: No one under 50 is permitted. Sleeping quarters are off site, at nearby Snow Mountain Ranch, offering single and double beds or private rooms for an additional fee. The session runs from Aug. 26 to 31 and costs $280 for YMCA members and $300 for nonmembers, which includes lodging, all meals, snacks and most activities. (There are additional fees for horseback riding, rafting and ropes.)
How to Find the Right Camp for You
The obvious place to start is with personal recommendations or a Google search. Camp Parents, Grownup Camps and Shaw Guides are also good resources.
When researching a camp, the same rules apply as for kids’ camp, says Peg Smith, chief executive of the American Camp Association.
- Ask a lot of questions.
- Make sure the camp philosophy matches yours.
- Find out what the expected fitness or skill level is.
- Check to see if it is ACA-accredited (camps must meet nearly 300 standards in health safety and operations to earn this).
To maximize your camp experience, know what you want out of it before you attend, Smith says, and keep expectations realistic. “This is your opportunity to go beyond everyday life,” she says. “You’re never too old for a camp experience.”
Heather Larson writes about travel in her home state of Washington.