Ok. Think Dirty Dancing without the country club feel or the scandal. I never knew family camp was a thing until I met Scott. His parents met on staff at a family camp as teenagers. (Isn’t that awesome?!) His mom is a third generation family camper. Her grandpa helped build one near Yosemite in the early 1910’s. It’s just like a kid’s summer camp, but the whole family goes and lodges together. Every campy activity you can dream up is available and the food is provided. I repeat. Everyone in the family is entertained all day and three delicious meals per day are prepared for you. You are breathing mountain air, being fed delicious food you didn’t cook, and your kids like it better than Disneyland. You have to try it! In case for some reason you aren’t rushing to google up the nearest family camp, let me show you what it’s like.
We just returned from our eighth annual family camp vacation. We started when the girls were four and six and haven’t missed a summer since. Our first three years, we went to the same camp Scott’s great grandpa helped build and Scott’s mom grew up attending. Scott went every summer as a kid, too. Here’s a picture of Scott’s great grandparents and grandma in front of their platform tent in 1936 and one of Scott’s dad, Dave with the camp staff in 1960. Dave is in the top row, second from the right.
It was pretty rustic and had not held it’s quality, so we searched for something else to try. In 2013, we discovered Montecito Sequoia Family Camp and have gone five years straight. It is privately owned and situated in the mountains between King’s Canyon National Forest and Sequoia National Forest. From Reno, you drive to Fresno, hang a left, and drive straight up the mountain to the top, around 7,500 feet. It takes us 6 or so hours. I’m not going to lie, the drive is a bit brutal. Highway 99 through central California is unsavory, but it is so worth it!
This camp is run June through August for 10 6-night sessions. The campers arrive Sunday afternoon for check-in and the kids receive their group t-shirts. Of course put them on right away and start looking for other kids in their group. This year Delaney was a bear and Bailey was a cougar. (Kids from age 2-18 are divided into groups for optional supervised group activities. Minnows: Age 2, Tadpoles: Ages 3 – 4, Chipmunks: Ages 5 – 6, Marmots: Ages 7 – 8, Bobcats: Ages 9 – 10, Cougars: Ages 11 – 12, Bears: Ages 13 – 18) The campers settle in to their rooms, dinner is served (more about the food in a minute), and then an orientation is given. The staff make a noisy, festive entrance, do a quick intro, and then whisk the kids off to do an ice breaker activity with the groups while the nuts and bolts are explained to the adults. Each day is divided into two morning and two afternoon activity sessions, and each evening is a different family activity. After the evening activity, there is singing around the campfire and then everyone crashes into their beds exhausted.
Here’s a sample schedule:
Each activity period, the kids can be with their groups doing fun things like archery, rock climbing, canoeing, swimming in the pool or lake, fort building, tie dye, leather stamping, ceramics painting, horseback riding, tennis, trampoline, air riflery, paintball, jiu-jitsu, fencing…I can’t list them all! If you look at the schedule, any activity that has the word “open” next to it means anyone can go to that activity during that period. So you can go do any of those things while your kids are in their groups, or you can do those things with your kids if they want to skip the group that period, or you can flop down on your bed and read one of the stack of books you brought to read. You can also sit and chat and rest like we mostly did this last trip.
There are guided hikes, guided mountain bike rides, horseback riding lessons, and lots of different art and music activities to choose from most periods of every day. Oh! And if you decide to go on an all day guided hike or something else that keeps you out of camp through lunch, you can hire a staff member to babysit over the lunch period. Here are some action shots of our family doing the various activities:
And here is how Delaney said she felt after her first ever horse back riding lesson:
She’s such a kick!
Each evening the whole camp gets together for some after dinner fun.
Here are some carnival and raffle shots:
The themed dances are different each week and most campers bring a simple costume to wear. We’ve done eighties, seventies, Jurassic Park, Hawaiian Luau, and Jungle Jam. If you don’t bring a costume, there are plenty of chances to make something or hit the costume barn to throw something together. I’m a planner, so we come prepared!
I’m still laughing about Scott’s dino handler costume. The socks! Oh, me.
Bailey made our tiger ears this year. She’s got skills!
Coffee house is a night where campers and staff perform musical acts. Our girls have done piano and singing a few times, and one year all four of us did a performance of “I’m Yours.” It’s a low key, supportive environment with a forgiving audience. And some of the performances are fantastic!
The variety show is camper and staff skits. The staff do some whacky, hilarious and unexpected things and they help each kids group put together a skit.
The last two years we’ve done a beautiful sunset hike to Big Baldy.
The last full day there is a beach party in the afternoon with canoe races, volleyball, a Kubb tournament, paddle board yoga, and lots of other shenanigans. Last year, there was a color war.
See Scott? Bottom left. He and the girls loved that!
Each morning they have a pow wow where they do some camp songs and explain the plan for the day.
On the last morning, they give prizes to campers in each of the activity categories. Last year Scott and I got the Biggest Loser award for losing the tennis tournament. It was so much fun, but I am really bad at tennis. And Scott is a really patient doubles partner.
Back to the food! The meals are buffet style and are eaten in a big dining room. There is always a huge variety of entrees, sides, fresh fruit, a salad bar (that all of the moms looooove because you can make a salad with 16 toppings which you’d never bother to make happen at home), dessert with lunch and dinner, and hot and cold drinks. They pay close attention to special dietary requests and make special food as needed. There are also always vegan options. Now, if you love food like I do, you have to plan your camp wardrobe accordingly. If you pack some cute fitted shorts that are almost too snug, you better wear those day one. Come day four or five, everything must contain spandex, preferably in black. Our favorite dinner is the prime rib and king crab legs. We have to put a trash can down next to Scott for the crab shell discard, because the volume is too high for any table top solution. My favorite thing about the food is that I didn’t make it and there’s lots of it.
The staff is obviously carefully selected. They are joyful and energetic and interesting. The counselors are young adults mostly from the US but also Spain, England, and elsewhere. They focus on the campers having fun, but they keep it safe. I think the camper to staff ratio is 2.5 to 1. Many are behind the scenes, but they are all so good. There is a “bandy” each week that is a MD, PA, or NP who carries a radio and is on call for any medical issues.
As far as where you lay your head at night, Montecito has a variety of accommodations. They have lodge rooms that are like hotel rooms without TV or phones.
They have some rustic cabins that are one room with a king sized bed and four bunks. They have electricity but no plumbing. There is a shared bathroom facility nearby. We did this the first year. Coming from platform tents it felt like luxury!
Another option is the forest cabins which are luxury stand alone suites with 1 1/2 bathrooms, a master, a bunk room, and a private deck.
There are also a couple of lakeside suites with nice decks and a lake view. They have a queen bedroom, a bedroom with 4 bunks, and a bathroom. We crammed into one of these this year with my parents. It was tight, but it was so fun to be together!
Here’s a map of the camp layout:
One of the very best things about camp are the other families. Our first four years at Montecito, we went week four. It got to be like a reunion pulling up to camp each year. We have kept in touch with many friends we’ve met there and love seeing them year after year. This year was different because we went week three (to be home for July 4th) and met all new campers. That’s fun too, but the feeling of connectedness and shared history was missing, and I felt it.
We have made priceless family memories at family camp and have discovered new interests and talents. I don’t think I know a family that wouldn’t love it.
What is your favorite vacation tradition?
Photos by Tom Whitaker (well, the good ones are…the regular photos are by me)
P.S. Scroll back to the top and click “home” to see my other articles. I’d love to know what you think!