A great summer camp can make for a life-changing rite of passage, giving children more confidence, new skills and stories to share for a lifetime. Whether they’re looking for the traditional camp with a schedule of archery, swimming and crafts, or something more offbeat and specialized, parents want to provide their child with an unforgettable experience.
Resident, or "sleepaway," camps offer the ultimate camp experience, but can seem financially out of reach with the average costs ranging from $620 to more than $2,000 a week, according to national statistics from the American Camp Association. In the Bay Area, where we’re used to paying more for everything, the averages seem even higher.
The good news for parents and other caregivers on a budget is that there’s a camp for children from every household income. The American Camp Association says that approximately 93 percent of ACA-accredited camps offer some form of scholarship. It recommends families contact camps directly – as early as possible – to ask about what kind of financial aid they can offer. Don’t assume your income will exclude you from consideration. You can also knock more money off the bottom line by taking advantage of discounts that some camps offer for early registration, first-time campers, siblings and referrals.
There are also lots of camps, run by Scouting and religious organizations, cities and and others, that endeavor to keep costs low for everyone, and even some free camps for children with special needs.
Below are some of the most affordable overnight camps for youth in Northern California, most of which offer stays for under $1,000 a week or significantly less. In addition, ACA’s online site has a Find a Camp tool (find.acacamps.org) to search for camps by location, activity and cost. You can find even more camps on Bay Area Parent’s website at bayareaparent.com/directories/camps-guide.
Concord Youth Camp. Friends of Camp Concord operates one week of youth camp at the City of Concord’s camp in the El Dorado National Forest near South Lake Tahoe. The camp, for ages 9-13, offers canoeing, swimming, campfires, skits and more, plus a one-day ropes course with ziplining. $750 ($650 early bird before March 12); sibling and returning camper discounts available. Family camp, with rustic cabins and meals provded, is also available with rates of $33-99 per person per night, with a discount for Concord residents. friendsofcamp.ejoinme.org/2018youthcamp. cityofconcord.org/page.asp?pid=3024.
Camp Hammer. Owned and operated by Twin Lakes Chruch in Aptos, this Christian camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains offers weeklong camp sessions for grades 4 to 6, 7 to 9 and high school. Activities include rope swings, zip lines, team competitions and more. $410-500. camphammer.com.
Camp Hope. This free weekend sleepaway camp in Livermore is for children ages 6-17 who’ve experience the death of a parent or other significant loved one. camphopeca.com.
Camp Jack Hazard. An action-packed traditional camp for boys priced well below average, with tuition discounts for early bird registration and campers who refer a friend. Weeklong sessions for ages 8 to 16 start at $625, and a three-night mini camp for ages 6 to 10 starts at $415. campjackhazard.org.
Camp Kesem. For kids with parents with cancer, this free camp delivers a week filled with fun activities like zip-lining and Go Kart racing. Held on the Stanford University, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz campuses with college student counselors, this camp also offers a year-long emotional support network. campkesem.org.
Camp Mather. This family camp run by the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department is so popular that guests are picked by lottery system (with priority for San Francisco residents). It offers traditional activities from lake swimming to horseback riding in the High Sierras at varied but inexpensive prices. A San Francisco family of four can stay in a cabin for $880 a week, or in a tent for just $272. Plan ahead: applications are typically due in January. sfrecpark.org/destination/camp-mather.
Camp Natoma. A traditional overnight camp located on 360 acres between San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles, Camp Natoma offers activities including archery, hiking, swimming, arts and crafts and more. Weeklong camps from $650 ($50 early bird before April 1); some "camperships" available. campnatoma.org.
Camp Ronald McDonald at Eagle Lake. A fully accessible camp in Lassen National Forest for children and adults with special needs and disabilities, giving them a traditional summer camp experience at the price of about $625 a camper. campronald.org.
Camp Saint Andrew's. This non-denominational Christian sleepaway camp for kids ages 8 to 15 is a great value at $650 a week for a traditional camp experience situated by Pinecrest Lake in the Sierras. Sponsored by Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Saratoga. campsaintandrews.com.
Camp Tawonga. This Jewish summer camp with sessions near Yosemite is the highest priced on our list at around $1,425 for six days, but it offers need-based financial assistance, grants and scholarships that can defer the cost by up to 75 percent. Sessions for kids in second through 10th grade, and family sessions, available. tawonga.org.
Camp Winnarainbow. Looking for something different? This circus and performing arts camp for ages 7 to 14 in a Mendocino County forest teaches everything from trapeze to martial arts at a rate of a $995 for six days. There is also a leadership program for ages 15 to 17. No-interest tuition payment plans are available. campwinnarainbow.org.
Cazadero Music Camp. Young musicians ages 10 to 18 play beautiful music together aside the Russian River at this camp that costs less than $1,000 a week and offers big discounts for early registration. Scholarships based on financial need and musical merit can defer the cost by up to 75 percent. cazadero.org/music-camp.
Frontier Ranch. This Christian camp for grades 4 through 9 in the Santa Cruz Mountains costs $450 a week for an action-packed week of zip-lining, dirt bikes and surfing day trips. frontier-ranch.com.
Gaia Girls Passages Teen Backpacking Trips. The group offers six-day backpacking trips for girls in grades 7-10 in Big Basin for $1,020 and eight-day backpacking trip in Big Sur for grades 10-12 for $1,360, with scholarships available to defer costs. Get a big discount for signing up early. gaiagirlspassages.org.
Girl Scouts of Northern California. You don’t have to be a Girl Scout to join the three affordable camps the organization offers for girls ages 5 to 17. Choose from Bothin in Marin County, Skylark Ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Sugar Pine in the Sierra Foothills. Camps start at $480 for grades 1 to 3 and go up to $980 for teens. The Boy Scouts’ San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley Monterey Bay councils also offer reasonable resident camps at several sites, but participants need to be registered Boy Scouts. camp.gsnorcal.org. sfbac.org/camping. svbmc.org.
Marin Ranch Camp. Set on a 1,7000-acre property with a four-acre swimming lake and 20 miles of hiking trails in West Marin, this traditional camp’s sessions for children and teens in grades 2 through 12 costs around $1,000 a week, with up to 20 percent discounts for early-bird registration. marinranchcamp.org.
Mt. Cross Camp. Traditional camp activities and sports are on the agenda at this faith-based, Lutheran camp for grades 2 through 12. Located in the Santa Cruz Mountain town of Felton, it costs around $500, and offers discounts for early-bird registration and first-time campers. mtcross.org/summercamp.
Mount Hermon Christian Camps. This Christian retreat organization with camps in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Scotts Valley and Paso Robles offers youth sessions themed around traditional camp activities, mountain biking, horseback riding and more at prices around $525-725 per camper. mounthermon.org.
Sierra Nevada Journeys. Kids stay in cabins and teens stay in yurts at these traditional summer camps packed with activities. Weeklong sessions are reasonably priced around $700-800, with payment plans and financial aid programs available. sierranevadajourneys.org/camp.
St. Dorothy’s Rest. This faith-based rest and retreat center on the Russian River offers traditional camps and river rafting adventures for youth at three different rates, the highest priced at $700 for a six-day Russian River adventure. The camp benefactor, the Episcopal Diocese of California, subsidizes tuition for families with financial need. stdorothysrest.org.
Today’s Youth Matter. This faith-based camp for at-risk children from low-income communities in Alameda and Contra Costa counties has different sessions for boys and girls and offers tuition fees for every income level. Price is assessed based on financial assesment, starting at $25. tymkids.org/summercamp.
YMCA Camps. The Bay Area chapters of the YMCA offer several different overnight camps for youth and families, including: YMCA Camp Campbell and Camp Jones Gulch in the Santa Cruz Mountains; Camp Loma Mar in the Pescadero Valley; Camp Ravencliff in Southern Humboldt County; and Camp Arroyo in the Livermore Valley hills.
With prices around $1,000 or less, plus generous financial aid options, these camps have great value. ymcasv.org/ymcacampcampbell. ymcaeastbay.org/programs/camps/overnight-camps. ymcasf.org/locations/ymca-camp-jones-gulch.
Malaika Fraley is the Silicon Valley calendar editor for Bay Area Parent.