Disclosure: I was provided with a Cheley Family Camp experience at Cheley Colorado Camps for review purposes. All opinions are honest and my own.
Imagine a world where there was zero scrolling through social media, but instead genuine conversations around a campfire with new friends. Can you picture yourself cheering on your children as they mount a trail horse for the first time, nervous yet giddy grins on their faces? What does trying something outside your comfort zone feel like when you have friendly faces encouraging you along the way? Cheley Colorado Camps, a summer adventure camp for children ages 7-17, hosts Cheley Family Camp once a year each August and allows families to get a taste of the Cheley camp experience.
I still remember my summer camp experience as a child, and how magical it was. I want to share a little bit about how Cheley Family Camp helped us unplug and connect as a family, and how to get the most out of your trip to this almost 100 year old family-run camp at the base of the Rocky Mountains.
Why Summer Camp is Beneficial for Children
Children are routinely placed into boxes starting at a very young age. “He’s shy. She’s bad at sports. He doesn’t like to socialize.” What would it be like if children arrived in a new place and were given the chance to step outside those labels, where no one knew their history or predispositions?
Kids, if given the opportunity, encouragement and trust, have the ability to transcend the categories and constraints given to them by society and experience life in a new way. Summer camp gives children that opportunity- they discover more about themselves by stripping away preconceived notions of who they have been told they are.
In addition to a greater sense of self, children learn to become independent. At Cheley, camp terms last for 3 1/2 weeks. Yes, children as young as 9 years old operate independently for that amount of time under the supervision of counselors. They learn to self-advocate: campers need to speak up if they are experiencing issues that parents typically take care of automatically. Missing laundry? Have a cut that looks a little infected? Ran out of contact solution? These are all problems that we as parents often rush to solve, and summer camp allows children to be their own advocate. By giving our children this independence, we are communicating our confidence in their ability to become self-reliant.
Why Cheley Family Camp is an Excellent Way to Sample Camp Life
Growing up, sleep away camp for me consisted of traveling a few hours to the local YMCA cabins and bunking with friends for a week. You usually knew a decent number of people in your cabin, and maybe tried canoeing for the first time. I had no knowledge that long term summer camps like Cheley existed, and the Cheley Family Camp opened my eyes to all of the possibilities that are available for children to experience.
Cheley Family Camp lasts for 5 days, and is available for those ages 6 and up. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents and more can all attend- it isn’t strictly for a nuclear family. Family Camp occurs yearly after the final kids-only camps have concluded for the summer at Cheley. Parents and children alike are exposed to meals, activities and camaraderie similar to their full programs.
I admit, I would be nervous about sending my 9-year-old cross country solo to hit up a summer camp for almost a month without having an idea of what he would encounter. Family Camp provided an insight into the opportunity for growth, friendship and sense of achievement that comes from a setting designed to encourage all of these aspects.
What to Expect During Cheley Family Camp
Sleeping and Bathing
Cheley Family Camp exists somewhere between glamping and camping. Sleeping quarters are actual covered wagons with four beds each, and bathrooms are in a separate building with shared facilities for men, women, boys and girls. You can rent a sleeping bag, and the camp provides a mattress, wool blanket, a pillow and a towel.
Under each bed is a drawer to house your clothes and personal items in addition to two hanging racks with hangers. Since the temperatures can dip quite low at night in the mountains and there isn’t any heat in the wagon, we kept comfortable in winter-weight pajamas. Electricity is also absent in sleeping quarters, so flashlights are essential. Showers are typically taken after the last activity for the day and before dinner, and times are designated by gender.
Tip: Use packing cubes to keep things organized, and bring a dirty laundry bag to keep thing separate.
Dining at Cheley Family Camp
Yes, you can still have your morning coffee bright and early at Cheley! In fact, there is a morning bell for coffee lovers to head to the lodge for their first cup of java each day. All onsite meals are served family style in their dining room, and we tried to sit somewhere different at each meal in order to connect with other families in attendance. One person at each table is designated to refill dishes, and one is designated to scrape plates and take them to the kitchen after meals. This can be a learning moment for your children- they see meals as a community affair instead of someone serving and cleaning up after them.
This isn’t a full service restaurant- family members pitch in to ensure everyone has eaten at their table. Food is plentiful and second helpings are often needed as you burn calories hiking or climbing during the day. The chefs are creative and accommodating, noting allergies and preferences with each meal. I noticed that a number of the counselors were vegetarian, and there was always an option for those avoiding meat.
Tip: Remember that if your child (or you!) does not like what is served, you can always ask the incredibly friendly kitchen staff for assistance. My daughter ate a bowl of cereal for dinner one night when curry was served and she was a happy child.
Sample Dinner Menu
Kale and spinach salad with pistachios, cranberries and homemade lemon vinaigrette
Tacos with homemade guacamole and pico de gallo
Tres Leches Cake
Sample Breakfast Menu
Oatmeal with brown sugar, cinnamon and syrup
Build your own breakfast sandwiches with toasted rolls, sausage, cheddar, pepper jack and egg
When you are away from camp, lunch is provided in the form of “bulk,” which just means off-site meal. During our day out, we had sandwich roll ups, apples and chips.
Cheley Family Camp Counselors
Yes, there are counselors at Family Camp! These counselors are selected from those who work at Cheley during their traditional summer camp sessions. They are all ages 19 and up and many are previous campers themselves. At their age, I was no where near as mature and dedicated as this group of individuals. Cheley counselors engaged both children and parents in a respectful and compassionate way.
Although they aren’t solely responsible for your children at Family Camp (I mean, you are the parent and are present so the main responsibility falls upon you), they are there to guide, assist and support you and your family. My husband and I wanted to take a hike one morning that was too strenuous for our kids, and the counselors created a “Kid Kamp” on the camp grounds with archery and assorted crafts that kept our kids safe and engaged.
The camp director (Jess in our case) was instrumental in setting the tone for Family Camp. Between she and Ashley, the assistant director, they created a setting that was structured yet allowed families to express their individual personalities. The gentle nudge to participate in evening skits and songs was just that- encouragement to let loose and be silly with your kids without judgement.
Daily Activities at Family Camp
One of my favorite things about Family Camp at Cheley was that, as a mom, I didn’t have to plan a single thing. All activities were planned for us and all we had to do was select from various options each day. Most of the hikes seemed to be 6+ miles long, which was too lengthy for my young kids (and, to be honest, my husband and I were intimidated by the length of the hikes as well!). Many families, however, did enjoy hikes together and came home exhausted but proud that they scaled a peak together. As a family, we tried to choose a few activities we could participate in together, and a few where my husband and I could enjoy sans kids.
Activities are chosen in two batches (Tuesday/Wednesday and Thursday/Friday), and families take turns selecting them since there is a capacity for most activities. Look at the whole week and try to find time to spend together as a family as well activities that stretch your comfort zone/skill set.
One of the most incredible experiences for our children was the Outcamping Activity. All kids interested in sleeping under the stars gathered their sleeping bags, pillows and flashlights for a camp out with the counselors. I was completely amazed by the counselors willingness to meet our children’s needs. Our daughter, like clockwork, has to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. A counselor slept next to her and was there to lead when necessary and comfort her when she was scared. They truly treated our children like their own family, and by the end of Cheley Family Camp our kids were teary-eyed at the thought of not seeing them every day.
Tip: A few counselors lead each activity and are always available to discuss the finer details. Want to know exactly what the hike entails? What you should wear? How much your bottom might hurt at the end of a trail ride? Just ask!
Here is a fairly complete list of the activities that are offered during Family Camp, although I am sure they change from summer to summer:
Horseback Ring Riding
Horseback Trail Riding
Technical (Rock) Climbing
Kids Scavenger Hunt in Estes Park
Group Games such as Gaga Ball
Sample Daily Schedule
All Day Activities:
Hike to West Creek OR Ypsilon Lake
Horseback Ride to Millers Fork
(both of these activities eat lunch on the hike)
Kid Kamp: Tye Dye
Kid Kamp: Target Sports/Group Games
Evening: “Campfire” (consisting of group games/activities/skits/sing-alongs)
How to Deal with the Weather in the Mountains
The packing list for Family Camp at Cheley is quite extensive, mainly due to the nature of weather in the mountains. While we were in residence, the temperature went from the 50s at night to the 80s during the day. We experienced torrential downpours interspersed with periods of gorgeous sunshine. Also- no one cares what you look like. There is no glamor contest, no one is toting designer duds around family camp. The focus is on your personality instead of aesthetics. Hit up your local LL Bean, REI or other sporty store and go for function. I barely wore makeup, bought shorts (which I didn’t even own a pair prior to this trip) and left my blow dryer in our rental car.
Here are a few of my MUST have items for Camp:
- Wool socks (regulate temperature, less stinky than other materials)
- Packable WATERPROOF rain coat (I brought a “water resistant” wind breaker. It was definitely NOT waterproof and I ended up soaked)
- Water bottle with a handle (if you ride horses, you use rope to tie your water bottle to the saddle horn, so a handle is helpful)
- Chapstick (the air is incredibly dry and your lips will become cracked and dry if you don’t moisturize them)
- Extra underwear (this might sound odd, but you take showers in the late afternoon so are essentially putting on underwear twice each day)
Tip: Layers, layers, layers! I am talking a tank top, a t-shirt, a thermal top, a flannel shirt, a hoodie and a fleece.
What We Learned from Family Camp at Cheley
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect going into Family Camp in general. I was hoping my kids wouldn’t complain the entire time, roll their eyes at activities or cling to me like I was their lifeline. None of these things actually happened, which was freeing and encouraging.
We each tried something about which we were apprehensive. My daughter wasn’t sure she wanted to test out a rifle, but the camp director kindly coaxed her away from the safe space of crafts and over to the range. It took the patience of myself and a few other counselors, but she eventually fired her rifle for the first time, and managed to hit the target with all five shots. Talk about pride.
As for me? I have always had a fairly low opinion of myself athletic-wise. I doubted that I would be able to manage ANY of the hikes, but my husband and I wanted to try at least one. We selected the shortest of them all- a hike to the general store that sells the most delicious cinnamon rolls you will ever taste. The original trail had been lost, so a new one needed to be forged. What started out as a short hike ended up being over 6 miles. At the end, I was pretty proud of the fact that I was able to enjoy the company of my fellow campers and connect with them in a way that only a shared adventure provides.
I thought my kids would be the only ones increasing their confidence and trying new things. In the end, I walked away with passion for a new sport (rock climbing), banishing the preconception that hiking is only for outdoorsy, athletic rock stars, and my entire family made new friends from different areas of the country.
Overall, I can’t recommend the Family Camp at Cheley enough. Take the time to connect with your family and unplug from real life while you can. This is a magical trip both you and your children will never forget, both in the adventures you create and emotions you experience.
Think family camp might be right for your family? Here’s a Cheley Family Camp video to tell you even more!