14 things to love about Deer Valley YMCA Family Camp

After I published my post about our week in Deer Valley, I loved how many people read the words “rustic,” “sore,” and “exhausted” and responded, “sign me up!”

Oh yeah, I guess I did mention the snack bar, too. Maybe it was that?

Several people messaged me saying that after they read about our experience at Deer Valley they looked into the camp, or researched other similar family camps. I was kind of surprised by the response, not because Deer Valley isn’t worth looking into, but because I didn’t think I hyped the experience that much in my post. In fact, I left a lot out — I barely scratched the surface.

This post is an attempt at a more comprehensive explanation of what our week was like, and why we had such a great time.

In a magazine writing class years ago I learned that the reason stories usually use random numbers in headlines, like “The 17 best Kanye Tweets” or “31 products that can help you be more productive” is because you subconsciously believe that the reason the writer chose that number is because that is the actual number of great Kanye tweets. If they had said 20, you would think the writer set out to find 20 tweets, and even though there were only 17 good ones they added three lame filler tweets to achieve the round number.

This list isn’t like that. (It’s actually called a listicle. At this rate you’re going to earn a magazine writing credit by the end of this article!) I didn’t choose 14 things because there are 14 things. This list does not paint a comprehensive picture of the Deer Valley experience. This is just me, a tired mom with a very limited nap-time window, sitting down and typing out things that pop to mind. Tom could probably come up with his own list, and another one from David and Mary. And you, when you go, you’ll have your own list, too.


1. Family Time
Perhaps it goes without saying that “family time” is one of the reasons you’d go to a family camp, but I want to say it: go for the family time. This was one thing I was unsure about before we went to camp. I worried that the structure and schedule would engulf the free time that I love so much about family vacation. That absolutely wasn’t the case. At camp there was structure, but it was all focused on fostering family activity. (And like I said before, you can opt-out and opt-in whenever.)

Caleb participating in the Roll the Cheese Challenge — roll it down a big hill and try to get it into the lake. He was one of two kids who made it.

2. Alone Time
Ok, before I wax poetically about how much fun it is to have my kids within six inches of my face at all times, I should also mention a little thing I like to call ALONE TIME. (Have you heard of it!?) Every morning when the kids were in their groups, Tom and I were able to either have a little date morning OR go off and do our own thing. It reminds me of preschool mornings, when you drop your kids off for three hours or so and the world is open to you. The structure of the camp also made it easy to have alone time. The kids were generally so busy and happy that it was easy for one of us to sneak away without feeling like we were dumping on the other.

3. One-on-one time
As a mom of four young kids, a constant struggle is spending one-on-one time with my kids. It’s hard in normal life, it’s hard on vacation, it’s always hard. At Deer Valley we were all in the same place, so it was much easier to get ice cream with just Thomas, or take Mary off for some mother-daughter time at the barn, or to sneak David away to the book nook. (“Mommy,” he said. “Thank you so much for showing me this.”)

4. No screens
Maybe I should have put this one at the top. There were no screens, and no wifi or cell service all week. How delightful to have this distraction totally removed as an option. And we didn’t even notice until the end of the week that the kids didn’t even ask for TV. (Full disclosure/confession, there are a few spots where you could hold your phone in the air and three degrees to the left and get a bar or two of service, and the camp office had wifi, which I used to text friends for advice on David’s bike wreck injuries.)

5. The meals
This is what meal times look like at Deer Valley: Everyone gathers in the dining hall, staff brings out the meal, you eat it, then you put your plates and bowls in a stack and you’re done. That’s it. You don’t plan, shop, cook, clean.
Of course, not all of the frustrations of mealtimes are taken care of. You still have to ask your 4-year old to get off the floor and stay in his chair, clean up spilled drinks, and beg your kids to at least take one bite of bread, please. But everything else? Standing ovation to the kitchen staff.

6. Nature
It’s good for my soul to be in nature. I know it’s good for my kids. In fact, I think it’s good for everyone. Deer Valley is on a picturesque, rural, mountain lake surrounded by fields and forest.

7. Rainy Days
On rainy days we all gave the clouds the side-eye and grumbled about volleyball and waterfront being postponed. Then we plopped down in the book nook and wandered up to the craft shop and got ice cream at the snack bar. Rainy days inspired us to try new things and allowed us to shift in a lower gear. There should be one on the schedule every week.

8. Sunny Days
And then when the sun comes out, activity resumes as normal. On sunny days we started early and finished late and we NEVER stopped. The kids moved from one activity to another, and we did too. The best kind of tired.

9. All the other campers
Early in the week, right around the time I most felt unsure about the whole camp thing, Tom and I met a couple that had three kids. We got along really well, and as the week went on we played volleyball together, hiked, and watched our kids playing. At meals, we sat with a family who had a baby the same age as Anna. We commiserated on toddler behavior, and the toddlers taught each other their tricks.
If you’ve only done family vacations, it can feel weird to spend a week with families that you don’t know, but by the end of the week you’ll see how making connections enhances the entire experience.

10. Athletic challenges
If you’re like me, your weekly athletic feat is putting the laundry away. And even sometimes you skimp on that.
One of the highlights of my week (how many times have I said that so far?) was doing the across-the-lake swim. For Tom, it was playing in the volleyball tournament.
All week there are tournaments and other opportunities to flex some muscle. These are not hardcore, professionals-only-type events. These are fun, everyone’s welcome, events that are as serious as you make them. And it felt good to challenge myself and remember that the once upon a time athlete in me might actually still be in there.

11. Rest
After I did the swim across the lake, guess what I did? I changed out of my wet suit, ate a bunch of bacon at breakfast, and then sat on the beach. Tom and I did spend a lot of time hiking and biking , but there are just as many opportunities to nap in a hammock or read a book by the lake.

12. Traditions
I love the idea of family traditions. Cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, cookies after the first day of school, breakfast for dinner on Sunday nights. (Ok, so maybe I need to work on some non-food traditions…) I love the idea of coming back to the same place year after year.

13. You do you
It’s important to mention that you don’t have to do any of this. We spent our days at the waterfront, hiking, and chasing kids. I did a great trail ride and the lake swim, two things Tom wouldn’t have been interested in. I didn’t mention sailing or kayaking because I barely did it, but it’s one of Tom’s favorite memories. If you want to spend all of your time in the craft shop, or in the nature center, you can. There’s enough to choose from, and enough freedom that everyone can customize their vacation however they like.

14. The long drive home
Tom says that when he was a kid his family would drive home from the week at Deer Valley with tears running down their cheeks. They would all mourn the passing of another magical week.
We were all a little sad coming home, but then we collapsed into the familiar comfort of our own beds. In the morning, we gathered around our table and had breakfast, fighting and laughing over syrup and waffles. The magic of the week was still with us. It’s not the environment that creates the magic, the environment reveals the magic that already existed. You bring it with you when you arrive, and take it home with you when you leave.

Coming home is a bummer, but it’s part of the experience — the reflection on a great week, and anticipation for next year.

This picture might have been better suited under athletic challenges, because how else do you describe lining up eight kids on a couch for a photo? (Last years photo)





  1. Ashley Atkins August 30, 2019

    It looks like you had a blast! I like how you were able to not only cater to your kids individual interest, but yourself and hubby as well. Thank for this. Very informative with great photos.

  2. Silver Pyanov August 30, 2019

    That looks like such a great place for a family trip.

  3. Gayle Ann September 3, 2019

    In a few days, you will probably wish you were back there.

    Be safe.


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