BACK TO THE SUMMIT: The Return and Rise of Family Nature Camps

About the Author

Robert Michael Pyle, a member of the C&NN advisory board, is an independent writer and biologist who dwells along a tributary of the Lower Columbia River. His sixteen books include "The Thunder Tree," in which he introduced "the extinction of experience" and helped lay the foundation of our current movement. He is also known for several standard butterfly books.

On July 19, 2008, I marked my 61st birthday with the literal high point of my Butterfly Big Year.  I was counting butterflies all over the country that year for a book, Mariposa Road. Now, I’ve never been much for bagging peaks. Even though Mrs. Frandsen made us memorize all 54 of Colorado’s “fourteeners” in fourth grade, I never felt obliged to climb them all, like some.  (In fact, the only two I have actually summited, Mt. Evans and Pike’s Peak, have roads to the top.)  But sometimes you just have to get to the summit if you want to see what you came for.

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In this case, it was the endangered Uncompahgre Fritillary, a drab but mysterious little denizen of the San Juan Mountains.  It lives only in a few spots over 13,000 feet elevation in San Juan Mountains, where its prostrate hostplant, snow willow, grows. Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerces Society, and I hiked up to 13,500 feet on Red Cloud Mountain that day. We made it to  the strange low mats of snow willow, just beneath the tip-top of Red Cloud, before the clouds came up; my Butterfly Big Year–and birthday–were graced with my first sighting of the Uncompahgre Fritillary.

Another Colorado summit has been a big part of my life for many years, and I’ll be returning to it this summer. It’s not so very high–only about 8,000 feet–and it’s not physically difficult to get there (as Red Cloud definitely was!).  This is the Family Nature Summit, to be held at the YMCA of the Rockies outside of Estes Park, Colorado, July 7-13. I can’t wait.

I attended my first Rockies Summit in 1976, and I have taught at a dozen or more since, as well as another dozen or two from the Cascades to the Ozarks, from Vermont to  Montana.   They have all been grand, but the Rockies Summit holds a special place in my heart — partly because I am a Colorado boy, but also because of the many warm friendships I have made there among the naturalist faculty and the families who come to spend a week in close communion with the natural world.  For example, I will never forget Michael Cohen.

Meeting me for the first time, with my butterfly field guide in his hand, the twelve-year old knelt before me and simply said, “Emperor!” (Well, it’s not always like that, but it’s always warm and exciting.)

Formerly run by the National Wildlife Federation, the Family Summits became an independent adventure several years ago. I could go on and on about these family nature camps.  But in short, they are the best venues (and best value) I know for bringing adults and children together with more-than-human nature for an entire week in a stunning locale.  I say  “camp,” and there is a camp-like atmosphere, but in fact everyone enjoys comfortable lodgings in the shadow of the Front Range on the stunning YMCA campus, with its excellent meals and facilities.

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The heart of the Summit experience is a broad smorgasbord of classes in natural history, mountain skills, hiking, indigenous crafts, and deep connection with the local landscape. You could be prowling for wildflowers on the Trail Ridge tundra with expert botanist Mary Jane Foley in the morning, and orienteering through ponderosa pines with master geographer Dave Linthicum in the afternoon. Follow master tracker Jim Halfpenny into the field for half a day making casts, then spend the evening enraptured by the images of award-winning photographer John Fielder. I’ll be leading butterfly walks and nature prowls.

The children’s and teens’ programs are led by some of the finest outdoor educators I’ve ever known: no nature-deficit disorder here! Just the bright eyes of outdoor discovery and joy in nature, every day. My own step-kids hated to leave these summer tribes when they turned 19! Now they wouldn’t have to, as a vibrant and popular 19-25 year-old “Young Adult” group has taken off with great success.

I think the Family Summits make a perfect fit with the goals, hopes, and dreams of the Children and Nature Network.

If every family had the benefit of such experiences, on a regular basis, our crisis of alienation would be over. That may be too much to hope for.

But I have seen kids discover Nature at these Summits, and I have seen families discover Nature together. I believe their lives are the better for it to this day. Nothing would tickle me more — not even scaling a new fourteener at 65 — than to see these two great outfits, both of which stake their existence on the imperative of reconnecting people and the rest of nature, getting together themselves at Estes Park this summer.  When I step out into the crisp Rockies air to meet my morning ramblers this July, I very much hope to see some C&NN faces among them.

We all believe that the future of our children lies with the future of the great outdoors, and in how they meet.  I hope you will consider joining me in bringing them together in the Rockies on this very special Summit.


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Robert Michael Pyle, a member of the C&NN advisory board,is a writer and biologist, and author of  sixteen books, including “Mariposa Road: The First Butterfly Big Year” and  “The Thunder Tree,” in which he introduced “the extinction of experience” and helped lay the foundation of our current movement. Photos: Bob Pyle and his net, Marsha, photographed by Eddie Rivers. Family Nature Summit Jr. Naturalists with long-time Jr. Naturalist program director Steve Houser.

Visit Family Summits and the Family Summits Newsletter. In addition to its regular enrollment, Family Summits offers several excellent scholarship programs for families, students and teachers, with assistance from the Craig Tufts Foundation and Earth Force, a national non-profit based in Denver. Please contact Family Summits for details.

More information on family camps:  American Camp Association’s New “Find a Camp!” Search,  Camps and Our Nation’s Military FamiliesInexpensive Summer Camps, and for family camping without leaving home: National Wildlife Federation’s Great American Backyard Campout.

Related articles: Research: Camping Magazine: Family Camp Impacts on Family Functioning, C&NN: Ten Ways Camps Can Reduce Nature-Deficit Disorder and Build Support for Their Programs.


  1. When exploring the FNS webpage, be sure to view the video to see more images of Summit activities.

  2. 7 days/6nights costs almost $4000 for a family of four?!?!?!?!!? I love the concept but I’m sorry, I can reserve my own campsite and teach my kids about nature for the next 10 years at that rate.

    • I agree with you. I took over 20 NWF Summit vacations with my kids. It used to be affordable and my kids (who are now just about senior citizens) loved it and want to go again. But…the cost!

  3. Bob,
    I can’t believe the Family Summits good fortune at getting you and Thya TWO years in a row! I will be thrilled to see you and take a ramble or two with you again, as my own teaching schedule permits. Your article above is a superlative review of what Summits are all about, and I hope some good cross pollination of Family Summits and C & NN occurs through our mutual connections!

  4. I’ll never forget our second Nature Summit. It was in Bellingham, Washington and at the final program Bob Pyle walked onto the stage with a cute little 4-year old boy dressed as a ladybug hoisted onto his shoulder. That enthusiastic ladybug was my son.

    Now 14 years later, almost 6 feet tall and graduating from high school, that ladybug is still excited to attend the Family Nature Summits with the many friends he has accrued over the years.

    His Summit activities have grown with him. From the prey/predator games and nature crafts to the more challenging ropes courses, kayaking and rock-climbing, my son and his sisters have enjoyed the Summits from childhood to the brink of adulthood.

    The great thing is…my husband and I enjoy these Nature Summit weeks as much as the kids.

    We are looking forward to the Rocky Mountain National Park this summer!


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