Cool Camps for Too-Cool Tweens and Teens

By Jamey Bradbury

  • Alpengirls teen summer adventure camp includes whitewater rafting on Six-Mile Creek Alpengirls teen summer adventure camp includes whitewater rafting on Six-Mile Creek Photo credit: Alpengirl Summer Adventure Camp
  • Youth, ages 10-13, learn basic wilderness skills and more on HoWL's backpacking trips through Kachemak Bay State Park Youth, ages 10-13, learn basic wilderness skills and more on HoWL's backpacking trips through Kachemak Bay State Park Photo credit: Libby Veasy
  • This teen camper explores robotics in Anchorage Museum's summer camp Robot Revolution This teen camper explores robotics in Anchorage Museum's summer camp Robot Revolution Photo credit: Chris Arend Photography
  • Teens learn how to whip up cakes, pastries, breads and more at UAA's Summer Culinary Bakery Boot Camp Teens learn how to whip up cakes, pastries, breads and more at UAA's Summer Culinary Bakery Boot Camp Photo credit: Lynette Peplow - University of Alaska Anchorage


When I was a counselor at a YMCA family summer camp, I could always pinpoint which kids around the nightly campfire were still in fourth or fifth grade, and which ones had just weathered their first year of middle school. It was the sing-along that clued me in: The fourth and fifth graders sang at the tops of their lungs, danced and did all the silly hand motions they’d learned over the summers.

Meanwhile, the middle-schoolers rolled their eyes.

“With teens, you really have to set a tone that allows them to explore or be silly and feel good about it, rather than feeling like they’re being treated like little kids,” says Katie Gavenous, Field Station Coordinator with the Center for Alaska Coastal Studies (CACS) in Homer, where 5- to 15-year-olds can participate in residential or day summer camps.

Letting teens and tweens be kids while giving them a taste of the freedom that comes with adulthood: This, says Gavenous, is what the best summer camps do. And – fortunately for Alaskan parents – there are dozens of local camps tailored to these age groups and designed to spark a teen’s creativity and excitement.

From wilderness camps and arts programs to sessions that teach kids to program their own robots, chances are there’s a camp that will help your teen rediscover the magic of summer camp.

Adventure for All

For many parents, the words “summer camp” conjure an image of campfires and bunk beds. Alaska has no shortage of wilderness for teens to explore, and there are plenty of programs designed to help them do so. But Alaska’s unique and varied landscape offers a little something extra for curious campers.

“We have great access to extraordinary locations,” describes Gavenous. Camps run by her organization take advantage of CACS’s proximity to Peterson and Kachemak Bays for kayaking adventures, tidepool exploration and glacier camping trips. “We provide a kind of hybrid experience: adventure and exploration, paired with marine sciences and ecology.”

Sessions like Marine Mammal Mysteries let 9- to 15-year-olds become wildlife detectives and feature the articulation – or the putting together – of an actual skeleton with the help of a local expert. Meanwhile, Teen EcoAdventure Camp combines oceanography, backcountry adventure and multi-media exploration for 12- to 15-year-olds.

Other camps that blend traditional camping with specific outdoor activities are available throughout the state and cater to a variety of interests, including:

• Packrafting: Teen Packraft Camp, offered by the Alaska Kayak Academy in Wasilla, introduces eighth to 12th graders to a cool twist on hiking over a six-day trip that includes river rafting in a variety of scenic locales near Willow and Girdwood. (

• Kayaking: Both CACS and the Kayak Academy offer sea kayaking opportunities for preteens and teens, with CACS operating out of Homer and the Kayak Academy ferrying campers to Seward for a Resurrection Bay adventure. (,

• Science and Survival: The Alaska Center for the Environment features a variety of teen-oriented camps that combine backcountry skills with scientific study, including sailing sessions, bike-pack trips and a special two-week leadership adventure for 16- to 18-year-olds. Meanwhile, the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) organization, offers overnight survival camps that incorporate the science behind practical skills like fire-building and coldwater survival. (,

• Girls Only: There’s something empowering about a group of girls conquering a mountain peak or navigating river rapids. If you’ve got a teen who’s looking for a girls-only adventure, she might be interested in sessions offered by the Girl Scouts of Alaska or Alpengirl Summer Adventures. (,

• Day Camp: For a taste of the traditional camp experience without the nights away from home, 9- to 13-year-olds can try Trail Seeker and Outdoor Adventurer sessions through Camp Fire Alaska’s Camp Si-La-Meo. At the Nanook Adventure Camp on the UAF campus, each day is jam-packed with many different activities including hiking the campus trail system, canoeing the Chena River and testing campers’ strength on the outdoor climbing wall.(,

Special Interest

Wilderness adventures aren’t for everyone, though. Fortunately, it seems every summer more specialized camps spring up, catering to interests as far-ranging as photography, science and drama.

“We look for ways for kids to specialize and be challenged by an in-depth look at one specific topic,” says Science Outreach Coordinator Renae Bookman of the Anchorage Museum, where preteens build an earthquake-proof house during “Rock On!” camp, and technology-oriented teens become “Appy Campers” when they design and program their own web-based apps.

Day camps like these enable older campers to explore developing niche interests or get hands-on experience with new activities, explains Summer Lazenby, Director of Educational Operations at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska (CLCA). “Camp lets kids try on different hats, not only when it comes to areas of interest. They also have the room to figure out who they are, try on different personalities without being judged because they’re in a new environment where no one knows them.”

Got a budding detective? A singing and acting ingénue? There’s something for everyone during summer camp season in Alaska:

• Anchorage Museum: In addition to “Rock On!” and “Appy Campers,” the museum offers a wide variety of art and technology camps for 9- to 15-year-olds. “Our most popular camp has been comic illustration,” says Bookman. “We do something technology-based every year, whether it’s robotics or movie-making, and try to give people an opportunity to do something they may never have done before.” (

• Sports: Teens can get moving even on the rainiest days when they take part in sports clubs and the Alaska Dome, which offers youth flag football, volleyball and basketball in addition to games like capture the flag, Nerf wars and ultimate Frisbee. In Fairbanks, ALCAN Sports offers full-day and half-day programs for all ages including strength and speed development, and sport-specific training including hockey, baseball, softball, football and soccer. (,

• CSI Anchorage: Both CLCA and the Alaska State Trooper Museum offer CSI forensic science camps, with CLCA’s geared toward grades 4 to 6, while the museum offers sessions for sixth to eighth graders and ninth through 12th graders. (,

• Culinary Arts: Future Alaskan chefs can hone their knife skills or perfect their meringues when they attend one of two culinary boot camps hosted by the University of Alaska Anchorage, or in Fairbanks at the Hutchison Career Center Kitchen. (,

• Performance: Campers at the faith-based Birchwood Camp in Chugiak mount a fully choreographed musical during their seven-day experience; between rehearsals, there’s boating, games and crafts, too. Both Anchorage Community Theatre and the Alaska Theatre of Youth also offer performance-based day camps for tweens and teens. (,,