The Best Summer Camps in California: How to Find the Right Fit for Your Child

Campfire songs, s’mores, horseback rides, and summertime best friends—summer camp evokes strong memories for all of us who have experienced the magic. I’ve always felt incredibly thankful to my parents for sending me to the summer camp that they chose. However, if you’re now in the driver’s seat selecting a camp program for your own children, it can be difficult to know where to begin.

Countless questions surround this endeavor: What elements of camp are the most important, in the end? What are the benchmarks for a successful and safe summer camp organization? How do you know when you’ve found a good one?

When analyzing the best summer camps in California, we put together a list of the top three things you’ll want to look for in a camp program:

1. Accreditation and reputation, 2. Trust and safety, and 3. Comforts of home.

With these elements in place, you’ll be able to know for certain when you’ve found an exceptional summer camp that your kids will enjoy and that parents already trust.

  1. Accreditation and Reputation

Aside from being a veteran of a particular camp yourself, it’s can be hard as a parent to know which measures to judge a camp by. Seeing photos online and speaking with staff over the phone are both really helpful in getting a feel for the place, but this is a location where you are trusting your kids. You wouldn’t send your kids to daycare or preschool without a thorough understanding that the location of your choice has a good reputation, a clean record, and an ethical mindset driving toward excellence, and the same should go for summer camp.

What makes an accredited camp?

As a parent myself, the first thing I look out for when seeking out a new summer camp is the camp’s accreditation. Achieving accreditation, specifically from the American Camp Association, means that ACA-Accredited® camps have met or exceeded a lofty and extensive set of over 300 standards for health, safety, and quality. This process involves many months of preparation, significant written documentation, and in-person evaluation by association professionals. ACA Accreditation goes above and beyond any licensure or legal requirements put upon the camp by state or location and shows that the organization is dedicated to excellence.

Qualifying for this distinction requires a thorough look into all aspects of camp operations, including:

  • Appropriate and documented procedures for accidents and emergencies
  • High standards for hiring camp staff
  • Camper supervision rates and camper to staff ratios
  • Approved personnel and conduct policies
  • Behavior management and approved goals for camp goals and outcomes

These are the highest standards set by the camp industry as a whole. Accreditation is a lot of work, and most camps choose not to undergo the extensive investigative process. However, at Kennolyn, we take pride in maintaining these standards both for the comfort of parents and campers as well as for our own sense of accomplishment and dedication to the work that we do.

How can you judge a camp’s reputation?

The first step many of us take when researching a new summer camp involves searching page upon page of online reviews. Depending on the company, they might have a healthy page of reviews that can provide you with a general understanding of what past campers have experienced. Others choose to incorporate reviews into their Facebook page, which may be even more accessible for you as the researcher. If you’re curious, you could consider reaching out to one of the reviewers on the site for a brief conversation about what they experienced. These insider opinions can be crucial in helping you determine the reputation of a camp.

Another important consideration is to contact the camp staff to hear their point of view. You can request to hear client testimonials and learn more about how long the camp has been in operation and what their history has been thus far. Any camp worth its salt should be able to provide this to parents of prospective campers.  Good questions to ask: what percentage of your campers each year are returning? Have you ever had multiple generations of campers in one family?

Finally, perhaps the best way to assess a camp is to visit yourself. If you are able to visit, it can really help give you a sense of the camp and its operations. Many camps offer the chance to visit in Winter and Spring, but some, like Kennolyn, allow visitors to visit during any time of the year. This allows you to come at any point during the year so that you can make the best possible decision for your child.

At Kennolyn, we watch campers grow up over 10+ years in our various programs, and we welcome entire families and multiple generations of Kennolyn campers back each summer. We’re proud that so many of our staff members are former campers who have been with us for over a decade, and that they believe in the Kennolyn mission enough to stick around for their professional careers. A camp with such strong returning rates is a place that people have grown to call home, and usually maintains a strong alumni presence and connection. That’s a great sign that the camp has a great reputation for providing a positive experience to all.

What about affiliation and other awards?

For a camp to be part of a regional or national association with other camps does not necessarily confer the same weight as their accreditation does—but it can still be a great sign that this is a camp with a great reputation. For example, camps like Kennolyn that belong to the Western Association of Independent Camps are required to be accredited and in operation for a set number of years, comply with WAIC ethical standards, submit annual reports relating to the quality of the camp experience, and be evaluated again in person by a WAIC representative. It’s just one more way that a camp displays to families that they are trustworthy.

Finally, if you’re still looking for more information, it’s always a good idea to consult any third party sources that have awarded the camp in question or have recognized it in local and national media. For instance, Kennolyn was recently recognized by as one of the best camps for kids in the United States. While resources like this one are not as concrete as those listed above, they still give a strong vote of confidence for the camp you’re considering.

When you’ve considered the accreditation of a camp, searched through their online presence and reviews, had a conversation with camp staff, and found their various affiliations and awards, you’ll have a very thorough picture of the positive professional view of this camp. This is the first thing that all of the best summer camps in the state of California have in common, and it may be the most significant. However, as a parent, there are plenty of other considerations that can take precedence, as discussed below.

  1. Trust and Safety

When you send your child to summer sleepaway camp, you’re betting that they will have a fantastic time. That they’ll make new friends, learn new skills, and come home utterly exhausted and excited to return again next summer. You’re taking a chance on the camp staff and facilities, that they will provide the summer camp experience you’ve always dreamed of giving your children. The best summer camps in California understand the nature of your trust—it is a chance that you are taking as a parent, and we value your confidence in us.

Sending your child away to be with other adults and kids for a week involves quite a few safety concerns. These are perhaps the most pressing concerns for a parent when choosing a camp in the first place, for obvious reasons. The best camps take extreme measures to protect your camper’s physical health, to promote safety in the camp environment, and to support your child’s emotional well-being while they are in the camp’s care.

Physical Health

Summer camp involves all sorts of fun, exciting, and potentially risky activities that are safe to participate in with the proper precautions. A strong summer camp program will heavily emphasize these safety concerns and the measures they are taking to alleviate the risk. Of course, they cannot prevent bug bites, scraped knees, or a developing cough—but a good camp will do everything they can to prevent what can be prevented.

In the rare case where an accident or illness does occur while your child is at camp, a competent program will have the appropriate medical staff on-hand to take care of the problem. At Kennolyn, for example, campers’ health is our number one priority. Many of our counselors are trained in CPR and first aid, and anything that requires a little more medical help goes straight to the Medical Center. We employ two 24-hour registered nurses who can easily help your camper manage medications, recover from a brief illness, or forward their case to a more appropriate venue. It’s always a good sign for a summer camp to have a certified medical professional on-site, and all the best camp programs do.

Environmental Safety

While preventing the common cold is beyond any summer camp’s purview, it’s expected that a really strong program will set parameters for safety in the camp environment. The camp’s grounds, facilities, and cabins should all be child-safe, well-kept, and fully operational if they are to be accessible to campers. An exceptional camp program takes upkeep of their property very seriously, and will make painstaking efforts to keep trails clear, lawns cropped, and wooden surfaces well painted and free of splinters. A tour of the camp of your choice should be sufficient to show whether a program takes this kind of pride in their camp home.

Infrastructure also plays a big role in the environmental safety of a summer camp. Programs that are well-staffed and with a healthy camper-counselor ratio will have plenty of adult supervision over all activities that your child might be participating in. Ask your camp about their lifeguards, their ropes course supervisors, and their sports instructors to learn more about their credentials and experience. A strong supporting staff is one of the major factors that keeps a summer camp environment safe for every visitor.

Emotional Health

Similarly, the summer camp staff members are there to help care for your child’s emotional well-being while they are at camp. A big part of this process is setting up behavior management systems that really work—both for campers and for staff alike. These “camp rules” will be a little bit different everywhere, but they all involve a central theme of extending respect for others and the camp environment at all times. A structure like this helps to keep relationships between campers happy and healthy, and works with each individual to resolve conflicts in a respectful manner. This is crucial to each child having a positive experience at summer camp, and it’s something that the staff members here at Kennolyn firmly believe in.

You’re also trusting that camp staff members will be there for your child if they’re ever experiencing sadness, disappointment, anger, or other difficult emotions. Especially with our youngest campers, we see a lot of what we call “missing home,” or homesickness, which can be a real challenge to work through. With constant support from the trusted adults at camp, your child will be better able to work through these emotional challenges to truly enjoy their first experiences away from home.

As every parent knows, sending your child away to live with strangers for a week in the Santa Cruz Mountains is taking a chance. You’re trusting that the camp you’ve chosen places a high value on your child’s physical health and is prepared to help them navigate the week with environmental safety measures and emotional support. At the best summer camps, each child has the chance to return home a stronger and healthier person, mentally and physically, than they were at the beginning of the summer—and that’s a chance I’m willing to take.

  1. Comforts of Home

The previous two points mainly addressed parental concerns—however, this one is all about what matters most to young kids. The first things I myself wondered when I went to camp as a kid for the very first time were:

Where will I live?
What kind of bed will I have?
What is the food going to be like?
Will there be bathrooms?

These elements are what we refer to as “the comforts of home.” The best summer camps in California offer your children the opportunity to live in an entirely new place, with new peers and adult caretakers, and these aspects of the experience can be comforting and grounding to the new camper. We’re definitely not saying that your twelve-year-old needs to be staying in a hotel with a Tempurpedic bed—but when the basic boxes are checked, they will be sure to enjoy themselves. From the sleeping and living situation to the fantastic food and the beautiful camp setting, the comforts of home are incredibly important in making a great summer camp.

The Basics of Camp Living Spaces

Some summer camps believe wholeheartedly in a “less-is-more” approach. Campers sleep in tents, eat food straight from the campfire, and essentially “rough it” for a week or two with no modern facilities whatsoever. Other camps provide their cabins with beautiful white tile floors, crisp air conditioning, and attached bathroom facilities for each cabin that rival those at a local hotel. As parents, you have the option of choosing a camp anywhere between these two extremes—depending on what your child is comfortable with, and what you personally value in a summer camp experience.

At Kennolyn, we try to strike a healthy balance. Campers reside in beautiful rustic cabins among the redwoods that really start to feel like home. They sleep in bunk beds with their own bedding brought from home, and they enjoy modern bathroom facilities. However, we also take all of our campers on “Outpost,” which is their opportunity to sleep in tents under the stars and enjoy all that the campfire life has to offer.

Our campers are having so much fun with their friends and their activities that they might not appreciate a more “luxurious” accommodation setting even if it were offered. The cabin setting helps kids get back to the basics, and realize what is truly necessary for them to be comfortable and content in the world. The camp living situation can help each individual to gain valuable perspective on the different ways that people live, and can help them to appreciate the comforts they’re given.

Down to the Good Stuff: Camp Food 101

Don’t ask me what kind of magic those lovely ladies spooned into their simmering pots back in the camp kitchen when I was a kid, because I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that the food I tasted at my favorite summer camps was absolutely divine. Whether I was so eager and enthusiastic to enjoy a meal after a few hours of playing hard outside, or whether I truly tasted the nutrition they were delivering, what matters is that I absolutely loved the food I ate at camp—and that’s the mark of a really good organization.

The best summer camps offer nutritious and delicious meals that kids love and parents appreciate. I’ve received constant emails over the years from parents asking for recipes from the Kennolyn kitchens, because their previously-picky child came home raving about eating their vegetables. One parent reported that their child “would eat anything at Kennolyn,” desperate to replicate the same results at home.

When you go for a visit at the camp of your choice, request a sample menu from camp staff and ask about their favorite dishes. Food is especially important to kids, and this is a crucial element of making each camper feel comfortable in their new temporary home.

Feeling Comfortable in a New Home

The last element of crafting a comfortable summer camp setting is a little more elusive to pin down. We’re talking about the atmosphere, the feeling you get when you enter the camp grounds for the first time. This homey setting is created in part by a gorgeous natural environment, with help from appealing facility buildings and a loving dedication to keeping the camp looking its best. The camp setting is crucial for helping visitors feel comfortable, and it’s really an art that the best summer camps have already mastered.

For me personally, I find that the best camps I attended were those that made the natural setting part of our everyday life as campers. The camp grounds were developed with and around the forest, in a feeling of coexistence. The trails and pathways that we walked each day wound through carefully-preserved sections of the relatively untamed wild, with all the flora and fauna of the local area living alongside us. A good camp setting, in my opinion, is one that allows you to reconnect with nature by truly living in it.

Further, camps today provide one other unexpected benefit: they help a new generation of campers unplug and disconnect from the technology that engulfs them in their everyday life. The best camps don’t have wifi, don’t need televisions, and are remote enough to have shoddy cell service—and these elements are entirely purposeful. Being in a beautiful setting helps kids to relax and refresh their minds from the onslaught of tech media—and ultimately, they are having too much fun to miss it.

While you shouldn’t really select a summer camp on the basis of these elements alone, the daily comforts of home are definitely something that your camper is going to be interested in. It’s a good idea to involve them in your camp visits in order to make the options more open to them.

Choosing the Best Summer Camp in California

When selecting the perfect summer camp for your child, keeping certain benchmarks in mind will help get you on the right track. No matter what fun activities are involved, no matter how many campers they serve, it can be hard to tell which camps are truly the best. Programs that are backed by accreditation and a good reputation, that are trustworthy and safety-conscious, and that provide a perfect balance of home’s comforts will give you a great start for finding the perfect camp for your family.

Once you’ve identified a few local California camps that meet these basic criteria, you can take further steps to learn more about what makes each camp unique. Reach out and contact the camps individually, and consider attending an open house with your family or scheduling a drop-in visit. This will give you and your kids the details you’ll need to make the decision—and who knows? Like many first-time campers at Kennolyn, you might walk onto the camp grounds and feel immediately at home.

When you’re looking for the best summer camps in California, it can be hard to know where to start. Give us a call today to start the discussion about what really makes a camp stand out.


Photo Credits:

All images courtesy of Kennolyn Camps’ Facebook and Instagram social media pages.

Kennolyn Camps

Kennolyn Camps