Maryland summer camps make affordable family reunion venues in the off-season

For The Baltimore Sun

You've no doubt seen them at one point or another: A large, extended family, all in matching T-shirts, takes over a hotel, resort or theme park for what looks like a fabulous — and expensive — reunion.

But big families can reconnect without spending a month's salary to do it. Each spring and fall, Maryland summer camps transform into family reunion venues, offering a variety of indoor and outdoor activities at affordable prices.

I learned this lesson years ago when my large extended family, looking to plan a weekend of bonding, fun and togetherness, took up what can only be described as our greatest collective talent — an email argument.

For many summers, my Aunt Margie and Uncle Carl had been camping with their kids. Eventually, they invited the rest of us along — all 16 aunts and uncles, 38 cousins, 10 second cousins, grandparents, great aunts and greater uncles.

But those cousins grew up, got married and had kids of their own. Camping in a traditional campground got to be a little impractical; we had more than 100 people who wanted to participate. It didn’t make sense for us to rent 20 campsites spread out so far that my grandmother and I might not see each other the entire weekend.

Cue the mass emails. We needed indoor space in case of rain. A few cousins wanted to do “real” camping in tents. There had to be something for the kids. And it wouldn’t be a family reunion without a little competition.

That’s when one of my cousins discovered Camp St. Charles in southern Charles County. From June to August, the place is a summer camp for children, but it rented out space to our family over a weekend in May for a lot less than the cost of a hotel. Including meals and recreation, we paid about $75 per adult, $70 per child over 7, and kids 7 and under were free. That was for the whole weekend. My little family of six spent $230 altogether. (In comparison, a hotel room in the same area would’ve cost more than $400, and we’d still have to pay for food and activities.)

Camp St. Charles was rustic, for sure. We slept in springy bunk beds and showered in stalls next to one cousin or another. We played volleyball, softball and kickball, took canoes out on the gorgeous lake and sang around the campfire at night. If I hadn't been sleeping on a bottom bunk underneath a snoring uncle, I’d have thought I’d landed in an episode of “The Waltons.”

Camp St. Charles isn’t open to family reunions anymore, but many other Maryland summer camps are, and families are taking advantage of this affordable and fun way to plan a weekend together.

Jonathan Flanders lives in Charlotte, N.C., but his family is in Albany, N.Y. He wanted to find a spot halfway between the two cities where everyone could meet up for their annual reunion. Flanders realized that a hotel wouldn’t work — there wouldn’t be enough space for his family of 17 to all stay together — so he searched online for a camp that could accommodate them.

Camp Mar Lu Ridge in Frederick County was exactly what they needed. It wasn’t fancy, but it was clean and had a kitchen and plenty of space to sleep. With no Wi-Fi, TV or other electronic distractions, they spent more time talking and being together, Flanders said. They spent the weekend fishing and hiking the Appalachian Trail.

The family even encountered a bear on one of their hikes.

“It came crashing through the woods,” Flanders said. The family was a little startled, but Flanders said he wasn’t afraid. “It was all over so quickly. By the time you realized ‘That’s a bear,’ it was gone.”

It was the type of excitement Flanders didn’t think they would have experienced if everyone had been glued to their phones.

Robin Rogers held her second camp-style family reunion this Labor Day weekend. She planned a large event for her family at Elks Camp Barrett in Annapolis seven years ago, and this year, they wanted to repeat the tradition.

There, the family had the exclusive use of the property. If she’d held the reunion at a park, like she did once many years ago, there would’ve been many other groups holding events at the same time. By choosing a camp as her venue, Rodgers secured a private, relaxing space for her family to simply enjoy being together — and to celebrate the birthdays of its oldest members, Rodgers’ mother Anna Ditty, who is turning 90, and Ditty’s cousin-in-law, Muriel Schatz, who just turned 95.

“I haven’t seen some of these people for years,” Schatz said. “It’s a wonderful get-together.”

Not everything went according to plan, though. Rogers had lined up a full slate of activities — swimming, softball, horseshoes — but the weather didn’t cooperate. Despite the rain, the family set up their food under the pavilion and made use of camp’s heated dining hall while some of the kids played in the rain, splashing in puddles and enjoying a little “alone time” away from the adults.

In addition to giving large groups the exclusive use of their property for the weekend, some camps offer food service as well.

“You’ve got the run of the place,” said Susan Vogel, buisiness manager at Camps Airy and Louise, “brother-sister camps” in the Catoctin Mountains of Western Maryland. “And food’s included, so it’s economical.”

Maryland families interested in planning a spring or fall reunion at a summer camp should start planning early, according to Angela Meyer, operations director at Elks Camp Barrett in Annapolis. The camp books up six to eight months in advance, so the sooner families are ready to plan their reunion, the better.

That’s because family reunions compete with other kinds of groups for use of the affordable spaces. Jocelyn Winemiller, coordinator at the Patuxent River 4-H Center in Upper Marlboro, said that her venue hosts about five family reunions per year, with the remainder of the fall and spring weekends taken up by scout troops, church retreats, martial arts boot camps, school field trips, weddings and more.

Camp reunions are best for families who love the outdoors and can handle less-than-luxury accommodations, said Hannah Jakob, retreat center and alumni relations director at YMCA Camp Letts in Edgewater.

“Have an idea of what sort of event you want,” she said. “This would be like a picnic vibe. It’s not high class or elegant.”

For this sort of reunion, you’ll have to bring your own linens and pillows. There probably won’t be air conditioning, and you might go home with a mosquito bite or 50. But the memories you’ll make, families say, are irreplaceable.

Among the Maryland camps that rent to groups:

Camp Mar Lu Ridge

3200 Mar Lu Ridge Road, Jefferson. mar-lu-ridge.org. 301-874-5544.

Mar Lu Ridge is located on a ridgeline in the Catoctin Mountains, about an hour and a half from Baltimore. You’ll have beautiful views of unspoiled farmland, rivers and mountains. Recreation includes hiking trails, athletic fields and a campfire circle. Archery, a high ropes course and a challenge course are offered for an additional fee.

Price: $110 per person for two nights in a rustic cabin with four meals included. Children under 3 are free.

When to book: A year in advance.

Camp Melwood

Melwood Recreation Center, 9035 Ironsides Road, Nanjemoy. melwood.org. 301-870-3226 ext. 2550

Camp Melwood is located on a beautifully wooded, 108-acre property in Charles County. The camp was founded in 1998 to provide an inclusive experience for people with disabilities, and as such, all the facilities are handicapped-accessible. Guests have access to 10 miles of hiking trails, athletic fields and a campfire pit. There are also a variety of team-building activities available for an extra fee, including archery, high ropes, low ropes, a challenge course, a zip line, a climbing wall, equestrian activities like cart rides and pony rides, and equine-assisted learning.

Price: $1,995 per night to rent the entire camp, or $145-$550 to rent one cabin. Prices vary and are usually negotiated as part of a package.

When to book: A year in advance.

Camp Puh’tok

17433 Big Falls Road, Monkton. camppuhtok.com. 410-329-6590.

Camp Puh Tok has 67 acres of pristine woodlands to explore, and it’s close to Gunpowder State Park, which gives visitors easy access to hiking, canoeing, and fishing. The camp also offers Native-American history and nature study.

Price: $8,000 to rent the entire camp for the weekend (Friday to Sunday), regardless of guest count. The camp holds up to 120 people in heated cabins and 75 in rustic, unheated cabins.

When to book: One year in advance.

Camp Sandy Hill

3380 Turkey Point Road, North East. sandyhillcamp.com. 410-287-5554.

Camp Sandy Hill has a small staff of friendly, helpful people who represent 45 countries around the world. They offer guests the use of their athletic fields and an indoor gym. Canoeing and a challenge course are available for an extra fee.

Price: Approximately $104 per person for two nights and six meals, with a 75-person minimum. Prices vary according to group size.

When to book: Six months to a year in advance.

Camps Airy and Louise

Camp Airy: 14938 Old Camp Airy Road, Thurmont. Camp Louise: 24959 Pen Mar Road, Cascade. airylouiserentals.org. 410-466-9010.

Camps Airy and Louise are “brother-sister” camps located in the Catoctin Mountains of Western Maryland. It’s rustic, warm, and beautiful. Guests have use of the athletic fields, a basketball court, a sand volleyball court, plus spots for campfires and fishing. A ropes course and zip lines are available for an additional fee.

Price: Prices varies depending on group size. Approximately $170 per person for two nights with five meals included.

When to book: Six months to a year in advance.

Easterseals Camp Fairlee

22242 Bay Shore Road, Chestertown. de.easterseals.com/fairlee. 410-778-0566.

Easterseals Camp Fairlee is a handicapped accessible facility that mainly serves children and adults with disabilities, but is also available for rent to the public. It can accommodate up to 150 guests in heated and air-conditioned cabins with comfortable, standard mattresses, so it is ideal for families who have elderly or disabled members. Families can choose to stay the entire weekend, or simply rent the large pavilion, grill and gymnasium for an afternoon. Recreation includes a climbing tower, zip line, nature trails and kids’ activity center. Kayaking, canoeing, and swimming are available seasonally. Some recreation requires an additional fee.

Price: Prices vary depending on group size and dining and recreation choices. Typically, families can expect to pay about $55-$65 per person for the weekend.

When to book: Eight months in advance or more.

Elks Camp Barrett

1001 Chesterfield Road, Annapolis. elkscampbarrett.org. 410-224-2945.

Elks Camp Barrett has 187 acres of rolling woodland, streams, and trails, plus two large pavillions and a big outdoor grill. It’s right in Annapolis, but secluded from the rest of the town. Recreation includes use of the athletic fields, a horseshoe pit, and a swimming pool in the summer.

Price: A day rental of the pavilion is approximately $575 for four hours. The dining hall and kitchen are available for $250 and $100, respectively.

When to book: Six to eight months in advance.

Lions Camp Merrick

3650 Rick Hamilton Place, Nanjemoy. lionscampmerrick.org. 301-870-5858.

Lions Camp Merrick is located on the Potomac River in Charles County. It has over 300 wooded acres where guests can rent heated lodges that sleep 13 to 15 people each, with private bathrooms and kitchens. The camp can provide meals for groups of 25 or more at an extra charge, or guests may rent the large dining hall and kitchen to prepare their own food. Recreation includes horse shoes, ball fields, volleyball, basketball, campfires, hiking and fishing from the pier. A pool is available in the summer for an extra charge.

Price: $495 to rent one of the lodges, which sleeps 13 to 15 people.

When to book: Up to one year in advance.

Patuxent River 4-H Center

18405 Queen Anne Road, Upper Marlboro. outdoors.pgparks.com. 301-218-3079

The Patuxent River 4-H Center, located on 74 acres near the eponymous river in Prince George’s County, includes activities like environmental education, volleyball, athletic fields, horseshoes, bean bag tosses, jump ropes and hula hoops. For an extra fee, guests can enjoy a staff-guided lo-ropes course, hiking, stream exploration or archery.

Price: $300 per night to rent a cabin that sleeps up to 40 people. Pavilion rental is $125, and building rental is $425. Food service is available for about $14 to $16 per person.

When to book: A year in advance.

YMCA Camp Letts

4003 Camp Letts Rd, Edgewater. campletts.org. 410-919-1410.

YMCA Camp Letts is close to Baltimore and Washington, but is still secluded and surrounded by nature. The athletic fields are free and open to all guests. Other activities, such as a high ropes course, zip line, archery, canoeing and an inflatable sea sled, are available for an extra fee.

Price: $123 per person for two nights with meals included. Use of some indoor meeting spaces will incur an extra charge.

When to book: Six months to a year in advance.

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