Sky High

By David Willingham

Aspen Grove Family Camp and Conference Center
Provo, Utah
Summer Sessions: 11, one-week sessions
Price: Adult fee, $426; Teenagers, $362; 9-12 year olds, $286; 5-8 year olds, $262; 3-4 year olds, $230; 0-2 year olds, $154

Sitting at 7,000 feet in the Utah Wasatch Mountains is Aspen Grove Family Camp and Conference Center, a mountaintop haven used to strengthen and rejuvenate families by serving Brigham Young University alumni and friends.


Only minutes from where Robert Redford founded the Sundance Institute and Film festival, Aspen Grove sits at the base of Mt. Timpanogos, and is one of only a handful of camps in the United States directly sponsored and supported by a major university.

The camp is actually a branch of the BYU alumni department, and staff members have always been seeking new and exciting ways to serve the college since its transformation from a summer school to a family camp in 1963.

The facilities on this 65-acre forest setting can accommodate up to 408 guests at one time with a primary goal to offer growth and learning for each member of the family. And for cutting edge family fun there is Aeroball, the trampoline basketball game, cross-country skiing and indoor virtual golf for the vacationing businessman.

The week-long family camps that are offered in the summer provide many moments for families to bond. Other activities included are arts and crafts, a ropes course, a rappelling tower, miniature golf, racquetball, a stocked rainbow trout fishing pond, and a heated swimming pool with a view of the "Timp" peak.

And for the adventurous folks, a 15-mile round-trip hike to the peak, close to 12,000 feet elevation, is available. More novice hiking through the camp's natural springs, waterfalls, streams and through the neighboring U.S. Forests' trails is also very popular.

After a full day of activities, families large and small and guests are able to relax in one of the four two-story family lodges, rustic cabins or guest rooms. Each pine and fir-enveloped hilltop family lodge structure contains eight bedrooms, five bathrooms, kitchen facilities and a loft, large enough to accommodate large families or groupings of families.

Recently, many families are discovering Aspen Grove as a cherished location for family reunions.

"Now, with up to 75 percent of the attendees being family reunions, the diverse group brings many challenges," states Mark Longhurst, manager of marketing. "We've had to change our programming to provide for more adults."

With the influx of reunions being hosted at the camp, many changes have been implemented, such as the need to develop multiple choices for various ages of adults, including parents and grandparents.

It has been a recent programming challenge for the camp to keep new things happening each year. Where other generations may have enjoyed potato sack races and dominoes, the staff has added some fresh, creative ideas like the recent Frontier Village as a place to relax and mingle Old West style, with pellet gun competitions and remote control car races.

Located only an hour from Salt Lake City and 30 minutes from the BYU campus, Longhurst and Camp Director Glen Parker continue to seek ways to reach the locals and boost growth throughout the fall and winter seasons.

They are seeing an increase in the off-season by providing such programs as family getaways, marriage retreat weekends and the newly implemented single-parent weekends.

Family structures are changing, and programs like the single-parent weekends are filling a camping void. These directors recognize that even the camping culture must change and adapt to meet the needs of today's families. And these parents love it. The response has been overwhelming, and the support has been abounding.

One critical component is providing the adequate childcare needed so the single parents can have some down time. "Donations from family foundations have made it possible to sponsor single-parent families to show them that they are not alone," says Longhurst. "They are able to have a break and have their kids taken care of, even for a weekend."

Camps like Aspen Grove are meeting the need of providing a wholesome positive bonding experience for today's sometimes fragmented and busy families.

"Families choose Aspen Grove over a cruise or a Disney trip to come back year after year for their family vacation," says Longhurst. "The return rate is over 90 percent."

The connection with the university gives the camp and its programs an endless supply of quality resources. For instance, the staffing challenge that most camps encounter is not a problem for Longhurst and Parker, who draw from a pool of thousands of bright, energetic and dedicated Brigham Young students just down the road.

"We utilize our students heavily and they help us facilitate most of our activities, programs and overall maintenance," explains Longhurst.

For many of these students, being a camp counselor is their first shot at long-term employment, so the administration accentuates the opportunities for mentoring. By giving positive affirmations, clear upfront expectations, and loving confrontations, the summer counselors stay motivated.

Also, evaluations are given one month before the end of the summer, with time left to improve, change and grow, so that the staffer knows whether or not they would be welcome back the following year.

Longhurst adds, "We look at our employees as wanting them to be trainers and always developing, so we can operate as a family and that all tasks can be done by anyone."

By training and developing college staff and allowing them to be creative brings fun and excitement to the family camp programs. Students are encouraged to initiate their creative ideas and given the freedom to explore the possibilities.

Some ideas planned recently were Pirate Day -- complete with costumes -- and Circus Day, involving clowning aspects and balloon hats.

Another invaluable resource is the availability of the BYU faculty for camp and conference speakers. By having the professors as guest lecturers, the programming is enhanced, the learning is topnotch, and the appeal to a variety of audiences is achieved.

Other resources connected with BYU include the access to state-of-the-art technology. The computer capabilities, such as databasing, financial reports, Web hosting, and the on-line reservation system are just a few ways the camp has benefited.

Longhurst explains, "Our business operations are tied into the campus, which makes it nice and helps the staff."

Also, in mid- to late-80s when Aspen Grove was designing new buildings, the architecture department from the school was asked to be part of the development.

The close proximity to BYU has benefited both the camp and the university with the completion of the newest facility, the Aspen Lodge Conference Center, which opened in the year 2000.

In this win-win situation, the center serves the faculty and students by providing leisurely lodging to complement any get-away, but with all the technological amenities needed for educational, workshop and professional purposes.

Although there are no television sets in the 20 hotel-type rooms, many are equipped with Internet access, telephone connections, and areas to enhance study or business needs.

The Aspen Lodge Business center is operational with fax machines, computers and more so that the retreating student or the family businessman can stay connected with their work. "By supplying office resources, this allows more people to come to camp," adds Longhurst.

Camp Director Glen Parker describes the unique transition made four years ago from summer to yearlong programming. "Year long conferencing worked well for us, because we are only 25 minutes away from the mother campus that we serve," he says. "Other similar camps may be too far away from their market body."

When shifting from only a summer camp to year-round programming, the organization grew from three administrators to ten full-time, year-round staff.

"To reduce overhead costs, we train our full time staff to do multiple tasks," Parker says. "By having a few people multitasking we've been successful in running an effective operation that may take many, many more staff in other organizations."

Parker sees the versatility of the staff as a positive experience. There is more satisfaction in their work, they gain more ownership and they are more apt to adapt. "It adds a fun dimension to the camp and takes away from the slow-time blues." From filing papers one minute to pushing snow with a back-hoe the next, the streamlined staff has learned to run the grounds year round.

Apart from the full-time maintenance employee and some duties being shared with the college, the on-site employees pick up the slack when it comes to keeping the grounds and buildings functioning and clean.

"When times have been slow, it's been feasible to close down, and we've had to maximize what we do best rather than spending effort on things with low results," says Parker.

Parker remembers another critical decision he made that went against tradition, but helped his camp survive economically. When he took over as camp director 18 years ago, the staff was burned out, enrollment was declining and money was being lost.

He attributed this to the difference that one day makes. Prior to his arrival, the family camps were seven days long, back to back, all summer. He says, "If I could put my finger on one single thing we did in the years of operation to improve staff morale and the quality of programming, and because of the quality of programming, maximizing occupancy… it was doing away with one day."

Almost two decades ago he changed the weekly schedule from seven days to six days. Although there were the normal grumblings about tradition and clinging to the past way of doing things, the results were dramatic.

By giving the staff an extra day off between camps made all the difference. Now they could spend the weekend nights away from work and return refreshed, relaxed and re-energized. The quality skyrocketed, enrollment increased, repeat campers went up, and staff moral has been soaring ever since.

"One of the goals of Aspen Grove is to bring the alumni back and reacquaint them with Brigham Young University and the BYU students," says Longhurst.

Children who attend the camp with their alumni parents are also introduced to the university traditions. For example, kids are grouped by age and given group names taken from the BYU Cougar mascot. Names such as Rompers, Stompers, Cubs, Wild Cats and more are used to build identification with the school.

BYU Ice Cream is served in the camp store, as well as souvenirs and clothing with the Cougar theme. The traditions and values in college are carried on and reinforced through the programs of Aspen Grove.

David Willingham, a.k.a. Willy Dee, is a freelance writer who lives in Kerrville, Texas. He has extensive experience as a youth camp director, ministry consultant, and area network coordinator.