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Camp Natoma celebrates 80 years of outdoor experiences 

Camp Natoma—nestled in the Adelaida mountains west of Paso Robles—has been sharing the gift of the outdoors with kids for 80 years. For camp Executive Director Emily Zbin, the Natoma legacy has touched multiple generations of her family.

"My grandparents actually worked at the camp in the 1950s," Zbin said. "They were school teachers in SLO and volunteered to help at the camp. My grandma helped run the girls program, and my grandpa was the maintenance and facilities guy."

click to enlarge GIFT OF NATURE Many of Camp Natoma's campers go on to participate in the teen leadership program, an integral part of running the camp activities. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CAMP NATOMA
  • Photo Courtesy Of Camp Natoma
  • GIFT OF NATURE Many of Camp Natoma's campers go on to participate in the teen leadership program, an integral part of running the camp activities.

Zbin's husband, Robbie, is the director of operations at the camp. His grandmother attended Natoma's very first summer camp in 1941, back when it was an all-girls camp.

"His mom went to the camp too," Zbin said. "And now our own kids are attending the camp."

Over its eight decades in operation, the camp has of course seen some major changes with the times.

"The world was very different in the '40s and '50s," she said. "It used to be an all-girls camp, so being in nature was important for confidence building."

The camp started welcoming all genders by the 1980s. But one thing that has stayed the same through the decades is the camp's commitment to the outdoors: Kids sleep under the stars, eat outside, and engage in a variety of nature exploring and team building activities.

When campers first arrive, they're dropped off at Thacher Winery in Paso Robles, where they climb aboard either the Amotan Express or the Amotan Adventure—a pair of entrancing, bright green buses that transport the kids into the wilderness.

Once they arrive at Natoma, campers get to participate in a plethora of outside activities, including swimming, archery, drama, and more. By night, Natoma's signature campfire program brings kids together to experience one of the pinnacles of camp life.

The week-long summer camp is designed for youth in first through ninth grade, but once kids outgrow the camp they can continue coming back to Natoma through the teen leadership program.

"We have new campers of all ages, but many campers come back year after year, and they aspire to become part of our teen leadership program," Zbin said. "High schoolers are an integral part of the camp: They lead the games and songs and meanwhile participate in a leadership training course, prepping to be hired as full-time staff members after that."

Zbin said about half of their camp staff went through the teen leadership program before being hired.

To celebrate the camp's 80th anniversary, Natoma's hosting a multi-day campout for alumni on Labor Day weekend in September, as well as calling for photo submissions from campers throughout the decades. They expect to have 150 to 200 people at the campout, and hope to have someone represented from nearly every year since the camp started—"whether they were a camper, a parent, or a volunteer," Zbin said.

Luckily, the show has gone on through most of the pandemic. The summer 2020 camp was canceled due to mandates at the time, but Camp Natoma still put on a nature hike series for kids.

"In 2020, no overnight camps were permitted, of course," Zbin said. "Then, in 2021, we were able to open in nearly normal capacity because literally everything is outdoors at Camp Natoma."

For Zbin, this is what sets Natoma apart from other camps, where kids might sleep in cabins or eat in a dining hall—the all-outdoor component teaches campers something special.

"Simultaneously, kids are experiencing backcountry outdoor living while also just living in pure joy of the fun camp activities," Zbin said. "Learning how to live in a group environment, make new friends, be cooperative, and share meals—those all wrap together into a memorable and transformative experience."

Fast fact

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Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@newtimesslo.com.

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