4 nature camps in Atlanta for kids that love to explore the wild

This story originally published in Living Northside’s April/May 2017 edition.

Summer camp memories can last a lifetime. After a few nervous minutes, children arriving for the first time usually settle in with an adventurous curiosity. Returning campers often rush from the car, eager to reunite with friends from the previous year.

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More than 800 students, from kindergartners to fifth graders, are likely to converge on the weekly programs.

Registration for Northside summer camps are well underway. Here’s a peek at what’s offered at Dunwoody Nature Center, Chattahoochee Nature Center, and Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and Heritage Center. Weekly sessions stretch from May 30 through Aug. 4, with fees ranging from $130-$270 each.

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Dunwoody Nature Center

5343 Roberts Drive, Dunwoody. 770-394-3322.

There’s no nearby traffic noise on the wooded 22-acre property of Dunwoody Nature Center. A spacious treehouse has an observation deck overlooking a rain garden, tiered beds of native plants, Wildcat Creek and walking paths beneath the tree canopy. A new playground has slides for older and younger children, as well as climbing towers and a long, inviting rope swing.

“Our primary goal is environmental education and appreciation, but it’s simply a wonderful place to be, to visit,” says Alan Mothner, executive director.

Every week of summer camp has a theme allowing kids to explore in new ways. For instance, during “Teepees, Tribes and Totem Poles” week, they learn about Native American culture and traditions. Some other sessions include playing at the creek, discovering where it flows and finding out what creatures live nearby.

A few weeks of camp are held for older campers at the Island Ford Park unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. During Float the ’Hooch, children ages 10-13 canoe and raft down sections of the river. The Junior Ranger I program for ages 9-12 focuses on conservation, canoeing through ponds and learning safety skills.

FLUTTERING BY--July 13, 2013 Roswell - Jessica Robinson carefully reaches for a butterfly inside the live butterfly exhibit tent at the Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell during the 14th annual Flying Colors Butterfly Festival on Saturday, July 13, 2013. Visitors were invited into the tent to hand feed over 250 butterflies. Other activities during the festival included live music, childrens arts and crafts and butterfly releases into the wild. (JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL) (JONATHAN PHILLIPS / SPECIAL)

Chattahoochee Nature Center

9135 Willeo Road, Roswell. 770-992-2055.

Set on the Chattahoochee River, the Chattahoochee Nature Center is a sprawling 127 acres of gardens, wooded trails and wildlife, including non-releasable birds of prey that have been injured and cared for at the center for years.

Its summer program, Camp Kingfisher, has activities for children, from kindergartners to rising ninth graders. There are six science-related themes that include swimming in the pool, canoeing, games, crafts and encounters with injured animals such as the birds, opossums, turtles or snakes.

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A two-week Travel Program takes rising eighth and ninth graders on treks across Georgia and stops at Raccoon Mountain Caverns in Chattanooga.

In other sessions, campers explore the forest and learn the land of the inhabitants. Hiking and exploration during the “Scales, Slime and Stingers” week helps children — even those who aren’t fans of crawly creatures of any sort — see insects and reptiles in a new light. “Plant Protectors” week shows campers the detrimental effects of litter and debris on plants and animals.

Autrey Mill Nature Preserve and Heritage Center

9770 Autrey Mill Road, Johns Creek. 678-366-3511.

Summer campers get a sense of history at Autrey Mill Nature Preserve. The 46-acre expanse was part of Cherokee Indian land and in the 1832 Georgia land lottery that distributed their land to new settlers, driving out the Native Americans. Three of the seven buildings are original to the property, which became a working farm. The Visitors Center was a two-room tenant house in the 1860s. Sixteen pews inside the Warsaw Church building have plates bearing the names of early farming families in the area.

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“We have camps for four 14 year olds, and there are different sessions offering choices,” says program director Mary Winder. “The curricula we use are very active. We kind of want to trick the kids into learning and to have fun while they’re learning.”

Curious Curator is one of Autrey Mill’s naturalist camps for ages 11-14, and teaches participants how to handle artifacts, research items in the preserve’s collections, write up reports and organize an exhibit.

The Time Travelers Camp lets kids learn about life dating back to pre-colonial times, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution and more recent times like the 1970s.

Other sessions, such as Survivor Camp, have them traversing the wooded grounds playing games, engaging in craft activities and getting acquainted with wildlife on the preserve.

Insider tips:

The nature centers have several activities that parents or the entire family can enjoy together. Dunwoody Nature Center’s annual fundraiser, Monarchs and Margaritas, takes places April 29 with live music, specialty cocktails and tapas. The center also hosts a summer concert series.

Visit the community garden at Chattahoochee Nature Center. It has produced 23 tons of vegetables since it was started in 2010, most of which was donated to food banks through North Fulton Community Charities.

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