CHADRON—Nestled in the Pine Ridge near Chadron State Park and the Nebraska National Forest, thousands of kids have made summer camp memories at Camp Norwesca.
Established in 1954 by the United Methodist Great Plains Conference, Camp Norwesca has welcomed summer camp attendees since 1955, where they have learned new skills and gained confidence horseback riding, completing the challenge course or rocketing down the super slide.
But Camp Norwesca is more than a summer camp facility; It’s a year-round retreat center that’s becoming a popular site for retreats, weddings, family reunions and other group stays. Its secluded setting, surrounded by scenic Pine Ridge views, offers a beautiful backdrop and a quiet location for a variety of events.
“The groups that come here come back year after year,” said director Brandi May.
Bordered on three sides by the Nebraska National Forest and adjacent to Chadron State Park, visitors can enjoy 40 acres in Camp Norwesca’s borders or hike the Lebo Canyon Trail to Chadron State Park. After connecting with the Norwesca Trail, visitors can go in nearly any direction to enjoy the trail system at the State Park and on Forest Service property.
This year, Camp Norwesca has hosted an estimated 1,000 visitors to date, with most of those using the facility for something other than summer camp.
“What’s becoming more popular ever since COVID is family reunions,” May said. Turkey and deer hunting groups have also made their way to Camp Norwesca, many when they walk in at Chadron State Park and find that site full. The site has also hosted a pastors retreat, two sewing retreats and six weddings in 2022. Wedding parties can choose from three flat-rate packages that make use of the A-frame chapel overlooking the Pine Ridge and can host their reception on the camp’s lawn or in the lodge.
As visitors use the camp, staff members point them to other experiences in Northwest Nebraska, such as Agate Fossil Beds, Toadstool Geologic Park or the Museum of the Fur Trade. Even families picking up their children from summer camp often add on a few days to explore the region, May said.
“This is a good central location to base your trip out of,” she noted.
May, who started at the camp as an office assistant in 2018, took over as director earlier this year. She’s focused on continuing to update the facility and raise awareness of its summer camp offerings and its availability as a year-round option for retreats, weddings and other group gatherings. Businesses can even rent the conference room, recreation room or community kitchen just for a day to host meetings, noted Kaylie Mason, the camp’s office assistant. Audio visual equipment is provided to make conferences or retreats seamless.
Camp Norwesca will celebrate 70 years in 2024. After original construction was completed, the Great Plains Conference added a craft house in 1956 and its outdoor A-frame chapel in 1961. Lodging accommodations were added to the central lodge in 1995 to complement the 10 cabins on the grounds.
The Region 23 Complex Fire in 2012 destroyed seven cabins and damaged 32 of the camp’s 40 acres. The challenge course was also destroyed. Since then, two cabins have been rebuilt and a new challenge course with three obstacles has returned. Today, the camp can house 50 in their basic cabins, open from May to October, with a central bathhouse, and another 32 in the lodge. Tent camping is also an option.
Staff members begin training for summer camp each May, and over the course of nine weeks in June and July, they host 15 camps. The camps are attended by kids from across Nebraska, and they even had a camper from Texas this summer, May said. Camps are offered based on themes ranging from Wilderness Wonders and Trail Trotters to Wacky Water Week and Camp Creation. The latter focuses on STEM and robotics offerings.
“That camp has really been taken off,” May said.
Next summer, Camp Norwesca is working to bring offerings for 4-H campers impacted by the loss of the Halsey State 4-H Camp in the Bovee Fire earlier this fall.
“We know the feeling of losing your site to a fire,” May said. “We want to do what we can to help.”
Summer campers enjoy the super slide, gaga pit, archery, sand volleyball, basketball, arts and crafts and other activities on site. They perform short skis or music at the Phoenix amphitheater or travel to the state park for trail riding, paddleboat adventures and swimming. Camp Norwesca is an American Camp Association site, meaning all activities are run by a certified employee. Because of that, groups visiting the camp for a retreat or wedding may or may not be able to use some of the activity sites, as it is based on the time of year and staff availability, May said.
Even without structured activities, there are plenty of ways to keep groups busy. The large lawn can be home to a game of catch, frisbee or soccer, and the fire pit near the chapel is a popular spot for conversation and s’mores. Hike or mountain bike the trails in the summer or enjoy sledding, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing during the winter months. Inside, curl up in front of the fireplace or take advantage of the recreation room games and challenge each other to a rousing game of ping pong, foosball, air hockey or checkers.
Catering, from continental breakfasts to wedding receptions, is available for an additional fee and features home-cooked meals.
“It gives you that warm lodge feeling when you have a fire and a home-cooked meal,” May added.
Since June and July are dedicated to summer camps, nearly all of the retreats, weddings and other group events take place outside those months, May said.
“We’re trying to build on that.”
Learn more about Camp Norwesca at www.norwesca.org.