Day campers from a past year’s “Desert Dwellers” themed program. [courtesy Canyonlands Field Institute]

Most summers, the Canyonlands Field Institute would be welcoming both local groups and visitors from across the country to explore the Moab area on overnight paddling and trekking trips. However, like individuals and organizations worldwide, CFI has had to pivot its operations to adapt to the “new normal” of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was definitely a really tough decision for us to make the choice to cancel our overnight summer programs,” said Brennan Patrick Gillis, land program manager at CFI. The organization realized that running overnight programs and trips—sharing group meals, tents, and extended periods of time together—posed too much a risk for spreading infection.

Instead, the nonprofit is expanding its summer day camp offerings for local kids ages nine through twelve. Parents can pick up and drop off their kids at the CFI headquarters, and CFI staff will bring campers to different field sites each day.

The nonprofit’s mission is to provide “quality outdoor education on the Colorado Plateau, to inspire care of wild places, and renew the human spirit,” and they carry out that mission in bringing kids to Moab’s special outdoor places. They hike in places like Grandstaff Canyon, take trips into the La Sal Mountains, do a trip down the “daily” river route on the Colorado River, and visit CFI’s field camp, located in Professor Valley, where there is a perennial stream and a classroom inside a yurt.

Since 2016, CFI has offered day camps in conjunction with Moab’s Youth Garden Project. The first camp session in partnership with YGP is June 22-26.

This year, however, CFI will also be offering two additional sessions of camp solely.

CFI’s Adventure Day Camps will run from July 6-10 and July 13-17. Another CFI/YGP session follows from July 20-24.

Both sessions of Adventure Day Camp aim to build kids’ observation skills and foster connection with nature and with their peers, said staff.

“All of our programs across the board are designed to promote those kinds of things,” said Patrick Gillis.

Each week uses a different theme to approach those goals. The first week is called “Desert Dwellers,” and asks the questions, “Who lives here?” and “Who lived here in the past?” Kids visit dinosaur tracks and archaeological sites and learn about previous human cultures and ecosystems in the region.

The second week is called “Art Around Us,” and uses activities like journaling and crafts to hone observation skills and prompt thought and discussion about kids’ surroundings.

Patrick Gillis said he hopes the new Adventure Day Camp will help fill a need for summer child care in the community, though to maintain social distancing protocols, group sizes will be reduced to eight or nine kids per session.

“I can’t imagine how much people want to get out of their houses right now, especially big families,” said Patrick Gillis. “A lot of parents were thrust into the position of educator and supervisor on top of having a job or being in an unknown economic situation. So based on the need that families have, we’re really excited to be able to offer these programs.”

The organization is also hoping to be able to hire back guide staff who were laid off during the spring, when CFI canceled all their planned trips, though some of those staff members have had to find other employment since those layoffs. For the sessions offered in partnership with YGP, staff from both organizations chaperon campers on field trips.

“We just kept filling up so fast at the Youth Garden,” said Julie Zender, youth programs director for YGP, explaining the motive for teaming up with CFI several years ago.

YGP is also running their regular summer camps for ages six to eleven, though they have reduced their capacity from 24 to eight campers each week to allow for the social distancing recommendation of six feet. When Zender spoke with the Moab Sun News, she said camp was in session at that very moment.

“They’ve currently got the chickens out in the garden scratching for grasshoppers and other pests,” she said of the campers and their instructors, who were in the second day of an “Eco-Adventures” themed week. Each week of YGP camp has its own theme: Zender said this year themes include cooking, art, ecosystems, and even a “Hogwarts” week.

All nine week-long YGP camp sessions are currently full, but parents can still add their kids to a waiting list by visiting the YGP website. Scholarship applications are also available there.

Zender said kids are adapting well to new protocols involving distancing, temperature checks, masks, frequent hand-washing, and staying on the YGP campus rather than taking trips to Rotary Park, the Moab Museum, or the swimming pool. YGP sent a letter to parents before camp started, outlining the new procedures.

“Nothing’s really a surprise, so I think they’re handling it really well,” Zender said of kids and families.

To register your child for a CFI summer camp, visit

To add your child to the waiting list for a Youth Garden Project camp session, visit

CFI & Youth Garden Project camp from June 22 to 26

CFI Adventure Day Camp from July 6 to 10

CFI Adventure Day Camp from July 13 to 17

CFI & Youth Garden Project camp from July 20 to 24

To register your child for a CFI summer camp, visit

“A lot of parents were thrust into the position of educator and supervisor on top of having a job or being in an unknown economic situation.”

– Brennan Patrick Gillis

Youth camps adapt while pandemic continues