I am Marketing Manager at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont so I spend a lot of time encouraging others to step outside with our naturalists and spend a few days living and learning at Tremont Institute. I post hundreds of pictures taken by participants during our programs, and I share about the benefits of overnight experiences and environmental education from the stories of our happy participants.

But this year, I spent my first night sleeping at Tremont as part of a family summer program, and now I can give you an insider’s view.

Tremont introduced Firefly Camp this year for the little kids. It’s a one, two or three night mini camp for 4-9 year olds with an accompanying adult. The purpose being to introduce young ones to the outdoors, but baby step them into overnights with an adult in tow. This was too perfect for my family because my daughter, Molly, just turned 5, and I wanted in on the fun too!

So, I signed us up for 2 nights at Tremont in July.

My only goal for those days was to make Molly’s first camp experience great and to see what it was like to be a participant myself. I can tell you now that the Tremont magic that everyone talks about is real—it’s everywhere while you’re here and stays with you after you leave.

It’s in the shared experience that had my shy little girl singing loudly, hand-in-hand with two girls from Mississippi within 10 minutes of beginning our lesson. Being outside and trying new things together can make us brave.

The magic is in the dining hall where you share a meal with new friends who were strangers before you sat down at the table together. Dinner is “family style”. You pass platters of hot food around prepared by Tremont’s kitchen crew. You share dinner, conversation, and a challenge to not waste food by only putting small amounts on your plate at a time. In a world of fast food, massive waste and connections through technology, this feels magical.

It’s in the staff who were so compassionate with kids who weren’t quite up to the physical challenges that crawling around on river rocks required. The naturalists understood the importance of being included and reached out individually to make everyone feel part of the group. For the ones that knew nothing of the outdoors, we were exploring and discovering a new place. For the ones that were more familiar, we were learning more and looking closer at the life surrounding us.

It’s in the dorm where the top bunk at a “real camp” makes a 5-year-old feel like they’ve made it big.

We swam. We hiked. We ate. We laughed. We found salamanders and painted our faces with rock paint. We built shelters and learned that fun doesn’t stop just because it’s raining. I heard Molly whine less and brag more about her adventures outside. I romped around in the river with my family, tasted hemlock tea and made plans to do it all again.

I guess I should have known it was true. Thousands of people cross our bridge each year and stories with fond memories are abundant. But you have to experience it for yourself to really understand. The Tremont magic is alive and well in the national park, in the people, in nature and in you. Come on outside and see.