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Camp Harrison: Wilkes County, NC’s Natural Playground

Camp Harrison at Herring Ridge draws campers and companies

By Teree Caruthers on September 17, 2015

YMCA Camp Harrison in Wilkes County
Wilkesboro / Laura Mueller Photography

Nestled within 2,100 wooded acres of North Carolina’s Brushy Mountains lies one of Wilkes County’s best-kept secrets. YMCA Camp Harrison at Herring Ridge is a wonderfully preserved natural oasis just outside North Wilkesboro.

Even though Camp Harrison celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2014, the vision for the camp took shape several years before the first campers ever arrived. Dave Purcell, the camp’s executive director, says the organization developed the camp to accommodate overflow from the Charlotte YMCA’s Camp Thunderbird. Purcell says after an extensive search, the Y settled on a stretch of land owned by the Broyhill family of Broyhill Furniture fame. Wilkes County native Leonard Herring, former CEO of Lowe’s, and Frank Harrison, former chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola, contributed the majority of the private funds to purchase the property and build the first camp structures.

Camp Harrison, owned and operated by the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, hosts some 300 overnight campers from across western North Carolina from June through July. Campers can choose from a host of activities, from mountain boarding and horseback riding to cooking and gardening classes. The campgrounds include an aqua park with 25 different water features, a Yurt village for camp-outs and a clay target range. The camp also offers leadership training for teens, including lessons in conflict resolution, improving communication skills and critical decision-making.

An Open-Camp Policy

Kids aren’t the camp’s sole beneficiaries, however. Throughout the year, the camp opens its doors to local businesses, churches and families for retreats, reunions and other special events.

“We started off mainly as a summer camp and then slowly over time, we’ve been doing more and more throughout the year with weekend groups and weekday conferences, weddings and youth retreats,” says Dave Purcell, the camp’s executive director.

“The Wilkes County schools come here during the school year for field trips. We also host family camps and Y Guys, a father-son, father-daughter program.”

The camp is home to the Ecology Center at Herring Ridge, an environmental education center for students in the fourth through 12th grades to gain hands-on instruction in forestry, ecology and sustainability. The center offers half- and full-day programs for students and teachers as well as overnight programs for fifth- and sixth-graders.

Purcell says he is more than happy to make the camp available to local groups throughout the year since “we’re really here to serve the community.” In fact, Purcell says the camp’s greatest challenge is making Wilkes County residents aware of the camp.

“[Camp Harrison] joined the Wilkes Chamber of Commerce, and we’ve been trying to network more with people and businesses to make them aware of what we have,” Purcell says. “That’s probably been the biggest hurdle – people just don’t know that we’re here. We’re starting to get more interest from the local community, which we’re all for.”

Community Service

Purcell says the camp serves the community economically.

“I think [the camp] has introduced this part of North Carolina to a lot of folks who maybe wouldn’t normally come here. We have so many Charlotte families who bring their kids here for camp, and their comment often is ‘I didn’t realize how beautiful this part of North Carolina was,’” he says. “We serve about 12,000 people a year, and folks traveling through this area on their way [to camp] are often stopping at local businesses along the way.”

Purcell also hopes to expand the camp’s staff of 75 seasonal workers and dozen full-time employees, most of whom reside in Wilkes County.

“In the next few years, we want to get into family programming. We hope to eventually build a retreat center, some family cabins, a few more camper cabins, and then expand our dining hall. It’s going to get busier and busier as we go,” Purcell says.

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