Eagle County greenlights plan for Walking Mountains Science Center Sweetwater Campus
New 224-acre site will be ready for student field science visits beginning this fall
Walking Mountains Science Center grew a whole lot bigger this week, netting a unanimous approval from Eagle County for a special use permit to operate its new Sweetwater Campus.
Back in 2018, Walking Mountains Science Center first proposed its new educational camp facility up Sweetwater Road.
“Our campus has been very successful here in Avon and our total acreage is 11 acres,” said Walking Mountains President Markian Feduschak. As the center looked to grow, it looked westward.
“We felt that it would be good to have a larger field science site that is located closer to where the population is growing,” Feduschak said.
In 2015, Walking Mountains was approached to purchase a 224-acre site at 776 Sweetwater Road. The parcel was originally approved for a Vail Mountain School overnight camp.
“The purchase of the property was funded by generous donors, in particular Jay and Amanda Precourt, in fact it is named the Precourt Sweetwater Campus,” Feduschak said.
He noted the science center has spent the past five years master planning its program and building site infrastructure including a new access road, bridge and parking area.
“The George Family generously funded the infrastructure work and the campus core, once the yurts are established, will be called the George Family Base Camp,” Feduschak said.
Additionally, a Colorado Rocky Mountain Youth Corps team constructed a trail at the site. With the plan developed and the site improvements built, Walking Mountain submitted its operations application to the county in 2019.
All the legwork apparently paid off. On Tuesday, the Eagle County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the special use permit for the Sweetwater campus. Earlier this year, the Eagle County Planning Commission also offered unanimous support for the proposal.
The permit allows day and overnight camps, including construction of tent platforms, two yurts, and one multipurpose education center containing a kitchen, restrooms and meeting space. The request also includes up to two special events each year with up to 300 attendees.
But the main purpose of the campus to expand what Walking Mountains already provides — field science programs for school-age kids.
“It really is a wonderful additional field science site for us,” said Feduschak.
Walking Mountains Sweetwater Campus operations plan includes academic school year programs, summer science camps, overnight camps and workshops and adult programs.
During the school year, Walking Mountains hosts field science programs for K-8 students. These programs happen during the Monday through Friday school week, typically from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The operating hours at Sweetwater may vary to accommodate the commute from individual schools to the site. School buses or passenger vans will provide transportation to the site.
The average number of participants for school programs varies depending on what’s being offered, but typically includes two to five groups of approximately eight to 12 children, one teacher and one chaperone. The maximum daily attendance would likely be one school busload of between 50 to 60 children.
During the summer, Walking Mountains offers science day camp programs for kids in kindergarten through high school. Typically the maximum group size is 14 students.
Walking Mountains also currently offers overnight camps and workshops.
“Having the tent platforms out there (at Sweetwater) will be great and we also have occasionally rented out Anderson Camps so the new location couldn’t work better,” Feduschak said. “Our plan is not to have a large residential overnight facility like Anderson Camp. That is already there now. Anderson Camp is privately owned and they lease out the property. We are not in competition with that because our objective is not to have a residential facility. That’s just not what we do.”
With the Sweetwater site, Feduschak said Walking Mountains also plans to expand its adult programing downvalley. Adult programs are typically half-day or full-day offerings with group size typically limited to 10 participants and one educator.
Opening this fall
Feduschak said it won’t be long before local kids start visiting the Sweetwater campus
“If this was a regular summer, we would have summer science camps up there this year,” he noted. However, with the COVID-19 constraints in place, transportation to the site is impractical.
“But we are in close communications with Eagle County Schools and we will start using the site this fall,” Feduschak said.
The Walking Mountains expansion plan drew an enthusiastic response from Eagle county officials.
“It is a really great program and this is great to see,” Commissioner Matt Scherr said during Tuesday’s hearing.
Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney also complimented the proposal, noting the compatibility with the neighboring Anderson Camps property.
“And the goals and the mission for Walking Mountains guarantees that they will be meeting the county’s standards,” McQueeney added.
“It’s really a great addition to Eagle County to have this opportunity here to have someplace that local kids can go to delve into science and be on the land,” Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said.
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