Trip Finder

To Dream the Impossible Dream: Moondance Adventures is About the Destination and the Journey

June 24, 2024

Above: Mountain Brook native Corley Haynes, a Moodance leader, traveling with students in Spain.


Lee Hurley, father of 2024 Moondance leader Willy Hurley, writes about the “big shift” on Moondance trips in his recent article in the Over The Mountain Journal. Read more below!


May 28, 2024

by Lee Hurley


May is a busy time for Moondance Adventures founder Hayes Hitchens and his 180 leaders.

They are in staff training at Camp Wayfarer, in North Carolina, preparing themselves mentally, physically and philosophically for the nearly 2,000 students they will lead on a cornucopia of travel adventures this summer from Alaska to Zanzibar.

This may sound simply like a cool summer job, and it definitely is that, but it’s also something more to these leaders. It’s their chance to help teenagers have life-changing travel experiences, embrace the value of teamwork, overcome obstacles and communicate in the ancient ritual of conversation.

“Being a Moondance leader taught me how to be independent in variable environments,” Mountain Brook native Corley Haynes said. “I could not imagine a more fulfilling job than helping students gain perspective about themselves, regardless of the destination.”



Growing up, Hitchens spent his summers at Camp Deerhorn in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, which his grandfather founded in 1930. He started as a camper, then became a counselor and finally a dreamer of owning his own camp. He got close to realizing that dream when, in 1995, he found the perfect small camp to buy in North Carolina. Yet fate stepped in when someone else bought the property.

As Leonard Cohen says, “Everything is cracked, that’s how the light gets in.”

Leaning on his camp experience as well as a dozen years as the dean of students and director of summer programs at the Lovett School in Atlanta, Hitchens saw travel as a way to positively affect young people. That light became Moondance Adventures.

The first Moondance summer, in 1996, attracted 34 teens to two summer trips, Wyoming and North Carolina. Fast forward to this past August, when registration for the 2024 summer sessions opened and 1,000 teenagers signed up in the first 30 minutes for travel to five continents, 22 countries and nine states, briefly crashing the website.

In the intervening years, Hitchens and his growing staff recruited students throughout the South – from Richmond to Birmingham to Dallas – presenting slide shows in private homes, promising parents a safe, cell phone- and social media-free experience and teenagers the adventure of a lifetime and the chance to forge deep friendships.


Oh, the Places You’ll Go

As the years went by, the demand for international travel became stronger. Trips to places such as Iceland, Fiji, Thailand, Africa and Croatia now complement Alaska, Yosemite and the Pacific Northwest.

There also is the “Mystery Trip.” Students are told what to pack but have no idea where they are going until they get on the plane.

“Madeira and Slovenia were two beloved Mystery Trips. At first, I couldn’t find Madeira on a map,” Hitchens laughed.

At home or abroad, the trips continue to challenge and change perspective. Mallie Bromberg asked her parents, Frank and Anne, for a Moondance trip to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming as a Mountain Brook High School graduation present.

“I had never backpacked, camped or slept in a tent, but I wanted to do something ‘big’ before going to college,” she said. “After sleeping in a tent for 21 nights, nine of which were in the backcountry, I can confidently confirm that I did it much bigger than anticipated. It changed the trajectory of my life and gave me confidence to do things that are out of my comfort zone.”

Group sizes are intentionally small, around 12, and made up of boys and girls with no three from the same town. Grades accepted are from the seventh to 12th, and prices start in the low $5,000s and run through the low $9,000s.

Trips vary from two to three weeks. Accommodations include tents, hostels and hotels, depending on the circumstance. Food varies from local fare cooked at hostels and small hotels to self-prepared meals on the trail. It’s all about culture adaptation.

Activities include scuba certification, rock climbing, hiking, mountaineering, fishing, kayaking, zip lining, game watching, surfing and snorkeling, plus anything else the local milieu offers.

Service is another important activity and often voted the most meaningful part of the trip.

Vestavia Hills graduate Sara Hattaway served in Thailand on an elephant sanctuary in Chang Mai.

“We made food for two elephants, one who was blind and the other who had a hip disability. Getting to see these animals up close was amazing and learning about the abuse they go through changed my point of view on elephants.”


The Beginning of a Big Shift

The first 24 hours after the students arrive at their destinations can be awkward. That’s why leaders work hard to acknowledge and encourage every person and promote togetherness as quickly as possible to break the ice.

Each night, students and leaders engage in what’s called a “moonup,” which is a roundup of the day and a discussion about anything anyone is thinking or feeling.

Trip leader Kelly McFarling, now a singer songwriter in California, wrote of her moonup, “As I gathered in the circle for the first time under the stars listening to strangers discuss their biggest fears, I felt the beginning of a big shift.”

Hitchens summarizes his current outlook this way: “Moondance is about face-to-face communication and the joy of being young. As older people, we are able to look back and realize how precious and fleeting time can be. Our goal is to give these young people life experiences that will stay with them forever.”

To Dream the Impossible Dream: Moondance Adventures is About the Destination and the Journey