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What is Camp David?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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Camp David is a private retreat in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland which is set aside for the use of the President of the United States. The site is located close enough to Washington, DC, to be conveniently accessible to the President and First Family, but it has a remarkably isolated and remote feel, according to people who have been privileged enough to visit. While the facility is designated as a retreat, it is often used for work, with guests of the United States being hosted at Camp David for conferences and workshops to discuss issues of international importance.

The site was given over to the use of the President in 1942, and christened Shangri-La by President Roosevelt. President Eisenhower later renamed the site after his grandson David, and the site is officially known as the Naval Support Facility Thurmont. Camp David is maintained and staffed by the Department of the Navy, with a Marine guard in place to protect the facility. The budget for the maintenance of the camp also comes from the Navy.

In a sense, Camp David is like a Presidential summer camp. In addition to the main lodge, the site has a number of guest cabins, along with facilities for sports, and a network of trails and gardens. All told, the complex covers around 200 acres (81 hectares), and it is widely regarded as one of the most secure facilities in the world, thanks to the elite protective guard and multiple barriers of fencing around the site.

Presidents spend varying amounts of time at Camp David. The site tends to be especially popular in the summer months, when the cool mountain air is a refreshing change from the sometimes oppressive heat of Washington. Some Presidents have spent a great deal of time at the site, while others have preferred to visit other locations for private retreats. Many Presidents have also contributed to the overall look and feel of the facility with an assortment of renovations and innovations.

This site is also popular as a location for hosting conferences and discussions. The remote location makes it easier to focus on serious issues without outside influences, and it can make for more private, detailed discussions between international leaders. The site has been used as a neutral site for the purpose of working out international treaties like the Camp David Accords, and for informal conferences between the President and heads of state from around the world.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By hyrax53 — On Jul 19, 2011

@jennythelib- I think also that the in the past, they sometimes host visitors and talks at Camp David before they actually announce them to the press- maybe this is because it's much easier to be secretive that way when you are in the country, rather than in the middle of Washington, DC.

By snickerish — On Jul 19, 2011

@saraq90 - I forgot about that moment in history for Camp David! And I think, that moment at Camp David for Arafat was noted as being a mistake for him and that he wanted to try to sign the same peace agreement a year later.

Also, you are correct in that Theodore Roosevelt did fight for and create many of the national parks.

By Saraq90 — On Jul 18, 2011

@geekish - I can't be sure of the answer to your question, if you are wondering if he went often, or if he went on a lot of vacations to Camp David. But I can tell you he went there. At Camp David, Bill Clinton in fact, had a huge moment there.

The story goes that there was a peace talk between Arafat and Clinton in 2000 and Arafat turned it down! I don't know the details of it, but I believe there is mention to it in Bill Clinton's autobiography.

I was just curious to how Camp David became Camp David! Now knowing that it was Roosevelt that founded it, the place makes more sense in that it is this amazing outdoorsy area; because wasn't it Roosevelt that put into motion the making of many of our national parks?

By geekish — On Jul 18, 2011

@Kat919 - My husband had me watching the West Wing reruns. And I grew to love it! I have not seen the episode where they go to Camp David. I will have to look for that episode. Right now it seems the President on West Wing is a bit too much of a workaholic to go to Camp David much!

I remember George Bush going to Camp David for vacation and I have heard of Obama going to Camp David, does anyone remember if Clinton spent much time at Camp David?

By blackDagger — On Jul 17, 2011

I wonder what one has to do to get to go to Camp David? Must people be having peace talks and stuff to go?

I suppose it might be a security breech to bring in outsiders or to do something like a documentary on what it looks like. I would absolutely love to see it! I think it is so interesting when we can see the inside of the White House on television.

I don’t think that I want to be involved in any peace talks or wars or affairs of state, though, so I guess I’ll just have to live with that unfulfilled dream of seeing Camp David.

I bet it is really nice and probably very much a sanctuary for each of the Presidents in turn.

By Eviemae — On Jul 17, 2011

I did not know that the Navy financed Camp David and also was in charge of its security. I find that to be incredibly interesting, although I don’t have the slightest notion as to why the Navy would be its protectors.

Am I missing something? I thought Camp David was in the mountains, not near water. And I also thought that the Navy was all about the water. So what is the connection between the two?

I would think that the Army would actually be over something like this since they are a little more land bound than the Marines or the Navy. Of course, I know very little about our armed forces, so I could be way off here.

By jennythelib — On Jul 16, 2011

@Kat919 - The West Wing was a decent show but I felt like Aaron Sorkin was just reusing stuff from the movie The American President, which I watch pretty much every year!

The article does mention the remote location making it easier to focus. Maybe if they hold them at the White House, the visitors get too distracted by the big city! Remember that it's not just the heads of state; I assume they travel with a big staff, from advisors to translators to bodyguards. Maybe part of the reason they do talks at Camp David, like in 1978, is that it has more room for all those people!

By Kat919 — On Jul 16, 2011

I wonder why Camp David peace talks are so popular, as opposed to just holding them at the White House. Is the idea that a more rural location will make people more relaxed and willing to negotiate?

I used to be a big fan of the Aaron Sorkin show The West Wing. President Bartlet was not a big fan of Camp David, but he did have peace talks there in the fifth or sixth season. So to me, Camp David will always be the place where "Leo" had a heart attack alone in the woods. It was a terribly sad, scary scene. (Not to mention eerily prescient, since the actor who played Leo, John Spencer, would die of a heart attack himself before the show went off the air.)

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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