Multiple Locations +6
  • United States of America
  • Mexico
  • Guatemala
  • Spain
  • Thailand
  • Australia
    • Adelaide
4 - 26 weeks

Program Details

Backpacking Camping Hiking
Fall Spring Winter
Cabin Host Family Hostel Tent
Primary Language
Age Min.
Age Max


Starting Price
Price Details
Includes all living expenses, food, lodging, and travel during the program.

We work hard to keep costs down because we like being an option for students who need to pay their own way. We live simply ourselves, we don’t hire accountants, we drive older cars and use our personal vehicles. All these things help with costs. But this isn’t the main explanation for our cheap gap year programs.

We know that being thrifty has benefits on top of being kind to your wallet. Our programs help you learn new skills and see different ways of being in the world, sometimes even more so than when you’re dropping a ton of money.
What's Included
Accommodation Activities Some Equipment Meals Park Fees Transportation
What's Not Included
Domestic Airfare Travel Insurance Visa
Jun 30, 2021
Dec 09, 2021
22 travelers are looking at this program

About Program

Our Gap Year Programs are designed for people who want to have fun in life. Not the kind of fun that comes with escaping our lives but rather the kind of fun that comes from living with a sense of adventure and curiosity; the kind that comes from continually choosing the courage to be real and vulnerable and go for what matters; the kind that comes from being okay with messing up because you went for it.

One of our goals is to unlearn conventional institutional ways of thinking, to recognize and transform staff/student divisions and power hierarchies that we often create by habit since most of us have grown up surrounded by power hierarchies in school, work or our families. These habits are obstacles to what we all crave, which is a sense of connection, shared purpose, mutual respect, and freedom.

We inspire people to thrive and to contribute to the well-being of human and natural communities.
We ask questions. We dialogue. We adventure and take on real-world challenges.

Video and Photos

Program Highlights

  • Live the good life while climbing mountains and hiking canyons, baking your own bread, learning community living skills, and exploring sustainable living.
  • Experience small town, off the beaten path Mexican culture and learn about pressing border and environmental issues.
  • Be part of a homespun family that challenges you to deeply understand and experience your inner self, your world, and your options.
  • Adventure with fellow participants who are creative innovators, young people in charge of their own education already making things happen in the world.
  • Imagine sleeping on top of the van under the stars, listening to coyotes, being with best friends, knowing that the next day anything could happen.

Popular Programs

Guatemalan woman working on artistic projects.

Join us for a year of travel and adventure in Colorado, Mexico, and Guatemala. Guatemala is a place for adventurous visitors and most folks who go fly there on a luxurious airplane. Not us. We’re going overland, on public transit, through the entirety of Mexico. Our goal is to have more real experiences and also spew less carbon. Once we arrive in Guatemala, we will dive into experiencing the place.

Large group of writers on site in Colorado.

The purpose of the Writing Retreat is to support budding writers in accomplishing an ambitious, self-paced writing challenge. The Writing Retreat is modeled after National Novel-Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo: the challenge to write 50,000 words in one month) with a community of like-minded aspiring writers. This is your opportunity to set your sights high and expand the limits of your creativity.

girl throws her shirt as she gets into the ocean

Part of the full gap year includes an opportunity to travel to Australia. Enjoy the fun of a family homestay in a wonderful old seaside home nestled among the urban Henley Beach. With good public transport and cycling path access, the city of Adelaide is in full summer swing for adventures and exploring. Learn about permaculture, the indigenous Kaurna culture, and seaside lifestyle in Australia.

man peaks out from behind a column near golden buddhist statues

Experience Thailand while living in a community center focused on building the skills of self-reliance. You will learn how to save seeds, garden, and practice natural building. Take advantage of getting to know the indigenous cultures of the Karen, Hmong, Lisu, and Lahu people and experience life from the vantage point of a vastly different worldview.

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Program Reviews

9.9 Rating
based on 30 reviews
  • 9-10 rating 100%
  • 7-8 rating 0%
  • 5-6 rating 0%
  • 3-4 rating 0%
  • 1-2 rating 0%
  • Housing 9.2
  • Support 9.8
  • Fun 9.9
  • Value 10
  • Safety 9.4
Showing 1 - 8 of 30 reviews
Default avatar
Yes, I recommend this program

Transformative Experience

If you’re anything like me and you long to feel free
The hdc is the place to be
You’ll find yourself in an exciting, challenging, loving community
Surrounded by friends, mentors, endless opportunity
You’ll explore your individuality and new ways of living life
By climbing mountains, pooping in canyons, swimming in mud, engaging in intimate conversations, creating stick spoons with your knife
I hope you’ll surrender to the unknown, the mystery of it all
For your soul will nourish seeds of understanding and awareness, that soon will grow tall

What was the most unfamiliar thing you ate?
During the minimalist challenge, we sustained ourselves with chicken soup... which included every part of the chicken, including the intestines!
24 people found this review helpful.
Default avatar
Yes, I recommend this program

Life-changing gap year!

I am not the same person I was when I started at the High Desert Center. None of my friends there are either. I have experienced us all grow together in so many ways: physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially, and energetically.

Whether it be cuddling in the van late at night, having group check-ins, engaging in vulnerable conversations, working together, or playing games together, this gap year provides an abundance of opportunities to bond and grow with people. This was the first time in my life that I had found so many people that all shared the same interests I did. This made it easy for me to get along and open myself up.

One of my biggest takeaways from the year is having a cultivated mindset of POSSIBILITY. Having gone to the High Desert Center I feel so much more confidence in myself and in my ability to tackle the world.

If you want growth, connection, adventure, and community, then sign up for this amazing gap year. Period.

What would you improve about this program?
One thing I would improve about this program is having a more balanced ratio of male to female participants.
47 people found this review helpful.
Default avatar
Yes, I recommend this program

Best Decision I Ever Made

The High Desert Center regularly opens their arms to young adults, and releases them into the world with both the spirit, curiosity, and unabashed love of a child, as well as the reverence, resilience, and introspection of someone much older. I have never encountered an organization so dedicated to authenticity and creativity, where the teachers respect the students as much as the students respect the teachers, where spontaneity and adventure is met with enthusiasm rather than restriction, and where all opinions and identities are not only welcomed, but cherished. It’s difficult to do this experience justice, but there is one word that comes to mind; delight. At HDC, we learn to delight in the things that had before gone unnoticed, in the company and warmth of other people, in the silence and the sadness, in the pleasure of listening, and in the anger and the joy. I believe this leads all participants to walk away with a rare skill - to create a good life whomever they’re with and wherever they go. It has been the greatest pleasure of my life to spend a year here. I know I’m not the only one.

41 people found this review helpful.
Default avatar
Yes, I recommend this program

The High Desert Center Gap Year Program 2021

This was the best 8 months of my life so far. This program opened up my worldview so much. I learned so much about communication, consent, boundaries, traveling affordably, living sustainably, intention, how to be okay with a little discomfort, and how to let the moments be. I think that this program is so unique in its experience, probably because of the leaders and small town of paonia. This was a life-changing experience for me, and I know that the people I got to know here are ones I will be seeing in the future. This program is real.

What was the most surprising thing you saw or did?
It's hard to choose honestly. We stayed overnight in a small Arizona town called Ajo, and ended up befriending an old hippie who let us stay in his home. He offered us showers and warmth and good company. His stories were so cool to listen to.
43 people found this review helpful.
Default avatar
Yes, I recommend this program

This program will change your life (actually though)

If someone had told me on that first day the sense of achievement I would gain from summiting the peaks towering off in the distance, or the warm fuzzy feeling I would get every time I saw my community all together whether for a meeting or a meal, or how I would look back on who I was then and not feel embarrassed but rather proud of how hard I worked to be who I am now, I would have said “No, that’s impossible.”

With the rock-solid support of the incredible staff, and the love and lessons I received from my peers, I was able to grow into the empowered, inspired, and capable person I am now. The community we built was what made my Gap Year experience what it was—challenging, fulfilling, joyful, and real.

I recommend this Gap Year to any young person with the desire to build strong relationships, grow as a person, and be themselves.

46 people found this review helpful.
Default avatar
Yes, I recommend this program

Transforming experience I'd highly recommend!

I look forward to the day I have acquired a preference for rocking chairs. I picture myself sitting back and letting memories of my year at HDC persuade a smile onto my face. I’ll think about making mud soup with sticks and a view, the countless shooting stars and sleeping beneath them, dancing without realizing it but not stopping once I did, and everyone I shared all of this with. HDC offered me a chance to gain a better understanding of myself and the world around me as well as the chance to let myself be seen and understood by those around me. If my authenticity was a person HDC was the hand that reached out and asked it to play. I found myself in a space with just the right ratio of challenge and support to help me foster confidence in myself and a feeling of competence. Before HDC I felt a little like rain with nowhere to land but slowly throughout my year there I felt myself slowly contributing to something bigger than just myself, a small but wonderful community where love thrives, obviously so, yet subtly all at once. Due to HDC’s adventurous and spontaneous spirit I will die having accidentally seen more than 100 wagons. I will laugh at that in a rocking chair someday. I feel lucky to have made memories I look forward to remembering.

What was the most unfamiliar thing you ate?
I ate polenta for the first time. I then ate it several times over the course of the year and it's not very uncommon but I'm excited to come across it out in the world and think back to my experience at HDC. It'll bring a smile to my face.
46 people found this review helpful.
Default avatar
Yes, I recommend this program

A wonderful place

The best way to describe my time at the High Desert Center would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I thought I liked the outdoors before coming here, but the opportunities and Adventures provided here has made me realize I would like to pursue a full-time job in the outdoors. We hiked to the bottom of canyons we summited multiple Peaks. This experience has made me crave the outdoors. I've grown so much as a person, through the workshops and endless support of the staff members. The people in the connections you will make here are ones that will last a lifetime. If you're looking for skills that you can apply to the real world this program is definitely for you.

What was your funniest moment?
On a community day we had a dinner where the theme was early 2000s and we all got dressed up and put on fake personas. It was just so funny to watch everyone get really invested into it.
44 people found this review helpful.
Default avatar
Yes, I recommend this program

Must go! Life Changing!

This is an experience of a lifetime, I’ve grown so much as a person because of this program. I came to HDC with no backpacking experience not even sure if I would enjoy backpacking. All of the backpacking trips are gorgeous and an amazing bonding experiences. Now I have a life long skill that I can bring to my family and friends. This program helped me discover the beauty of life and how meaningful connections can be. Be prepared for an exhilarating challenge and to make life long friends. My favorite part about this program is the community. Everyone is so supportive and loving. There is so many opportunities to grow and experience life to its fullest. I highly recommend this program if you crave adventure!

What is your advice to future travelers on this program?
Make sure to double check your packing list:)) if you don’t have experience with backpacking I highly recommend talking to someone who does before purchasing your stuff.
40 people found this review helpful.

Questions & Answers