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
Mar 29, 2023
37 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.

Related Programs

Program Reviews

5.00 Rating
based on 33 reviews
  • 5 rating 100%
  • 4 rating 0%
  • 3 rating 0%
  • 2 rating 0%
  • 1 rating 0%
  • Housing 4.85
  • Support 5
  • Fun 5
  • Value 5
  • Safety 4.85
Showing 1 - 8 of 33 reviews
Default avatar
Yes, I recommend this program

High Desert Center - Fabulous GAP Semester Programs!

I write as a parent whose kid - an 18 year old taking a gap year before college - recently completed High Desert Center's Fall 2022 gap year program (13 weeks). In short, it is PHENOMENAL. I am 100% serious.

Let’s face it, many gap year programs have (sadly) become glorified summer camp, meaning they have structured, cookie-cutter activities and are for-profit money makers. That’s the opposite of what a good gap year program should provide, which is an environment that challenges young people to grow in independent, authentic ways. High Desert Center (HDC) actually does that.

It’s run exceptionally well by Dev and Marian, a husband and wife team who have been doing this for 20 years. They are hands-on. They are on-site. It is their passion and they run – not outsource – everything!

Dev has a PhD in ecology and is a university professor. They are the real deal! They live their environmental values. Every day. They created a beautiful setting in rural Colorado as their base camp (Paonia, Colorado), where the first half of the program is based, and then they hit the road for the second half, traveling south through the prettiest parts of America and camping out in unique, exotic places, including Indian reservations and state and national parks. They end the semester by hiking into Mexico and spending a couple weeks there living in a village with Mexican families.

Again, this is the real deal. If you want structured, cookie-cutter, summer camp fun, then don’t choose this. But if you want an experience that can actually change your life and give you real direction, tools, values, and confidence for a lifetime, then look into HDC. You won’t be disappointed.

My kid loved it – every part of it – and will head off to college better prepared with confidence. Embrace this place.

Bill Choslovsky

  • Best GAP year semester program
  • Beautiful setting
  • Authentic and challenging
  • None
64 people found this review helpful.
Default avatar
Yes, I recommend this program

Amazing Experience

The High Desert Center was a wonderful experience for me. In the weeks before leaving for HDC I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be better than I could have ever expected. I wanted a program that would allow me to spend time in nature, make friends, gain confidence, and travel. I feel like I really loved every aspect about the program. I had really unique life experiences that I feel like have allowed me to grow as a person and also have a lot of fun. I look back on the past few months and can’t believe I met these amazing people. Everyone I met was so warm and welcoming, making me feel like a part of the HDC and Paonia community from day one. As someone heading to college next year, I feel like it prepared me to live and travel on my own, increased my confidence, and taught me a lot about life. Some of my favorite highlights are seeing the constellations for the first time and practically every night there, backpacking in the West Elk, roadtripping to different towns like Patagonia and Tucson, exploring Goblin Valley in Utah, and staying with host families in Mexico. I feel like at HDC I participated in some amazing group actives each day while also having time to explore Paonia and the other places we camped in, expand my hobbies, make excellent food, and form connections with people from all over the world.

In terms of cons, I didn't include any in the review because I think there are things I could say are cons about the program; however, the negatives and positives of the program are completely dependent on the people in the group and how you decide to operate as a group and what you decide to do while you're there.

  • Independence
  • Nature
  • Fun
68 people found this review helpful.
Default avatar
Yes, I recommend this program

This was amazing!!

I would absolutely recommend this program to anyone who likes the outdoors and wants to connect with a bunch of cool people. There are limitless opportunities to explore anything you want here. Even in the first week or so, all the participants work together with staff to brainstorm and decide priorities and activities that the group is excited about. These get reevaluated whenever people want to go in a new direction, and makes it so anything can be done. I really wanted to backpack, so I was able to go on four different trips of varying lengths, but those who didn’t want to always had the option of staying back or doing something else. I didn’t know the first thing about backpacking before coming here, though. HDC does a great job of easing participants into the outdoor life, starting with day hikes that progressively get harder, and and before the first backpacking trip, we were given an entire day to ask questions and learn the basics so we were prepared going out. Each trip had less support, so we got to learn how to plan and prepare little by little. I now would feel confident leading trips with my friends for up to a week. We meet so many fascinating people in Paonia and on the road, and there are countless opportunities to spend time with whoever you want. Many people from my group made friends with other young adults in town and went on day trips with them on off days to nearby towns. I made friends with a neighbor and he taught me how to make a lampshade from scratch! I was exposed to so many ways of living that inspire me to step outside the box. There are neighbors who live in converted busses, earthships (look those up!) and teepees. We sleep in cabins when in Paonia, but there is always an option to sleep elsewhere. I slept outside most nights and became very familiar with the stars. Outdoor living becomes more of a norm on the road, where there are no cabins to sleep in. Tents are always available, but I got a lot out of sleeping on the ground with my sleeping bag, pad, and tarp. The people I met here, both staff and participant, are some of the kindest, most amazing people ever. They come from all over the world, each bearing a different perspective to contribute to the common goal of connection. Living in a community like this is one of the mast freeing and comforting environments to be in. I love my HDC family and wouldn't trade this experience for the world.

  • Amazing people to meet
  • Choosing what adventures you want to go on
  • A safe way to learn outdoor skills
  • Almost all big decisions have to be made with the full group
  • There is little alone/break time on the road
64 people found this review helpful.
Default avatar
Yes, I recommend this program

A Real “Growth,” not just “Gap” Year

For those who like brevity, here’s the punchline: if you want a truly meaningful, unparalleled, one-of-a-kind, nature-focused, intimate, challenging, growth - not gap - year, then check out the High Desert Center (HDC). It has no equal. It really is transformational.

I knew I wanted to take a gap year after high school and did a LOT of research. I wanted something nature-oriented with a sustainability focus. HDC is all that and then some. I just completed the Fall 13 week program (Aug 17-Nov. 21), and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. Reading about HDC beforehand, my mind, body, and soul instantly lit up telling me this was the one. Now, I can validate that I was more than right! HDC is the real deal, and then some.

If you are unsure of exactly what you want to do with your life and realize that you want a space where you can grow you - your passions, communication skills, adventurous nature, connection abilities, adaptability skills, and so much more - HDC may be the program for you. The thing that HDC has, that other programs don't, is its ability to balance physical growth (outdoorsy, tangible skills) with personal emotional growth (diving deeper into who you are and your purpose.) Most programs that I found while I searched highlighted outdoor adventure, with little to no direct spotlight on diving deeper into who you are.

The structure of the program is unique. The first 7 weeks are spent at base camp in Paonia, Colorado, a neat little rural town in Western Colorado at about 5000 feet. There we do many day and overnight treks, and work on sustainability initiatives getting our hands quite dirty. Then, we head out on the road for the final 6 weeks through the southwest in our mini, funky decorated bus. We don’t just visit Indian reservations, we live on them. We don’t just hike in national monuments and state parks, we live in them. We don’t just talk about border and immigration issues, we go to the border, observe and interview people, and live there. And for the last 10 days, we cross the border south and live with host families in a remote, quaint Mexican village 50 miles south of the border. To say the experience is immersive is an understatement.

And with the group relatively small - just 13 participants and 4 staff - the relationships are amazing, intense, and real. The program is run by Dev and Marian, two kind, generous, genius people who have PhD’s in ecology. They don’t outsource anything. They are hands-on. They are as kind as they are wise. They’ve been doing it 20 years. They have no equals. They truly live their values.

Coming out of the program, I know I have a deeper connection with myself. For one, I am more confident in who I am, which my family and friends have already complimented me on. Secondly, I have unveiled my passion for restoring this earth and it validated that I want to pursue environmental conservation in college. Thirdly, it has given me a totally different perception of our world from our focus on the US and Mexican border, Native American Reservations, and the environment and wildlife. This leads me to another aspect of HDC which other programs don’t have. That is, that all of these focuses were things that OUR group voted on and chose to pursue. HDC allows its participants to make big, group decisions which I appreciated so much. It feels great knowing that you have a huge input in what you're gonna be doing everyday versus a standard schedule which is set-in-stone.

This program allows ALL people to thrive! No matter your personality traits, likes and dislikes, and life experiences, HDC allowed me and all of the other participants a safe place and community to pursue ourselves and each other. Being surrounded by amazing people around my age as well as very devoted staff members who want to see you succeed made this program so much more special. I can now say that I have 16+ lifelong friends that I know I will keep in touch with. Though the program is over, we are already thinking of planning a reunion!

So if you haven’t figured it out by now, I highly recommend this program to anyone looking for an authentic, deep, challenging way to dive deeper into themselves and the world around them. This program has changed my life for the better and I will fondly look back on it for . . . ever.

  • Adventurous, communication, leadership skills
  • It's flexibility
  • Life-long friends and memories
75 people found this review helpful.
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!
102 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.
146 people found this review helpful.
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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.

126 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.
134 people found this review helpful.

Questions & Answers