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The High Desert Center


The current High Desert Center Gap Year Programs represent our best efforts to take the most successful strategies and components and link them together into the kind of long programs that support participants in discovering who they are and what they want and then learning the skills to start living it. Our campus has gotten closer to home to the point where it is now deeply integrated with the local community.



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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
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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
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Yes, I recommend this program

Writing Retreat 2022

The High Desert Center Writing Retreat 2022 was a great experience. I had a really fun time and I will never forget my time there and the people I stayed with. The community was very friendly. The staff were very welcoming and accommodating and very helpful. I learned a lot of valuable writing and life skills. Gorgeous mountain view! The food was really good and healthy. The town is very cute. I have grown as person because of my time there, gained confidence, independence, and meaningful friendships!

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Yes, I recommend this program

Writing Retreat 2022

The HDC writing retreat is a fantastic experience for people who are looking to broaden their horizons, spend some time living a rustic life up in the mountains, build a close community of supportive, open minded people and writers, and of course, write as much as you want. There's strong support for emotional wellbeing, creative goals, and personal development, making this a great place to hit writing goals, build confidence, and expand your comfort zone. People will be most comfortable here if they are open to new experiences and not distressed by sometimes spotty internet and lots of bugs. If you want to meet fellow writers from all over the country, get familiar with a small Colorado town and its community, and write as much as you can in a month, I can't recommend this retreat enough.

  • Building a community of writers
  • Time and resources for writing
  • A break from stress and responsibility
  • Rustic living
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Yes, I recommend this program

HDC Writing Retreat 2022

The writing retreat with HDC allowed me to disconnect from the distractions and stresses of my life, which help me to fall in love with writing again. The workshops were informative and fun, and helped me to think outside the box. The writing leader was very personally invested in each story and writer, giving me the attention I needed to excel in my writing. I learned a lot of things and overall improved my confidence as a writer. I also made amazing connections with all types of people, and got to explore the beautiful town of Paonia.

  • Informative and fun writing workshops
  • Fun and kind people
  • Beautiful campus


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Alumni Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with verified alumni.

Willa Bryant

Willa has an insatiable passion for wild places, especially in the American southwest. She is always planning her next big backpacking adventure, river trip, or other wilderness excursion.
Willa Bryant

Why did you choose this program?

I chose the High Desert Center's Expeditionary Semester in Arizona because it seemed curious in its exploration in both the cultural and natural worlds. The program offered hiking through rugged Arizonian desert in the south and gentle evergreen forest in the north while exploring quaint Arizona towns along the way.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

The HDC organized so many logistics for the group. Our questions beforehand were answered promptly with clear instruction and advisory.

High Desert Center provided all paperwork for signing up for the course and were very helpful in scheduling FaceTime calls, answering emails, etc. Students were in charge of buying their own airfare and buying incidentals if they needed them (I spent around $100 on the occasional kombucha, showers at a campground, postcards, etc.)

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

You get whatever you put into the trip. For example, if you are in love with learning about plants, there are exceptional resources that can support you in accomplishing that goal. If you love running, there are tons of opportunities for that need to be met.

The one thing that I encourage everyone to remember is that, if you're driven and excited about something, lots of HDC staff and students will support you in doing so. However, to get what you want, you really must communicate your goals to the group. The HDC family always has one's best interest at heart and will do as much as they can to help one achieve their goals.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

  • Day: Wake up with the sun. Kitchen Crew will make breakfast while others get ready for the day by brushing teeth, packing up their sleeping bags, and organizing their day packs. After breakfast, dishes are washed and the tables and stove are put away. After we have cleaned up and people are in the van, we either drive to the next trailhead or if we have camped at the trailhead people will start walking right away. On average, we hike 16 miles a day with the occasional overnight or 30 miler. Around 4 or 5 pm, we get back to the van and drive to our next campsite. We'll have dinner, make a fire, and go to sleep around 8:30.
  • Week: Every 3-5 days we will have a rest day where we usually go into a town and buy groceries, catch up on emails, and maybe take a shower. Depending on our timing and how tired people are feeling, we will have rest days more or less occasionally.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

When I was going to leave on my western adventure, my biggest fear was not fitting into this new community where I really wanted to feel at home. I was so nervous about not finding connection with the people around me. I remember thinking about it on the plane, and even when I first met people in the airport, however, after 3 days of being with the group, I felt as if I had known everyone for years and years.

I would encourage others to just try their best to not worry. The worrying was the hardest part! No matter what, there will be things you don't expect to happen but worrying about what's going to happen in the future and/or how you're going to feel in the future will never do anyone any favors.

Did you change after the trip? If so, in what ways?

I absolutely changed after going to Arizona. I feel so much more open to the world, the people, the places, the feelings. The HDC community gave me the opportunity to feel comfortable with myself by creating a safe, supportive, kind environment. I feel free of things that were once holding me back and able to follow my passions.

Staff Interviews

These are in-depth Q&A sessions with program leaders.

Dev Carey

Job Title
Dev’s highest priority is creating and sharing special moments. He wears thrift stores clothes, tries to fix his own old cars, butchers his own meat, and gets excited about bobcat tracks in the mud. He has a Ph.D. in ecology, has started numerous learning programs and communities, and lives with family in Paonia, Colorado.
Dev sitting on the floor and gesturing

What is your favorite travel memory?

A while back a group of gap year students and I decided to travel overland from Guatemala back to Colorado. We wanted to do it using minimal money while maximizing adventure so we took chicken buses north through Guatemala, sitting four people to a bus seat and living off food we bought on the street. We walked into Mexico and made our way to Palenque. From there it was second class buses and conversations with locals all the way to the Sinaloa where we slept on the beach. Finally we made it to the border and walked with our backpacks into the States and slept in a hidden spot in the woods off the highway.

The next stage of our adventure was to hitchhike to Colorado. Each day we would choose our next place to meet and sleep, then we would divide into groups of two and go stand on the highway and have adventures. We met up and slept in Tucson, under a bridge on Roosevelt Lake, on an abandoned hill in Flagstaff, and then back in Paonia. Each time we met up, there were crazy stories to tell and campfires to sit around.

The whole experience was night and day from traveling in an airplane. We met local people, got dirty, experienced the changing landscapes, and felt empowered by our ability to travel using relatively little money and resources.

How have you changed/grown since working for your current company?

Living in community and choosing adventures inevitably means a life full of chaos, surprise and ambiguity. I used to think I could control it, that if I was smart and charismatic enough, I could identify and create the best way. Nowadays I don’t think it matters much what I choose; what matters is who I am as life happens. Regardless of what comes my way, can I love? Can I take responsibility? Can I find that simplicity that lies on the far side of complexity, the simplicity that comes not from ignoring the chaos of life but from embracing it fully.
The young people who come to our program often feel a lot of stress and pressure trying to figure out “what to do” with their lives. By the end of our year together they often feel less pressure because regardless of what they end up doing, they know “a way to be” that feels right.

What is the best story you've heard from a return student?

I’m reading a 120 page journal by a former student who decided to ride his horse home after completing architecture school in New Mexico. Currently he’s a month into his trip and part way across Colorado. The depth with which he sees the world and reflects on it is wowing me. It’s the kind of thing we do in our programs--come up with a crazy idea and then do it. In the process we get to know ourselves and the world.
One of our goals is actually to unlearn conventional institutional ways of thinking, to recognize and transform the whole 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 just obstacles to what we all crave, which is a sense of connection, shared purpose, mutual respect and freedom.

If you could go on any program that your company offers, which one would you choose and why?

I would choose the full nine-month gap year, because it’s where people change the most, make life-long friends, and experience the most profound adventures. In the fall, I like being part of a local community here in Colorado and meeting and working beside the inspiring folks that live here. I like preparing peaches and venison for winter, jumping in the ditch after saunas, and dreaming about possible winternships. I like backpacking. In the winter I like going south and seeing the other end of the Colorado River where it no longer reaches the sea. I like being outside for 8 weeks straight, understanding how the country is connected, speaking Spanish and finding petroglyphs hidden under cliffs. Finally, in the spring I like building something out of local or found material and designing a big adventure and doing it. I’m always surprised by what happens.

What makes your company unique? When were you especially proud of your team?What makes your company unique? When were you especially proud of your team?

We are unique in that we don’t see ourselves as a company. We don’t think and act like a company. Rather, we see ourselves as individuals trying to create a meaningful and interesting life while inviting others to join us for a while on our path.

One of our goals is actually to unlearn conventional institutional ways of thinking, to recognize and transform the whole 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 just obstacles to what we all crave, which is a sense of connection, shared purpose, mutual respect and freedom.

What do you believe to be the biggest factor in being a successful company?

Once when I was hopping freight trains, a hobo told me, “If’n you ain’t having no fun, you ain’t helping nobody.”

People want to have fun in life, and I’m not talking about the kind of fun that comes with escaping our lives but rather about 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.

Successful communities support this way of living, not by policy but by a culture of individual conversations that are honest, accepting and direct and that have the potential to build inspiration, self-awareness and personal choice and responsibility.