The High Desert Center--one year of adventure and growth at an unparalleled rate.

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 and Devâ??s home.

Apply Now for 2020-2021 Gap Year

Applications are coming in for our upcoming Gap Year. If you resonate with our homespun, wild approach and want to join us in a year of adventure, community living, and personal growth at a relatively affordable rate, apply today.

39091 Pitkin Rd
Paonia, CO 81428
United States


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Yes, I recommend this program

Let me tell you about the mountains that we wake up to every morning, surrounded by sun-kissed peaks that offered weeks of back country exploration. Let me tell you about the delicious smell of bacon calling me from my bed just before the breakfast bell rings, bacon from a small organic farm down the road where we visited and worked with our hands in the dirt. Let me tell you about how I learned to thrive with less, how to live simply and cheaply, and minimize my impact on this environment. Let me tell you about the triumphs and tribulations of living in close community as I learned how to communicate and navigate conflicts. Let me tell you how I became empowered to notice and shift inner patterns and habits that didn't serve me, learning tools to liberate myself from myself. Let me tell you how I was guided by staff that supported me and made space to truly hear and see me. This gap year changed my life. If it calls to you, I encourage you to take the leap.

If you did this all over again, what's one thing you would change?
I would open up more and talk to the staff and other participants about my inner fears and challenges rather than trying to hide from them or hide them from others. I would make the most of the numerous learning opportunities that arise at HDC. I would put more thought into my personal goals and how they align with HDC opportunities. And I would spend more time in the Paonia community, getting to know some of the amazing people that live in the area.
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Yes, I recommend this program

The directors, Dev and Marian, are both incredibly intelligent, caring and skillful leaders. They created an open, safe space for individuals to create community and share their stories. The program's combination of adventure, challenge, and support made for an amazing year with strong friendships and connections between other participants and staff members alike. The group was able to bond over things like hiking in the back country or cooking food in the outdoor kitchen. I wouldn't have traded this experience for any other.

What was your funniest moment?
When we played board games in the strawbale, there were so many times where everyone ended up on the floor laughing so hard we cried.
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Yes, I recommend this program

Let's just say I felt STUCK! But that literally changed overnight when my friend received an email spreading the word about this wild opportunity. We clicked the link to The High Desert Center's website advertising the 2016-2017 gap year program, and I was blown away. We read about the previous gap year and all the experiences they offered in the program. I felt like I found the way out of feeling so stuck. I applied the next day! When I found out I was accepted, I was ridiculously excited.
Meeting the directors Dev and Marian for the first time was a breath of fresh air. They were so welcoming, and I could tell they would take such good care of everyone. Over the course of the year, they proved to be incredible mentors! I had so many first time experiences, like climbing a mountain, backpacking, traveling the southwest in a van, and going to Mexico!
Of course there were were challenges, and I was often encouraged to step a little outside of my comfort zone (like being a total city boy and then told that I would be using a composting toilet for the majority of the time), but I always felt really supported and listened to when I had any concerns. I felt very safe with Dev and Marian and the rest of their staff. They taught us a lot about open and honest communication, and I think that learning those skills with them in such a safe space changed my life!

If you did this all over again, what's one thing you would change?
I would do more! I wish I took every opportunity for adventure they offered or that was thought up by other participants. If I got another chance to do a minimalist backpacking trip or hike in and out of the Grand Canyon in one day, I'd say HELL YES.
Yes, I recommend this program

This program strengthened and developed my passions! I fell in love with dancing every day, community meals, late night conversations, sleeping under the stars, and the adrenaline rush of exploring and backpacking the gorgeous backcountry of Colorado! I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to dive deep into the next step of life in an off the beaten path kind of way. Community is a very important part of this program and you will learn not only about yourself, but also how your role and compassion plays such an important part of the group throughout the year. This program creates a family where communication, food, mud fights and adventure are the foundation for love.

What is your advice to future travelers on this program?
Dive deep and pay attention to what truly brings you joy! This may be a break from work or school, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't still be working hard and giving it your all! Rest is important too, but don't let yourself lose track of the reward of accomplishment.
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Yes, I recommend this program

Although my time at the High Desert Center (HDC) ended well over a year ago, my experiences there impact me to this day. I enjoyed growth as a writer through both expert-led workshops and opportunities to share our work in intimate groups. Perhaps even more memorably, I transformed as a person. The small, tight-knit group felt like a family, and we shared the knowledge that we were in a space safe for vulnerability — not just through our writing, but through any stories, ideas, or questions. Through this communication, participants were able to form close bonds with other participants and with staff. Two of the program staff also taught partner dance lessons, which provided engaging yet relaxing community-oriented environments where we learned and laughed.

In addition to the mental and emotional growth I experienced, I became more independent; this program was the first time that I had been away from my family and hometown for so long. Participants experienced significant freedom in our daily lives — from walking through the woods or into town, to making consequential decisions about work and food, to grabbing our sleeping bags and sleeping outside beneath the twinkling stars. We also were encouraged to develop grit and appreciation for nature through hikes, survival trips, and group activities. Because it was such a distinct and powerful experience, I don't think I will ever forget how truly at home I felt at the HDC and how meaningfully it shaped my outlook on life.

What was the most unfamiliar thing you ate?
Whenever I was walking into the town of Paonia, I loved to snack on a green shrub with small lavender flowers that grew along the side of the road. In a survival workshop, the program leader introduced us to certain wild plants that were safe to eat, and this was one of them -- unfortunately, I don't recall its name. It tasted somewhat similar to alfalfa; it was fresh but earthy and poignant.


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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.

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.

Marian Pierce

Job Title
Assistant Director
Marian brings a deep love for the natural world, community living, and old fashion fun to her work with the HDC. She’s continually amazed that her work-life feels so meaningful, full of adventure/travel, and results in so many deep and lasting relationships.

What is your favorite travel memory?

During our first semester, participants design and execute self-designed challenges in small groups. One group chose to do an all-womens' writing retreat in nature using a series of prompts called The Heroine’s Journey.

The snow came early to Colorado that fall right as we headed off for this adventure.

The off-grid cabin where we stayed was only accessible by foot. We climbed a mountain with heavy packs through the snow to get there, and for the next week, we were both writers and homesteaders. We chopped wood, melted snow for water, cleaned the snow off the solar panels and took turns building fires.

During the day, we wrote and shared our stories which resulted in a lot of laughter and some tender tears. We went for walks through the deep snow. The experience slowed us down; connected us with our bodies, our stories, and the landscape; and brought us closer together in this intimate, nourishing way.

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

At the High Desert Center, we live what we teach. I am constantly asking myself,

Am I feeling inspired by my life?

Do others thrive in my presence?

Are my actions in line with my values, creating a world I want to be part of?

I haven’t always liked my answers.

As leaders, our job is to model the compassion, perseverance, and patience it takes to grow. I’ve practiced doing this for myself a lot over the last eight years. I am happier as a result. My relationships are deeper. I laugh more often. I’m not afraid to put in the work when someone shows me a blindspot, which used to be scary and send me into a pit of despair. I feel more confident and powerful in my life.

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

One student traveled around SE Asia during his independent study part of our program (Winternship). For six years prior, he wanted to travel overseas but didn’t believe in his ability to do so. He was especially worried about finances and his safety. With coaching and support, he took the plunge.

When we talked on the phone while he was abroad, his voice was alive with the excitement of going after a long term dream. He tried scuba diving and in the process discovered some ways to cope with his anxiety. He felt empowered and full of possibility afterward.

I love that he went after the life he dreamed for himself, and in the process came up against things he might have previously shied away from. With the momentum and confidence he built on our program, he overcame challenges. Participants and staff supported him to keep going when he experienced doubt and cheered him on when he had success. I love getting to witness people step into their lives with more strength and power than they previously knew they had.

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

I love our Gap Year Programs. We are in the community for NINE months. We become a family. We share our highest highs and lowest lows with one another. That creates a bond that transcends our individual preferences and allows us to experience how interconnected we are.

It also pushes us to be real with one another. Eventually, you can’t push through discomfort by politely ignoring or avoiding things. That’s so boring. An uncomfortable conversation can be just as scary and rewarding as climbing a steep, unstable mountainside. On the other side of that conversation, it can feel like suddenly there is so much more possibility. You might know yourself or the other person better, and that can feel like you’re on top of the world.

We also have FUN. I love spending time climbing mountains with groups, traveling in Latin America learning Spanish and the effects of American foreign policy, cooking in the kitchen, meeting new and inspiring people, learning the names of plants and birds, and having all-night conversations around the campfire. We laugh a lot together. We hug. It feels so good and exciting.

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

I’m usually proud of our team on a regular basis. We are family--we laugh together and we grow together by rising up to meet all the challenges that inevitably arise. We are deeply involved in one another’s lives and care about each other’s well being.

I am especially proud of our team when we get in there and listen to a participant to the point where they feel seen, understood and accepted in a way that perhaps they’ve never experienced before. That’s when big shifts start happening. It’s exciting for all of us to watch our participants step up and take responsibility for their lives, their community, and contribute to the well-being of the world.

I think if you are looking for a program where you have the opportunity to experience profound personal growth, then that’s us. We’re also open to having crazy adventures that come out of conversations with participants so that there’s a sense of co-creating the program.

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

We are committed to creating a world that is cooperative, sustainable, and fun--every day, whether we’re getting participants purposely lost so they can master orienteering skills, harvesting produce for our evening meal, speaking with people who live on the US/Mexican border to learn about American water policy, or working on our communication skills, we believe that it’s possible to do meaningful work and learn in a way that’s exciting and inspiring. Running programs in this way means that we work together, staff and participants, to carry this vision forward as a team.