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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

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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Yes, I recommend this program

HDC Writing Retreat 2022

I came to the High Desert Center (HDC) for the 2022 Writing Retreat for a month-long get-away and a writing challenge as a part of my gap-summer before starting my graduate program in the fall for an MA in Creative Writing. Working alongside other writers around my age was an absolute blast, compared to other writing retreats that only cater to older adults, and I would highly recommend this retreat to any writer between the ages of 18 and 24 who wants to challenge themselves not only to write a 50k word book by the end of the month but those who also want to experience what it would be like to live a sustainable lifestyle, composting toilets and solar shower included.

  • Learned how to live a sustainable lifestyle/ beautiful atmosphere/ view of mountains.
  • Attend Writing Workshops that teach you how to write.
  • Write a Novel in One Month
  • Occasional bugs in cabins
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Yes, I recommend this program

Low pressure and high support writing environment

during my writing retreat i was able to pursue a hobby of creative writing without feeling pressured for it to be perfect or complete. it was a great environment so spend time doing anything it. the things i did each day ranged from writing, playing board games, going on walks or runs, puzzling and more. the staff was very supportive and i always felt welcomed to join in with others during free time. being able to fill my free time however i wished was of large importance to me, and that desire was met. some nights i spent the time laying in the field looking at stars while others i wrote into the night.

  • lots of free time
  • low pressure environment
  • supportive staff
  • low variety in food


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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.