Experience The Gulch

The Gulch Base Camp

Time-lapse photo of the night sky above our Mess Hall

Life at the Gulch

Each group spends part of their expedition at the Cottonwood Gulch Base Camp, a 540-acre nature preserve in the foothills of the Zuni Mountains. Since 1935, “The Gulch” has been the heart and soul of our wilderness programs. The Outfit, our youngest group, spends most of their two-week session at Base Camp, while other groups will spend between 6-12 days at the Gulch as part of their longer expedition. While at Base Camp, Trekkers live in open-air cabins, eat meals in our mess hall, relax along Sawyer Creek or in our pool, and have a chance to take part in their own legacy project to leave a lasting impression on this beautiful land.


540 Acres to Explore

Most Trekkers only see a small portion of Base Camp, but those with more adventure in their bones can explore this land to no end and still not see it all. From the cottonwood trees in the creekbed, to the stunning views from our mesa, to the expansive ponderosa pine forest, Base Camp is a “living laboratory” that is home to many different microclimates and ecosystems. Each year, trekkers find their own hidden spots to dig and explore, which makes Base Camp feel like a second home… and as every trekker discovers, there is no better feeling than returning back home after a long trip on the road. We also border the Cibola National Forest, so if 540 acres isn’t enough for you, there are thousands more next door.


The Prairie Trek outside one of our cabins

Located 7,500 feet above sea level, the Gulch’s summer weather is idyllic:

  • Average High: 83
  • Average Low: 54
  • Humidity: Very low
  • Mosquitoes: Few to None
  • Clear Blue Skies: Plentiful
  • Number of Visible Stars: Immeasurable




Our Cabins

For history buffs out there, our cabins have a unique story. When Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. decided to join the Prairie Trek Expedition in 1937, there was a slight problem: his father couldn’t afford the tuition. Luckily for the future author, his father was both an architect and a shrewd negotiator. Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. worked out a deal with Hillis Howie so his son could attend the Trek while Kurt Senior paid “in kind” by designing a badly needed set of cabins. The open-air cabins he designed were constructed over the next few years, and they stand to this day. Built by Grandpa Tom Henio and his extended Navajo family, decades of Trekkers have enjoyed these rustic but comfortable accommodations that have become an adored part of the Gulch Base Camp.

Moreover, the cabins themselves embody our outdoor-oriented philosophy. We don’t believe in air conditioning at the Gulch. Fresh air is much better. Granted, we don’t have to worry about AC when the summer weather is this nice, but it’s more than that: the point of being here is to spend time outside. Our cabins are certainly comfortable, but they are also open-air and rustic. They were designed to be part of the landscape, so outdoor lovers won’t have any trouble feeling right at home.


Meal time inside our Mess Hall

Food at the Gulch

Our Base Camp and group cooks take pride in feeding trekkers well. Each meal is prepared with both nutrition and taste in mind, using mainly fresh ingredients. While in Base Camp, groups eat family style in our mess hall, often enjoying organic vegetables from our own garden or bread baked in our outdoor pueblo-style horno. On the road when groups are camped with their vehicles, the group cook prepares meals with the assistance of a rotating KP detail. When not with their vehicles, Trekkers prepare their own food–carefully selected by themselves and the cook–over camp stoves. One group is known to have had vegetarian sushi in the backcountry, while another finished the road loop with a banquet of steak, mashed potatoes, Caesar salad and chocolate cake. We believe in the importance of fueling our bodies properly in this challenging environment.

In addition to simply eating the food, interested Trekkers can work side-by-side with our cooks to help prepare meals. Each year we have several “cooks’ assistants” who learn everything from how to chop an onion to how to prepare an entire New Mexican meal for their group. Consequently, many Trekkers return home with newfound skills with which to “wow” their families and friends.

Dietary Restrictions and Food Allergies

Our cooks are happy to accommodate a wide variety of dietary needs: vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free are all common. Where appropriate, we also provide alternatives for those with food allergies. While we cannot accommodate every diet on the planet, we rarely have a trekker that we cannot please—the food gets outstanding reviews each year, and we are committed to keeping it that way.


Gulch Gardens

We love our gardens, and we even hire a resident farmer each year to tend them and teach our Trekkers how to grow and prepare a variety of fresh food. To read more, visit our Gulch Gardens page.


Pool and Showers

While at Base Camp, you’ll have a chance every afternoon to cool off in our pool and wash up in our solar-heated showers. While it is never unbearably hot at the Gulch, an afternoon dip is something we can all look forward to.


A look inside one of our hogans at Base Camp

Before it was the Gulch

Water is king in the desert, and the Gulch’s Sawyer Creek has supplied a year-round water source for centuries. Native Americans lived on land for many years, and they left behind a vast amount of archaeological evidence: potsherds, arrowheads, manos and matates—we find new evidence every year. Where there is water, there will be people.

The next chapter in the history of this land is not so pretty. Around the turn of the 20th century the entirety of the Zuni Mountains, including what is now Cottonwood Gulch, was logged heavily. Every usable tree, mostly sweet-smelling ponderosa pine, was cut to the ground and sent to Albuquerque. Evidence of the old logging railroad is still evident at the Gulch, but this legacy left a terribly unhealthy landscape. Sometime in the early 1900s a farmer named Schuster grew potatoes on the Gulch property along Sawyer Creek, and in 1935 Hillis Howie came along with his Prairie Trek Expedition and purchased what is now known as Cottonwood Gulch. To read more, visit our Gulch History page.


Restoration at the Gulch

The Gulch is more than just a place for humans. We treat our land as a Nature Preserve, which means we actively manage it to create healthy habitat for wildlife.

Why not just leave it alone and treat it as “wilderness,” you ask? We struggle with this question ourselves, but there is a big problem with simply leaving it alone: early settlers razed this land to the point that it was devastated almost beyond repair. Timber companies clear-cut all the usable trees, ranchers’ cattle overgrazed the grasses, and foresters suppressed natural wildfire. We were left with a very unhealthy piece of earth that may not heal itself without our help. It needs to be somehow restored.

So we are taking action. Over the last decade we have planted new trees, thinned unnaturally thick woodlands, built nesting boxes for rare birds, sequestered water for thirsty trees, and dug gullies to control erosion.

Most importantly, this restoration hasn’t been a secret: you help us do all of this, which means we have now taught a generation of trekkers what it means to take care of our land. To learn more, visit our Science and Nature page.