Frequently Asked Questions

Do trekkers carry cell phones, computers, etc.?

No. A Cottonwood Gulch expedition is an opportunity to take a break from modern technology. This is not because we view technology as bad, but we have found that when we step away from cell phones, computers, and television for a few weeks, a whole new element of personal growth is possible. Trekkers interact with each other more readily, they learn to be creative in the outdoors to entertain each other, and consequently they return home with a healthier relationship toward technology than when they arrived. Our staff carry cell phones and satellite phones in case of emergency, and parents can always contact the directors via email or phone.  Digital cameras (as long as they are not on a phone) are highly encouraged. Trust us, this break from technology is a good thing.

Do you offer scholarships?

Yes, we offer a number of scholarships, funded by our endowment and by the generous donations of alumni and others interested in outdoor education. These scholarships are awarded on the basis of need and decisions are made by the Foundation’s Scholarship Committee. Timely submission of application materials will help to ensure financial assistance. We cannot always accommodate every worthy applicant. We encourage families to contact us directly if they are in need of financial assistance or have questions regarding our scholarship program. Donations in support of this, and all our programs, are always welcome. To inquire about scholarships, or to make a donation, send an email to info@cottonwoodgulch.org.  You can also download a copy of the application here:

Cottonwood Gulch Scholarship Application

How expensive is an expedition?

The Gulch is committed to keeping our prices lower than our competitors. This is not because our programs are of poorer quality, but because we have over 85 years worth of devout alumni who give generously every year to keep our tuition affordable. Look around and you will find that the daily cost of a Gulch expedition is below nearly every similar organization, and you have our wonderful alumni to thank for that.

What do you eat?

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 all meals with the assistance of a rotating KP detail. When backpacking, Trekkers prepare their own food — carefully selected and packaged by 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.

How athletic do I need to be?

Anyone in normal physical condition should have no difficulty participating in all activities. Our expeditions build to the more challenging activities, so that Trekkers have time to adjust to altitude and climate, while gaining confidence and experience, before tackling our most challenging hikes. Each activity can be challenging to any level of athlete: we often split into smaller groups, especially on backpacking trips, with routes and destinations geared towards the ability and interests of the members of the group. That said, all Trekkers should be able to hike at least 3 miles on uneven terrain carrying a small day pack. In our backpacking groups (Mountain Desert Trek, Prairie Trek, Turquoise Trail, Wild Country Trek), Trekkers should be able to carry 50+ pounds for several miles on uneven terrain for 3-10 days at a time. The better shape you’re in when you arrive at the Gulch, the more enjoyable of an experience you can expect. Trekkers are encouraged to challenge themselves at all times in an age-appropriate manner.

How do Trekkers get there and back home?

Most of our Trekkers fly in and out of the Albuquerque International Airport, where they are met by group staff and shuttled back to Base Camp. Some Trekkers ride Amtrak trains in and out of Albuquerque, where they are also met by group staff. Trekkers from the local area are often dropped off at Base Camp or in Albuquerque by their parents (who are always welcome to visit). Some families choose to make the travel part of a family vacation, and enjoy a visit to the Southwest together before dropping off their Trekker.

Who are the other people in the expedition?

Trekkers and staff for the expeditions come from all over the United States, and all over the world. While there is no simple way to describe a typical Trekker, the one quality that unites most Trekkers is curiosity. For many of our younger Trekkers, this is the first time they have ventured into the wilderness. For our older Trekkers, the expeditions may be either a wholly new experience or the continuation of previous experiences, either at the Gulch or in other outdoor programs. Trekkers often have strong interests in a wide range of topics, from music to mineralogy, from wilderness leadership to wildlife biology, from creative writing to cartography. Many of our Trekkers are the friends, siblings, children and grandchildren of former Trekkers and staff at Cottonwood Gulch, though each year a large percentage are brand new to the Gulch.

How many staff are in each group? How big are the groups?

We have one group staff member for every five Trekkers in the group. There are between 10 and 20 Trekkers in each group, although group sizes do vary. There is a designated group leader for each expedition who sets the itinerary and is responsible for all aspects of the group. In each group there is also an expedition cook and one or two other instructors who are designated as a naturalist, sociologist, historian or artist.

Who are your staff?

We recruit staff nationally and positions are highly competitive: in a recent year, we drew 80 applications for three staff positions. On average, well over half of our staff are returning instructors. It is a testament to the quality of our programs that staff want to return year after year. All staff hold a Wilderness First Aid certification, and at least one member of each backpacking group holds an advanced certification: Wilderness First Responder or EMT. The minimum age for staff is 21 (there is also an internship program for 19 and 20-year-olds), and each year our staff includes energetic educators in their 20s to experienced and equally energetic educators in their 70s. Our senior staff and group leaders are all experienced outdoor educators, and many of them are classroom teachers during the school year, bringing with them a wealth of curriculum development ideas and a passion for sharing their love of the outdoors with our Trekkers.

Can I reach a group on the road in the case of an emergency?

Yes — we have our ways. Many expeditions spend the majority of their time in the backcountry, far from telephones and usually out of cell phone coverage. However, group leaders carry satellite phones in the backcountry, and all staff carry cell phones and check in with the director regularly over the course of the loop. In case of emergency, the director can reach the group, in person or with a message, within 24 hours. For normal communications, the groups send and receive mail every day at Base Camp and at least once a week on the road. Trekkers have opportunities to phone home when they visit towns for supplies, about once every 10 days.

Do you do community service projects?

We do, but we don’t call it that. Over the past 75 years, we have built strong ties with neighbors, friends and families throughout the Four Corners states. We consider this entire network across the Southwest our community and we place a high value on contributing work to make it a better one. When expeditions visit our friends on the Navajo Reservation or in the Zuni, Acoma or Zia pueblos, a portion of the visit is usually spent helping to construct a new hogan, repair a fence-line, or prepare for a kinaalda ceremony. These same families often visit us at base camp to share their skills and history with us. Similarly, expeditions may work with the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service or Park Service to improve and maintain trails and campsites, gaining access to restricted or otherwise hard to find areas. Trekkers learn how to work with their hands in order to give back to the community.

What are the projects like? Are they individual or group projects?

Each summer we encourage trekkers to tackle a Legacy Project of their own in an area of particular interest to them. Projects vary from year to year and group to group. Younger groups, such as the Outfit, focus more on collective projects, while the older groups pursue primarily individual projects. In recent years, Trekkers have surveyed wildlife and plants to create a field guide to the Zuni Mountains; they have diagrammed the paleologic and geologic timeline from pre-history to the present; they have pursued projects in photography ranging from portraiture to historical reenactment; they have created silver and ceramic artwork; they have discovered and documented dinosaur bones and archaeological artifacts; they have cut down trees in overgrown forests to learn about ecosystem management; they have recorded and produced audio logs and original songs to document the summer; they have researched the history and politics of the Los Alamos Laboratory. Each year we hire professional artists, archaeologists, naturalists, and farmers to work directly with the trekkers, helping them develop and complete their own customized Legacy Projects.

How dangerous is this?

Cottonwood Gulch has been leading quality expeditions into the Southwest since 1926. We emphasize sound decision-making skills to avoid the risk of being caught unprepared in the backcountry. Instructors undergo a criminal record check and are certified in wilderness first aid; many instructors also have a Wilderness First Responder or Wilderness EMT certification. First aid kits are carried by the staff instructors who are familiar with the emergency response units in all the areas we explore. As with all active pursuits, there is inherent physical risk, though rest assured that we are committed to a high standard of safety in all of our programs and firmly believe that prevention is the best medicine.

How do you travel?

We use 15-passenger vans and a gear truck for each expedition. The truck, which we call the commissary truck, carries all the food, water, and tents we need as well as our mobile kitchen and personal gear. It also carries scientific equipment including GPS units, a selective library, many art supplies, and audio recorders for capturing sounds of the expedition. We establish temporary base camps in undeveloped areas and stay there for three to eight days, taking day or overnight trips from the base camp to explore the area. When groups are away from the Cottonwood Gulch Base Camp, we spend every night on the road camping — either sleeping in tents or underneath the stars.

Where do the trips go?

We are based in New Mexico, but we travel to all Four Corners states: New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. Our wilderness destinations are mostly areas that few others visit, including the Gila Wilderness of southern New Mexico, the Blue Range Primitive Area of the White Mountains in Arizona, Cedar Mesa and the La Sals in southern Utah, the High Uintas Wilderness Area of northern Utah, the Delores Valley in the southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and the Sangre de Cristos in northern New Mexico. Every expedition will visit ancient pueblo sites including Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Keet Seel, Grand Gulch, Hovenweep or Bandelier. We also travel to visit friends in contemporary communities on the Navajo Reservation and at the pueblos of Zuni, Hopi and Acoma. At each destination, we establish a temporary base camp with our vehicles and mobile kitchen. We stay in each place for three to eight days, taking day or overnight trips from the base camp, in order to explore and understand the wilderness, science, and cultures of the Southwest.

Are you backpacking the entire time?

No. Each expedition will take from one to four backpacking trips during the summer. The length and difficulty of each backpacking trip depends on the group, but the longest trip we do is a ten-day backpack. The trails are difficult, often over alpine ridges at high elevation, and will challenge all levels of hikers. Our emphasis is on learning how to hike safely and responsibly and we hope our Trekkers will become life-long hikers on their own. We take time to look around and understand the natural environment, traveling anywhere between four and 15 miles in a day. You will return home with the confidence and knowledge to pursue your own adventures into the wilderness.

What is a ‘wilderness expedition’ — what do you do?

Our groups visit different ecosystems and cultural destinations of the Southwest — red rock canyons, high desert mesas and alpine ranges — to play and explore. We explore mostly on foot, backpacking and day-hiking into the backcountry, through the remnants of ancient civilizations, or into a contemporary Hopi artist’s studio. The wilderness of the Southwest is vast and conceals remarkable cultural secrets, including important ruins and contemporary Native American communities. Just like any historical expedition, our treks are about discovery and knowledge. First, it is our goal to find out about the places we visit and the Southwest in general. This might mean documenting the path of a burned forest to understand the role of fire in an ecosystem, or digging through the desert to discover dinosaur bones that are millions of years old, or weaving a rug with our Navajo neighbors, or searching for arrowheads and potsherds to learn about the people who lived on this land hundreds of years ago. Second, it is our goal to live and work as a community, learning to rely on our fellow Trekkers and to trust ourselves. Our expeditions demand personal responsibility and a commitment to the group from each Trekker.

What is your cancellation policy?

A nonrefundable deposit of 20% of the full tuition will hold your place in the group and is due with the initial application. The remaining balance is due by May 15th. If you sign up after May 15th, the full tuition is required in order to reserve a place.

If you need to cancel your enrollment, the 20% deposit is nonrefundable at any time. If you cancel on or before May 15th, the remaining 80% of your tuition is fully refundable. After May 15th, no paid tuition is refundable. A full refund will only be made if an application is not accepted or if the expedition must be canceled.