Science & Nature

Hands-on projects to help you fall in love with science, and hone your field work skills at the same time.


Every Trek at Cottonwood Gulch will immerse you in the wilderness, the science, and the culture of the Southwest.


Science At Base Camp

This is experiential education at its best, complete with dirty boots and a chance to learn about New Mexican lizards, insects and raptors with your own hands. You’ll be amazed at the diversity of life in the high desert, and the enthusiasm of our staff will surely inspire you to fall in love with this red and green and blue landscape.  We hire naturalists every year who work closely with you to develop hands-on projects in geology, herpetology, ornithology, paleontology, or any other –ology that piques your interest.  Don’t expect a cliché “stay on the trails!” nature hike, you’re going to get some mudon your boots.  Moreover, you’ll have a chance to make a difference in how we live at the Gulch.  For a great example, see the Sawyer Creek project below.


Science On the Road

One of the best ways to learn about the natural world is to compare two entirely different ecosystems.  Say, for example, that on your Gulch Expedition you travel to Southern Utah.  You spend 4 days backpacking along alpine ridges and up tallus slopes to the summit of Mt. Tukuhnikivatz, and the next four days hiking and rafting through the red rock canyons 10,000 feet below.  What’s different?  Or more importantly, why are things so different?  There are still reptiles and massive birds and towering trees, but they seem to be of a different world…

As you travel throughout the Southwest, our staff will ask you those same hard questions.  When not backpacking, you will have access to a whole slew of equipment that we carry as part of our expedition: books, field guides, microscopes, binoculars, old logs from previous Cottonwood Gulch Treks, telescopes… it’s hard not to let your curiosity take over and fall in love with the incredible creatures that call this place home.


A Community of Scientists

Since 1926, trekkers at the Gulch have worked closely with countless scientists to better understand the deserts and mountain that we call home. Because we travel extensively, the Gulch community stretches throughout the Southwest, and each year our expeditions are able to spend 1-3 days at a time working with movers and shakers who are improving the health of our spectacular lands.  Here are a few examples—not every group will visit each of these, of course, but it gives you an idea of the kinds of projects that we do each year:

Bats and Lava Tubes

We find Gulch alumni everywhere, sometimes right in our backyard!  Former Trekker David Hays is now a ranger at nearby El Malpais National Park, where has been working with our trekkers to study the health of bats.  These winged mammals make their homes in lava tube caves at El Malpais, though recently there has been concern about a fungal disease called White-Nosed Syndrome, which has devastated bat populations in the eastern United States.  Though it has not been detected in New Mexico, David and others are keeping a close watch on the health of our bats.  Each year some of our groups assist him in monitoring the bats and learning firsthand about their crucial role in the ecosystem.   Additionally, we learn all about the lava tubes themselves, and often help the rangers build, or rebuild, trails throughout the park.  In other words, we become part of a larger community of scientists, rangers, and wilderness advocates.

La Jencia Ranch

Situated in the shadows of Ladron Peak, an imposing mountain that stands alone surrounded by desert grasslands, La Jencia Ranch is one of the most impressive restoration projects you’ll ever lay eyes on.  Terry Flanagan is the mastermind behind the project.  She purchased the ranch several years ago, and found the land overgrazed and generally in bad shape.  The transformation each year is mind boggling—with the help of the Gulch and many other volunteers, Terry and company have planted tens of thousands of native plants, removed as many invasives, and created a lush streambed full of birds, coyotes, and other wildlife that 10 years ago was a dying desert.  Gulch groups have stayed at La Jencia and partnered with local scientists and conservationists to learn about restoration, birding, and the challenge of dealing with water in the desert.

Forest Restoration

The Gulch Base Camp 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 devastated this land almost beyond repair.  Timber companies clear-cut forest, 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 restored.

Forestry is at the center of this project.  When a Southwestern ponderosa forest is clear-cut, it leaves the land wide open and a whole generation of trees sprout at once.  They compete for the same resources, and we end up with a forest of crowded, unhealthy, small trees; these are often called “dog hair thickets.”  This makes it hard for anything else to grow, like grass for elk, and more importantly the dense stands greatly increase the chance of wildfire.

So we are taking action.  With the assistance of many professional foresters, 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.  We have also worked with the Forest Guild and the Cibola National Forest, which borders the Gulch Base Camp, taking part in their Collaborative Forest Restoration Project (you can read about it here: Most importantly, this restoration hasn’t been a secret: You help us do all of this, which means we are teaching a new generation of trekkers what it means to nurture the land toward a healthier place.

What’s in Sawyer Creek?

A group of Turquoise Trail girls recently became concerned about the quality of water in our own Sawyer Creek at Cottonwood Gulch.  They were worried that some of the soap and grime leaving our showerhouse wasn’t being filtered enough, and was therefore damaging the life in the creek.  Lo and behold, they were right!  With help from our resident naturalist, the girls compared water quality below the showerhouse and above it, and found that all that soap was indeed hurting the aquatic life at the Gulch.  Their solution?  Change the soap.  After switching to biodegradable soap like Dr. Bronners, we reassessed the water and found a drastic improvement in just one year.  This allowed us all to see that science can be more than theoretical—our research leads us to change how we live.

Lizard Survey

How many lizards can you catch?  We have had some illustrious lizard wranglers over the years, but we don’t just catch lizards for fun (though it is wildly fun).  By looking at how many lizards live at the Gulch, and their species, age, and sex, we can learn a lot about the health of our land.  There is also no better way to appreciate what it takes to survive in the desert than by holding a lizard with your own hands.  Just make sure you put it back where you found it.


For decades there has been a dazzling milkweed patch outside one of our cabins.  Why is it there?  We aren’t quite sure, and we even have several decades of studies that can’t quite answer that question.  Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to ask why this plant, a favorite food of monarch butterflies, came to thrive in our meadows, along with a multitude of other unique wildlife.  Like many niches of the Gulch Base Camp, the milkweed patch is a place of ongoing scientific inquiry and new discoveries.

Curious what projects we have in store for this year? Contact Us or check out the:

Summer Treks Page>

College Prep and Volunteer Work>


Discover Science and Nature… Discover You