Semester in the Southwest

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Learn, grow, and gain valuable skills while having the time of your life in a small community

Spend 84 days on the adventure of a lifetime, working on a project in a discipline of your choosing, and wandering the unforgettable wilderness of the Southwest.  Be part of a community dedicated to personal growth, learning, and cultural understanding. Investigate the impact of climate change on the Southwest and explore the issues surrounding environmental and social justice. Explore the “big W” Wilderness of deserts and mountains, frontcountry campgrounds, out of the way towns, and everything in between.

You will emerge from this semester having completed a personal project rooted in the Southwest in a discipline of your interest. Your research will be enriched through connections with Indigenous elders and local experts and supported with resources like a 500 acre Basecamp and a series of collections, tools, and books. Although your project will be up to you, everyone will engage in conversations about the impact of climate change and what it means to have an environmental ethic. As a group, you’ll experience the personal challenges that come with living in a small, intentional, outdoor community. Additionally, you will develop your technical skills including increasing your comfort with extended wilderness travel, risk management thinking, and group leadership in the outdoors. Breathtaking Southwest vistas provide an incredible setting to sink into a project and soak up skills and memories.

Semester Details

Age: 18+

Length: 84 days

Dates: August 30, 2021-November 21, 2021

Minimum Group Size: 6

Maximum Group Size: 12

Instructors: 2-3

Elevation Range: 5,000 to 14,000 feet 

Average Pack Weight: 40-50 lbs.

Course Starts and Ends: Albuquerque, NM

Full Cost: $14,980, scholarships available

Itinerary Overview

Days 1-7 Basecamp for Course Introduction, Trip to Chaco Canyon 

Days 8-18 Backpacking trip in the Pecos Wilderness

Days 19-33 Basecamp for Wilderness First Responder, Rock Climbing, Mountain Biking

Days 34-50 Backpacking trip in Escalante, Resupply in Moab, Multi-Day Raft Trip

Days 51-58 Basecamp for Rock Climbing, Mountain Biking, Prep for End of Course

Days 59-84 Backpacking trip in the Gila Wilderness, 24 hour solo, Backpacking trip in Big Bend, Project Presentations

For a more detailed itinerary overview, click here. To see these locations on a map, scroll down to the bottom of the page. 



  • Complete an independent project connected to water
  • Gain technical outdoor skills and learn to teach those skills
  • Experience personal growth and hone leadership skills 
  • Define your environmental ethic through seeing the effects of climate change, reading, and conversations
  • Outdoor and community living
  • Communication
  • Wilderness First Responder (WFR) Certification
  • Leave No Trace-Trainer Certification

Define Your Environmental Ethic

Dive into first hand experience of how climate change is impacting the Southwestern United States and spend time reading, discussing, and reflecting on your relationship with the natural world. The group will discuss our own positions in the narrative of environmentalism in the context of the reading we do and the landscapes we visit. 

Travel through landscapes like rivers where native fish have been re-established, forests that have dried and burned, and canyons drowned by dams will inform our discussions. It will not be all talk and no action, there will be physical aspects as well. For example, we will practice Leave No Trace methods of backcountry travel, you will earn a certificate as a Leave No Trace-Trainer, and hone your understanding of what it means to have an environmental ethic in the desert. 

Investigate environmentalism through: 

  • Reading authors like Edward Abbey, Craig Childs, Keith Basso, Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, Robin W. Kimmerer, and Layli Long Soldier
  • Connecting reading and discussions to landscapes we backpack through 
  • Investigating the impact of climate change in desert watersheds, forests, and mountains
  • Learning, evaluating, and practicing Leave No Trace techniques 
semester in the southwest group learning about geology
semester in the southwest independent work girl writing

Write Your Own Story: Water 

Develop an independent study project to pursue over the course of the semester and write your own story. This year’s theme is water and our staff will connect you with experts in fields like geology, hydrology, visual arts, and Southwest history to mentor and guide your project.  We will support your investigation through visiting relevant sites, engaging in conversations with our whole group, and exploring questions along with you. The semester will wrap up with presentations of the projects to the group and, if appropriate, a wider audience. The research itself is of course important; however, the process of project based learning is equally important as it develops skills essential to life-long success such as planning, communication, and presentation. Gain direction and purpose by defining your interests through this independent project.

Potential Projects Include:

  • Census collection of macro-invertebrates as indicators of water quality across multiple desert watersheds
  • Create a Southwest calendar with each month focusing on a different aspect of natural or cultural history paired with original photographs
  • Record a series of interviews on the legacy of uranium mining
  • Write and illustrate a children’s book featuring desert species
  • Design a longitudinal study on the water table at Basecamp to be continued in future years 

Develop Your Technical Outdoor Skills

Living outside for 84 days changes a person.  You’ll learn how to find comfort in monsoon rains, stay warm in cold desert nights, and protect yourself from the beating sun. Hiking deep into the United State’s first designated Wilderness, exploring the pristine canyons of Southeast Utah, and visiting the high alpine of the Sangre de Cristo mountains will provide stunning backdrops to your learning. By the end of the semester, you will be trained as a Wilderness First Responder and have the skills to confidently spend your recreation time in the backcountry.

Learn skills like:

  • Backpacking
  • Rock Climbing
  • Mountain Biking
  • Navigation and Route Finding
  • Backcountry Cooking
  • Campsite Selection
semester in the southwest group backpacking

Get Started!

If you have a question, email us here or call 505-248-0563

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