High Desert Center

Gap year programs in Colorado for young adults seeking adventure, leadership skills, community, and a sense of purpose.

2016-7 Gap Year

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When: September 7, 2016 – June 1, 2017

Where: Paonia, Colorado AND Mexico & Desert Southwest OR Argentina

Who: 10-14 students ages 17-23 plus program leader Dev Carey and a host of additional instructors
This program requires a minimum of 10 students.

What: A year of harvesting local foods, designing and building with natural materials, outdoor adventure and travel, living in a foreign country, dance, an independent internship or travel experience, communications and group living.

 Timeline:  The High Desert Gap Year has four distinct phases:

  • Phase 1.  Fall Harvest Semester. Paonia, Colorado. Sept 7 to Nov 14, 2016.
  • Phase 2.  Independent Winter Challenge. 3-6 weeks in a location of your choosing, Dec-Feb.
  • Phase 3.  International Travel.  Students choose one of the below:*
    • Option 1.  Independent adventure (Jan 7 to Feb 21) followed by 8 weeks in Mexico and the Desert Southwest (From Feb 22 to April 19).
    • Option 2.  12 weeks in Argentina with Unschool Adventures (Jan 25 to April 19).
  • Phase 4.  Spring Building. Paonia, Colorado. April 20 to June 1, 2017.

How Much:

Option 1 (Mexico). $7500 for the entire year. This program fee includes all food, housing, transportation and activities while the group is together.

Option 2 (Argentina). $11,500 for the entire year: $5000 for the High Desert Center + $6500 for the Unschool Adventures Argentina Semester. This program fee includes all food, housing, transportation and activities while in Paonia but does not include the cost of airfare to/from Argentina, lunches in Argentina, and some other incidentals. (See the Argentina Semester FAQ for full details.)

*an additional option is to create your own program for the entirety of Phase 2 & 3.  Cost $5000.  By special agreement only.

We already have a number of applications and are conducting interviews.
Apply Now

We recommend applying right away before the program fills.  


   Program Itinerary


 Phase 1: Fall Harvest Semester (Sept 7 to Nov 14, 2016)

IMG_0172Fall is special in Paonia.  It is the harvest season. We’ll be helping local farmers harvest their crops and doing everything from making sauerkraut to picking apples to butchering chickens. We will also be celebrating harvest with the entire town at the Mountain Harvest Festival, a week of music, local food and fun. The food theme will continue for the entire semester and we’ll finish in early November with an early Thanksgiving feast for the neighborhood full of local foods we’ve harvested and prepared.  When we go home for the holidays our bags will be full of canned pesto or chutney to bring to our families for Christmas presents.

cam&jocdancingwithmovementThe fall semester will also focus on dance and communication.  For the 2014-15 gap year we focused on Blues dancing and Lindy Hop, dancing almost daily in the huge dance hall just up the hill, and by the end of the year the students, many of whom were beginners coming in, were looking great and having fun on the dance floor.  The partner dance emphasis compliments perfectly our focus on communication and group skills and the result is a group environment that feels safe and intimate.

Other areas of emphasis in the fall semester will be:

beckiontopOutdoor Adventure (one alpine and one desert backpacking experience as well as climbing a couple of local mountains, perhaps including 14’ers).  All participants are expected to be in reasonable physical shape coming in (able to easily walk 5 miles in two hours) and committed to daily physical activity and exercise.

Preparing for the Independent Winter Challenge (3-6 weeks).  We will coach you and help you to find something meaningful and challenging.

Online Portfolios and Blogs.  All participants will develop one and use it to document the year as well as a place to share education, experience, skills and passions.


Phase 2: Winter Independent Challenge (Jan-Feb 2017, flexible)

The independent challenge begins in early January and goes for ~3 weeks (if you’re Argentina-bound) or ~6 weeks (if you’re Mexico-bound).  Previous gap year students have arranged apprenticeships (cooking, blacksmithing, working with horses, mediation), travel (dance events, Japan and language school in Guadalajara), and a variety of other jobs and adventures.

In the fall we will coach you and help you to find something meaningful and challenging during this time. Once a week the group will have Google Hangouts to stay connected and support each other.


Phase 3: International Travel (February to April 19, 2017)

For this phase, some of the group will choose to go with Blake Boles on the Unschool Adventures Argentina Semester from Jan 25 to April 19. (Visit the Unschool Adventures website to learn everything about that program.)

The rest of the group will do a group adventure to Mexico and the Desert Southwest from Feb 22-April 19.

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We will drive south to the Sonoran desert and spend a few days in Organ Pipe National Park before heading south into Mexico, where we’ll visit the Pinacates, a beach town, and then three weeks in a small dirt-street village (ejido) doing home stays and learning Spanish.

After Mexico, we drive north again, slowly, taking four weeks to visit spectacular landscapes in Arizona and Utah, make a movie on a subject of our choice, and take two backpack trips into remote desert canyons.  We’ll return to Paonia by April 19.

Argentina trip members will fly together from Miami on April 19 or 20 back to Colorado.


 Phase 4: Spring Building Semester (Apr 20 – June 1, 2017)

IMG_0247By April 20, the grass will be greening in Paonia and we will all be together again.  The focus will be on natural building and dance.  We’ll tour houses made out of everything from tires to cob and then begin our own natural building project.

We will work together on one large project (perhaps a new student dorm) and also work individually on smaller projects (e.g. a solar food dryer, cob oven or solar shower).  We’ll also keep dancing, update our blogs and portfolios, and finish with a big celebration to which friends (new and old) and family will be invited.


Join us for a year of adventure, useful skills, community and a sense of purpose.

Read the FAQ here or contact Dev with any other questions.

Apply Now!