Gap Year 2020-2021 | High Desert Center
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The Good Life isn’t something you find; it’s something you create.

Practice creating it at The High Desert Center.


14-18 participants, ages 17-23; plus our staff team


Colorado, Mexico, Guatemala, and the South-West


Sept 2, 2020 to April 26, 2021


$8,250–Includes travel to and from Guatemala from Phoenix.

The High Desert Center Gap Year is comprised of three phases:


The Simply Living Semester

September 2 – November 11. 
This semester is about challenge and new experience in rural Western Colorado.    You’ll be climbing mountains, canning peaches and making bread, biking to town, meeting people who inspire you, getting purposefully lost and finding your way home, and living the simple, good life.   In the process you will learn the skills of self-sufficiency, community and quality living.  You’ll have backpacked in mountains and canyons, made a slew of new friends, and have a list of new practical things that you know how to do.



November 12-February 14
Between semesters, from mid November to mid-February, Gap Year participants will execute a self-designed initiative. The options are endless.  You can arrange independent apprenticeships, travel, work or adventures either near your home, in Paonia or elsewhere. During the fall semester we will support you to develop a meaningful project, and we provide weekly support during this phase of the year. Previous Gap Year students have arranged:

  • catering with a macrobiotic chef
  • walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain
  • blacksmithing
  • working with horses
  • nannying for a band on the road
  • working for a state senator

  • touring dance events
  • visiting deaf communities in Japan
  • working for a ski resort
  • studying Spanish at language school in Guadalajara
  • volunteering on organic farms
  • working a job and saving money


The Wanderlust Semester 

February 15-April 26 (begins and ends in Phoenix, Arizona).
We’ll meet up in mid February in Arizona to begin our adventures south to Guatemala. We will camp together in the desert to reconnect and share our Winternship stories.  Next we head south.  Guatemala is a place for adventurous visitors, and most folks who go fly there on a luxurious airplane.  Not us.  We’re going overland,  on public transit, through the entirety of Mexico.  Our goal is to have more real experiences and also spew less carbon.   Once we arrive in Guatemala  we will dive into experiencing the place.  We begin in a large group to orient but then split up into smaller groups to more fully experience the place.  You’ll choose from a slew of options while we offer ground support and semi-regular meet-ups. Examples of some adventures you might choose to plan include:

  • daily one-on-one Spanish lessons and homestay for cultural immersion
  • working on a reforestation project for community lands effected by illegal logging
  • taking advantage of the volcanos, trails, caves, lakes, and beaches
  • meeting people from different countries and being part of a global community

  • deepening or creating your yoga and meditation practice at a retreat center
  • surfing, eating mangos, kayaking through mangroves
  • getting a job at a local cafe
  • volunteering on organic farms or coffee plantations
  • learning indigenous skills from boat making to weaving


Bonus! The HDC Homesteading Term

After saying our goodbyes in Arizona, Dev and Marian will drive back to Colorado. Participants who demonstrated a passion for work projects during the year and who love gardening and building will be welcome to join them for six weeks. During this time we will continue to share in community meals and tackle some fun projects that support the continuous growth of the HDC. We will ask for $50/week to cover food costs during this time.

When do I apply?

Early Action: January 15
Regular Action: February 15
Rolling Admissions: April 1



When we ask our students why they chose us, many say words like “community,” “philosophy” or “strong recommendations.”  Another thing we commonly hear is that our programs are relatively affordable.

Read more about how the HDC offers the most affordable gap year program out there.

  • This Gap Year is for:

    People who are interested in creating a meaningful and affordable good life full of adventure and freedom. We won't fly you to Costa Rica to zip line through the rain forest, but we will take long bus rides with the locals, eat the same food and navigate the same puddles, and then put our packs and sleeping bags down where the day ends feeling like we are part of it.

  • Why do two semesters?

    Former students report that the second semester is where the most transformational learning happens and the best friends are made. It's when we move through the superficial, acknowledge the challenges, find the inspiration, and become who we want to be while contributing meaningfully to the group.

  • What we're known for...

    Our personalized approach results in a sense of family and profound personal growth. We believe in choice. We push the limits with adventure while maintaining a strong record of safety. Our participants find community, connection and a second home in Paonia, and they grow a sense of belonging and connection the the larger world.

“My time with the High Desert Center was one of the most pivotal and inspiring experiences that I have ever had. I was in constant awe of the community I had been lucky enough to fall into the loving arms of, the epic places in which we adventured, and the new things that I learned daily. The High Desert Center bestows the gifts of deep compassion and curiosity upon their students. I’m left with their gifts of compassion and curiosity, relationships that will last me a lifetime, and an adventure that will be difficult to forget.”

-Willa Bryant


“At the High Desert Center, I felt for the first time in my life that I had a place and a purpose entirely to myself. The staff engaged each participant earnestly, asking participants to discover what we truly cared about and to explore the numerous options presented by our ambitions. Each day felt like an experience and adventure to itself, and also preparation for the great adventure of life. In short, I cannot recommend this gap year highly enough to any young adult in the process of discovering fulfillment.”

-Oscar Wolfenstein

The Gap Year FAQs


The answer depends on where we are and what we’re doing.  Most days we’ll be up with the sun, either going to a farm or biking to a mountain trailhead or canning peaches.  In the afternoon there is some individual time while the cooks make dinner.  After dinner there might be a meeting and check-ins followed by dance or a campfire.  At least once a week we’ll have adventures and two days a week will be free days to explore the town, do laundry, and generally take care of yourself.


Yes, visits are possible.  Normally we ask people to only stay for a day or two and to not sleep in our cabins.  Finally, it is important that visitors get themselves to and from Paonia.  Generally we are too busy during the semester to be picking up visitors at airports or bus stations.


The program fee includes all food, housing, transportation and activities while the group is together in Paonia. We will also cover the cost of travel to and from Guatemala. It does not include your individual transportation to and from Paonia, your living expenses in Guatemala, and optional spending money for personal purchases or activities. You will need to provide your own health insurance.  You will also be asked to come with some of your own outdoor equipment, like a sleeping bag, hiking boots and a water filter.  An equipment list will be provided after you are accepted to the program.


We are  accustomed to meeting the needs of vegetarians and vegans, although you should expect to eat local beans and walnuts rather than avocados and soy cheese.  We can also minimize gluten, although it has proven challenging to serve those who are strongly celiac (we have done it).  If you have special food needs that aren’t easily met with a local, whole foods diet, you might need to supplement with your own snacks.  Please talk with us well in advance about your special needs.


 Participants should already be in decent shape by the time they arrive, able to comfortably walk six miles with a pack in two hours as backpacking in steep country will be a significant portion of this semester.


We will ask you to sign an agreement form that includes:

  • No use of drugs (including tobacco and marijuana) and alcohol.
  • Doing your share of cooking and cleaning.
  • Abiding by fire and general safety procedures.
  • Participating fully in program activities unless there is agreement otherwise.


  • Participants, and their parents if participants are not legal adults, will be asked to sign a release form before the program starts acknowledging the risks associated with this program.  They include the risks inherent to backcountry travel in rough and remote county, traveling in Mexico, working on farms, and travel in vans and cars driven by staff.
  • Participants are often unsupervised by staff during days off and certain adventures.
  • Participants, by consent, may also engage in dumpster diving, skinny dipping, and other unconventional but safe adventures.


After the interview, if you have been offered enrollment, we will hold your spot for two weeks and ask you to make a $1000 payment and complete and send in medical history and consent forms as well as an acknowledgement of risk form.  When we receive these, we will formally accept you and give you a spot in the program.