Wild Rockies Field Institute

Colorado Plateau: Desert Canyons & Cultures


SPRING: March 28-May 28, 2018 | FALL: September 12-November 12, 2018

Cost: $10,450

Semester Credits: 15

Environmental Studies 395: Public Land Issues of the Colorado Plateau (3 credits)

Environmental Studies 395: Environment and Culture of the Colorado Plateau (3 credits)

Natural Resource Science Management 311: Natural History of the Colorado Plateau (3 credits)

Geography 348: Geography of the Colorado Plateau (3 credits)

Native American Studies 391: Indians of the American Southwest- Relationships with the Land (3 credits)

Apply Here!

*Please note, there is a six-week online portion for this course prior to the start date that extends the duration of the course to meet University of Montana requirements. Please contact the WRFI office for details.


Colorado Plateau: Desert Canyons and Culture is a 15-credit, nine-week course that allows students to backpack through spectacular red rock canyons, float down winding rivers, and meet the people that call this region home. Course content focuses on desert ecology, land use history, and wilderness ethics to Native American history and philosophy, geography, and the current environmental issues the people and this region face.

Wilderness travel through the red sandstone heart of southern Utah takes us into some of the most remote canyons in the region. The course begins and ends in Green River, Utah.

For the first three weeks students backpack through the seldom-visited Horseshoe Canyon and Dirty Devil River Canyon. Week Four is spent canoeing through the Green River's Labyrinth Canyon. This landscape helps students develop a sense of place and gain a firm understanding of the Colorado Plateau's natural history. We study the incredible ecological interactions and geological phenomena that make this place unique, and contemplate the lives and livelihoods of the first indigenous people that walked this land. In addition, we learn of the political and social issues that shape our personal and societal connection to the Colorado Plateau.

Following our extended backcountry trips, we spend two weeks in the front-country meeting with local environmental activists and resource experts. We head south from Moab to northern Arizona to explore prehistoric human dwellings at Hovenweep National Monument, which we learn about from archaeologists and park rangers. Traveling back to the present, we travel south to spend several days living with a Navajo family. We will be involved in daily life of our hosts, have the potential to participate in a traditional sweat, and talk to leaders in cultural and natural resource positions. The Hopi Reservation is inside the Navajo Reservation, so we will also visit with Hopi people to gain knowledge and perspective on the history and current politics on the Colorado Plateau: power generation, culture, and land use. We will also visit with endangered species biologists working with the California condor project and with the willow flycatcher in the Grand Canyon. We will camp near historic Lee's Ferry and visit Lake Powell.

Our final backcountry section will be in the Dark Canyon Primitive and Wilderness Areas. The backpack trip will take us through a series of life communities, from desert to mountain, and a variety of public land management areas and designations. We will experience both healthy and altered landscapes in order to understand the different ways in which human cultures have chosen to interact with their environment through time.

Readings for the course include writings by Leslie Marmon Silko, Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, and selected articles on conservation biology, environmental ethics, public lands policy, and ecology. We also meet with several local conservationists, wildlife biologists, land managers, recreation planners, and archaeologists from various federal, tribal, and private land management organizations.

In addition to the academic topics mentioned above, students will learn group safety skills for backcountry travel, minimum impact camping skills, orienteering, and plant, animal and mineral identification. Permited activity will take place on Utah Bureau of Land Management lands and the Monte LaSal National Forest.


Enrollment will be limited to ten [10] students. Our courses are multidisciplinary and our students come from all majors. There are no academic prerequisites for any of our courses. The best background is a sense of curiosity, a willingness to take responsibility for your academic growth, and a love of adventure. No prior backcountry experience is necessary, but this is a physically demanding course and students are advised to arrive good physical condition. This course takes place in high elevation settings and some backpacking sections will be physically challenging.

WRFI accepts students on a rolling admission basis and will review applications immediately upon receiving them. Currently, WRFI is accepting applications for all 2018 courses.

The first payment of 25% of tuition will be due three weeks after acceptance.


$10,450 includes tuition, dinner food, on-course transportation from Green River, Utah and return, canoeing equipment, group camping and cooking gear (tent, stove, etc.). Students will be expected to provide their own breakfast and lunch meals, and to print the course text. An additional $775 filing fee is required to receive academic credit for the course from the University of Montana.


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