Our History

The First Prairie Trek (1926):

In 1926, Hillis Howie, a young teacher, embarked on the inaugural Prairie Trek Expedition, leading nine boys from Indianapolis to the untamed Wild West. Departing in two Model T station wagons, they ventured into rugged landscapes, discovering the rich legacy of human history hidden in the vast wilderness. Howie's vision was to leave civilization behind, explore remote regions, and establish temporary camps, setting a standard for camping that would inspire others.

The First All Girls Expedition (1934):

In 1934, Hillis Howie demonstrated unparalleled foresight by leading the first all-girls expedition, the Turquoise Trail. Decades ahead of his time, Howie shattered stereotypes, guiding young women through mountains and desert canyons. The Turquoise Trail, then and now, exemplifies Cottonwood Gulch's commitment to outdoor education and inclusivity.

The Henio Family and the Navajo Nation (1929-1935):

In 1929, Hillis Howie formed a lasting friendship with Tom Henio, a Navajo man. Tom's recommendation led Howie to purchase the current Cottonwood Gulch Basecamp in 1935. The Henio family became integral to expeditions, fostering trekkers' understanding of Navajo culture through hands-on experiences. This enduring relationship continues, with Henios and Howies contributing as trekkers, staff, and caretakers.

Inspiring Young Artists—Kurt Vonnegut:

Hillis Howie's impact extended beyond trekkers, influencing renowned author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Vonnegut, a participant in the 1937 expedition, acknowledged Howie's greatness as a naturalist and mentor. Vonnegut dedicated his novel "Galapagos" to Hillis Howie, emphasizing the profound influence of this unsung hero of American education.

“It took me a long time to realize what a great man Hillis Howie was. Part of the American experience is to suddenly come across a truly great person who never becomes rich or famous, but who is enormously beneficial to those near him. Hillis Howie was such a person, a great naturalist, very kind and strong with boys.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, Jr

In Memory of Hillis L. Howie (1903-1982):

A man of extraordinary character, Hillis Howie led Cottonwood Gulch from 1926 to 1970. Remembered by Kurt Vonnegut as a great naturalist, Howie's legacy lives on. His dedication to outdoor education, wilderness exploration, and fostering enduring friendships continues to shape the Cottonwood Gulch experience.



Hillis Howie overseeing a campfire at Shiprock, 1958

“The plan is to leave civilization behind and spend the months of July and August in remote and generally unknown regions of the Southwest: to establish temporary camps in sagebrush, pinon, and big timber and at ruin sites, deserted mining towns, and alpine lakes; to investigate the fauna, flora, and geology of each territory; to set a standard of camping which will be a satisfaction to ourselves and a model to others; to live a physically vigorous life with a taste of the hardships which the early explorers expected.”

                                     — Hillis Howie

Joe Silversmith, Hillis Howie, and Grandpa Tom Henio building the caretaker’s house, 1959