Semester in the Southwest FAQs

Why Cottonwood Gulch?

Since 1926, we have offered small group experiences against the stunning backdrop of the American Southwest, focusing on place based and authentic learning of natural and cultural history. This approach has enabled us to create an impact that goes far beyond the length of the program. Alumni of Cottonwood Gulch programs emerge with the confidence and intellectual curiosity to excel as individuals as well as the skills to work effectively on a team and lead in their communities.

Our semester program integrates outdoor education, a deep consideration of environmental ethic and the impact of climate change, and independent research projects presents opportunities to gain important life skills. Outdoor living and backcountry wilderness travel offer a venue to grow through physical and emotional challenges. Through these experiences, students will work closely with others to evaluate risk and achieve goals, developing important decision-making skills along the way. Additionally, students will be able to see the impact of climate change in the desert, have conversations about their own impact, and critically consider what it means to have an environmental ethic. Finally, students will have the opportunity to propose a project in an area of interest and gain valuable skills as they complete all phases from brainstorming through final product with the support of our staff as mentors.

What ages are eligible?

Students must be 18 or older and have graduated from high school or have a GED. The maximum age is 25, though we expect most students to fall in the 18-22 year old range. 

When and how do I apply?

We operate with a rolling admissions process. While there are no specific deadlines, there is limited space! We recommend submitting your application as early as possible. We cannot reserve space for a student until we have received the completed application form with a deposit of 20%. Click here to start the application. 

What are your cancellation policies?

If you need to cancel due to documented family illness, or if state or federal travel restrictions prohibit travel to Cottonwood Gulch, we will offer a full refund. Cancellations not related to COVID-19 will be subject to our existing policies.

The 20% deposit due with the application is non-refundable in the case of cancellations not related to COVID-19. Full tuition is due 30 days prior to the start of the program. 

Do I need previous outdoors experience?

One of the goals of our semester program is to develop your technical skills, risk management thinking, experience, and comfort in a variety of outdoor environments including potentially challenging weather, rugged terrain, and remote locations. While no experience is strictly necessary, we recommend that you have an interest in being in the outdoors and spending time to advance your technical and outdoor skills.

Why do the projects need to be about water?

While the discipline of your project is up to you, we believe that a guiding theme will create a more cohesive experience and lead to deeper, more robust projects. A theme will also provide more opportunities for sharing learning and collaborating with other students. While we have selected a theme, we intentionally chose one that has space for physical science, life science, arts, social science, and others. If you have a specific idea for a project that you’re not sure fits into this theme, let’s talk!  

What if I'm not sure about my project?

That’s okay–our staff are ready and willing to talk with you about your interests and strengths so that you can craft a meaningful project. We will be asking you to finalize a project proposal by the end of the first week of the semester so that you have adequate time to achieve your goals. 

Who are your staff?

Our staff are both exceptional mentors as well as knowledgeable and experienced outdoor educators who come to us from a wide variety of backgrounds. At least one staff person per program will have a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) Certification, which is an 80 hour advanced medical training and all staff are trained in Wilderness First Aid (WFA) and CPR at a minimum. Every staff person participates in a field-based training and orientation at the start of their employment and has been subjected to a background check. The staff facilitating mountain biking and rock climbing have certifications in those disciplines as well as extensive personal experience. All of our staff are knowledgeable about the Southwest and have experience leading groups in this area specifically. Additionally, instructors understand that this program as a student-centered experience. They are dedicated to building strong connections with each student, driven by the idea of mentorship, and invested in delivering an unforgettable educational experience. 

Can you accommodate dietary restrictions?

Yes! We are familiar with cooking for a variety of diets and food allergies. Please note these on your health form so that our staff can adequately prepare and make a plan with you. 

Where will I sleep?

When frontcountry camping, you will be sleeping in a tent. If you have your own that you would like to use, you may bring that, or Cottonwood Gulch can provide one. When backpacking, we use tarps as shelter and when at Basecamp, we have a series of open-air cabins for sleeping though some people prefer to sleep in a tent. 

What kind of gear do I need?

In general, you need to supply personal gear (clothes, boots, sleeping bag, etc.) while we will provide you with all of the necessary group gear (cooking and eating equipment, shelter, first aid kits, etc.) Please click here for a complete packing list.

Do you offer college credit?

We don’t at this time, if that changes, we will notify enrolled students as soon as possible. 

Is there financial support?

We believe in making our programs accessible and affordable to any student. With the generous support of our alumni and other donors, we are able to offer need-based financial aid. We expect about half of our students to receive some amount of aid, the amount is determined by demonstrated need and amount of aid available. Financial aid is allocated on a rolling basis, so we encourage students to apply early. Please complete this scholarship application to request financial support. For more information on funding your experience outside of the support Cottonwood Gulch is able to offer, click here

What is your drug and alcohol policy?

We have a zero tolerance policy of drug or alcohol use during the program. This type of experience requires a high level of communication and trust and we feel that substances inhibit building the community we are trying to create. 

Are there other student conduct policies?

We strive to foster a community free from racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and classism as they vastly undermine individuals’ ability to learn, feel belonging, and achieve success. Therefore, we expect that students treat other students, staff, visitors, etc. with respect. 

Additionally, we ask students to refrain from sexual contact with other members of the community, unsolicited sexual comments or gesture, and getting new tattoos or piercings. 

How often can I expect to communicate with family and friends?

Traditionally, we run completely unplugged programs with students not having access to phones, computers, or tablets. However, we recognize that with the length of this course and the level of independent project incorporated, that some level of connectivity is required. During the backpacking portions of the semester, students will not be able to be in contact with those outside of the group. Staff will have emergency communication devices if necessary. During the non-backcountry portions of the semester, we will strive to provide occasional opportunities for students to update their friends and family on their semester. We recommend that you bring a cell phone, tablet, or laptop for communication when connectivity is possible. Time and access to using these devices is limited both by logistics and by community norms established by the group. If you would like to read more about why we feel being unplugged is important, click here

What if I get sick or injured?

The vast majority of illnesses and injuries can be managed by our competent, trained field staff who carry first aid kits appropriate for the given activity. For incidents that require more attention, there is an administrative staff person on call 24/7 when programs are running. In the event of an incident, we decide the appropriate course of action according to our risk management plans. Sometimes a student will stay in the field with the staff monitoring and managing the injury or illness. In this case, the group may alter the itinerary or activities to accommodate that student’s recovery. If the student cannot participate for more than several days, or the staff determine that a student needs to be evacuated from the field, they will be taken to seek medical care. Our goal is to keep the student with the program following an evacuation. However, if the injury or illness prevents the student from participating in the remainder of the semester, we may decide it is best for the student to return home and we will have a conversation with the student and their family to determine the best course of action. If a student or staff member is exhibiting signs and symptoms of COVID-19, we have an isolation and evacuation plan in place. 

What are your COVID plans?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe outdoor education is more essential than ever. The health and safety of our staff, volunteers, participants, and partners is one of our highest priorities. You can expect that we will be implementing mitigation strategies such as requiring a negative test prior to joining the group, spending the majority of our time outdoors, and requiring that everyone practice strong personal hygiene including mask wearing at times. Click here to read more about our guidelines.

Additionally, we have adjusted our cancellation policies. If you need to cancel due to documented family illness, or if state or federal travel restrictions prohibit travel to Cottonwood Gulch, we will offer a full refund including deposit. Cancellations not related to COVID-19 will be subject to our existing policies.

What if my question isn't answered here?

Get in touch! You can reach Tori at 505-248-0563 or