Spring 2025: March 30 - May 31, 2025
Apply Now


This semester takes place in the Colorado Plateau region of the American Southwest, on successive explorations of Horseshoe Canyon, Dirty Devil Canyon, Hopi Reservation, Navajo Reservation, Dark Canyon, and Labyrinth Canyon along the Green River. Throughout the semester, students and instructors visit a variety of communities, meet with guest speakers, and tour sites relevant to the course curriculum. The semester begins and ends in Green River, Utah.

Permitted activity takes place on the Horseshoe, Dirty Devil, and Dark Canyons, Manti-La Sal National Forest, and Labyrinth Canyon on the Green River. 

Semester Credits

Browse Course Syllabi

15 Total Semester Credits/22.5 Total Quarter Units:     

Environmental Studies 395: Public Lands Issues of the Colorado Plateau (3 credits)
Students on this course will develop a clear understanding of the major laws that affect land management on the Colorado Plateau and how they have been applied by land management agencies. Students will explore the effects these policies have had on the cultures, ecologies, and economies of the Colorado Plateau through readings, class discussions, meetings with a wide variety of public lands officials and community members, written exercises, and independent research.
Environmental Studies 395: Environment and Culture of the Colorado Plateau (3 credits)
Students on this course will explore the concept of environmental sustainability as applied to the societies and environments of the Colorado Plateau. The course explores the essential goals of sustainability (what is to be sustained) and the means to that end (how to sustain it) through various conceptual frameworks. As an alternative framework for addressing sustainability issues, we will explore resilience and systems theory.
Native American Studies 391: Indians of the American Southwest- Relationships with the Land (3 credits)
This course is designed to give students a grounded and contextual understanding of Indian peoples’ traditional relationships with the land in the American Southwest. We explore how those relationships differ among tribes and why the relationships have changed in relation to dynamic climatic, economic, and cultural factors. Readings and discussions will be complimented by homestays on the Navajo and Hopi reservations and visits to significant archaeological sites in the backcountry.
Geography 348: Geography of the Colorado Plateau (3 credits)
This course examines relationships between humans and the natural environment on the Colorado Plateau. We explore both wild and settled environments to understand the following questions: What are the elements (climate, vegetation, landforms) that characterize landscapes in this region? How and why have successive human cultures modified these landscapes? How have the dynamic environmental conditions here influenced human activities?
Natural Resources Science and Management 311: Natural History of the Colorado Plateau (3 credits)
Through the processes of focused attention to natural history, searching for patterns, sharing observations, and researching accepted knowledge, students gain a direct understanding of the natural world and the human role in it. Field exercises and assignments are central to this course: they develop observational techniques and habits, foster effective communication of observations and ideas, demonstrate relevant principles of ecology, and allow exploration of the broader implications of natural history.

Academic Credit:

All courses offered through the Wild Rockies Field Institute are accredited through the University of Montana and the School for Extended and Lifelong Learning. Each Wild Rockies Field Institute course is approved and supported by University of Montana departmental leadership and faculty.

The “Colorado Plateau” semester offers five independent courses, each worth 3 semester credits, for a total of 15 credits earned for successfully completing the program.

Quarter System Students:
For colleges and universities on the quarter system, each 3-credit course is typically worth 4.5 quarter system units, for a total of 22.5 units upon successful completion of the program.

Block System Students:
At institutions where one course is equal to one credit, each class (e.g. CCS 391) within a WRFI course is typically equal to one credit.

Colorado Plateau Course Description

The Colorado Plateau semester entails a combination of backcountry expeditions, meetings with guest speakers, and site visits. The course is split into five sections, each lasting between 10-12 days. Approximately two-thirds of the course is spent in the backcountry, traveling across the landscape. The remaining one-third of the course duration is spent engaging with community members in the region.

Between sections the group will visit small towns and meet with a variety of local citizens, land managers, tribal members, scientists, elected officials, farmers, recreationists, and ranchers. These guest speakers expose students to diverse perspectives on the landscapes and cultures of the area. The days between sections are used to re-supply the course with food and other supplies. Typically, students have the opportunity to receive mail, check email, take showers, buy personal food and do laundry between each section. There is also a course recess approximately half way through the course in which students and instructors get a brief break from the rigors of traveling and academics.

Section One: Horseshoe Canyon | Backpacking

On the Horseshoe Canyon section, we begin our intensive study of the ecological interactions and geological phenomena that make this region unique, and contemplate the lives and livelihoods of the indigenous people who lived here as we observe their rock art and other artifacts.

Section Two: Dirty Devil Canyon | Backpacking

The adventurous Dirty Devil backpack extends explorations from Horseshoe Canyon, with a greater emphasis on geology, mining history and fossil fuel extraction, paleontology, and regional land-use history.

Section Three: Front Country | Road Trip in the WRFI Van

Following the extended backcountry trips, we spend two weeks in the front-country meeting with more guest speakers representing a wide array of expertise and views including restoration ecologists, environmental activists, journalists, agency officials, and historians. We visit archaeological sites, do homestays on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations, visit Glen Canyon Dam, tour coal mines and power plants, among other activities.

Section Four: Dark Canyon | Backpacking

Our final backcountry section takes place in the Dark Canyon Primitive and Wilderness Areas. The backpack trip will take us through the spectrum of regional ecological communities, from montane aspens and pines to recovering deserts on the receding shore of Lake Powell. A rich array of ancient ruins highlights the long human inhabitation of this area, and current land-use issues are evident as we pass through different land management regimes. We finish with an ascent of a peak in the Abajo Range, for a literal overview of our explorations for the last two months on the Colorado Plateau.

Section Five: Labyrinth Canyon | Canoeing

The Labyrinth Canyon canoe trip provides a change of pace from backpacking, and concentrates on riverine and riparian ecology, water policy, bioregional history, and sense of place.

In addition to the academic topics mentioned above, throughout the course students learn and cultivate skills of wilderness travel, minimum impact camping, orienteering, and natural history.

Pre/Post-Course Work:

For the five weeks prior to the field section of the course, students are assigned introductory readings and assignments. They will participate in online discussions in preparation for the field experience. These readings address the basics of regional flora, fauna, geology, and cultural history of the Colorado Plateau. They also introduce students to current events and issues. Assignments include writing introductory personal essays, researching current events, reading classic southwest literature, and writing responses to readings and instructor prompts. Following the field portion of the course, students will have one week to type and revise their final assignment.