The United States is, in many ways, a country unlike any other, and this experiential travel semester offers an amazing immersion into the mountains and deserts of its majestic wild west.

It combines service-learning conservation projects in diverse reserves; outdoor expeditions including backpacking, kayaking, rock climbing, yoga and white-water rafting; and educational adventure travel through the west's stunning mountain, forest and desert environments.

Facilitated by our supportive and experienced Program Instructors, this is an excellent opportunity for students wanting to develop personal and leadership skills, have new experiences and challenge themselves, be immersed in unique environments and learn about sustainability - not to mention, have an insane amount of fun!

The program is open to high school graduates, university students and graduates, ideally 18 – 24 years. Optional transferable academic credit is available to all participants.

While travelling domestically may look a little different to Pacific Discovery's other programs, our program design remains unchanged.

The Western United States semester program is a journey of discovery, where students are immersed in a facilitated learning environment, designed to maximize the educational and life-skills potential. Students are regularly encouraged to reflect and think about their values, goals, and what they wish to gain from the program experience and from their lives in general. It’s time to explore our own backyard, and there’s a lot of it!

• Tramping (backpacking) trip in Shasta Trinity National Forest, CA
• Lava River Cave educational tour
• Rock climbing skills camp in Bend OR
• Get hands-on with a 3-day National Parks service project in Mount Hood, OR
• Sustainability Farm Project in Seattle, WA
• Epic 3-day kayaking trip in the San Juan Islands
• Mount Rainer Institute educational service-learning
• White water rafting and horseback riding in Missoula
• Hike to see Old Faithful up close in Yellowstone NP
• Explore the Craters of the Moon in Idaho
• Visit the ancient ruins in Chaco Canyon, the amazing formations of the Tent Rocks, and the immense network of caves in the Kartchner Caverns
• Get an insider’s peak at the indigenous tradition of Horno Baking in a traditional New Mexico Pueblo
• Practice leadership and development in student-led section between Park City Utah and Taos, New Mexico
• Ranger Guided Program in the White Sands National Park
• Learn about invasive speices in national forest projects in Tonto National Forest, NM
• Mountain biking in Sedona, Arizona
• Test your atheltic abilities on an official Plympic Park in Salt Lake City, UT
• 3-day yoga & hiking retreat in Joshua Tree National Park
• Small group experience with quailified and knowledgeable instructors
• Experiential core curriculum that pushes students to reflect and ask questions of themselves, working towards a deeper understanding of their values, identity, passions and purpose.

Week 1. Program Orientation and Shasta Trinity National Forest backpacking expedition

You can fly or drive to SFO - our private transportation will arrange to pick you up at your destination. Regardless of how you arrive to the starting point, you’ll be met by your awesome Program Instructors and transferred to our group's private Lake Tahoe accommodation for an in-depth 3-day program orientation to focus on getting to know each other and create a positive and reflective group culture to support us in realizing our program goals. 

We then head off on a self-supported backpacking journey into Shasta Trinity National Forest, the largest national forest in California and home to the towering Mount Shasta Wilderness, a dormant, snow capped volcano that rises over 14,000 feet. Don't be intimidated by jumping right into the adventure week 1 - you will have experienced mentors and a whole cohort of new friends pushing you on!


Week 2. Rock-climbing, caving and National Parks Service Project in Oregon!

Heading north through the dense forests that separate the border of California and Oregon, we stop to explore the natural formation of a lava river cave, en route to our destination: the laidback and lovable city of Bend! We will have a day to explore at leisure before donning some pretty tight shoes and a sweet as harness to spend two days learning climbing, rappelling and belaying.

Mount Hood, a sacred place for many indigenous communities, has a commanding presence within its national forest – and standing at over 11,000 feet it’s easy to understand why. Its permanently snow-capped peak is crowed by eleven separate glaciers, which can be seen from miles in any direction. This majestic landscape will be our home base for our first partner project, which, depending on season and need, ranges from trail and site maintenance, conservation programs, and monitoring wildlife populations.


Week 3. Exploration, sustainability project and kayaking adventures

We have earned a much-deserved relaxation day amongst the beauty and laidback vibes of Olympia. We will get the chance to ignite our competitive energies as we challenge each other to none other than a world-class dodgeball match.

This is an amazing opportunity to connect to and get involved in the growing, harvest, and preparing of fresh foods. This experience is as much about education as it is about participation. Many topics will be explored, including the various challenges confronting the food industry, how COVID-19 has affected the country’s food supply chain, and what it really means to eat healthy.

Spend three epic days on the water exploring the channels and keeping your eyes peeled for the various marine life that calls this special place home.Each night you will set up camp on rugged and quiet shores, enjoying the calm and clear skies that provide amazing stargazing opportunities. Each morning you will wake up to a warm and hearty breakfast, breakdown camp, and hit the waters for another day of kayaking fun! On Day 21, you will return to San Juan and be transported back to Seattle; the next day, you will have a free day to go and explore Pike Market, the Space Needle, and other places you want to check out in this awesome city.


Week 4. Nature-based education project in Mount Rainer and Spokane, WA. 

From Seattle we travel by road to Mount Rainier National Park, eponymously named after the iconic 14,410-foot active volcano, Mount Rainier. It is the most glaciated peak in mainland USA, and its ancient forest’s diverse ecosystem is home to an immense amount of wildlife, making it a fascinating setting for researchers, scientists, and
Pacific Discovery semester students to explore! We will spend three days embarking on nature-based educational experiences, using the park as our playground to discover and learn.

From Mount Rainier we continue eastward to the historically rich city of Spokane. We will have a full free day to explore, with a myriad of optional activities including visiting the tumbling Spokane Falls (either on foot or via cable car), meandering through the vast Riverfront Park, and checking out the region’s history at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.


Week 5. Missoula adventure activities and Yellowstone National Park

Continuing our eastward trajectory, we settle in the majestic and adventure-filled town of Missoula. From saddling up your horse and riding through the countryside’s postcard-perfect trails to tackling the crazy rapids of the Alberton Gorge, the adventure and fun here is non-stop!

These few days are going to feel like you’ve been transported from the human planet earth to some galaxy far far away – with mostly friendly inhabitants. We’ll spend a full day exploring the trails in Yellowstone National Park and get up close and personal with Old Faithful; we’ll get to meet some of the locals at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming; and we’ll enthusiastically – and disbelievingly – walk along the sprawling dormant lava fields to the base of the lava monuments scattered throughout the Craters of the Moon Preserve!


Week 6. Exploration and self-led week 

We head south to the legendary destination of Park City, home of the 2002 Winter Olympics (as well as endless non-winter-based experiences!). We’ll have a full day of fun in the official Utah Olympic Park, where we get to up our adrenaline on various zip lines, tubing lanes, and ropes courses. We then have an entire day to explore the
beauty of the city itself, from its incredibly maintained walking trails to its shops and restaurants downtown.

Pacific Discovery’s self-led weeks have long been ingrained in our company’s DNA. We truly believe in the amount of learning and growth our students experience throughout our semester programs, and this week puts that to the test. You will be handed over the reins to work collaboratively as a group and determine how you want to
get from Park City, Utah to our next destination: Taos, New Mexico. There are various routes: Will you choose to head south, through the infamous Moab Arches and the incredible Canyonlands of Utah? Will you prefer to hit the mountains of Colorado, maybe with a stop off in legendary Aspen before finding out what the hype is all about in
Boulder? It’s up to you – and the budget you’re given – to figure it all out!


Week 7. Native American Culture in Taos

Taos’ allure is one that can be difficult to describe before it’s experienced; it goes far beyond its location, an authentic longtime artist colony surrounded by New Mexico’s high desert and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It’s not solely because of its rich cultural history, with its traditional adobe buildings and multitude of museums showcasing its Native American roots. It’s something intangible, something that lies in the mysteries of its skies and souls. But trust us – when you arrive, you’ll feel it too. It is a place whose visitors find hard to let go of when it’s time to depart.

So much so that the full free day you have to explore it won’t seem like nearly enough, but you’ll appreciate the insight gained when we are taken into the home of a born-and-raised tribal family who shares the secrets – and joys – of traditional Horno baking. We’ll work up an appetite preparing various dishes before sitting to a family feast and sharing stories about our cultural differences – and similarities.


Week 8. Ancient History and Ranger Guided program 

After hearing the many stories and legends of indigenous ancestors, it’s about time we feel the passage of time through the lens of incredibly maintained ruins among the desert landscape. Containing the biggest collection of ancient ruins north of Mexico, we will have the chance to explore the preserved region of Chaco Canyon, once a major center of culture and trade for the Ancestral Puebloans.

If you were mesmerized by the charm of Taos, you’re in for a treat as we settle in to explore its more established sister, Santa Fe. New Mexico’s capital has a reputation that precedes itself, characterized by its restored Pueblo architecture and its beating heart – Central Plaza, a place where local artists spread themselves along the covered grounds to craft, design, create. The city’s winding streets and surrounding nature immediately instill marvel and appreciation; it is not hard to feel why one would want to live out the end of their years amongst its beauty – which is exactly what legendary artist Georgia O’Keefe did. We’ll spend an afternoon exploring her abstract desert-themed artwork, and then spend a day exploring one of her many inspirations – the nearby Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks
National Monument. On our last day we will have the opportunity to go inside of a nearby Pueblo, on a personal guided tour learning through places as well as stories.

We will have the unique opportunity to explore the vast sand dunes of this recently established national park alongside an official park ranger! Each day will provide us with a specific theme, from plants and animals to history and culture. We will hike various trails as we get to play in one of the country’s most accessible protected areas.


Week 9. Kartchner Caverns, Invasive Species Project and mountain biking in Arizona

A long-kept secret between two young cavers, it wasn’t until 1978 that they shared their discovery of the awesome Kartchner Caverns with anybody else. Recognizing its importance and fragility, they took the finding to the Arizona State Parks organization, with the hope and belief that they would manage and care for its well-being. The underground formations are mind-blowing, with stalactites growing over 20 feet and the tallest column in the state – 58 feet – in the appropriately named Throne Room. It feels like a fairy tale to walk along these formations, the majority of which have been growing and developing for over tens of thousands of years. We will spend the day exploring their magic, and the night exploring the magic of the stars in the officially designated Dark Sky destination. We will wind down from all the excitement with a chilled out day exploring the nearby town of Mesa, Arizona.

Volunteering time and energy to the organizations that manage public parks and forests is tantamount to those areas’ health – and the public’s ability to enjoy them. We will dedicate two full days to tackling one of the biggest threats to the Tonto National Forest – the arrival and subsequent need for eradicating invasive plants that are harming the park’s ecosystem. We will learn about the poisonous plants and do our part in the process to eliminate them!

Sedona is most commonly – and appropriately – linked to its iconic red rocks. We will explore them by foot and mountain bike to get a real feel for their unique formations. To discover the red rocks is to get a deeper understanding of the spirituality that resides in this unique destination. Renowned for its vortexes – identified locations that hold powerful and transformational energy centers – Sedona has long been a sacred site for the region’s inhabitants. You will have the opportunity to learn about the four different sites identified within
Sedona, as well experience the ancestral ceremonial traditions which include sacred drumming and songs, smudging, and aura clearing.


Week 10. Hiking & Yoga retreat and program wrap

If you don’t know, now you know. The Dali-like imagery of Joshua Tree makes our very own planet feel somehow warped and disoriented. From the massive boulders to the trees – each with branch shapes as unique as a thumbprint – we will have the opportunity to meditate among the madness as we spend our days
tramping throughout its many trails and our evenings stretching our bodies into shapes as humbling as the Joshua Trees that surround us.

Sadly, the time has come to begin our process of digesting the once-in-a-lifetime experiences we just had with the once-in-a-lifetime friendships we have developed.

*Each week there will be some designated free time in a town or city so that you can catch up on email and laundry, rest, and explore independently with others in the group.

**Pacific Discovery reserves the right to alter and/or change the order of the itinerary, the focus of the projects or the activities themselves due to dates and availability.

For full program details, please request the information booklet


Open to students, graduates and non-students, ideally 18-24 years. This program is suitable for anyone of average fitness with an enthusiasm for the outdoors, conservation and new experiences. You need to be committed to, and prepared for, some physical work whilst on the volunteer components of the program i.e. trail building or the removal of invasive plants and while on the outdoor activities, be prepared to give-it-a-go. As a guideline, you should aim to be comfortable hiking 4-6 hours with a backpack. You don’t need to have had previous experience with any of the activities offered.

The program is a shared group experience. We expect you to join the program with an open mind and a willingness to work together with your group mates to make the program an amazing experience for the whole group. Additionally, the program will be as much about the inner journey of personal growth and learning about yourself as it is about what you will experience in the outer physical journey. We expect you to be open to learning and challenging your ideas and assumptions.


Our accommodation will be a mixture of camping (tents supplied) and comfortable and clean hostels and lodges. Laundry and WiFi facilities will be available most days, except during the weeks in the field on the volunteer projects and on expeditions. Accommodation is diverse, comfortable and carefully chosen to fit our needs.


Meals are fresh, tasty, healthy and varied. Special dietary requirements are accomodated. All meals are included in the program cost. Food preparation, shared by all students, is fun, social and often a highlight.

Program Tuition Includes

  • All program-related travel and transport included 
  • All accommodation
  • All meals
  • All expeditions, activities, excursions, entry fees and adventure travel as described in the itinerary
  • Environmental education and service learning projects
  • Experiential core curriculum that pushes students to reflect and ask questions of themselves - working towards a deeper understanding of their values, identity, passions and purpose
  • Individual mentorship from program instructors, supporting you in your personal goals for the program
  • Informal lectures from resident experts on conservation and eco-tourism
  • Experienced Program Instructors and local guides
  • 1-3-week optional extensions if you wish to continue travelling independently after the program
  • Pre-departure web-page with all information you need in one place to prepare for the program
  • 24/7 emergency contact number for students and parents
  • Global medical rescue and political evacuation insurance
  • Instructors have 24/7 access to a physician and a psychologist, for advice and support
  • Pacific Discovery T-shirt, water bottle stickers and a buff
  • Online image library for your program

The Pacific Discovery Western United States Gap Year semester combines conservation volunteering, adventure travel and experiential learning through different nine states. 

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Fall Dates 14 Sep - 22 Nov, 2020
Spring Dates 1 Feb - 11 Apr, 2021
Duration 70 days
(plus independent extension options)

Program Tuition $13,500 USD Estimated Flight Cost $200 USD
Availability Open
Group Size 14 Students & 2 Instructors Ages 18 - 24 ideal
Optional College Credit Yes Start/Finish San Francisco, California