See the United States in a new light! This gap year program offers you enriching and inspiring experiences through the west frontier of the US and the chance to see the on and offshore beauty of Hawaii's Big Island!
This 10-week gap year semester program combines conservation volunteer projects in diverse reserves; outdoor expeditions including backpacking, rock climbing, yoga and surfing; and educational adventure travel through the west’s stunning mountain, rainforest and desert environments.
Mountain bike through the famous red rocks of Sedona, stargaze on the summit of a dormant volcano in Hawaii, sled down the sand dunes of White Sands National Park and test your balance during a yoga retreat! You will also learn more about the weaving and cooking traditions of the Native Americans, the navigating skills of the indigenous Polynesians, and the National Parks’ efforts to mitigate deforestation and reintroduce endemic wildlife. Uncover more about your own backyard than you even knew existed.
This gap semester program is perfect for high school graduates, college graduates, and gap year students, ideally 17 to 22 years old. Optional transferable academic credit is available to all participants.
Aloha! On arrival to the Big Island, you will be met by your program instructors. After a comprehensive program briefing, we’ll immerse ourselves in the epic nature surrounding our new home base. Our days will be spent hiking the local tracks for panoramic views, exploring the town and its exotic fruits and veggies, and getting to
know our fellow group members!
Next, we will roll up our sleeves for two days and get involved in the efforts of a non-profit while learning all about the legends and land from Aunty K! This hands-on non-profit was founded for research and educational purposes to discover and understand how Hawaiians sustained rain-fed intensive farming for centuries; and how it may inform our current efforts to live sustainably.
We also make our way to the postcard image of a raw and wild permaculture farm in the northern tropical region of the island. The diversity of fruits and vegetables that are systematically and strategically planted encourage edible growth that enables farm-totable meals. We will have the chance to participate in seeding, planting, and maintaining this beautiful space while learning about the various initiatives the farm is undertaking to promote sustainability.
From the northern part of the island we head down to the East and to Hilo. This charming town was once most well known for its farming, fishing and sugar industry but is now home to a vibrant array of art galleries, museums and gardens. We’ll explore this new area and get to know the locals a little. One day we’ll take a mini hike through the lava rock and jungle walkway of the Puna Trail that runs next to the ocean. This track gets us to one the only
sandy beaches on this side of the island, which is pretty shallow, an awesome swimming spot. While we’re there, keep your eye out for the turtles that love to sunbathe on the rocks!
Afterwards, we’re taking a trip down south a little way to the small town of Pahala. This area is known for its black sand beaches and abundant wilderness, fueled by the warm sunny days and nightly rainfall that is
common on this side of the island. On one of our first days spent here we’ll take a deep dive of native Hawaiian traditions, from making beautiful and delicate leis from the local trees to learn the importance and steps of Hula!
By now we will have grasped the value that native Hawaiian’s hold for their local land. It provides them the food which they eat, the water which they drink, and the energy which they cultivate. These next days we will be participating in valiant efforts to clean the local beaches and ocean from decades of pollution, hearing stories about
the legends of the sea and the reasons the locals respect them so much!
There are so many unique landscapes on this environmentally rich island and these few days have you exploring two of the coolest! Black sand beaches are quite rare, and this one in particular is especially so as it is made of tiny fragments of broken up lava! Spend the day admiring the natural phenomenon, splashing in the sea, and trying to spot the endangered Hawksbill turtles that tan on its shores. The following two days are going to be an adventure of other worldly perceptions, with self-exploration and hiking throughout Volcanoes National Park, one of the most unique landscapes in the world.
It’s also time to fully embrace one of the oldest Hawaiian traditions, the Imu, a form of underground oven. We’ll spend a full day harvesting, collecting and preparing produce to create our own Imu and get to work creating a feast that will sit overnight until ready the following morning. We’ll ground taro leaves, set the stones and prepare the food whilst sharing stories with our local hosts and in the morning, we’ll get to work taking the food from the ground to the table, ready to feast!
The next couple of days are not only going to have us hiking to an amazing cove of a green sand beach, but we will have the chance to stand at the southernmost tip of the USA, eat a donut at the southernmost bakery in the USA, and, if you’re feeling brave enough, cliff jump off the southernmost cliffs in the USA! It is sure to be exciting as we push ourselves to our limits and beyond!
The next couple of days are incredibly special as we will be participating in conservation work in the only Cloud Forest in the entire country. The tropical ecosystems that exist here are so rare that, well, they really don’t exist anywhere else! Since the island is made of lava, every single plant, species, tree, etc. grows ABOVE ground! Literally - the tree roots, the shrubs, everything. It. Is. Wild. And you get to learn all about it and contribute to its continued wellbeing.
Well, it’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for! Can you consider yourself to truly understand the culture of Hawaii if you don’t get on a board and walk the walk? Or more aptly, surf the surf? For three days we will have lessons from a local legend, who is sure to get even the clumsiest and most unathletic of us at least skillfully wobbling on the waves. We’ll learn to laugh at ourselves as we no-doubt tumble into the turquoise waters and we’ll learn to trust ourselves as we slowly develop the skills and strengths needed to master this graceful art. These days are physically exhausting, so the afternoons will be quite a bit of rest and relaxation, so we’ve got plenty of time to recharge
After a beautiful few days on the Kona side, we’re heading back down south and around to Pahala, this time to our friends at a ranch. Famous for its home grown, handpicked Mamaki tea, this place is expansive and impressive. While we’re here we’ll be getting our hands a little dirty picking and harvesting the farm vegetables and tea leaves, and learning all about the process that creates the popular herbal beverage sold around the world. The owner is an ex-professional chef too, so we’ll be well fed! And camping under the endless starry skies of Hawaii never gets old. In our down time there’s plenty of local parks and black sand beaches we can visit and remember to keep your eyes peeled for those turtles!
We finish our week of hard work, after which we’ll get dropped off in Hilo, on the eastern side of the Big Island, known for Wailuku River State Park, featuring Waianuenue or Rainbow Falls, with its colorful mist effects. Our final day in Hawaii we will get to feel like we’re on top of the world...or, at least, on top of the island. Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, sits at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. The majority of the volcano is under water and when measured it is right around 33,500 feet tall, topping in as the tallest mountain in the world! It is known as one of the best stargazing skies in the world, and we will have the opportunity to lay on its summit and view it for ourselves!
We spend our last few days back on the West in Kona, ending with some time to rest, relax and take in the white beaches and blue ocean.
After our group’s mid-program flight from the Big Island of Hawai’i to Los Angeles, California, we will pick up our van and head to Palm Springs. We will spend a day reorienting ourselves to our new surroundings and our new adventures! We will participate in a tea ceremony, learning about how the plant grows and the wide variety of its cultural and health implications.
If you don’t know, now you know. The Dali-like imagery of Joshua Tree makes our very own planet feel somehow disoriented. From the massive boulders to the trees – each with branch shapes as unique as a thumbprint – we will have the opportunity to explore its landscapes from up above and down below. Two of our days will be spent scaling its rocks, learning how to climb and rappel. We will also have a full day of hiking on its various dream-like trails, and we will spend our evenings stargazing in our campsite.
From the warped trees of Joshua Tree we’ll head to the warped wood of the Petrified Forest for a full day of self-exploration! With that in our rearview mirror, we’re moving on to Sedona, 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.
The next two days are going to be contrasts and complements to living and learning. In 1970, a visionary project started to take hold in an experimental town in the high desert of Arizona. The concept was minimalism - identifying and designing architecture that enables us to live simply and with a limited environmental footprint. We will have the chance to explore the impressive feats this community has accomplished in the last 50 years. Next up, we team up with scientists from Biosphere 2: a three acre laboratory that is recreating life on earth in an atmosphere similar to space. Built in the late 80’s after the Apollo space mission, researchers wanted to develop technologies that would allow humans to sustain life on other planets. The dome shaped structures contain a variety of ecosystems from tropical saltwater oceans, rainforests, savanna and deserts, all here in Arizona! Prepare to nerd out on the biggest science experiment you’ve ever seen!
It wasn’t until 1978 that two young cavers shared their discovery of the awesome Kartchner Caverns with anybody else. The underground formations are mind-blowing, with stalactites growing over 20 feet and the tallest column in the state – 58 feet. 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 also have the unique opportunity to participate in some hands-on conservation work in the region alongside National Park Rangers!
The next few days will be a contrast of landscapes so surreal we will be rubbing our eyes to make sure they are real! First up is Chiricahua National Monument, a landmine landscape of naturally-carved hoodoos and balancing rocks! After a relaxation day in Mesilla, New Mexico, an adorable town of traditional adobe homes and plaza shops, we are off to the massive and never-ending sand dunes of White Sands National Park! Channel your inner child and spend the afternoon sledding down them and running back up them before settling in for a picnic to watch the sun set along its reflective horizon.
We also get the chance to become acquainted with the stories and legends of this New Mexico's indigenous ancestors. We’ll go back in time and get a glimpse into the local history through workshops with the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center before getting a tour of a nearby Pueblo by a local who lives there and can share insight on the day-to-day happenings on the inside! We also get to spend a day exploring the nearby Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument before getting to climb ladders into the dwellings of former inhabitants at Bandelier National Monument.
You’re in for a treat as we settle in to explore Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capital. This city has a reputation that precedes itself, characterized by its restored Pueblo architecture and its beating heart Central Plaza. The city’s winding streets and surrounding nature immediately instill marvel and appreciation. We’ll even have the opportunity to partake in the age-old tradition of weaving!
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 Taos, New Mexico to our next destination: Park City, Utah. There are various routes: Will you choose to head northwest, maybe with a pit stop at the infamous Moab Arches and the incredible Canyonlands of Utah? Will your curiosities take you west, to the infamous Zion & Bryce National Parks? Will you prefer to go north to find out what the hype is all about in Boulder before heading back west through Rocky Mountain National Park? It’s up to you – and the budget you’re given – to figure it all out!
Once we make it to Park City, you’ll have a well earned relaxation day before spending the next few days exploring all the various ways one can practice the art of yoga, from introductory classes to paddle boards to connecting with yourself deep in nature. It will be a wonderfully resetting few days!
Sadly, the time has also come to begin processing the once-in-a-lifetime experiences that the last 70 days have taken us on. Our lives are all somewhat chaotic right now, so we are sure that you will reflect on how amazing it was to have a chance to take a break from everything, learn about ourselves, but also prioritize time to experience and have gratitude for our own beautiful and historic culture and environment.
*Each week there will be some designated free time so that you can catch up on email, 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, availability, and safety precautions.
This gap year program is perfect for high school graduates, college students and graduates, and non-students, ideally 17-22 years old. Anyone with an average fitness level and an enthusiasm for the outdoors and new experiences will have a great time on this gap semester! You will need to be prepared for some physical work during the volunteer projects on the program, like trail building or the removal of invasive plants. As a guideline, you should aim to be comfortable hiking 4-6 hours with a backpack, but you don’t need to have had previous experience with any of the activities offered.
The program is a shared group experience. Join this 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 mix of camping (tents supplied) and comfortable, clean hostels and lodges. Laundry and Wi-Fi 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 and vegetarians are catered for. Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner are included in the program cost. Any snacks are at an additional cost, which we recommend budgeting around $15 per day for.
Food preparation responsibilities are shared by all students. It’s fun, social and often a highlight. An average day on program would consist of the following:
Camping meals will be adjusted to the cooking equipment at hand