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 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 in Kona, 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.
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 learning the importance of Hawaiian history and how that has shaped the place we are visiting today. We will also be learning the basics of Hawaiian language, exploring the town and its exotic fruits and veggies, snorkeling through clear waters and colorful coral reefs, keeping our eyes peeled for dolphins and other marine life on a boat charter, and of course getting to know our fellow participants. We’ve got a week of sun, learning, sea and sand to get us started!
We head to Kohala, where we will learn about the importance of the canoe in the local communities. Much in the way that the hula is not just a dance, canoes are not just boats in Hawaiian culture. Polynesian voyagers first discovered the Hawaiian islands, and canoes played a key role in the flourishing of Hawaiian life. We learn how canoes were an important part of everyday life, especially for traveling and fishing, and how locals are still heavily involved in canoe voyaging clubs.
We are very lucky to be able to spend some time in this area of Hawaii. While we’re here we will roll up our sleeves for three 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.
Hilo, on the eastern side of the island, with its rainforests and lush green landscape, it’s a much different vibe and energy than the sunny side of Kona. We’ll spend our days exploring the Botanical Gardens, Shipman’s Trail, and Akaka Falls. We’ve scheduled our yoga sessions for the morning to allow for relaxation, and to start our days present and fulfilled.
We’ve also been given an incredible opportunity to get out into the water with a locally run community organization that focuses on fishpond restoration and ocean conservation. We’ll be working alongside experts learning about the marine ecosystem and how to protect and encourage sea life in these beautiful pockets of the ocean that surround Hilo. We’ll get to learn about sustainable fishing techniques as well as testing our own skills and trying our hand at throwing fishing nets. Prepare to get stuck in and a little wet over these days!
In Hilo 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 underwater and when measured it is right around 33,500 feet tall, topping it 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 then head to the Puna District, a rural area that is home to countless farms producing tropical flowers, macadamia nuts, papayas, bananas and tea. Surrounding these are miles of lush rainforests and easy access to the natural beauty of Volcanoes National Park. In 2018, it was also the primary location of a volcanic eruption, which has led to extremely rugged, largely underdeveloped infrastructure. We learn about the impacts the lava flows have had on the local farming practices, and explore the still-cooling lava rocks as well as the stunning seaside cliffs on the coastline.
There are so many unique landscapes on this environmentally rich island, and the next few days have you exploring one of the coolest! This is sure to be an adventure of otherworldly perceptions, with self exploration and hiking throughout Volcanoes National Park, one of the most unique landscapes in the world.
We’re taking a trip back down south and east a little way to the small town of Pahala in the district of Ka’u, where it’s 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. We’ll ground taro leaves, set the stones and prepare the food whilst sharing stories with our local hosts and when it’s ready, we’ll get to work taking the food from the ground to the table, ready to feast!
This area is known for its black sand beaches and abundant wilderness, fuelled by the warm sunny days and nightly rainfall that is common on this side of the island. We spend a couple of days on a macadamia nut farm, where we see the entire process of macadamia nut harvesting and processing, from nut to kennel. We will learn hands-on by picking, cracking, sorting, washing and of course tasting the macadamia nuts ourselves.
By now we will have grasped the value that native Hawaiian’s hold for their local land. It provides them with the food which they eat, the water which they drink, and the energy which they cultivate. We will go for a hike in the Ka’u Forest Reserve to take in all its beauty, and we will jump on board to take part in efforts to restore the local beaches with a marine debris clean up!
We’re back at home base for our last few days on Hawai’i Big Island. Kona is on the Western side of the island, known for it’s beautiful coral reefs and sea life but also it’s super chilled out vibe. On our way back, we’ll explore one of only four green sand beaches in the world and we’ll finish our time here spending a few days reflecting on all that we have learnt from this incredible island.
Time to reset and refresh on our new homebase for the second half of the program: Oahu Island! We make our way from Honolulu to the North Shore because, let’s be honest, 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 surf 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 our batteries.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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. We will be handed over the reins to work collaboratively as a group and determine how you want to get from Sedona to our next destination: Moab, as a team.
There are various routes but it’s up to the group – and the budget you’re given – to figure it all out!
Once we arrive in Moab, there is no rest as we are straight out exploring the Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands invites you to explore a wilderness of countless canyons and fantastically formed buttes carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. Rivers divide the park into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves. These areas share a primitive desert atmosphere, but each offers different opportunities for sightseeing and adventure.
Moab is world famous for its mountain bike trails and you will be free to explore some trails and really get a taste of true mountain biking in this desert wilderness.
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