Students need to put a lot of considerations into play when they choose a college. First and foremost, they should find a course of study and professors that align with what they see as their future path in life—or at least ignite their intellectual passion. But location matters, too. Climbing matters. Hiking matters. The mountains matter. Learning goes deeper than the classroom. With that in mind, we asked our outdoor-minded readers to choose the best outdoor-focused colleges in the Rocky Mountain West.

WINNER

Western State
Colorado University

Gunnison, Colorado

With the mountains, streams and trails of Gunnison and Crested Butte in its backyard, Western State draws outdoor junkies from across the nation. But it’s the school’s dedication to programs that study, celebrate, protect and expand those wildlands that put it over the top in our poll.

Through student led programs, Western’s Wilderness Pursuits (WP) teaches leadership and provides low-cost gear rentals and classes—everything from rock climbing to kayaking to backcountry skiing—focused on outdoor exploration. “The leadership WP instructors exhibit is completely uncontrived and genuine,” says Christie Hicks, former WP director. “They constantly make decisions that positively affect the mental, physical and emotional well-being of themselves and others.”

Indeed, Western prides itself on its empowering of students via outdoor-based education. Just look at the privately funded Thornton Research Program, which gives motivated undergrads the chance to write grant proposals so students can engage in field research. And the Center for Environment and Sustainability connects faculty and student research and service

projects with resilient solutions for ecological

health and sustainable communities.

Academically, Western’s 3 + 2 Program fast-tracks future-focused students with three years of undergraduate courses in one of five majors followed by two years of master’s level courses. The result is a bachelor’s degree and a Master in Environmental Management (MEM) in just five years. Students majoring in Recreation and Outdoor Education (ROE) must work or volunteer for a total of 600 hours within their chosen area of specialization before graduation.

“The approach of problem-based and experiential learning in the ROE program fosters student success,” says ROE Professor Brooke Moran. “Students are building their resumes through many of our classes, and they’re not simply reading and regurgitating textbook material.”

Sounds like a winner.

RUNNER UP

Prescott College

Prescott, Arizona

Prescott College has been synonymous with outdoor education for decades. For over 45 years, the school’s Wilderness Orientation program has been getting students out on a three-week backpacking expedition in the remote desert mountains and canyons of Arizona. It’s more than a retreat: In the field, the undergrads seek deeper connections to the land and themselves via the challenges of wilderness navigation and natural and cultural history. “We believe in the value of engaging directly with the outdoors. This means that many of our courses spend anywhere from several weeks to months in remote backcountry settings. This happens by a combination of month-long periods where students enroll in a single class (blocks) and semester-length field courses where students spend much of the time in the backcountry,” says Shayna Beasley, Prescott’s director of marketing.

RUNNER UP

University of Wyoming

Laramie, Wyoming

The least-populated state in the country prides itself on its public lands, and the University of Wyoming considers its national parks, wilderness areas, wildlife reserves, national forests and BLM land all part of its outdoor classroom. The school offers an extracurricular year-long Outdoor Leadership Development Series during which students organize backcountry trips and develop leadership skills in the field. Back on campus, the Sustainability and Environment and Natural Resources clubs teach students how to organize projects that engage the community in environmental practices. There’s also a big focus on outdoor athletics here, highlighted by the Nordic ski team, which has won races at the World University Games in Italy, Slovakia and Kazakhstan as well as all over the U.S.

RUNNER UP

Red Rocks Community College

Lakewood, Colorado

Nestled on the outskirts of Denver, Red Rocks proves that two-year urban schools can still hold their own for those seeking jobs outside the office cube. The school’s outdoor education program prepares students to build careers in the outdoor industry be it as a NOLS instructor, outdoor educator or county park employee.