Higher Education: Meet the Winners of our Outdoor College Contest

What makes a great outdoor school? We asked our readers to vote for colleges and universities across the Rocky Mountain West (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana, Utah and Idaho) that best teach an ethos that leads to more than just a career in the outdoor, conservation and related industries, but, more so, a better appreciation of our place and responsibility on the planet. The competition was fierce. But in the end, we came up with four worthy finalists. We spoke to staff and students to find out what puts these best outdoor schools on top.




Location: Alamosa, Colorado

Enrollment: 3,467 undergrads

Outdoor Focus: “The Adventure Programs at Adams State (ASAP) is a co-curricular leadership development program that works together with the Adventure Leadership and Programming minor and the Adventure Sports program,” explains program director Brian Puccerella. “ASAP has its roots in what was called the ‘Outing Club,’ which was created in 1925 by Luther Bean, one of Adams State’s presidents who strongly believed in the value of outdoor recreation. He would take students on horseback from the college all the way to Mount Blanca, leading them to its summit.”

“Students enrolled in the ALP minor are trained in backpacking, rock climbing, mountain biking, ice climbing, mountaineering, wilderness medicine, group facilitation and outdoor leadership. It’s not uncommon for a student to spend over 50 days in the field the first year. After completing the ALP Expedition course, students are eligible to start working for the Adventure Programs as an ALP Apprentice. Working your way up to a trip leader within ASAP is just one requirement among many that can eventually earn you a Leadership Certificate from Adams State University.”

“Adventure Sports at Adams State University is one of the most unique collegiate sport programs in the nation and it houses the university’s cycling and rock climbing teams,” says Puccerella. “Adventure Sports provides competition travel, food, lodging, entry fees and coaching staff for all cycling and rock climbing team members and offers scholarships to athletes in both sports. The Adams State University Rock Climbing team is the only collegiate climbing team in the nation to pay for all competition expenses, offer scholarships and staff a head climbing coach.”

“While outdoor skills are learned and practiced in ASAP, the true emphasis is to develop the essential skills that lead to responsible and effective human beings,” he adds. “We believe that the self-awareness, personal responsibility, and judgment fostered through the program produces a person ready to be a leader in any profession, and in their personal life.”

Key Staff: Brian Puccerella oversees and manages The Adventure Programs at Adams State. He has guided across the southern United States and Alaska, and helped run the Outdoor Recreation program at the University of Alabama before coming to Adams State. Puccerella teaches mountain biking, challenge course facilitation, and rock climbing. Rather than employing full-time faculty, the courses within the Adventure Leadership and Programming minor are instructed by a pool of talented educators each with their particular expertise and strengths. Most courses are taught by two or more instructors to provide a richer learning experience. Curt Howell, who directs the minor, brings ten years of collegiate outdoor program leadership experience to ASAP and specializes in program design, organizational culture, and learning development. Mat Erpelding, who teaches the introductory immersion experience, the ALP Expedition, is the owner of Idaho Mountain Guides and is currently serving the state of Idaho as a state representative. Mat has worked in and for collegiate outdoor programs for 20 years, guided for the American Alpine Institute, and is a former president of the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education. Mark Johnson, a graduate of Adams State (’89), went on to work with Outward Bound before spending about 10 years guiding and training guides for the American Alpine Institute in the Cascades, Bolivia and Ecuador. Sandy Kobrock, owner of Wolf Creek Backcountry and a former Outward Bound instructor and ski patroller, provides the program’s avalanche courses through the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE).




Location: Salt Lake City, Utah

Enrollment: 23,909 undergrads

Outdoor Focus: The University of Utah attracts outdoor-minded students with a host of programs including the Outdoor Adventures Program, U-EXPLORE, Parks, Recreation & Tourism (PRT) and the Sustainability Office. “Programs like Outdoor Adventures, which leads trips, definitely help prepare grads in these fields, but just the vicinity to so many outdoor recreation companies in the area also helps students get a leg up on careers,” says social media manager Andrew Thompson. “For instance, Backcountry.com, Black Diamond, Kuhl and Discrete are all based in Utah. Not to mention there are other outdoor product companies with a presence in the state. And of course, we’re home to 14 mountain resorts, all of which offer opportunities to graduates who want to pursue outdoor recreation careers. Salt Lake is also home to the big Outdoor Retailer trade show, twice a year.”


Important Alumni: Famous outdoor alumni from the U of U include mountaineer and conservationist Conrad Anker, freeskier Tom Wallisch, freeskier Grete Eliassen, and freeskier and owner of Discrete apparel Julian Carr.




Location: Prescott, Arizona

Enrollment: 464 undergrads

Outdoor Focus: “For over 45 years, undergraduate students at Prescott College have built transformative connections to the college, their environment and each other through Wilderness Orientation, which is a three-week backpacking expedition in the remote desert mountains and canyons of Arizona,” says Ashley Mains, director for advancement communications and major gifts. “Students develop a sense of place and make connections to the Southwest through rigorous backcountry travel and map and wilderness navigation, and by studying the natural and cultural history of their route. 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.”

“We have a renowned Adventure Education program as well as an Environmental Studies program that involves extensive field time,” says Mains. “Students have opportunities to study in the outdoors with courses such as Environmental Perspectives and Whitewater Rafting, Backcountry Skiing and Winter Ecology, and the Grand Canyon Semester—a semester-long, interdisciplinary program that uses the Greater Grand Canyon Ecoregion as a training grounds and laboratory. A central piece of the Grand Canyon Semester is a science-based resource stewardship project focused on the river corridor.”

Important Alumni: U.S. Senator Tom Udall. Angela Hawse, the first woman to join the American Mountain Guides Association Instructor Team and the only woman who teaches and examines in all three disciplines—rock, alpine and ski. Sue Knaup, international bicycle and social change advocate. Brad Dimmock, Grand Canyon historian.




Location: Moscow, Idaho

Enrollment: 9,330 undergrads

Outdoor Focus: “We consider the whole state of Idaho to be our campus,” says Jodi Walker, director of communicaions. “UI offers an active Outdoor Program—a nonprofit service organization dedicated to providing the university community with education and resources for wilderness-based, human-powered, environmentally sound activities. The Outdoor Program offers equipment rentals, trip-planning assistance, and a full slate of programming.”

Key Staff: Janet Rachlow, Department of Fish and Wildlife Sciences, studies habitat quality and fire. Travis Paveglio, Department of Natural Resources and Society, studies the impact of wildfire. Crystal Kolden, Department of Geography, leads a $2.8 million National Science Foundation grant to study where wildfires are most likely to strike and how communities can recover from fires.

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