Spring Break 2020


Today, and throughout American history, wilderness has meant many different things to many different people. A place of refuge and renewal, a place of malevolent spirits and forces, a pristine ecological community, a source of material well-being, a wellspring of national and personal identity – wilderness was, and continues to be, all of these things. This two-term seminar and off-campus study program will explore these ideas and many more, as we ponder the significance of wild country in the American experience. 

The program will involve all of your senses. We will read deeply into the field of wilderness studies. We will discuss the issues and questions that animate these studies in a lively and open-ended format. We will engage in independent research projects that will contribute to the vitality of the seminar and that will be presented to the Carleton community at the conclusion of our journey. And, we will experience wilderness and think hard about that experience in one of the most remarkable corners of the Earth, the Grand Canyon.

Learning Goals

  • To learn about the complicated and often contested idea of wilderness and wilderness areas in American society and culture through study, research, conversation, and experience.
  • To learn how to design and execute an in-depth research project, including how to formulate an interesting and constructive research question, find and evaluate source material, draft an effective and meaningful research paper, and communicate findings in written, visual and oral forms.
  • To learn how to be an effective member of a research community, including how to discuss complex materials in an open-ended seminar, offer and receive constructive criticism, and work with others to expand the boundaries of our knowledge about wilderness issues.
  • To experience wilderness and to think hard about the relationships Americans have forged – and continue to forge – with wild lands, and more broadly, with the natural world.


Students must complete HIST 205: American Environmental History or receive the consent of the instructor. 

Other Considerations

This is a physically and socially demanding program. On some days, it will involve hiking upwards of ten miles through a desert environment while carrying a 40-pound backpack, and then preparing meals and camping in a remote backcountry setting. So, it is important to come to the program in good physical health and shape, and to be ready for adventure.

Course of Study

12 Credits

Winter Term 2020, HIST 306: American Wilderness (6 credits, Prerequisite: HIST 205 American Environmental History or the consent of the instructor)

To many Americans, wild lands are among the nation’s most treasured places. Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Joshua Tree – the names alone evoke a sense of awe, beauty, naturalness, wildness, and even love.  But, where do those thoughts and feelings come from, and how have they both reflected and shaped American cultural, political, and environmental history over the last four centuries?  These are the central issues and questions that we will pursue in this seminar. 

Note: This course is part of the Wilderness Studies at the Grand Canyon OCS Program and requires application and acceptance to the program for enrollment.

Instructor: George Vrtis 

Spring Term 2020, HIST 307: Wilderness Studies at the Grand Canyon (6 credits, Prerequisite: HIST 306 American Wilderness)

The course will begin with a two-week off-campus study program during spring break at Grand Canyon National Park, where we will learn about the natural and human history of the Grand Canyon, examine contemporary issues facing the park, meet with officials from the National Park Service and other local experts, conduct research, and experience the park though hiking and camping.  The course will culminate in the spring term with the completion and presentation of a major research project. 

Note: This course is part of the Wilderness Studies at the Grand Canyon OCS Program and requires application and acceptance to the program for enrollment.

Instructor: George Vrtis

Faculty Director

Professor George VrtisGeorge Vrtis, Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies

George Vrtis is an Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies, and the Director of the Environmental Studies Program. His teaching and research interests focus on the fields of American and World environmental history, the American West, and contemporary environmental issues. As a joint appointment in the History Department and the Environmental Studies Program, he teaches a wide range of courses that examine the complex relationships that weave together humankind and the natural world. This program brings together Professor Vrtis’ teaching and research interests on many aspects of America’s environmental past and future, including ideas about wilderness and protected areas, resource use and mining, and the struggle to understand and forge healthy human and ecological communities in the midst of a changing world.


Students will stay in Grand Canyon National Park lodge rooms while on the South Rim and in tents while hiking and camping in the backcountry.


  • Explore the natural and human history of the Grand Canyon, a World Heritage Site and one of America’s iconic National Parks.
  • Learn about and deeply consider many of the issues that Grand Canyon National Park is currently wrestling with, including local and regional development threats, conservation issues, water and wildlife management, climate change adaptation strategies, and relations with nearby Native American peoples.
  • Discuss issues with officials from the National Park Service, Xanterra Parks and Resorts (the largest concessionaire in the park), the Grand Canyon Trust (a leading conservation NGO focused on the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau), as well as Native American peoples, scholars, politicians, artists, and other local experts.
  • Conduct research at the Grand Canyon National Park Research Library, the Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection, and other resources located in the park.
  • Hike along the rim and down to the Colorado River; attend ranger talks; stay in a lodge on the South Rim; camp in the inner gorge; experience wilderness.



Program will take place during spring break. Specific dates will be communicated to program participants.


All Carleton-sponsored spring break programs cover the costs of instruction, lodging, some meals, group excursions, public transportation, medical and evacuation insurance, travel assistance, and most cultural events.

Students are responsible for passports and visas (when required), books and supplies, transportation to and from the program sites, and personal expenses during the program. Students will receive a program-specific Additional Cost Estimate at the time of acceptance.

Financial assistance is available. See the Off-Campus Studies website for further information on billing, financial aid, and scholarships.

Apply Now

Application Deadline:
Thursday, April 11, 2019

Apply Now