Maymester Summer Colorado Class Trip of a Lifetime

Hiking through waves of snow showers in the Ponderosa Pine/Mixed-Conifer zone in the San Juan Mountains along Junction Creek outside Durango,Colorado. L-R: Cyd Smith, Fran Hart, Sydney Bailey, Taylor Fox, Kadie Clark.

Learn geography while road-tripping across Colorado

Interest in the 12-day three-credit-hour “Maymester 2020 Transforming the Rockies” road-trip is at a peak, and others desiring to join should contact the Geography Department soon to be included. Limit is eight students and anyone can take the class designed for both master’s and undergrad students. The class is being co-taught by Chair Soren Larsen and Associate Professor Grant Elliott.

The Summer 2020 (May 25 – June 5) course will allow students to explore the Southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado in a road trip to remember. Cost is $575 and covers travel, camping, lodging, park fees and most food while going through some of the most beautiful terrain in the country.

According to Elliott, Maymester has been a part of summer curriculum since 2017. “So far, we have kept a roughly similar route, but have made certain deviations based upon weather,” he says. “Last year, for example, there was too much snowpack for us to go to one site we did the previous school year. Spring snowpack plays a role on where we can go for sure.”

Looking east-southeast from Lizard Head Pass in San Juan Mountains, CO. View reflects an anomalously deep snowpack for mid-May.

The trip averages about 2,300 miles, and takes students to places where Elliott and Larsen have done previous research. “It gives us an opportunity to provide students with the most comprehensive look at landscapes,” Elliott says. “We will be studying landscape change, essentially since Euro-American settlement.”

If snow conditions permit, students will go to some of Elliott’s study sites at the upper tree line in the Sangre de Cristo range of Southern Colorado. These sites are located at the uppermost extent of the mountain forest belt where forest transitions into alpine tundra.

“Looking at how to read the landscape is one of the focal points. Teaching the students about all the various factors to consider when taking into account how the landscape is what it is presently and as a result what has created the current landscape mosaic and what that means moving forward for these areas [is an important part of the curriculum].”

Class picture from first campsite on Lake Isabel in Wet Mountains, CO. L-R, Sydney Bailey, Steven Cardinal, Dellinger Caspersen, Kadie Clark, Taylor Fox, Fran Hart, Cyd Smith, Tara Thomas.

“Transforming the Rockies,” the class name, involves teaching the students about the Anthropocene, which is the idea that we, the world, has entered into a new geologic epoch where humans are the dominate force acting on the landscape, Elliott explains. “The rates of landscape change over the past century are stressed. It deals with two main themes: One being human-induced climate change and the other being wide-spread land-use changes – the idea of making the surface of the earth more humanized while changing the climate system that’s acting on it as well.”

They will also discuss the geomorphologic process – how physical landscapes form, such as in sand dunes or the mountains themselves, and typically involves geologic timescales. Mountain biogeography, and the cultural and historical geography of the Rockies will also be examined.

“I think this class offers a unique way to experience the landscape with the course feeling like a road trip and camping trip combined,” says Elliott. It comes complete with campfires, smores and perhaps snow, hail and rain, but no matter what, it is always an adventure, Elliott says. Students will hike through different elevational zones of forest, learning how these landscapes are different, and why.

“My favorite thing is teaching people about the mountains while being in the mountains,” he adds. “Especially for people who have never seen the Rockies before. It stimulates rapid learning because when we learn something we are already interested in, our brain releases dopamine, which makes learning more pleasurable and more effective at the same time.”

And as for the students: “I think they like the sense of community that is built by all this traveling in the same van together and camping together,” Elliott says. “And learning together really. It has a family-oriented feel to it.”

The course GEOG 4904 and GEOG 7904 — will soon be open for enrollment. For more information, contact Elliott at