Spring Break 2024

Wilderness is one of the most powerful, evocative, and complicated ideas in American environmental thought, politics, and land management. Few ideas have been more important than wilderness in shaping the ways Americans have viewed, debated, and managed their relationship with the natural world. This two-term seminar and off-campus study program will explore how and why these developments have unfolded and the importance they hold for thinking about the past, present, and future of Americans’ relationship with wild country and the natural world generally.

Message from Faculty Director

My 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, I teach a wide range of courses that examine the complex relationships that weave together humankind and the natural world. Wilderness Studies at the Grand Canyon brings together my teaching and research interests on many aspects of America’s environmental past, present and future, including ideas about wilderness and protected areas, resource use and mining, belonging and identity, and the struggle to understand and forge healthy and just human and ecological communities in the midst of a changing world.

This program will involve all of your senses. We will read deeply into the field of wilderness studies, seeking out its insights and oversights. We will discuss the issues and questions that animate these studies in a lively and open-ended format. We will listen to one another and to nature, both in classrooms and while growing hot, dusty, and tired along canyon trails. We will engage in independent research projects that will contribute to the vitality and depth of the seminar and that will be shared with the Carleton community at the conclusion of our journey. And, we will experience wilderness – see it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, and taste it – in one of the most remarkable corners of the earth, the Grand Canyon.

The 2024 program will be my sixth. I created this program in 2014 and have taken students to Grand Canyon National Park every other year since then, save the pandemic year of 2020. The program is suitable to any major at Carleton, and I have taken students majoring in Environmental Studies, Biology, History, American Studies, Geology, Political Science, Sociology and Anthropology, Computer Science, Statistics, Art History, Dance, Physics, English, Religion, and other majors, too. Wilderness Studies is an interdisciplinary field, and I seek a diversity of majors to enrich our experience. I’d be happy to tell you more.

George Vrtis, Professor of Environmental Studies and History


Learning Goals

  • To explore the complicated and contested idea of wilderness and wilderness areas in American society and culture through study, research, conversation, and firsthand experience at Grand Canyon National Park.
  • To experience wild country far from the comforts of home and to think hard about the relationships Americans have forged – and continue to forge – with wilderness, and more broadly, with the natural world.
  • To engage with professionals entrusted with managing federal wilderness areas and to learn about the many cultural, political, scientific, and ethical challenges they confront in carrying out their responsibilities.
  • To learn how to be an effective member of a field-intensive research community, including how to practice the principles of Leave No Trace in our backcountry experiences, how to discuss complex materials in an open-ended seminar, how to design and execute an in-depth research project, and how to work with others to broaden our understanding of wilderness issues.
  • To have an adventure, intellectually and physically.


History 205: American Environmental History is recommended, but not required.

Course of Study

12 Credits

Winter Term 2024, HIST 306: American Wilderness (6 credits)

To many Americans, wild lands are among the nation’s most treasured places. Yellowstone, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon – the names alone stir the heart, the mind, and the imagination. But where do those thoughts and feelings come from, and how have they both reflected and shaped American culture, society, and nature over the last three centuries? These are the central issues and questions that we will pursue in this seminar and in its companion course, ENTS 307 Wilderness Field Studies: Grand Canyon (which includes an Off-Campus Studies program at Grand Canyon National Park).

Instructor: George Vrtis 

Spring Term 2024, ENTS 307: Wilderness Field Studies: Grand Canyon (6 credits)

This course is the second half of a two-course sequence focused on the study of wilderness in American society and culture. The course will begin with an Off-Campus Studies program at Grand Canyon National Park, where we will learn about the natural and human history of the Grand Canyon region, examine contemporary issues facing the park, meet with officials from the National Park Service and other local experts, conduct research, and experience the park through hiking and camping. The course will culminate in spring term with the completion and presentation of a major research project.  

Instructor: George Vrtis

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 traversing a mile of elevation change, and then preparing meals and camping in a remote backcountry setting. We will also spend long periods of time together, especially when we hike and camp in the Grand Canyon backcountry. So, it is important to come to the program in good physical health and shape, be adventurous and open-minded, be affable and empathetic, be flexible and patient, and be interested in forging a close, inquisitive, and enjoyable community with the program participants.

Program Features


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.


Students will hike and camp in the Grand Canyon backcountry, conduct research in the park, and meet with officials from the National Park Service, Xanterra and other concessionaires, the Grand Canyon Trust and other NGOs, members of the eleven traditionally-affiliated Native American Nations recognized by Grand Canyon National Park, and other local experts.


  • Exploring the natural and human history of the Grand Canyon, a World Heritage Site, and one of America’s iconic National Parks.
  • Learning about and deeply considering 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.
  • Discussing 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.
  • Conducting research at the Grand Canyon National Park Research Library, the Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection, other sites within Grand Canyon National Park, and also through interviews and conversations with National Park Service officials located in the park.
  • Hiking along the rim and down to the Colorado River; attending ranger talks; staying in a lodge on the South Rim; camping in the inner gorge; experiencing wilderness.
Peering into the canyon along the South Rim (2014)
Condor Ranger talk on the South Rim (2014)
Discussion in front of Hopi House (2014)
Hiking in along the South Kaibab Trail (2014)
Resting along the South Kaibab Trail (2014)
Camping on the Tonto Plateau (2018)
Standing in the Colorado River (2022)
Camping at Horn Creek (2018)
Bright Angel Trailhead (2022)
Meeting with Park Division Chiefs (2022)
Meeting with member of the Havasupai Nation (2016)
Meeting with Park Superintendent (2016)