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First-year students enjoy fresh air on April 30, 2022, at the University of Denver’s mountain campus near Red Feather Lakes. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

This fall, about 1,500 first-year University of Denver students will take turns descending winding mountain roads toward a cluster of rustic cabins, an open field containing a ropes course and barely any cellphone service.

It’s something of a “digital desert,” said Jeremy Haefner, chancellor of the University of Denver,  but it offers an amenity hard to find outside Colorado: the ability to study in an exclusive Rocky Mountain setting.

The University of Denver is Colorado’s latest school of higher education to add a mountain campus to its offerings, hoping to lure students who’ve already grown to expect costly refinements in on-campus dining and residence halls. Other institutions like the University of Colorado, Colorado State University and Colorado College have had satellite campuses tucked away in the mountains for decades — one for more than 100 years. Each far-flung campus gives students a space where they can retreat from the thrum of bustling dorms and dining halls and escape the constant crowds. 

Colorado’s mountain campuses can also help higher education institutions “meet the workforce needs of the region,” said Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, who pointed to programs like mountaineering and horticulture that thrust students out into the field.

“It provides an opportunity without having to go to another state for students to reach their research goals as well,” Paccione said.

Mountain campuses help attract students to Colorado colleges and universities, reinforcing Colorado as an “importer state,” she said. More students flock to Colorado to attend college than the number of high schoolers who leave the state to pursue school elsewhere.

Jeremy Haefner, chancellor of the University of Denver, on April 30, 2022, at the university’s mountain campus near Red Feather Lakes. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The University of Denver’s new mountain campus, named the James C. Kennedy Mountain Campus, will set the scene for all of the university’s students to learn and focus on personal growth far beyond the main campus in Denver, reinventing the student experience, Haefner said.

“We’re defining a whole new space for higher education by integrating outdoors with the urban campus,” Haefner told The Colorado Sun. “And by being one of the first players in that space, with that true integration … we will be a leader and others are going to follow us. I just know it, they’ll start to want to take advantage of their geographic location.”

The University of Denver announced its new mountain campus in October, unveiling plans to convert the 724-acre Magic Sky Ranch Girl Scout camp near Red Feather Lakes into a campus that could double as a getaway for students craving more time in nature and a site that could enliven student and faculty coursework and research projects. 

A $25 million gift from alumnus James Kennedy and a $20 million gift from alumni Andy and Barbara Taylor, allowed DU to purchase the campus, fund renovations, programming and operations, and create an endowment, Haefner said.

Haefner sees the Larimer County campus adding to the “value proposition” for students, particularly after COVID isolated them from their peers and left them hungry to interact with their professors and each other.

The University of Denver is the latest school of higher education to add a mountain campus, aimed to help first-year students meet peers and explore team-building in the outdoors. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Jeremy Haefner, chancellor of the University of Denver, on April 30, 2022.

“Now you’re going to open up a whole new dimension, an outdoor dimension, where you’re going to learn outdoor skills,” Haefner said. “But more importantly, you’re going to learn about yourself in ways that you wouldn’t have learned just on the urban campus, and you’ll learn about others, too, which is so important in today’s … challenging environment.” 

Students started exploring that outdoor dimension in April, when dozens visited the campus for a day of running with Haefner, taking yoga classes, testing out the ropes course and relaxing beside a reservoir deep inside the campus — forging and strengthening friendships along the way.

As the university replicates that kind of experience for its first-year students beginning this fall, Haefner sees the mountain campus setting the tone for the rest of their college years.

“We know that when we get kids up here in the outdoors, in this really majestic, beautiful area, and they have a lot of good colleagues and friends, their hearts and minds are going to change,” he said, adding, “They’re going to look at this next four years differently than they would have if they had just stayed in the urban campus. They’re going to build new friendships. They’re going to be vulnerable.” 

The University of Denver is also starting to plot research projects and coursework that faculty and students could take charge of at the mountain campus, said Laura Perille, a co-director at the university. Most of the fall will be devoted to hosting first-year students for weekend getaways, Perille noted, but come winter and spring, instructors and students will be able to take advantage of the campus for academics. 

The university is currently accepting proposals for pilot programs and, in the future, will open the campus to more in-depth research projects, conferences and retreats, Perille said, adding that water policy, environmental sustainability, trailmapping and forest management are the kinds of topics ripe for exploration on the grounds.

An up-close look at climate change’s grip on Colorado

For some students, their mountain campus becomes their classroom, where they can plunge more deeply into research about the environment and understand firsthand the toll climate change is taking on it or draw inspiration for writing and artwork.

The mountain campuses give Colorado schools a sharper edge in recruiting students who want to round out their college classes with field experience and spend more time outdoors.

Colorado’s swaths of mountains and valleys have long lent themselves to satellite campuses for higher education institutions like the University of Colorado. One hundred years ago, students were engaged in field courses centered on geology at the same site that today operates as a mountain research station for University of Colorado students, faculty and even K-12 students venturing out on field trips to get a close-up look at topics they’re learning about in school, from snow to water quality to climate science.

The University of Denver’s dining and activity center, near Red Feather Lakes. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The mountain research station, located near Nederland at 9,500 feet, has become a central site of research and courses for undergraduate students in a variety of fields, including those studying mammals, birds and vegetation ecology, said Scott Taylor, director of CU’s mountain research station. He noted that the university is adding new field courses based on what faculty want to teach, including insect ecology and phycology, the study of algae. He hopes to introduce other courses relevant to Colorado, such as wildlife conservation and fire ecology.

Programs operated at the station often pair college students with faculty who have done their own research at the station, Taylor said.

“We can incorporate our research very directly into the teaching,” said Taylor, who teaches field ornithology, studying birds alongside his students at the station. “And I think that’s like why field experiences are so impactful because … it’s not a textbook. It’s like literally you’re walking in the woods, learning about the research, thinking about the connections.”

The land where the university’s mountain research station sits covers 190 acres. Additionally, the university has a special agreement with the U.S. Forest Service in which Hayes manages the permitting of land for a research area, which stretches 1,775 acres, and approves research projects. The site has an arsenal of data and research collected over decades, in part through the Mountain Climate Program started in the 1950s. The program is one of the longest-running climate programs in the world, Taylor said, and has monitored carbon dioxide in the area. The research area is also home to the Niwot Ridge Long-term Ecological Research Program, which was established in 1980 and has been funded through the National Science Foundation. The program has spearheaded research on alpine tundra responses to climate change, Taylor said.

Through long-term studies and consistent measurements, research conducted at the station can indicate whether tree mortality is increasing and whether the growth of new trees has subsided, Taylor said.

“You can maybe try and understand why by measuring all kinds of environmental variables,” Taylor said, adding, “There’s a lot going … on up there related to understanding alpine ecosystems, how they function and then how they might change or are changing as … climate change does all the things it’s doing.”

Colorado College also regularly brings students out to its mountain campus located about three hours southwest of its main campus in Colorado Springs. The 300-acre parcel of land known as the Baca Campus sits secluded near Crestone at about 7,800 feet, dotted with sagebrush and overlooking the face of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which catch the sunlight each evening, said Drew Cavin, director of field study at Colorado College and manager of the mountain campus.

The campus, which Cavin said is a “destination for field trips, primarily,” includes a conference center, lodges, townhouses, a library and an office with enough space to host two classes at a time, often for a week to 10 days. Faculty and students visit the remote campus, which is surrounded by the Baca National Wildlife Refuge, for a range of reasons. Some set out to the campus to explore nearby geologic features, including a bat-filled cave north of Crestone and Great Sand Dunes National Park. Others venture down to study agriculture, food production and ranching or hone in on plant life, Cavin said. And some seek out the campus hideaway for writing retreats or to host music classes in their own quiet space.

The University of Denver’s mountain campus near Red Feather Lakes is the latest school of higher education to add a mountain campus, aimed to help first-year students meet peers and explore team-building in the outdoors. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The mountain campus has even welcomed computer science students, who built a server network so that the grounds could secure an internet connection. It has also catered to some of Colorado College’s first-year students as one of the field trip spots they can opt to visit during orientation, Cavin said.

The college can take students there “who may not have the most experience outdoors and kind of give them a safe introduction to the outdoors,” he said.

Much farther north, Colorado State University’s mountain campus spans 1,600 acres on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park and is in the midst of a construction project that will expand student and faculty research capabilities. The campus, where the university first held classes in 1915 when it was called the Colorado Agricultural College, has onsite courses for students enrolled in a natural resources program at the Warner College of Natural Resources. Close to 100 students spend four weeks on the mountain campus with five faculty members, learning from their surroundings about fisheries and wildlife, watershed management, range science, forestry and the social science side of natural resources, said John Hayes, dean of the college.

The university’s mountain campus, which stands at 9,000 feet and is 53 miles west of Fort Collins, also serves as an outdoor classroom for a forestry class each year and has become a learning hub for a variety of other courses for the first time in recent months — among them, geology students and liberal arts students taking courses like environmental ethics and environmental history, Hayes said. 

Starting next year, instructors and students will be able to advance their classes and research inside a building the university is constructing on the campus, which will house a new classroom furnished with modern furniture that can be arranged to accommodate small groups or large lectures. The building will also hold a teaching lab with dedicated research space, which will be equipped with small centrifuges, refrigerators, freezers, microscopes and a water filtration system, Hayes said.

The new facility will build on Colorado State University’s history of research investments at the mountain campus, which have included biological field stations that track long-term data related to meteorology and the climate, instrumentation in streams flowing through the campus to monitor changes in the quality and quantity of water, groundwater wells to assess how climate and weather are influencing fluctuations in groundwater, and a seismological ground watering station that is part of a global network of stations that capture seismological activity, Hayes said. This year, the Warner College of Natural Resources has invested more than $300,000 in enhancing the campus’ research infrastructure so that researchers can track birds, mammals and fish; assess vegetation and its recovery after local wildfires; monitor the quality and quantity of groundwater and surface water; and study how the changing climate is affecting the ecology of the area.

Hayes sees the institution’s mountain campus as a gateway to the kind of experiential learning that isn’t readily accessible to every student, particularly as education has shifted more and more online.

“Many of us believe that these sorts of locations and these sorts of experiences are really what sets us apart,” he said, “and are really what creates that exceptional educational experience for our students.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...