Yellowstone Course FAQ

Yellowstone Summer FAQ

It is one thing to talk about protecting the landscapes and ecosystems from a scholarly perspective, but there is no way to fully understand and appreciate the value of the land being discussed unless you can see and become immersed in it.”

– student participant


What’s an experiential learning course all about, anyway?

Bear Viewing

Experiential learning gets students outside the classroom to see and experience their subject instead of just hearing about it in a lecture.  We’ll meet people who live in the region, and come to understand their views better.  We’ll also see tourism impact, wildlife, and wilderness first hand – like the black bear in the picture at left.  (This is, by the way, a safe viewing distance.)

An experiential learning course depends not only on the experience but on your reflection about the experience.  It requires active involvement by the learner and the teacher/leader.  It also needs a group whose members are willing to share their experiences and reflections with one another.

What are the course requirements?

Watching bison

Experiential learning depends on individual experiences and group reflection.  The course requirements reflect this.  You’ll keep a journal that consists of many highly-structured worksheets while also having space for more open-ended reflections.  You’ll debrief your experiences and share your reflections with the group.

Class participation is also important, and students will take leadership roles in discussion, as individuals and as teams.

What will we be doing in the Greater Yellowstone?

Interpreting Mount Moran

We spend two days on the road to arrive in Dubois, Wyoming, our introduction to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In Dubois, we’ll explore the Fitzpatrick Wilderness in the Wind River Range, talk about whitebark pine with the Forest Service, visit the Bighorn Sheep Center, and attend a local rodeo. From Dubois we spend a couple days in Grand Teton National Park before exploring Yellowstone for a week. We exit Yellowstone through Cody and visit its Buffalo Bill Center for the West. We return to Champaign via Devils Tower and the Black Hills.

Our time in Yellowstone National Park will consist of a graduated introduction to national parks tourism, wildlife watching, day hiking, and wilderness experiences.  This mimics different depths of visitor experience, from tour bus visitors who stop only at Old Faithful on up.

Will we see wildlife?

Yes, of course.  However, Yellowstone isn’t a zoo.  Actual sightings are unpredictable.  There’s a separate page with information about Pahre’s best guesses.


I’ve never been to a wilderness before. Can I do this?

Backcountry Camping

Yes, you can — in fact, you’re the target audience!   Many previous participants had never been camping or hiking before.  Others had some experience in less-wild regions.  If you’ve wanted to go camping or hiking but didn’t have friends or family to introduce you to these activities, this class provides a good introduction.  Pahre and any  experienced people in the group will teach you.

A secret lunch spot. You’ll like the view.

Though we will often be hiking at moderate elevations (5000-9000 feet), the course doesn’t require any special expertise or fitness level.  We have adjusted plans in the past in response to students’ energy levels or number of blisters.  If you have any physical limitations you should discuss them with the instructor before applying.

Also, we always welcome international students! You’ll need to extend your academic year visa into the summer, but that has not been a problem in past years.

“I was worried about the bears, sleeping in a tent and being dependent on the group and only myself in the wilderness.”

– student participant and happy survivor


Is it safe?

Many people worry about national parks as being wild places with big scary animals who spend their days and nights hunting and eating tourists.  Happily, reality is a lot more prosaic.

Traffic accidents are the biggest risk.  According to the most recent “State of the Park” report, in 1998, four million people entered the park and got into 518 traffic accidents.  Looking at all accidents and illnesses, about 9,000 visitors received treatment from clinic medical staff in the park; 361 were transported by ambulance; and 6 died (2 from cardiac arrest, and 4 from traumatic injuries or accidents).

Old Faithful and the Old Faithful Inn

There are some risks when you’re out hiking.  The most common is a trip-and-fall that leads to cuts and scrapes or sprains an ankle.  Other risks include more serious falls, drowning, and lightning strikes.  Many people are afraid of wildlife encounters, but the risks from these are much smaller.  We’ll provide information on reducing those risks. Common sense helps prevent injuries too.  Being in a large group also provides a strong support network in the case of any serious problems.

Compare those risks to living in an urban environment and driving on the highways.



“I was surprised to see how excited the class was to challenge themselves in the ‘wilderness,’ regardless of their previous experience with camping. We all became great friends by the end of the trip and this friendship will carry on throughout our time at University of Illinois.”

— student participant


Where will we be staying?  What will we be eating?

Breakfast at Colter Bay

We will mostly stay at campgrounds in the “frontcountry” or in the gateway communities of West Yellowstone or Gardiner, Montana.  These campgrounds are developed sites with toilets, water, and some other amenities.


Roasting marshmallows over a campfire.

Most of the campgrounds cater to RV users, so they’re not particularly “rough.”  We’ll provide the tents but you’ll need a warm sleeping bag.  In a cold year such as 2009, temperatures can go below freezing overnight – when that happened, the students did just fine by sleeping in their clothes inside the sleeping bag.

We’ll be doing some cooking in camp, and everyone will take turns with chores.  We can have campfires and make s’mores or Jiffy-Pop popcorn if people want to.


How large is the class?

Discussing Bison Policy

We will have two eight-passenger vans. (The photo shows the 15p van I used to use.)

Applications here.





What are the prerequisites?

The Yellowstone Blues

PS 225, Environmental Policy and Politics, is recommended but not required. You don’t need to be a University of Illinois student, and students at peer institutions are welcome to apply.

Please keep in mind this is an educational experience and not a tour group.






What does it cost?

Bighorn ewe

There is a course fee of $900 that pays for the field trip.









Is financial aid available?

Check with your financial aid officer about the options.  It pays to investigate this early.  You might need to take additional summer courses to be eligible.  PS 225 online provides one option, and Pahre is willing to supervise independent study projects.







How do I apply?

Applications to participate are available here.  There will be a priority deadline of 1 February 2020, with rolling admissions after that.

To join the mailing list, email .
It’s very helpful if you email Pahre even if you’re not sure about joining us – you will receive updates with information.

Information current as of October 2020, subject to change without notice.

Cascade Canyon