Open Sky Wilderness Therapy (Durango, CO)

Outside the Bay Area

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Hi - chiming in a bit later than some, but wanted to make a couple points. I agree wholeheartedly with the person who sent their child to Open Sky. That place saved my son's life, no question. It's a top notch amazing program. We found it thanks to an excellent EC who is no longer in the business. I agree with the assessment of Shayna Abrams, with whom I had a disconcerting conversation when interviewing her. I DO think it's critical to have an EC help with the after-wilderness piece. I disagree with the opinion of the Open Sky parent who said that the OS therapist can recommend places. They typically do NOT do that, because to do so is to incur a conflict of interest. They might suggest a TYPE of place--therapeutic boarding school, residential treatment center, etc--but they aren't in the business of recommending specific programs. There are some good ECs out there, and a whole bunch of mediocre ones, and some bad ones. For reference, I suggest a closed facebook group called "Parents with Kids in Residential Treatment." There are document that that this group has created with ECs (and programs) that they can recommend. You can also post a query to the group asking for advice. Also, I'm open to your reaching out to me - please go through the moderator. I did a lot of EC research and there's at least one name I wish I'd gone with instead of the person I chose. Good luck. I admire you for taking these steps. It's the hardest thing we can do as a parent, but this work can be amazingly transformative. My son thanks me for saving his life. 


Your message says that you are looking for an educational consultant, but also includes a request for direct feedback about Open Sky, which is a wilderness program.  You also ask for feedback on David Heckenlively.  We ended up placing our son at Open Sky after learning about it from friends.  We had met with Heckenlively initially, but learned of OS and selected it without his assistance.  We ended up hiring Heckenlively for advice re: post-wilderness placement, and frankly I wish we had saved our money.  For $3k we got a list of therapeutic boarding schools, a number of which were already on our radar.  Most disappointingly, when we asked him how much each of the schools cost, his response was that they were all between 7k and 8k.  The first one we called was over $13k/month.  

As for OS, I can't say enough about that place.  It's astonishing to me what they are able to achieve in 12 weeks.  I would recommend them without reservation.  You should know that by the time your kid is getting close to graduating, they will be recommending the next placement (e.g. Residential Treatment Center, Therapeutic Boarding School, home) so you won't need an EC for that.  If I had it to do over, I would have been asking my kid's OS therapist earlier in the process what type of placement they were leaning towards because everything happens very quickly at the end, and it is hard to find time to visit potential placements (we didn't). 

My final words of advice are to trust your gut.  The situations that lead one to consider such placements are emotionally turbulent and it's hard to find your center in the midst of this turmoil.  But it's still in there.  Best of luck to you on this journey.

Hi. I'm so sorry you are dealing with this issue with your son. We have been there and my son, after attending the excellent Open Sky Wilderness program out of Durango , CO is currently at Catalyst, which is a residential treatment center and school for teenage boys. It's excellent, I'm impressed with the program, the therapy, and I've been there several times. Most of the boys there (and at other similar programs) do wilderness first. A good EC is critical to help you find the right match for your son and your family. I wish you the best on this challenging but ultimately rewarding journey.

My sister has just been having to look in to these types of camps for her 20 year old. We have a friend who's son went to Open Sky and had wonderful results. Her son was 25 at the time, but they do have programs for kids starting about 14, I think.

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Oct 2011

RE: Need advice on alternative schooling/treatment programs for teen


First of all, my heart goes out to you. It is frightening and depressing to have a teen who is so out of control. Good for you for recognizing that you can't do it alone and that she needs some kind of intervention.

There are hundreds of therapeutic boarding schools and residential treatment centers, many in states far away and really the best way to find the right one for your daughter is to work with an educational consultant. Our family worked with David Heckenlively and he has been great. He has a background as a therapist and has years of experience working with teens. (

He will probably recommend that your daughter go first to a wilderness program. The one our daughter went to is called Open Sky. This is not a punitive, boot camp program. It is extremely nurturing and caring, with staff that are trained in how to deal with troubled teens, and extremely talented therapists.

No good program should ever be harmful or dangerous. Safety and health should be primary concerns of any wilderness program or boarding school you consider. Ask lots of questions about this if you are concerned. I thought these programs were somewhat unregulated and could therefore do whatever they wanted, but actually they are highly regulated and good ones adhere to really high standards of care.

That being said, these programs can be tough. Teens in wilderness therapy live outdoors for weeks, hiking, camping, building their own shelters, cooking their food, etc. But these programs have a remarkable impact on teens, by interrupting their dangerous and destructive behaviors and making them realize the impact of what they have been doing.

Boarding schools are not as physically demanding, but do impose lots of restrictions and rules, and as a parent, you have to be comfortable with those rules and agree to the restrictions or the program will not be as successful. A good school (and wilderness program) will demand a lot of you as a parent, in terms of communication, participating in therapy, etc.

While it is a relief to have a child in a safe place, making progress in school and emotional growth, parenting long distance is emotionally exhausting and it is a long hard journey for everyone involved.

These programs are also extraordinarily expensive; our retirement savings are going toward the boarding school tuition. But in return we have gotten our daughter back and that is worth any amount of money.

Good luck to you. Been there

April 2011

Re: Residential treatment for troubled teen
I highly recommend Open Sky Wilderness. It's not a ''boot camp'' type of program, though it is extremely structured and boundaried. What I like most about this program is that they see the wholeness in the kids and definitely have a more holistic approach. Yoga, meditation, ritual. I also recommend David Heckenlively who is an educational consultant. He will meet with you and/or your kid to try to recommend the best placement for your particular kid. He is great with kids and really knows the resources well. He also has biweekly support groups for parents which are wonderful. His # is 925-681-1700. Good luck. It's hard. I've been there. HG

Oct 2009

RE: Feedback on Wilderness and RTC

Hi, I'm an MFT and also run a therapeutic wilderness program (though not right for what your daughter needs). But since this is up my alley, I thought I'd offer what I can ....

If you haven't looked at them yet, you might consider Open Sky Wilderness Therapy in Durango, CO. I don't know that they're the right fit for your daughter/family, but they're doing some great work whose results are corroborated with ongoing outcome research.

Hope this is of use, Dave