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Tales from the Trails: A Q&A with our Canyoneers

In 2023, the Canyoneers are celebrating a major milestone—50 years of connecting San Diegans with nature in our region. Originally named for Florida Canyon, the Canyoneers trail guide group formed in 1973 to connect city-dwellers with the native flora and fauna still thriving in Balboa Park. Fifty years later, they still offer something special and hard to find elsewhere in the United States: expert-led nature tours around the county completely free of charge.

We sat down with three Canyoneers, Daniel, Maritza, and Samantha, to discuss the value of time spent in nature, favorite spots around the county, and dreams for the next 50 years.

How did you learn about the Canyoneer Program?

Daniel: I sought the Canyoneers out because I was looking to do more desert hiking, but I didn't feel comfortable going alone. It’s easy to get lost, there’s spotty cell phone coverage, I’d think “what if I got a flat tire?” The Canyoneers offered the opportunity to explore new trails that I wouldn’t hike on my own.

Maritza: I was a history teacher and sometimes brought my students to the museum. That was my first exposure to The Nat. Later on, I was looking for volunteer opportunities and, I’m a hiker, so when I found the Canyoneers Program I thought, “Oh my gosh this sounds really cool!” I could volunteer and do something I love. I could hike with a purpose.

Samantha: I was born and raised in San Diego, and my parents took us hiking and backpacking trips a lot, so I’ve always been interested in nature. But when I started working as a graphic designer, I wasn’t getting outside as much as I wanted to. Then a friend of mine who works at the museum suggested I check out the Canyoneers, and I thought, “This is perfect. I’m a nature nerd. I’m sold.”

What does hiking do for you? Why bring people outdoors?

Daniel: Being in nature helps you let your guard down. There are no expectations, there's no society telling you who to be or what to do. You can come out and connect with other people’s true selves, especially one on one.

Maritza: I didn’t do a lot of outdoor stuff until I moved to San Diego in my 20s. When I moved here I joined hiking groups, I went on trips when school was out for summer, and I started going on big hiking trips with my brother. Now, hiking is my passion. And sharing my passion is always a good feeling. It doesn't matter if those I lead on hikes are just as passionate, I’m just happy to create a space where people can relax, stretch out, enjoy, and feel welcome.

Why did you decide to become a Canyoneer yourself?

Daniel: I was going on almost every Canyoneer hike of the season, and once I got to know more of the Canyoneers, they became more like a family. Joining them was a great way not only to learn more about nature, but to meet like-minded people and be a part of my community.

Samantha: My dad taught me to appreciate the movement and fitness of hiking. My mom was always into the nature and learning about plants and animals. I’m a little of both. And I also care deeply about our environment and our natural spaces, so I find that stories and storytelling are such an important way to connect with other people. I've always been one of those people that says things like, “Let me tell you about this thing I learned!” I always want others to share these cool experiences with me.

What do you see in your fellow Canyoneers?

Daniel: Many of them have lived a lot of life and they have a lot of wisdom to share. They’re also a lot more patient than most people tend to be, which is very welcoming. They're just not in a rush to get places. I'm also really impressed with some of the younger Canyoneers too. I mean, I'm 39, but some folks who graduated in my class of Canyoneers are in their 20s and they already know a lot of native birds and plants. They bring a youthful energy that's really exciting.

Maritza: They just put their whole hearts into it. There’s definitely a sense of community among them too. They’re quirky, and I love that about them. And I guess that makes me quirky too! And the new Canyoneers, they’re just so interested and curious to learn more.

Samantha: We were the kids who got excited about cool rocks. We grew up, but we never lost that “Look what I found!” mentality. We’re a bunch of very curious people who love to be outside.

What would you like to see in the next 50 years of Canyoneer hikes?

Maritza: It would be cool if we could evolve into doing occasional family-focused hikes, or advanced hikes. Just a little more diversity in the types of hikes, so we can attract a greater diversity of people.

Samantha: Our world is so bereft of free community spaces these days, so I want us to continue to provide a space where mixed groups of people can interact for free. Older people are especially at risk of isolation and loneliness, and the Canyoneers hikes provide an opportunity for them to engage with younger generations and vice versa. I’d also like to see our hikes advertised more in low-income communities. Maybe more canyon hikes for people who can’t drive far outside the city.

Do you have any unforgettable hiking experiences?

Daniel: Oh, I'll never forget this. I’d never seen it before and never seen it since. On the Desert View trail near Julian there was a mass of insects, and it looked like TV static on the ground. At first it looked like dark sand with sparkly bits in it. What blew me away was that everybody on the hike was stumped, even the folks who had been hiking here for decades. Afterward, the Canyoneers asked Pam, our collections manager in Entomology, and she goes, “Oh yeah, those are springtails!”

Samantha: Well last week I was on a pre-hike with two Canyoneers for an upcoming Anza Borrego hike, and we saw nine bighorn sheep. That was pretty unforgettable. We ended up watching these sheep for 20 minutes. It was so green from the rains and they were just munching away, they didn’t care about us at all.

What’s your favorite trail in San Diego County?

Daniel: Anything in the desert, especially canyons in the desert. I love the slot canyons. I think the desert is a magical place for me because it’s so different from anything I grew up with back east.

Maritza: It’s not technically in San Diego County, but one of the most beautiful hikes that I've done is the Santa Rosa Plateau Trail just west of Temecula. At first, all you see are trees and vernal pools and then all of a sudden, everything opens up, and you have this huge vista all around you. It blew me away the first time I hiked there.

Samantha: I’ll always have a fondness for the Mission Trails area because I grew up right next to that park. But I also really love the Los Peñasquitos Canyon. It’s got riparian trees, scrublands, and a beautiful waterfall.

The Canyoneers program is made possible with support from dedicated volunteers and proud partner Subaru of America.

Posted by Cypress Hansen, Science Communications Manager.

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