A group of dedicated volunteers with the San Diego Natural History Museum will lead dozens of hikes across our county’s varied terrain as part of a long-running program meant to get locals to connect with nature.
“We just take people out and try to show them the wonders of their county,” Stacey Vielma, president of theNat’s “Canyoneers” volunteer group, told NBC 7 Tuesday.
“It’s so important to get the public outside. San Diego is an amazing, amazing place; we have so much to offer,” she added. “We want to get you outside to introduce you to your local nature, so hopefully, once you know it’s there and how great it is, you will help protect it and keep it natural.”
The museum’s Canyoneers are citizen scientists and volunteers who have been thoroughly trained by theNat’s scientists and experts on the natural history of the region.
Since 1973, Canyoneers have provided free, guided hiking tours around San Diego County. The group’s 46th hiking season kicked off earlier this month and runs through June 2020.
Over the course of the season, Vielma and her fellow Canyoneers will host 80 hikes across the county – most offered on weekends. The treks will cover diverse terrain, from the coast to the desert, and the Tijuana Estuary to the mountains.
“San Diego is amazing,” Vielma explained. “We’ve got the ocean. We’ve got coastal areas. We have urban canyons, which have a surprising diversity of natural habitat. We have the mountains, which, you know, sometimes we’re actually hiking in snow! And then we have an actual desert – most people think that San Diego is a desert, but it’s a Mediterranean climate, but we do have a desert in the county.”
“And you can hit all of these habitats in one day,” Vielma added.
The longtime Canyoneer told NBC 7 this hiking program is unique in that it’s one of the only ones in the nation that’s affiliated with a natural history museum and not just a park or preserve.
The hikes are always free. The only thing participants might have to pay for is parking, depending on the site of the event, which could be at a California State Park like Palomar Mountain State Park, where a day use pass for parking and accessing the park costs $10.
Vielma said anyone is welcome to join the hikes, too.
“You don’t even have to sign up,” she said. “You don’t have to reserve a spot. You just pick which ones you can go to and just show up.”
Vielma said each hiking session starts with an introduction from a guide who will share safety tips for the trail. Then, the group will decide the pace of the trek, which Vielma said is usually slow to moderate, so hikers can really take in the terrain. Some hikes cater to families with children, offering paved pathways and shorter distances.
Along the way, Vielma said Canyoneers will stop to talk about the habitat, point out interesting plants and answer questions from participants.
Hikers of all ages are welcome, including children. Vielma said little ones often have the most thoughtful questions for the Canyoneers.
In the end, Vielma said the purpose of this hiking program is to feel a sense of community with the people and place we call home.
“When I started learning about our natural habitats in San Diego, our flora and fauna, it gave me more of a sense of community,” she explained. “So, like, all these things, they live here – they were here first – and just knowing about them and getting to care about them made me feel more like I live here too. So, it’s kind of a sense of community.”
“There’s only five areas in the whole world that have a climate like San Diego, and we’re so lucky to have this here and have so many open spaces like we do,” she added. “It’s great to explore.”
The Canyoneers 2019-2020 hiking schedule is available on the San Diego Natural History Museum’s website. Rain may cancel or postpone a hike, so it’s best to check the website before heading out to one of the gatherings. Vielma said those updates are also posted on the Canyoneers’ Facebook page.
Vielma, naturally, has a lot of favorite hiking spots in San Diego County. However, one path in particular, stands out to her: Garnet Peak Trail at Cleveland National Forest.
“One of the – if not the – best view in the county. It’s beautiful,” she said. “You get to overlook the whole desert and look back behind you and see the mountains and the ocean in the distance on a very clear day.”
The Canyoneer hiking program is made possible through a partnership with Subaru of America.
The Natural History Museum said that in addition to the public hikes, Canyoneer-led hikes are being offered to local schools, catering to students in second to 12th grade. The museum said those hikes will educate students about local habitats and ecosystems.
TheNat hopes to serve approximately 550 students across the county this year through the program.