Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Gretchen Schafer’s last name. We apologize for the error.
SAN DIEGO — San Diego has always been an ideal place for outdoor enthusiasts with its vast ecological diversity and as temperatures continue to cool, there is no better time to get out on one of the county’s many trails.
Nevertheless, it may be daunting for those who are not regular hikers to figure out where to begin when exploring everything the region has to offer. The San Diego Natural History Museum may be able to help.
For over 50 years, the Nat has hosted treks through San Diego’s wild spaces as part of their “Canyoneers” program. The excursions are led by volunteer guides —a sort of “citizen naturalist” who help those on the hike to learn more about the environment around them.
“All this time you’re hiking … and teaching the public about nature, (you’re) igniting a spark in them, helping to foster a love of nature and the outdoors,” Gretchen Schafer, president of the Canyoneers, told FOX 5.
“The public is what helps us keep it alive, because without the public interest, what would we be doing? We wouldn’t be teaching anybody, we wouldn’t be taking anyone out on hikes,” she continued. “It feels like we achieved something that we’ve kept it alive all that time.”
The group was founded in 1973 by Helen Chamlee Witham, an associate botanist at the Museum, a teacher and environmental activist.
It started out as a outreach and education effort that coincided with Witham’s campaign to preserve Florida Canyon, which was called “elfin canyon” at the time, as a permanent “outdoor ecology exhibit” in Balboa Park.
According to the Nat, the botanist believed that direct contact with nature was the best way to teach the public about San Diego’s native flora and fauna, envisioning nature trails and botanical gardens as companions to the museum’s other outreach programs.
After seven weeks of training, the first group of 27 Florida Canyoneers began leading members of the public on hikes through the Balboa Park canyon. In the early 1980s, the group dropped “Florida” from their name, as they added journeys through other parks, coastal wetland areas, the desert and mountains.
Today, over 90 volunteers lead both weekend and weekday hikes at more than 70 locations across the county from September to June — summer just gets too hot to safely explore some of San Diego’s terrain.
Each trip serves as a way to show the public “places where the imagination can roam,” as the Nat recalls Witham once said. Community members have the opportunity to explore nearly every type of habitat in the region, from the coastal bluffs to desert badlands and mountain peaks.
“San Diego County has the most diverse biological components of any place in the United States,” Schafer said. “We’ve got it all here, right in our own backyard.”
There are offerings for every experience level, taking people out on both popular trails and through hidden gem routes.
“The Canyoneers have taught me bunches of new trails that I never knew existed in San Diego County,” Schafer said. “So you’re not limited to just going to Cowles Mountain or Mission Trails, which are all wonderful places, but variety is the spice of life and you certainly get a lot of variety.”
While the hikes themselves are the main draw, Schafer says the friendship fostered by the Canyoneers outings is one of the best aspects of the experience — something that helped her in her own life.
“I was widowed at a kind of early age and hiking and being with groups fulfills a need for human contact,” she explained. “That is one of the reasons that I enjoy it as well, because I get to see people … get their love and friendship.”
To join a guided Canyoneer hike, people can RSVP on the Nat’s website. The number of spots available for each depends on the trail.
Among the upcoming Canyoneers hikes are: Kwaay Paay at Mission Trails Regional Park on Wednesday, Nov. 15, Creekside Trail at Blue Sky Ecological Reserve on Saturday, Nov. 25, Church Spur Loop at Anza-Borrego State Park on Sunday Dec. 3, and Middle Espinosa Trail at Cleveland National Forest on Dec. 23.
“(People should) expect to see beautiful places, expect to learn things that they never knew before,” Schafer continued. “They should expect to develop new friendships — as unlikely as it seems that they will — as they enjoy the wild treasures of San Diego County.”