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Canyoneer History

Canyoneers: Going Places Where the Imagination Can Roam

The first graduation Canyoneer class , 1973

When you hike with a Canyoneer you are encouraged to stop, look, listen, touch, smell, and examine—to understand that everything is linked together. Canyoneers provide a unique opportunity to explore the wild places of San Diego, Riverside and Imperial counties, highlighting the rich biodiversity of the region.

The Canyoneers were founded in 1973 by Helen Chamlee Witham, an associate botanist at the Museum, a teacher and an environmental activist. Witham led the campaign to preserve Florida Canyon as a permanent “outdoor ecology exhibit” in Balboa Park. At the time, the canyon’s eastern slope was high, dense chaparral, sometimes called “elfin forest.”

Witham believed that direct contact with nature was the most effective way to educate the public about San Diego’s native habitat, and she envisioned nature trails and a native botanical garden as important adjuncts to the Natural History Museum’s mission of public outreach.

In November 1973, after seven weeks of training, the first 27 Florida Canyoneers began leading public hikes. The timing was just right, notes Priscilla Dick, one of the original Florida Canyoneers. Public consciousness of the environment was as acute as global warming is today, and San Diegans became passionate about preserving their remaining undeveloped open space.

Unfortunately, several fires in the 1970s destroyed Florida Canyon’s dense chaparral, and the canyon has never fully recovered. In the early 1980s the group dropped “Florida” from their name as they added hikes in other parks, coastal wetlands, the desert, and the mountains.

Canyoneers on trail

Today, 82 Canyoneers lead weekend hikes at 70 locations from September through late June, and the Friday Guides lead elementary school groups on shorter hikes in local canyons during the school year. By a conservative estimate, at least 500 citizen-naturalists have trained as Canyoneers since the inception of the program. They in turn have led over 2000 public hikes since they were organized. The Canyoneers remain one of the few trail-guide groups nationwide affiliated with a natural history museum rather than a park or reserve.

Every Canyoneer has fond memories of being on the trail. Bill Howell, head of Canyoneer training since 1988, recalls that 200 people made the first annual climb up Cowles Mountain to see sunrise at the winter solstice. They were joined by Kumeyaay elders, for whom the solstice is a major spiritual celebration.

Other memories include desert flowers in carpets of color during wet years and the devastation and regeneration following wildfires that have provided new opportunities for outreach and education. Who can forget a child’s first recognition of coyote scat, the sight of an osprey landing on a telephone pole with a still-twitching fish in its talons, a tarantula hawk wasp dragging her prey to her den, a mountain lion, or a rattlesnake in a tree? The stories are endless.

The Canyoneers look forward to many more years of supporting the Natural History Museum’s mission of awakening the public to what Helen Witham called “places where the imagination can roam.”

Special thanks to Adeline Black, Celia Condit, and Diana Lindsay for content and Paul Singer and Adeline Black for photos.