By Cassidy Klein
The 7,000-acre wilderness of Mission Trails Regional Park (MTRP) is teeming with life. Blooming fields of numerous plant species, diverse animal patterns and ancient rocks populate the trails, but can often be overlooked by visitors. Trail guides, through guided nature walks and education within the park, help visitors learn about the vast natural beauty that surrounds them at MTRP.
“[Guides] really instill a sense of connection to the park, and to the amazing things we’re seeing that you would’ve just walked by,” said Chris Axtmann, a park ranger at MTRP and ranger liaison to the trail guides. “Walks are for education and inspiration.”
The MTRP trail guide training program is in its 25th year. Nature-lovers from all walks of life have graduated from the program as certified trail guides. Fred Kramer, the trail guide president and long-time park volunteer, said they’ve had trail guides ages 8 to 80, and everyone adds their own unique perspective to the walks they lead.
“Almost all trail guides who go through the class have a passion for nature, whether it’s recent, or most cases, from childhood,” said Kramer. “And a special place in their heart for the park.”
MTRP currently has over 100 active trail guides. The 2019 training class has 21 students. These prospective trail guides are required to attend 23 training classes from January to March, then must pass a final exam at the end. Class time includes guest lectures from specialists and hitting the trails to get familiarized with the landscape and wildlife. Topics of the classes range from the local botany, biology and geology to the park’s history and Native American history of the region. Wendy Esterly taught the Jan. 30 class about animal tracking.
Esterly gave students some helpful tips in identifying scat, such as the fact that rabbit scat looks like Cocoa Puffs, deer scat like Raisinets and coyote scat like the curly-Q of a soft-serve ice cream cone.
“My favorite topic [of the training] has been this unit — the mammal tracking,” said Jesus Aguilar, a recreation and tourism management student at San Diego State University (SDSU) who is in the trail guide training program this year. “I go hiking a lot and always see tracks or scat but never knew how to identify it. I really love animals, and now it will be easier to point out on the trail which ones have come by.”
Aguilar heard about the trail guide training program from fellow students at his college. He’s always had a deep love for nature and wants to be a park ranger.
“I feel like I’ve learned more here [at the training] than my five years at SDSU,” said Aguilar. “It will be fun to be a trail guide for people at Mission Trails and volunteer for other parks. I would highly recommend this training to anyone who is even remotely interested.”
The unique perspectives of trail guides are what make the nature walks come to life, according to Bill Howell, who is referred to as the “Father of the Trail Guides” because he started the program in 1995.
“Our guides bring themselves,” said Howell. “The hikes we lead are full of ‘trail tales.’ Not just factoids, but stories that tell a bigger picture of the park.”
Last year, guides led about 300 nature walks. These walks are free to the public, and special walks can also be arranged for groups of any age and fitness level.
Those interested in a guided nature walk can check the Mission Trails schedule of walks offered, including bird-watching, wildlife tracking and family walks. This spring will be a great time to come out, Axtmann said, because the park will “come alive” with the amount of wildflowers expected to bloom.
“We have just spectacular plants,” said Axtmann. “It’s neat trying to identify them. Like an entire field of deerweed and lupin, these purples coming out of these oranges and yellows, it’s just really, really stunning.”
Kramer, Axtmann, Howell and other instructors and volunteers are looking forward to the future of the newest trail guide class and what they will bring to the park.
“For our guides, whether they hike or not, we hope they maintain their love of nature,” said Howell. “We don’t preach in class, we don’t talk politics. We just expose people to the environment and hope they will want to protect it.”
—Cassidy Klein is a Point Loma Nazarene student and a freelance writer and social media coordinator for SDCNN. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.