Story Book Hike Comes to East County Reserve - November 30, 2020


Poway residents Lisa Gymer and her daughter, Ava, 7, check out the storybook hike at Crestridge Ecological Reserve in Crest. (Karen Pearlman / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Is it possible to safely read a book and go for a hike outdoors at the same time? At the Crestridge Ecological Reserve in East County you can.

The nonprofit Earth Discovery Institute has developed a self-guided “Storybook Hike” at the reserve nestled in Crest, an unincorporated community that lies between Alpine and El Cajon. The reserve is a natural ecosystem preservation area used for scientific research and education that also offers about two miles of hiking trails and more than 2,800 acres of open space.

Earlier this month, Earth Discovery Institute staff placed the laminated pages of a nature-themed storybook into secured planters along a short and easy trail that meanders among the shade of large oak trees at the reserve.

According to Earth Discovery Institute staff, dozens of people, ranging from groups of homeschooled kids in learning pods to parents with toddlers in tow have taken the hike and read “The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever.” The book chronicles the life of one of San Diego’s pioneers, Kate O. Sessions, written by H. Joseph Hopkins and illustrated by Jill McElmurry.

There are about 22 stations along the nearly 200-yard route at the site at 1181 Horsemill Road in El Cajon. It typically takes about 15 to 20 minutes for most visitors to get through the book, institute staffers said. A kiosk near the gate at the entrance of the reserve offers hiking maps and pamphlets to read as well as a sign-up sheet asking those taking part in the storybook hike to leave their names and some remarks about their experience.

“We even had a group of six adults leave comments,” institute education director Vicky Bonnett said. “This has been received very well. It’s a shorter hike, but we have plenty of places where we can extend the hike for books that are longer. For me reading anything is the best. I have two adult children, and I love to read children’s books still. There’s nothing that makes me feel better. It’s just a fun thing to do.”

Bonnett said a new book — “The Keeper of The Wild Words” by Brooke Smith — is planned for December. Institute Executive Director Sarah Maisonneuve said the group plans to rotate in a new nature- or science-themed book every few months.

Maisonneuve said the storybook hikes are taking on added significance because of COVID-19, which has all but ended the field trips that would bring busloads of fourth- and fifth-graders to Crestridge for activities.

The institute also offers education programs out of the Sweetwater Marsh in Chula Vista, the Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve in Jamul and the Interpretive Loop at the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge in Rancho San Diego — but those have also been on hiatus because of COVID-19.

On a recent weekday, Poway mom Lisa Gymer and her 7-year-old daughter, Ava, were strolling along the Crestridge trails when Gymer, quite by chance, spotted the laminated first page of the Sessions book. After chatting with Bennett, who was on site at the time, the mom and daughter made their way around the book’s pages, taking turns reading and pointing out favorite illustrations.


Earth Discovery Institute personnel (from left to right) Vicky Bonnett, Mary Duffy and Sarah Maisonneuve talk about the “Storybook Hike” in the Crestridge Ecological Reserve near El Cajon. (Karen Pearlman / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“These storybook hikes are a wonderful opportunity for families to safely get outside together and meaningfully connect with nature,” said Maisonneuve. “This is an ideal opportunity for families to support reading with their kiddos, while also learning about and exploring nature.”

Michael Beck, manager for Crestridge Ecological Reserve, said he found it “really heartening to see how many mothers and fathers with their little kids are coming through, and the kids are just thrilled.”

Beck is also the president of Endangered Habitats Conservancy, a nonprofit that works with other organizations to help protect natural wildlands of Southern California.

Crestridge Ecological Reserve, jointly managed by the Endangered Habitats Conservancy and the California Department of Fish and Game, preserves the north-south linkage connecting the Lakeside Ecological Reserve to San Diego National Wildlife Refuge. Vegetation inside includes Diegan coastal sage scrub, southern mixed chaparral, mixed coast live and Engelmann oak woodlands, mature willow, sycamore and cottonwood trees, grasslands and riparian land. It also boasts year-round streams.

The reserve provides habitat for golden eagles, owls, white-tailed kites, Cooper’s hawks and other raptors. Bats, deer, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes have also been spotted. Rare and endangered species at the site include the California gnatcatcher, the San Diego horned lizard, the orange throated whiptail lizard and the Hermes copper butterfly.

“There’s no doubt that young kids bond naturally with the natural world,” Beck said. “And this is a perfect opportunity for them because it’s not a park setting, it’s a natural setting. I think they can’t see the edges of it, and they know there are coyotes and other real critters around here, and I think they just get enthralled with that kind of experience.”