Sonoma County’s LandPaths ignites teens' passion for nature

WILLOW CREEK WATERSHED - Their tent floors were soaked when morning came, the brisk air revealing clouds of expended breath as nine Sonoma County teens gathered for a breakfast of hot tea, egg scramble, homemade tortillas and mole sauce, then packed up camp and hit the trail beneath a brightening sky.

They had lugged backpacking packs over hill and dale to reach this verdant clearing near the coast, where cathedral trees surrounded by thick, redwood duff edged the streambank and a wooded ridge line rose above, separating them from the ocean beyond.

Relieved of their packs for the last leg of their four-day trek, they began the 5-mile climb through county open space properties toward Shell Beach in Sonoma Coast State Park, where they would bury tired feet in the cool sand and frolic in the surf.

But first, they formed a circle with their adult leaders to reflect silently on the previous three days, on the beauty of the land, the wildlife they had seen, the expectations they had when they started out and the experience of pushing forward through fatigue, self-doubt, homesickness and, one of them, severe nausea, only to arrive at camp and have the heavens open up.

And still they wanted more.

“I hope I get to come back next year,” was how Santa Rosa High School junior Marisol Cornejo, 17, summed up her feelings that day.

Part of a spring break expedition organized by the nonprofit group LandPaths, these high school students had been mostly strangers to one another and largely inexperienced with backpacking or even camping when they started the week at Westminster Woods near Camp Meeker to practice with their loaner tents and organize water bottles, clothing, hiking boots, rain gear and other equipment provided to them for the trip.

But on the trail, or preparing meals together or sitting around the fire, they had become friends and confidantes, empowered by the opportunity to experience the beautiful west county landscape and to overcome new challenges.

“I guess just being outdoors really connected us, since we had to work together,” Elsie Allen High School sophomore Emma De La Cruz, 16, said. “It was really just a wonderful experience.”

Omar Gallardo, LandPaths' director of outreach and diversity, was unmistakably moved by how the kids opened up during their recent trip, sharing stories of family struggle, loss or hardship.

“Out here, they're different,” Gallardo said. “They drop their guard.”

Some of them had had their doubts, especially on the long day of hiking that took them 11 miles overland from Westminster Woods, where they bunked in cabins to get out of the rain, to Willow Creek Ranch, where they were hosted for two nights of camping.

Healdsburg High School senior Jorge Cervantes said he “was already tired” after the first 500 feet uphill, while Jazmin Escandon, who attends Roseland University Prep, wondered, “Why did I think this was a good idea?”

“I've never been camping and hiking,” said Escandon, 17. “I don't like walking.”

But when they arrived that afternoon at their stunning destination, a private ranch awash in green splendor and redwoods, “we all had smiles on our faces,” said Cervantes, 17. “You feel superhuman.”

The trip was an extension of a program for under-served and, in some cases, at-risk teens designed to connect young people who may not have grown up hiking or camping with nature and the outdoors, LandPaths Executive Director Craig Anderson said.

The program, called Inspired Forward, is part of a larger mission to link diverse populations with the outdoors and, particularly, with the spectacular landscape of Sonoma County. It was created four years ago to fill a general gap in offerings for high school-age youths, with the aim of creating a sense of belonging, providing mentorship by “people of intelligence and heart” and inspiring leadership, community, vision and optimism about the future, Anderson said.

“We are trying to build a foundation for successful lives by creating opportunities for them to build communities in the outdoors,” he said.

Working with partner agencies to identify appropriate candidates, the Inspire Forward program this year created six cohorts totaling nearly 100 students in the program, each participating in four outings that involve hiking or other outdoor exercise, land stewardship, preparation of a meal together, camp-outs and conversation, Gallardo said. Along the way, there are opportunities to meet and hear from community leaders about opportunities out in the world.

The multi-day trek, now in its second year, caters to smaller groups, ideally 12 to 15 people. Gallardo, a gentle and approachable outdoor educator, said his goal is “nature immersion” that stimulates love for the land but also a sense of connection and leadership.

The trip was to have started with a hike around LandPaths' Bohemia Ecological Preserve near Occidental, though rain sent the group across the highway to Westminster Woods, where they bunked for the night, leaving the next day for Willow Creek Ranch. Once there, they set up camp, using backpacking tents and a large canopy that sheltered their cooking area from intermittent rain. A day-hike of a couple of miles took them to a waterfall on Willow Creek the next day. Finally, on Day Four, they walked to the ocean, where the trip ended. Along the way, group leaders imparted bits of knowledge about the flora and fauna that surrounded them. They learned to distinguish poison oak from berry plants, heard a rare spotted owl in the night, were introduced to edible mushrooms, held a banana slug and became acquainted with some of the stars' constellations.

At Willow Creek Ranch, they explored a large organic garden and picked produce to add to their meals, some of them seeing for the first time how vegetables they've only seen in the market grow.

Conservationist and animal tracker Megan Walla-Murphy, one of several adult leaders on the trip, said there's a certain amount of bonding that happens naturally during time outdoors, away from the distraction of cellphones and the trappings of regular life. But she and the other facilitators also strove to create a safe space for participants to share.

Mariana Murillo, 18, said the experience opened her mind to possibilities and opportunities she wants to seize in life, but also to the peaceful beauty of the wild world and the joy of connecting with others and sharing stories.

“It just naturally happened,” she said. “Every night we would sit by the campfire, and we would just kind of talk, whatever came to mind. We talked about our ancestors. We talked about how we've been impacted throughout the trip, what we've learned. Said Cervantes, “We became good friends.”

Escandon, though previously not an avid walker, surprised herself the day after returning from her west county trek by joining her family for a hike at Howarth Park in Santa Rosa.“I feel like there's so much that I have learned,” Escandon said, “and I want to keep on learning more.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at (707) 521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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