San Diego: a city of canyonlands

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Maybe you are, like me, a casual visitor to San Diego, California. And maybe you, like me, think of it as a city of beaches, sunshine, the Padres, and pandas. These are its obvious attractions ― except for the pandas, which are invariably hiding when you try to see them at the zoo. What Eric Bowlby wants people to know is that San Diego is also a city of canyons.

This is why, on a morning so fine you feel your feet are floating 2 inches off the ground, I am following Bowlby down a trail into one of his favorite canyons, Switzer, just east of Balboa Park.

Bowlby got his current role as the Paul Revere of San Diego canyons in a circuitous way. Raised in Massachusetts, he followed a girlfriend out to San Diego and got involved in environmental issues because he was playing in a band with a bunch of enviro dudes. One day he and his friends noticed that the city was about to push an access road through Switzer Canyon. Unhappy, they organized a canyon-side community meeting ― and were astonished by the turnout. "We got tons of people," he says, "even on a rainy day."

We follow the trail down a medium-steep slope lined with lemonade berry. "Most people don't realize that San Diego County has more endangered species than any other county in the continental United States," Bowlby says. "It's because we have tremendous biodiversity ― coast, lagoons, mesas, mountains, deserts. And endangered because we've paved over a lot of habitat."

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That said, the canyons (which are not Grand Canyon chasms as much as scrub-filled ravines) don't initially stir you with awe. Like spotting the pandas, appreciating their beauty requires some patience. Still, when Bowlby bends down, grabs a leaf and crumples it for me ― "Black sage," he says ― the scent is like something you'd smell at the gates of heaven.

"In Switzer, you feel you're out in the country," Carrie Schneider says. Schneider is coleader of Friends of Switzer Canyon, the community group that sprang out of that initial meeting. After helping to win the road battle, Friends has gone on to remove invasive plants and replace them with native species.

And its example spread: Today, as the Sierra Club's canyons and creeks preservation organizer, Bowlby coordinates the work of nearly 40 active canyon-preservation groups.

Some San Diegans think the effort to preserve the canyons is even changing the nature of the city. "The funny thing about San Diego is that many people don't feel attached to it as a place," says Richard Louv, former columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and a passionate advocate for what he calls nearby nature. The canyons, he thinks, can help give the city a sense of community. "San Diego is really defined by them."

Last year a consortium of environmental groups and urban designers, San Diego Civic Solutions, made an ambitious proposal ― to establish a 17,000-acre park that would preserve all the city's canyons as a single open-space park. It's only a proposal, dependent on its promoters drumming up popular and political support. Still, Louv and Bowlby think it's a start.

Bowlby and I have reached the canyon bottom. Here is where the creek that created Switzer runs, and even though it's hardly a trickle, the air is cool and sweet with hidden water. Far above us we see a hawk circling. "A red-shouldered," Bowlby says. As I watch the hawk spiral, I find myself reciting his list of canyons like a nursery rhyme: Juniper, Chollas, Stevenson, Dove. Nothing big, nothing splashy, not the Grand Canyon. Just small, good places that make you feel good about April, about life.

INFO: Sierra Club, San Diego Canyons Campaign (619/284-9399)

MORE: Discover other canyons

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