Photo courtesy of Erina Chavez

From the crest at Volcan Mountain, to the coast at Dog Beach, lies the 72-mile classroom—or at least as I choose to call it. This name perfectly describes my class’s immersive hike along the 72 miles of the Crest-to-Coast Trail. We trekked this entire trail to learn all about biophilia, ecology, local history, and conservation. Yet arguably, what we didn’t expect to find taught us the most. I came away from this project having a better understanding of my world, myself, and the different ways that lead me to enjoy learning. So, what did we do that made this project so influential?

My class team consisted of 70 students and four teachers: Dr. Patton, Mr. Leader, Mr. Hensley, and Mrs. Pierini. When we all returned from winter break, and our second semester was beginning, we knew we had enough time for one large project before spring break in April and junior internships in May. The new semester also signified new topics needing to be taught, such as ecology, local history, real-world purposes for writing, and finance. Our teachers took these different topics and combined them all into one grand project they entitled, “Choose Your Own Adventure.”

At the project launch, our teachers announced that the team would be dividing into two different classes for the entire first week of March. One class would immerse themselves into a finance and business world, where they would create their own business and products, and develop a plan for marketing and tracking their earnings. The second class would embark on a 72-mile hiking expedition that would teach them all about the wildlife within the San Dieguito River Park (SDRP). Within both options were further opportunities for students to tailor the lessons to their interests. Wishing to get outside of the classroom walls, I decided upon the hiking expedition before I even knew what I was getting myself into.

The SDRP’s Crest-to-Coast trail begins at the summit of Volcan Mountain and winds through Julian, Santa Ysabel, San Pasqual, Escondido, Rancho Bernardo, and Del Mar, ending at the San Dieguito River’s mouth that pours into the ocean at Dog Beach. The path travels through five different biomes, all home to a unique set of plants and animals. Our class partnered with the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy (SDRVC) to learn about wildlife conservation, the need for it, and how we can help. Through rangers, research, and experiments we learned a lot about ecology and San Diego’s diverse wildlife. We also learned important information about the habitats of the five biomes, and different ways to protect their shrinking land. With this knowledge, I chose to co-produce a 22-minute video that would describe our adventure to the public, and call out to them to help protect the SDRP’s wildlife. This video would be given to the SDRVC to help them promote their conservation efforts. Other students were writing daily blog posts and snapping lots of photos for the Conservancy to use. As an entire class, we even worked closely with kindergartners to teach them more about nature and their important role within it. In other words, we were deeply involved, and making real change.

Along with this aspect of our journey, we unexpectedly learned a lot about ourselves and how we personally connect to nature. Namely, we learned not only the definition of biophilia, but where it lies within ourselves. This really isn’t a discovery you could find another way. Throwing your head back to gaze at the canopy of trees high above your head, or lowering yourself upon the dirt to watch an ant carry a crumb of your lunch away, or suddenly realizing that your footsteps and heart are beating in perfect rhythm, is how you find it. A textbook could never have given us this.

After our hiking journey was over, our class began to share and express their experiences in a variety of ways. This article is just one example. Other students created and wrote blogs, shared photos, and drew out some scenes along the trail. As an entire class, we are creating a book with a collection of different pieces of writing about the hiking journey, the business expedition, or another topic that piqued our interests. This helped us reinforce what we learned and how we can apply it to our lives in the future.

Within the 72-mile classroom, the earth was our teacher, our experiences were our lessons, and our curiosities led us to absorb it all. We learned because we wanted to, and I believe that knowing our work created real change, learning through experiences, and reflecting upon the entire adventure for the public to see, led us to feeling so. I hope others will use some of these ideas in their classrooms, as they come from one of the most important voices in education: the students.

For further information about the 72-Mile Classroom, visit the class blog at:

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