Finding Paths in the Mountains

An Earth Camp Experience

By Alana Huffmon, Educator and Earth Camp staff

Earth Camp is a unique experience that connects high-school students in Tucson with hands-on stewardship and restoration experiences in the Coronado National Forest. Earth Camp brings STEAM skills to life as students experience three days in the Santa Catalina Mountains working, learning, and laughing with staff from the Desert Museum, the National Forest Foundation, the Coronado National Forest, the Arizona Conservation Corps, and their high school teachers.

Each round of Earth Camp has one of four themes: Biosciences, Art and Communication, Ethnobotany, or Engineering. The focus of camp pairs with a cohort of students in a corresponding high school class. For example, Environmental Sciences students from Flowing Wells took part in the Biosciences Earth Camp, during which students learned to pin bees for future research–a task which required a great deal of precision and concentration.

The first day of Earth Camp begins at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where campers get to know their peers and Arizona Conservation Corps (AZCC) mentors for the week. Each Earth Camp, AZCC sends a crew to teach and provide peer mentoring experience as students learn from college-level individuals about future environmental careers. 

While at the Museum, each mentor-mentee group meets Sonoran Desert animals, explores the Museum, and gets a chance to hear lectures and conduct experiments related to the focus of the week.

Image: An Earth Camper using tweezers to remove a bee preserved in alcohol/ethanol to place under a microscope.

After exploring the Museum, all students and staff travel to Mount Lemmon where they set up camp, pitch tents, and cook dinner. During this first evening campers and staff have the opportunity to test out their teamwork. They set up tents (sometimes in the dark!) and cook their own dinners. There is always a range of outdoor experience in the group and campers get to learn from, or teach, each other. After dinner, time is spent sitting around a fire chatting about conservation activities and gazing at the stars. After a 14-hour first day campers finally get to lay their heads down in the product of their own handiwork.

Image: An illuminated tent at the Molino Basin campground.

The second day of Earth Camp, campers get introduced to the biomes of Mt. Lemmon. It begins in the desert at the Babad D’oag Overlook and ends in the mixed conifer forest at the peak. By taking several stops on the way up, students experience different biomes as the elevation rises, the same biomes one would encounter traveling from Mexico to Canada. Students and mentors make observations of the plants, animals, and geology at each stop, and then work together to analyze patterns and differences. After each exploration, a Desert Museum staff member teaches the important or specific natural history of that biome. At one such stop, campers scrambled down rocks in a wash, explored every nook looking for frogs, spiders, and one of the campers remarked:  

“I forgot how much I used to go outside and explore. It’s so much fun and I’m glad I remembered so now I can do it more.”

Image: An Earth Camper and school chaperone peer under a rock looking for mushrooms.
Image: An Earth Camper examines a juvenile horned lizard through a jeweler’s lens.

During the tour, campers discover what they are fascinated by and would want to continue researching post-Earth Camp. The fascination with the outside world is infectious and everyone is able to explore and develop their own interests. Discovering new interests in the natural world that merit further exploration is arguably the most enlightening part of Earth Camp. Campers not only explore the Forest land, but also develop or deepen a love for the outdoors, which helps inform their decisions through life.

Following the journey up the mountain, the campers end at the peak of the Santa Catalinas and are able to see the expanse of the city of Tucson below. Everyone in the cohort is enveloped in a breathtaking landscape and surrounded by new friends. Passion and camaraderie are contagious!

Image: Campers atop the Catalinas enjoy the vista.

At the end of day two, campers share a rose-thorn-bud moment. A rose is something good that happened, a thorn is something that bothered them, and a bud is something they are looking forward to. One such rose at the end of the biome day was:

“My favorite thing was finding the perfect sitting rock– it was exceptional. And all the hiking I’ve done today, I’ve never hiked this much but I really like it, you know?”

Maria José 

Most thorn comments are about the length of the program. They all want more! More time to be at Earth Camp or more time to explore one of our biomes stops. Many of the campers are very excited to bring their friends and families back to the Santa Catalinas to share their new knowledge and the beauty of the Forest, which they are more easily able to do as the National Forest Foundation provides annual Coronado National Park Passes to every camper. This Foundation is a partner of Earth Camp that not only helps tremendously with funding but also works with campers during the stewardship project.

On the third and final day, campers utilize their accumulated knowledge to participate in a stewardship project. This includes work on Forest Service land, which introduces campers to another partner of the program, the Forest Service. Not only do campers get to do some hard yet rewarding work, they get to meet incredible people and learn about potential future internships and careers.

Image: An Earth Camper conducting trail engineering on Bugs Springs trail after being taught how to safely use a pick-mattock by AZCC.
Image: Campers pose around bags full of invasive grasses pulled out of Sabino Canyon.

Students learn from a Dispersed Recreation Manager, Invasive Species Specialist, Wildland Firefighter, and more about how their jobs are a part of the whole conservation effort of the Sonoran Desert. These speakers also talk about their career paths and how most of them have taken indirect but rewarding paths to their position. Campers’ eyes light up as they hear the different potential opportunities and paths available to them.

For the Ethnobotany-themed Earth Camp, students had the opportunity to tour the Mission Garden where they learned about the historically and culturally important crops of the Tucson Basin. They then planned and created a culinary masterpiece incorporating native plants and served it to friends, families, and the sponsors of the Earth Camp program (of course, but not before taste-testing all of the delicious things).   

Image: A camper tastes a sweet lime from the Mission Garden.

Earth camp is all about exploring the natural world while learning about careers in stewardship, environmental education, and conservation. The variety in stewardship projects reflect this and the importance of varying specialties in the protection of this land. It is very important to note that these specialties must work in concert with the knowledge of indigenous groups, whose people have been taking care of the Sonoran Desert for thousands of years and whose voice is indispensable in its further care and stewardship.

Earth camp is an amazing experience that the campers carry with them their entire lives.

Ten years ago, Earth Camp taught me to love, honor, and respect the world around us. Today, at age 27, I’m standing up for Arizona’s natural resources in the Arizona House of Representatives.

Andrés Cano – 3rd Legislative District in Arizona House of Representatives
Image: Campers take a break from their stewardship project to cool off and play in Sabino Creek.

Thank you to the partners of Earth Camp for making this amazing experience possible: Arizona Sonora-Desert Museum, Arizona Conservation Corps, National Forest Foundation, and the US Forest Service.

Additional support for Earth Camp has been provided by the Rossetter Foundation, Tucson Electric Power and the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Heritage Fund.

 If you would like to help support Earth Camp please visit here!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Thanks for sharing the blog.


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