CSU hosts exceptional high school students for hike at Phantom Canyon

The Colorado Natural Heritage Program at Colorado State University hosted a group of high-achieving and diverse high school students for a guided nature hike at Phantom Canyon Preserve on June 20, 2022.

CNHP, which tracks and ranks Colorado’s rare and imperiled species and habitats, accompanied senior and junior high-school students from around Colorado on a 2-mile nature hike at the canyon located 30 miles northwest of Fort Collins, Colorado.

The students are part of the CSU Honors Summer Institute, a one-week camp for diverse high school students with exceptional academic achievements. Many of whom are first generation and have never visited a college campus before, can experience a challenging and enlightening college experience, said Sarah Zwick-Tapley, Honors Institute Director.

“The Honors Summer Institute is committed to exposing students to a multitude of different academic areas,” Zwick-Tapley said. “Given the current climate and extinction crisis we are hoping that some of the students participating will become leaders in addressing world issues.”

Colorado high school students enter the stream after their guided hike with CNHP at Phantom Canyon.
Colorado high school students enter the stream after their guided hike with CNHP at Phantom Canyon.

At Phantom Canyon Preserve, students were led on a 2-mile nature hike by CNHP’s Director Dave Anderson and botanist Susan Panjabi, as well as CSU student Hunter Geist-Sanchez, a senior majoring in Ecosystem Science and Sustainability in the Warner College of Natural Resources, who lives at Phantom Canyon full time in summer 2022 through funding by the Tate Endowment Fund.

The hike is part of CNHP’s mission to inform people about Colorado’s biodiversity, said Dave Anderson, CNHP director. “It is critical for people to understand the wealth we have in Colorado that comes from a healthy, biodiverse environment, and the best way for people to appreciate that is for them to experience it themselves.”

A hike accompanied by trained staff also conveys the value of conservation, Anderson said, and working with the Summer Honor’s Institute population allows CNHP to extend CSU’s Land Grant Mission.

“We need to cultivate the next generation of the Earth’s stewards to take care of our planet after we’re gone.” Anderson said. “Having a sustainable future depends on our success in instilling the value of nature in youth and in training them as thinkers and leaders.”

Lessons in conservation and appreciation

Phantom Canyon—one of the last last roadless canyons on the Front Range— is a 1,120-acre nature reserve that has been protected by The Nature Conservancy since 1987 and the ecosystem supports 200 native plant and 100 native bird species as well as black bears, mountain lions and bobcats.

Larimer aletes
The very rare endemic plant, Larimer aletes (Aletes humilis), found at Phantom Canyon Preserve. Photo by iNaturalist.

On the hike, Geist-Sanchez led students to a river where students could walk into the shallow water. Along the way, he and CNHP staff and interns pointed out rare and native species, which included the very rare endemic plant, Larimer aletes (Aletes humilis). Students also saw eagles’ nests on the canyon walls and a variety of grass and plant species.

Karen Llamas, a student attendee from Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver, Colorado, said her experience on the hike opened her eyes to the value of preserving nature.

“I live in a city, so I did feel scared at first walking in nature, but as the guides pointed out plants and animals, I felt more at ease, and I really considered the beauty of this place,” Llamas said. “In a city, you don’t get to experience this a lot, but being here and seeing what’s at stake if we don’t conserve nature, that was eye-opening.”

Another student, Kevin Salazar, from CEC Early College in Denver, found the most rewarding part of the experience to be when the CNHP guides asked the students to take time to be alone in nature, spacing out the group so that they could walk one by one on the trail. Panjabi said this was an exercise that gives the students “an opportunity to experience the power of being in nature on their own.”

“Being alone in nature was serene and calming. I took time to look down at my feet as they hit the trail,” Salazar said. “I thought to myself that maybe I could do this on my own, take my dog for a hike and find that peace in nature on my own time.”

Geist-Sanchez said he hopes the takeaway from the experience is that the students consider careers in conservation.

“I hope that pointing out interesting plants and animals and just inviting students to places like Phantom Canyon can convey the importance of protecting areas like this that not every young person has access to,” Geist-Sanchez said. “The natural resources fields will need young people to learn and invest in the future of these special places.”