Learning how to horseback ride is a favorite at Pathfinder Ranch. Photo by Patrick Linsk

Pathfinder Ranch in Garner Valley was founded in 1964. The nonprofit 501(c)(3) is on an 80-acre property that backs up to the national forest, providing plenty of space for outdoor activities and education.

With summer around the corner, Pathfinder is doing its best to figure out a solution during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Currently, Pathfinder is closed and only eight of about 34 employees that would normally be working this time of year are working from home. 

“The hope is that we can offer some kind of programming this summer,” Pathfinder Ranch Executive Director Chris Fife said. “We recognize the position that everyone is in, and even though camp might not be normal this summer, I think that it’s important for the kids.”

Fife spoke to me during a phone interview about Pathfinder’s diverse programs and some of the activities offered. 

“For summer camp, we are mostly recreation based,” explained Fife. “They learn horseback riding, rock climbing, arts and crafts, canoeing, archery and we have a challenge course. Then during the school year, we offer outdoor education to fifth- and sixth-graders mostly.”

Besides their summer program and outdoor education program, Pathfinder also rents out space to a variety of youth groups, community groups and support groups.

Fife explained how satisfying it is to provide a positive yet challenging experience to kids and adults. 

“We get quite a few local kids but getting to see the variety of children that aren’t from here or used to the mountains is really fun to see,” said Fife. “Some haven’t seen horses or goats, or even where an egg comes from other than the store. I’ve had adults come visit 30 to 40 years after they attended camp as a child and the memories come flooding because it made such an impact on them.”

In total, between 8,000 to 9,000 students a year attend. 

The outdoor education program during the school year hosts 5,000 to 6,000 students and the summer camp hosts about 1,500 kids. The remainder is dispersed throughout other programs. 

Last year, Pathfinder hosted students from 70 schools in 17 school districts throughout Southern California, as well as various private schools.

Pathfinder also offers performance art class and nighttime activities such as night hikes and astronomy. There is a small farm and a nature center on the property. A planetarium, the site’s newest addition, was built last year, all part of Pathfinder’s adventure program.

“We have 17 horses on site,” Fife said. “In the farm, kids get to learn about how to care for different types of animals like the horses and goats. They get to pet, feed and groom them. In our nature center, we have reptiles and mammals and students can hold a snake, turtle and a chinchilla. 

“It’s funny to see a kid who might not be very fond of snakes and watch their attitude change once they get to hold one,” Fife said.

With the reptiles, students get to learn about the skeletal structure, the reptile’s environment and native versus non-native species. They also learn about the different types of animals in the farm, how they’ve adapted to the domestic lifestyle, including predator versus prey.

“Everybody likes the cute animals but they also get to see the beauty in the reptiles and it’s a whole different type of beauty,” Fife said. “Or they see a horse and it’s huge size and think, ‘How am I going to control this animal?’ I get to empower these kids and helping the kids try new things is really fun and important.” 

The summer camp allows the kids to get out on their own and learn some independence while in a safe environment. They have the opportunity to take some controlled risks and learn new skills while meeting new people. 

“Sometimes the scariest thing is learning how to make new friends that are different from you, but the kids learn about the similarities they all share,” Fife explained. “If they want, they can reinvent themselves since they don’t know anyone. It’s really satisfying to be a part of that program.”

The outdoor education program incorporates the teachers and parents. The kids get to stretch and learn alongside their teachers, who are possibly going through the same challenges as the students. 

“They get to create relationships with the kids that they wouldn’t in a classroom setting,” Fife explained. “Sometimes the adults are more excited than the kids.”

Pathfinder is hoping to create activities if it can be done safely and are open to input from the public. 

“We are trying to figure out what the community needs and how to fill those needs,” Fife said. “We are going to continue to offer scholarships so kids can attend. We accept donations, which can be done through our website under the donate tab. We are always grateful for the support if they are able to. We will stretch our donation dollars the best we can.”

Overall, Pathfinder Ranch gets kids involved in nature, teaches them skills and hands-on experiences at a level that they will carry into their adult lives.

If you would like to make a donation or reach out to Pathfinder Ranch, you may do so at pathfinderranch.com.

Smiling, happy kids enjoy Pathfinder Ranch while participating in the Team Challenge activity. Photo by Patrick Linsk