Coast to Cactus: The genesis of San Diego's definitive hiking guide

Not meant to compete with Trailmaster Schad’s

Canyoneers in Florida Canyon. "We asked people to write about hikes already done. We had 75 to 100 write-ups in the county."
  • Canyoneers in Florida Canyon. "We asked people to write about hikes already done. We had 75 to 100 write-ups in the county."
  • Image by Andy Boyd

Since Afoot and Afield in San Diego County first appeared in 1986, Jerry Schad’s comprehensive guide to local hiking trails has been considered the definitive resource. But Schad’s death from liver cancer in 2011 sent the venerable hiking guide into limbo. Although a fifth edition prepared by local hiking enthusiast Scott Turner finally is scheduled for publication in February, it now faces serious competition. Coast to Cactus: The Canyoneer Trail Guide to San Diego Outdoors, released in September, 2016, is almost 600 pages long and weighs more than two and a half pounds. It contains descriptions of 245 outings (and 73 optional extension hikes) prepared by one of the best-respected hiking organizations in the county. Will it reign instead as the local hiking Bible?

Almost 600 pages, more than two and a half pounds, descriptions of 245 outings and 73 optional extension hikes.

Almost 600 pages, more than two and a half pounds, descriptions of 245 outings and 73 optional extension hikes.

Diana Lindsay is not the most objective observer, but I asked her if the two books are competitors. Along with her husband Lowell, Lindsay cofounded the company that published Coast to Cactus. She served as the book’s managing editor and was one of its key champions. She downplays any overt competition with Schad’s work, instead arguing that the two books have different missions.

They also developed differently, though both have deep local roots. The Lindsays met as Bruin Mountaineers back in the early 1960s, when she was a UCLA freshman and he was a senior and president of the campus hiking club. “We went spelunking together at Church Cave in the Sequoias,” Diana recalls. When Lowell was accepted for Navy flight school in the fall of 1964, they impulsively eloped. “We’ve been hiking forever. It’s in our blood.”

Diana says she urged the park rangers to write a new desert guide, but they weren’t interested.

Diana says she urged the park rangers to write a new desert guide, but they weren’t interested.

After flight school, her husband was assigned to duty as a helicopter pilot based in San Diego. Diana finished her undergraduate degree at San Diego State, and in their spare time, the couple began exploring the Anza-Borrego desert, glimpses of which had intrigued Lowell during his training flights out to Yuma. Diana also began using the desert as a topic for term papers; by the time she graduated, she’d written enough of them that a professor suggested she could easily combine them into a master’s thesis. She eventually did that, and a turn of good fortune brought her work to a larger audience. One of the professors on her thesis committee, Abraham Nasatir, was an authority on Southwest history and good friends with Richard Pourade, the editor of Copley Books. The publishing arm of the local newspaper had just released a history about Anza the explorer and wanted to publish something about the park named after him. Nasatir told Pourade about Lindsay’s work, “and the next thing, in the mail comes a contract offering to publish my master thesis,” she recalls.

Although the Lindsays left San Diego when Lowell took a job with the YMCA in Orange County, Diana says the two of them continued to hike in the Anza-Borrego desert, all the while taking notes and recording the mileage they covered. A guidebook for the desert existed but it had not been revised in years, and its elderly author was ill. Diana says she urged the park rangers to write a new one, but they weren’t interested. So she and Lowell finally decided to create one on their own. Their Anza Borrego Desert Region was published in 1978 by the Wilderness Press, but when the Lindsays moved back to San Diego in 1980, Diana wasn’t happy with the way either of her books was being marketed. That dissatisfaction led to her getting jobs in publishing and finally launching Sunbelt Publications in 1984.

Jerry Schad's death from liver cancer in 2011 sent Afoot and Afield into limbo.

Jerry Schad's death from liver cancer in 2011 sent Afoot and Afield into limbo.

Diana says it was sometime after she and Lowell wrote their desert guidebook that they first met Schad in a writing group. A shy young astronomer with a pronounced stutter and a passion for the natural world, he had a vision for creating a county-wide guide to the varied hiking opportunities here. He got a start on the research while writing a series of articles for San Diego Home/Garden magazine, and later, the San Diego edition of the Los Angeles Times. Wilderness Press wound up publishing the first collection of his outing descriptions in 1986. In 1992, Schad started a new column, “Roam-O-Rama,” which began appearing weekly in the San Diego Reader and provided material for his later editions of the hiking handbook.

Diana Lindsay says over the years she expressed interest in Sunbelt’s acquiring Schad’s Afoot and Afield from Wilderness Press, but the other publisher never wanted to relinquish it. (She never succeeded at getting the publishing rights to her own Anza Borrego Desert Region back from Wilderness, which will soon be issuing a sixth edition of it.) Sunbelt did release a guide to cycling in San Diego written by Schad. But by 2001, Lindsay had developed a vision for a different kind of book to accompany locals hitting the trails.

Canyoneers in front of Coast to Cactus exhibit at Natural History Museum. Exhibit shows San Diego as one of 35 biodiversity hotspots representing  one-third of the world's vertebrate animals and 44 percent of the vascular plants.

Canyoneers in front of Coast to Cactus exhibit at Natural History Museum. Exhibit shows San Diego as one of 35 biodiversity hotspots representing one-third of the world's vertebrate animals and 44 percent of the vascular plants.

She says it was inspired by what she’d learned in the Canyoneers group at the San Diego Natural History Museum. That group had been started back in the 1970s by a museum botanist named Helen Chamlee, who wanted to introduce more members of the general public to hiking. Chamlee designed classes to train volunteers to lead nature walks in Florida Canyon, just east of the museum. “You had to take an eight-week course and then lead public hikes for two years,” Diana says. She and Lowell had grown increasingly curious about and interested in the plants, animals, and geology of the areas they were exploring in the desert, so around 1988, they took the classes and joined the cadre of Canyoneer volunteers. By then the group had expanded beyond Florida Canyon and was offering hikes countywide. Diana says she and Lowell suggested a number of desert destinations for inclusion in the regular outings.

Florida Canyon, where the Canyoneers started. “You had to take an eight-week course and then lead public hikes for two years.”

Florida Canyon, where the Canyoneers started. “You had to take an eight-week course and then lead public hikes for two years.”

The two of them were troubled, however, by the fact that inquisitive hikers had to take along so many books — trail guides, bird guides, plant guides, mineral references — in order to understand what they were seeing. “We kept saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have one book that combined everything?’” The Canyoneers for years had been keeping notes about the natural features of all the hikes led by its volunteers. Diana says in 2001 she finally suggested to two Canyoneer leaders, Alan Marshall and Paula Knoll, that the organization should create its own combination trail-and-field guide, using all the material amassed over the years. Marshall and Knoll were enthusiastic. But when the trio went before the whole organization in early January 2002, the idea “went over like a lead balloon.” The other members thought it was overwhelming, Diana says. “They were all volunteers, and it was too massive a job.”

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Local author Priscilla Lister released a great hiking guide in 2016 called "Take a Hike" with 260 trails included. We're lucky to have so many great hikes as well as so many great hiking writers - tho Jerry Schad will always be the best.

Agreed--we are lucky! Sunbelt and the "Coast to Cactus" team is pleased to share the shelf and the reading light with such wonderful works as "Take A Hike" and "Afoot and Afield." We've always held Schad's contributions in highest regard.

When my husband and dog and I headed out one September morning, we took copies of the pages from both guidebooks describing the trails at the Torrey Pines reserve extension.

I hope others don't do what you did.

Dogs are not allowed at Torrey Pines State Reserve, including the extension. There are good reasons and a large fine.

Make sure to read the rules before entering any trail. The rule signs take precedence over what any guidebook says.

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