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Hey look, Half Dome! Sonia Veiga relishes being able to teach in Yosemite, where she serves as a NatureBridge educator and as a Conservancy guide.Next up in our “Six Questions” series: Yosemite-based naturalist and educator Sonia Veiga!

Sonia grew up playing in the woods outside of her home just southwest of New York’s Adirondack Mountains. Her career path has been steeped in nature from the start: She has worked as a nature director at two summer camps in New York, as an environmental educator at multiple residential outdoor programs, as a science teacher, and as an interpreter for the Smithsonian Institute’s Marine Ecosystems Exhibit in Florida.

A love for national parks drew Sonia out of the classroom and back into outdoor education; these days, she’s teaching on the trails in Yosemite. She works an educator for NatureBridge, serves as a naturalist guide for Yosemite Conservancy, and is excited to be able to live, work and explore in the park.

1. What does the word “naturalist” mean to you?

To me, a naturalist is someone who takes the time to appreciate the outdoor landscape around them, and also has the urge to share that passion and appreciation with other people. Naturalists acknowledge that the more you look, the more you see, and they help others hone in on those observational skills, too. They also help to make the outdoors accessible to all.

Whether hiking, climbing or facilitating group discussions, Sonia draws on her passion for the park to help others connect with the outdoors. 2. What’s a favorite memory from a Yosemite trip you’ve led?

I was leading a group of students on a backpacking trip up the Yosemite Falls Trail, across the Valley’s north rim, and down the Snow Creek switchbacks. It had been dumping rain and the students really wanted to push toward North Dome. We sat in a group and chatted about the pros and cons of pushing ahead in the rain versus pausing for the night and waking up early to get to the top of North Dome, enjoy the view, and then return to tear down camp and continue our trip.

I’m always amazed by the way that pushing yourself in the backcountry forces you to slow down, think about your needs and wants, and work together to come up with safe decisions. This group chose to get up early the next day, and we woke up to clear skies. As we reached the top of North Dome, we got to watch the sunrise. The students first celebrated by dancing, and then one by one sat by themselves to take in the views that they had earned. They got to enjoy not only a spectacular view, but also a sense of pride and accomplishment in knowing that they had chosen to make that moment for themselves.

3. If you only had a few hours to spend in Yosemite, where would you go?

I would head up to Turtleback Dome with a mug of tea and some watercolors.

Sonia's animal pick: a river otter. (This one wandered in front of a remote camera that was deployed in Yosemite for a wildlife research project.) Photo: Courtesy of NPS4. What animal (or plant) do you most identify with? 

I think I could live a good life as a river otter. They appreciate play, enjoy being in the water and love the Merced River.

5. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the natural world?

The most surprising thing I have learned about the natural world is how many people don’t feel as though they belong in it. Such a huge part of my job is making sure that people understand that this land is being protected so that they, as well as their future family members, can enjoy its natural beauty.

6. Why do you think it’s important for people to learn about and connect with nature?

Nature should be a place for anyone to feel at ease and comfortable. When folks learn more about natural spaces, and develop relationships with them, then they will feel urged to protect them.

Sonia's love for outdoor education drew her to the Sierra Nevada, where she loves exploring and observing the landscape. (Pictured: Sonia makes her way around Saddlebag Lake, just outside Yosemite's eastern border).

In addition to her work as an educator with NatureBridge, a nonprofit organization that serves tens of thousands of students every year across six national parks, Sonia helps people connect with Yosemite through our Custom Adventure programs. Want to join Sonia or another local naturalist for a personalized Yosemite Conservancy trip? Check out our Custom Adventures page to explore potential itineraries and get in touch with our team.

Above: Sonia embraces opportunities for adventure and learning in her Sierra Nevada stomping grounds. All photos courtesy of Sonia Veiga, unless otherwise noted.