Torrey Pines State Reserve, Beach, and Extension

Perched across two bluffs separated by a lagoon stand the last groves of the rarest pine tree in North America, the Torrey Pine. The reserve that protects the remnants of these trees also protects a long strand of primeval beach, over which massive sandstone cliffs. Here, the visitor can catch one of the last glimpses of uninterrupted, undeveloped Southern California coastline.

Distance: 6 miles
Elevation Gained: 550′
Difficulty: Easy
Time: 3 hours
Critters: hawks, gulls, owls (heard)

Note: Torrey Pines Reserve requires a fee for parking. The fee is a bit steep, but if you can manage to find a spot you can park along Coast Highway and walk there from the beach.

The Pacific seen from the Razor Point Trail

After solidiering through a week in which I work 6 days, including a training, wrote two papers over two nights of class, and otherwise filled up just about every waking moment with some kind of task, I badly needed a hike. I chose Torrey Pines, since it is easily accessible, offers a nice variety of experiences, and gives me a chance to right another column about relict species. I’ve written about both parts of the reserve here and here, and I’ll add a bit more about it in this blog.

A congress of seagulls

This is one of the most popular natural parks in a city that just loves to go outside. Today, there were hundreds of people strolling up and down the beach. There were also at least another hundred people passed while hiking on the trail. If you value solitude, this may not be the place for you. Although, I once came here at 6am and didn’t see a single person until I was about 5 miles into the hike. Early birds get all kinds of worms.

Beach-goers frolicking on Flat Rock

This park is popular for many reasons. There is a great beach, dominated by sandstone cliffs of various hues and textures. The bluffs offer fantastic views of the central San Diego coastline. The Torrey pines are as beautiful as they are rare. Finally, the park is located in La Jolla, which puts it within 20 miles of the majority of San Diegans. As if that wasn’t enough natural enticement, the park goes bonkers with wildflowers after a decent rainy season, turning the deceptively boring coastal sage-scrub community that blankets the bluff into an orgy of sensory stimulation.

Razor Point

I suppose I ought to stop begrudging places like this for being so popular. It makes a lot of sense that people would line up and pay a stiff fee just to wander around the extensive trail network. People’s lives are full of straight lines, mechanical devices, expectations, frustrations, anxiety, exhaustion, and boredom. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that nature may be the ultimate tonic for all of those things, and the world will be better off for spending more time outside. I still can’t help but wish I could work around the world’s schedule a little more often.

Hawk perched on a twisted Torrey

My loop brought me from one of the few available parking spots on Carmel Valley Road (or was it Carmel Mountain? I don’t know. There are Carmel everythings here). I cut across the secondary beach parking lot and walked a long strip of beach and across the confluence of Penasquitos Creek and the ocean. From there, I kept going along the beach, while testing out my new water-proof boots (ship-shape), until I came to the beach trail junction.

Shaw’s agave

The beach trail is possibly the most popular trail in the park, and I found the greatest concentration of people here. The beach trail comes by its popularity honestly, though, as it climbs up from the beach near Flat Rock until it reaches a visitor center, surrounded by a grove of Torrey pines. This is the place to start if you come here, although other trails readily yield up a number of rewards.

Lions Paw rock

The Guy Fleming Trail is particularly enticing. This short loop leads off of the main road through a fine grove of trees, around the edge of the highest bluff in the reserve, then back through salt-sprayed, prostrate trees that progress to taller, upright trees on the east side. It’s a quiet, peaceful loop that is great during the early morning or late afternoon hours. It’s also the best place to see flowers, including the bizarre yuccas I came across.

Clump of seaweed lit by the setting sun

From there, I walked down the main road until it connected again with the beach. Here, I took the beach the rest of the way back before cutting across the lagoon to my car. There was still about 45 minutes of sunlight left, and since I knew Kelly was rapping up a big project, I decided to tack on the Reserve Extension with the bonus option of a sunset.

The main reserve across the lagoon

If the main reserve is one of the best-known hikes in San Diego, the Extension is probably its polar opposite. Very rarely do I come to this diminutive park and see other hikers. This is probably due to the lack of access to the ocean (nothing is closer to the hearts of San Diegans than the ocean, it seems), and for that, I am grateful. The ocean views leave little to be desired, and what’s more, the park offers a serene escape from the bustle that lays just outside the parks boundaries.

Torrey Pine Grove on the D.A.R. Trail

The Extension is quickly explored, yet it yields up a number of gems. The D.A.R. trail offers a thick woodland of Torrey Pines in a peaceful, sheltered ravine. This is a fine place to come for silence, since very few people seem to know about it. Also lovely is the ocean overlook that sits on a gentle promontory. From here, you can see the lagoon, the main reserve, and the endless ocean, into which the sun was sinking as I sat in silence.

I’m glad I got the rare sunset hike in. Most of the time I go according to what my schedule allows, which is usually early in the morning. I’m either working or in class during sunsets, and so I’ve seen far more rises than sets. I guess this is life trying to balance my younger night-owl tendencies with my current early birdism. I can only hope that, one day, I can find a way to enjoy both equally and as frequently. The feeling between a sunset and a sunrise, as well as the preceding or following darkness is utterly different, by the way. It’s amazing how two things that essentially have the same mechanisms, just in reverse, can feel so utterly separate.

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