If the stress of everyday life is weighing you down, take a trip to Torrey Pines State Reserve just north of San Diego. Torrey Pines State Reserve is home to one of the biggest “secrets” in San Diego. The secret is not readily apparent, but it is important. The reserve is home to the rarest pine tree in all of North America, and one of the rarest trees on the planet, the pinus torreyana – or, as Californians call it, the Torrey Pine. When you visit, you’re getting to see a very rare, endangered species.
San Diego once had its own John Muir in the early twentieth century, and that person was Guy Fleming. Guy Fleming was a man who did many things, but most notably, he protected the Torrey Pines for future generations. Back before the area was a State Park, it was privately owned, and Fleming was the man who was tasked with protecting it with no gun – and no badge to back him up. That he succeeded, and eventually managed the newly created park was truly a feat in itself. Today, one of the most scenic trails in the reserve bears his name, and allows visitors to see the rare trees that he protected.
The main section, located on a bluff above a state beach, is noted not only for the trees but also for its sandstone terraces and ocean views. The Razor Point Trail meanders through high-quality southern maritime chaparral habitat, offering stunning glimpses of the Pacific Ocean before ending at an outlook.
Starting up the trail there were the requisite signs warning of rattlers, and once again a choice – the Margaret Fleming Trail A or B. I took the one to the left. (I’ve decided that from now on it will always be left and a second hike in the same park will be to the right.) It was wild and quiet and quite undisturbed – lots of brush with lovely Torrey Pines at the top of the hill. I set off, quickly coming to a sandy stream bed that handles the runoff for the hillside. There were plenty of footprints in the sand but it became clear that I was alone. The only noise was from the small plane pulling a banner at the beach. This looked like prime territory for mountain lions even though there were upscale condos at the trail head. I could picture how I looked to a lion — vulnerable, plump and yummy. There were no signs warning of cougars, puma or lions and there probably weren’t any, but my imagination placed them there.
When ascending the stairs up to Red Butte, take a moment to look at the hard, and red rock underfoot, part of the Linda vista Formation. This hard cap that resists erosion was formed during the Middle Pleistocene, dating back to 1 million years ago. Identification of unique fossils found in the formation, coupled with radioactive dating of rocks, gives information on the age of the formation. The oldest rock visible in Torrey Pines, found at the base of the sea cliffs, is the Delmar Formation, which was formed 48 million years ago.
This trail is exciting, because it breaks off into several additional trails. The best part? It lands you at an incredibly large rock area, that’s an ultimate lookout point for ocean views. My tip? Take a moment at this spot to stop and listen: chances are, no matter how busy the park is, all you will hear is the wind through the trees, the rustling of branches, and the ocean below, and you will get to experience how Southern California has been for thousands of years.
As you descend and slowly approach the coast, you’ll see the ground start to fall away, revealing the almost otherworldly-looking Big Basin formation. This scoured slope of pinnacles and pockets looks like it belongs somewhere in the strange landscape of the desert, yet here it sits right next to the Pacific Ocean. I will say, it’s a tremendous experience to gaze at something that feels like it belongs near Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, yet hear the crashing waves of the ocean instead.
The nearby landmark Flat Rock – clearly visible from the stepladder down to the sand – is a favorite spot for local anglers and a great spot to catch the spray of some crashing waves.
South of Flat Rock is the area known as Black’s Beach – the country’s first public nude beach. Today, the northern part of the beach is still clothing optional, while in the southern portion nudity is prohibited. Whether you decide to relax at the beach in clothing or au naturel, take care to avoid hanging out too close to the cliff wall. Rock slides are common and have injured bathers in the past.
Both sections of the park are extremely popular – especially on the weekends. Be prepared to see crowded parking lots, cyclists and joggers, families, and beach goers all trying to enjoy the same 8 miles of trails and additional paved roads and beaches. If you come looking for some striking beauty you will not be disappointed.
There was an army base built here to protect San Diego from naval attacks during World War II, but the road itself predates the base … and was originally the main automotive route between San Diego and Los Angeles. Hike back along this road, enjoying the sweeping views of the Palomar and Laguna Mountains and the Los Penasquitos Lagoon. When you get back to the parking lot, stop by the historic lodge built in 1922 with Hopi and Mission Revival influences.
You have two parking options in the “North” and two in the “South. The park is split into two halves northern and southern. Unless you drive to park up at the top, the steepest part can be the walk up to the high-up trails from the parking lot. So most of your workout is knocked out of the way before you even start!
On that note, do be aware that parking can get tricky. You can find yourself hunting for free street parking or deciding to go ahead and pay in the main lot, which is usually between $12 and $15.