Exploring Torrey Pines
A San Diego Gem
California Explorer Magazine, May/June 2002, Cover Photo

One day last September while spending several weeks at a family beach house in Del Mar, I set about to explore Torrey Pines State Park. My adventure started unremarkably enough -- I chose the park because it was nearby and would provide open space, but I knew next to nothing about it. In fact, I wouldn't have recognized its namesake tree if one had hit me in the head. My mode of exploration was a rented bike supplemented by my own two feet. My motivation came from several directions: I had been really vegging out in the languid environment of late summer on the Southern California coast and was determined to get my blood pumping and some fresh sea air in my lungs. Guilt also played a role in my determination as I had rented the bike earlier in the week and had yet to even adjust the seat.

So after breakfast one fine day (a fine day this time of year is one when the fog burns off in the morning -- on a regular day it doesn't happen until the afternoon.) I set out heading south on the quiet coastal streets of Del Mar. I was pedaling slowly as I got used to both a new bike and my overloaded day pack. Soon the quiet residential streets give way to the Camino del Mar Highway and the short trip down to Torrey Pine State Beach. As I coasted down from the heights along a mile long stretch of beach, I took in the pleasant view of sand and surf backed by the green lushness of the Carmel River Lagoon. At the south end of the beach the ground rose rather abruptly, marking the entrance to Torrey Pines State Park.

Beginning the climb on the park road, my recent vegging came home to roost. It's only about a five hundred foot vertical climb to the ranger station/visitors center, but the 6 to 8% grade had me huffing and puffing. The heavy pack and the fat-tired bike didn't help much, either. There were several scenic overlooks I could have stopped at to relieve my breathlessness, but my pride refused to allow me. At the top I stopped in at the center to get a trail map and some advice on hiking routes from the custodian.

Having decided to start on the Razor Point Trail, I steered over to the trailhead across the road by a second parking lot and the restrooms. After using the facilities and preparing to secure the bike, I realized my bike lock was back at the house in Del Mar. Pedaling back to the visitor's center, I prevailed upon a friendly ranger to let me leave my bike in his office while I hiked. "No problem," he reported, "but you'd better be back by 5 'cause I go home then."

Once again I was off. I started down the Razor Point Trail and began a striking descent towards the beach. It's about two thirds of a mile to the point, and you hike down to it through a large cleft eroded by eons of runofff. The pattern on the sandstone walls was not unlike that in Bryce National Park and was totally unexpected. The point offers a nice glimpse of the of the beach below and surfers working the waves, all beautifully backed by the crescent-shaped coastline as it meanders down towards La Jolla. As I rested and sipped from my canteen I began to notice para-sailors and hang gliders cruising silently just a few hundred feet above me. I didn't realize it then, but they were from the Torrey Pines Gliderport located a few miles south of the park. Their flight path takes them parallel to the coastal bluffs from just above La Jolla to just below Del Mar, and they ride on the wave of air created when the prevailing westerlies flow over the coastal cliffs. It was quite a sight looking up at the pilots dangling from their long slender parachutes, particularly when they did a 180-degree turn to head back towards the gliderport. I vowed to learn much more about this facility.

I climbed back a few hundred feet to a trail junction I had passed earlier that was signed to Yucca Point and followed it to the point. I concluded immediately that while similar to Razor, the view from Yucca Point was far superior because it allowed a much closer inspection of the erosion patterns in the sandstone plus a lovely perspective of Flat Rock Beach. From Yucca, beach access is provided by a roped traverse along a narrow and precipitous trail leading down to a staircase and finally the water. This part of the park looked like it had been carved by man in an earlier "cave dwelling" era -- maybe because of the network of trails, the natural-looking stairs and the steep walls framing the small beach -- or just maybe the sun was getting to me.

Having a deadline to meet back at the ranger station truncated this thought process and spurred me to consider the options for the return trip to the top of the park. I took the Broken Hill Trail and switchbacked through a few hundred feet of sage and chaparral until reaching a junction that offered a choice of continuing on either the north or south fork of the trail. I checked out the south fork far enough to discover that it lead to a rather unremarkable Broken Hill Overlook and then backtracked to the north fork for the final climb to the park road. Where the trail joined the road was about a half mile from the ranger station, and I arrived early to claim my vehicle. "Anytime," said the ranger, as I thanked him for making my trek to the beach possible.

Once back on two wheels, I decided to venture farther south, towards Torrey Pines Golf Course and the Gliderport. I continued on the park road (paved but past the point open to automobiles) that headed unambiguously in the direction of the huge green blotch of the golf course and soon joined a broad sidewalk separating Torrey Pines Road from the golf club. While bicycling on the sidewalk might seem dangerous or rude, the width of it allowed plenty of room, and foot traffic was light.

I followed Torrey Pines Road to the right at a junction with Genessee Avenue and passed several Scripps Institute and UCSB facilities. Shortly a small road appeared on my right, signed Scenic Drive with an arrow pointing to the Gliderport. The port is at the end of the road overlooking the ocean and is a beehive of activity. It looked to me like the Chicago O'Hare Airport of the unpowered set, with takeoffs and landings occurring every few seconds. I pedaled over to the north side of the parking lot where I could watch the aviators step off of a 300-foot bluff and take flight. Grabbing my camera, I began to record some of the excitement going on all around me. Within one several minute segment, I watched three parasailors take off in quick succession, saw two more land, and then I turned around just in time to catch a hang glider in a pre-landing 60 degree bank, just a few feet off the ground. He snapped out of it for a perfect two point landing.

Remembering that I had a bit of a ride to get back home, I reluctantly repacked my camera for the trip back as the sun was sinking towards the horizon. I would, however, remove the camera twice again as the sunlight bouncing between layers of low broken fog would prove irresistible. On the way back, I retraced my tracks on the sidewalks, having to dodge a few more pedestrians this time, but again I was going slow and they were on their way home from work, so it was not a problem. Past the golf course, I rejoined the park road and had it pretty much to myself. Coasting down the hill to the State Beach was a pleasure, but the only slightly less ambitious climb back up the hill to Del Mar was a final insult to my weary muscles.

When I got back home, my family wanted to hear all about my day, and while I described it as best I could, what impressed them more than my account was my behavior during the rest of the visit. I ended up going back to Torrey Pines five times (every chance I had) for more biking and hiking and yes, more of those incredible flying machines. But I never forgot my lock again -- I hate schedules.

As for the Torrey Pine, it is the rarest native pine tree in the western hemisphere, growing naturally only in the park and on Santa Rosa Island off the Santa Barbara coast. It is the only pine tree in the park so you will have no trouble identifying it, and while its variety of shapes are fascinating, the park's meager 10 inches of annual rainfall keeps most trees far short of their potential 60 foot size. Nonetheless, they live an impressive 150 years.

Getting There

From San Diego: take Interstate 5 north to the Del Mar Heights Road exit and go west (left) a mile to Camino Del Mar. Turn north (right) on Camino Del Mar and after another mile head west (left) on 15th Street. In less than two blocks 15th dead ends into the park and Ocean Ave will be on the left. Parking is a challenge particularly during the summer months, although there is all day parking on Ocean if you are lucky enough to get a place. Alternately, try farther south on Ocean or the numbered cross streets as you pass. The farther away from 15th you get the better your chances are.

I started biking south on Ocean Ave, I turned left on 13th, right on Stratford Court, right on 12th and then left on the continuation of Stratford Court all in rapid succession. The point of these maneuvers is to stay off of busy Camino Del Mar. After a mile Stratford Court enters a condominium complex with an untended gate (don't worry this route is actually a bike path) and at the other end of the complex there is a short concrete path that leads onto the bike trail on the side of Camino Del Mar. After coasting down the hill, the park entrance is at the far end of the beach, look for the entrance station and parking area on the right. (There's a charge for cars, bikes are free.) The park road will be in front of you heading up the headland, and the well marked visitor's center will be on top of the ridge on the left.

After exploring the park, pick up the paved bike route, which is a continuation of the park road although it is closed to autos past the parking lot. The park trail actually leads onto the sidewalk (it's plenty wide) besides Torrey Pines tennis courts and golf courses along an even busier Torrey Pines Road. The road jogs right at a three way intersection with Genesee Ave and the gliderport entrance is less than a mile later on your right.

Torrey Pines State Reserve

(858) 755-2063


Distance: Total biking 12 miles, total hiking 3.6 miles

Elevation: 1200 feet mostly consisting of two 500 foot increments -- the bike climb to the visitor's center and the hike back to the center from Flat Rock Beach.

A topo map is not required and a one-page trail map is available at the visitor's center for no charge.

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