Read about the best hiking trails for checking out rare pines, colorful sandstone cliffs and native vegetation at this state park overlooking the Pacific.
Sandwiched between the upscale communities of La Jolla and Del Mar is a pristine wilderness preserve that gives visitors a glimpse into native Southern California—before the imported palm trees and lush green lawns took over the landscape—that shouldn’t be missed when on a La Jolla vacation or visiting any other nearby town in the North San Diego area.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve (12500 North Torrey Pines Rd.) comprises 2,000 acres of sandstone mesas and canyons; steep, deeply carved oceanside cliffs; Peñasquitos Marsh, a brackish lagoon that serves as a waystation for migrating birds; eight miles of scenic hiking trails; lush expanses of white-sand and cobblestoned beach; and limitless ocean views. Native plants include chaparral and seasonal wildflowers, as well as the elegant Torrey pine—one of the rarest trees in the world (it grows only on the coastal stretch between La Jolla and Del Mar and on Santa Rosa Island, nearly 200 miles to the northwest).
An adobe structure that serves as the Visitor Center dates to 1922; inside is a small theater showing a short video about the park, as well as a bookstore and tiny museum. Rangers host free guided naturalist tours every weekend.
The Visitor Center and trailheads are located at the top of the cliffs, and this is also where you’ll find the majority of the parking. The main entrance road, which is off Highway 101 (also known as the Coast Highway), ascends 300 feet in less than a mile. Walk up if you dare—but be careful, because there are no sidewalks and the road is narrow and winding. Most visitors choose to drive up instead, saving their energy for the network of trails that zigzag along the tops of the cliff and wind downward to the shore.
There are several well-traveled trails through the native scrub brush and along cliffs that lead to stunning ocean vistas. Most are less than a mile long and relatively easy to accomplish in about an hour. Be sure to pick up trail maps at the kiosk near the Visitor Center (several trails intersect and the trail markings can be confusing). These three trails are my family’s favorites, and all are appropriate for children 8 years or older:
Guy Fleming Trail. This is the easiest hike in the park; catch the trailhead from the northernmost reserve parking lot (look for the small dirt lot to the right, as you drive up the hill). The two-thirds of a mile loop is well worn, relatively flat and offers a good chance to see Torrey pines, unique sandstone cliffs and the ocean. In springtime (if there has been adequate rainfall in the winter), this pathway is littered with colorful wildflowers. Pacific views are lovely from this trail: We’ve even spotted dolphins from afar.
Beach Trail. Probably the most popular of the trails, this three-quarter mile hike will take you from the Visitor Center to Flat Rock and the beach that lies below the cliffs. Note that this is a very steep trail; most people walk down and hike back along the shoreline to reach the beach parking lot (coming back up it is not fun). This isn’t the prettiest pathway—there are few trees to be seen—but the destination makes the sometimes slippery, always strenuous route worth the effort: The beach is glorious (although, because of occasional erosion, it can be rocky).
Razor Point Trail. Follow this two-thirds of a mile path to Razor Point, an overlook at the edge of the bluffs that provides a dizzying overhang vista point. The pathway runs alongside the dramatic Canyon of the Swifts and offers a variety of vegetation. It can be a little tough finding (and remaining on) this trail, however. Start out taking the Beach Trail; after about 200 yards, look for the markers for Razor Point. After a short walk along the connecting trail, there is a loop that generally disorients me: Just keep pointing yourself in the direction of the ocean. At the end of the trail, you’ll come to a fork that will lead to Big Basin to the south and Razor Point to the north. (Note that the final few yards of the trail that leads to the wooden overlook was recently closed because of erosion. The view from Big Basin is almost as nice.)
At the foot of the cliffs is the Torrey Pines State Beach, which can be accessed for free if you are lucky enough to nab one of the unmetered parking spaces along Highway 101. (Coming early won’t help: Surfers generally claim these spots by sunrise.) In addition, there is an extensive paid lot ($8). You can also access the shores from the cliffs above via the Beach Trail (see above). This is a quiet, relatively uncrowded beach on all but holiday weekends—and even on those few crowded days, it’s still easy to find a little solitude. Just walk a few minutes north or south from the parking lot and you’re likely to find secluded pockets along the cliffs. This is one of the best family beaches in the city, and very popular with longtime locals. You’ll find a less frenetic atmosphere here than at most beaches to the south.