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Day Hike

Bluff-Top Home of Rare Pine Preserves an Old Life on Coast

September 09, 1989|JOHN McKINNEY

Atop the bluffs of Torrey Pines State Reserve lies a microcosm of old California, a garden of shrubs and succulents, an enclave of the kind of life that the Indians lived.

Here, visitors find the rare Torrey pine quietly going about the business of being a tree, as they have for perhaps 300,000 years on this stretch of coast. Torrey pines rarely live more than 100 years. The elder of the tribe, a 130-year-old contorted specimen, is the oldest known.

Most visitors come to view the 3,000 or so pinus torreyana, but the reserve also offers the walker a striking variety of native shrubs. The vegetation at Torrey Pines has been called "degraded chaparral," but some botanists classify it separately as "coastal sage scrub." It's softer and more aromatic than true chaparral, even though there are many chaparral plants in it. The black sage is especially aromatic.

Large sections of the reserve are blanketed with what looks like ice plant but is actually sea fig. (True ice plant, an annual from South Africa, really looks icy.) Sailors ate sea figs, picked up in Cape Town, to prevent scurvy. Some of the leftovers were dumped on California bluffs and thrived. That's one story; some botanists think that the sea fig is a native plant.

Torrey Pines State Reserve is an island in the midst of ever-more-urban San Diego County. It is protected on only one side by the ocean. Unlike most ecosystems, the Torrey pines are not guarded by a river, mountain or other natural feature that might slow the advance of autos, asphalt and luxury housing. All the boundaries of the reserve--a highway, a housing development, a golf course and public beach--are man-made. For better or worse, the destiny of the last stand of Torrey pines is wedded to that of humans.

Directions to the trailhead: From Interstate 5 in Del Mar, exit on Via de la Valle, head west over to the old coast highway (called Camino del Mar here) and turn south. Down-coast past the outskirts of Del Mar, you'll spot a parking area and entry kiosk for Torrey Pines State Reserve. There is a $3 day-use fee.

The hikes: If you enjoy interpretive nature trails, the reserve has some nice ones. Protect the fragile ecology of the area by staying on established paths.

Among the reserve trails:

Parry Grove Trail, named in honor of C. C. Parry, takes you through a handsome grove of Torrey pines. Parry was a botanist assigned to the boundary commission that surveyed the Mexican-American border in 1850.

While waiting for the expedition to start, Parry explored the San Diego area. He investigated a tree that had been called the Soledad pine for the nearby Soledad Valley. Parry sent samples to his teacher and friend, John Torrey of Princeton, and asked that if it proved to be a new species, it be named for Torrey. The Soledad pine became pinus torreyana, or Torrey pine, in honor of the famous botanist and taxonomist.

At the time Parry made his discovery, he did not realize the rarity of these trees. Torrey pines, other botanists later determined, grow naturally only here on these sandstone bluffs and on Santa Rosa Island far off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Besides visiting a handsome grove of Torrey pines, the half-mile loop trail also leads past many kinds of plants in the reserve, including toyon, yucca and a variety of coastal shrubs.

Broken Hill Trail visits a drier, chaparral-dominated landscape, full of sage and buckwheat, Ceanothus and manzanita. From Broken Hill overlook, there's a view of a few Torrey pines clinging for life in an environment that resembles desert badlands.

Beach Trail leads to Yucca Point and Razor Point and offers precipitous views of the beach below. The trail descends the bluffs to appropriately named Flat Rock, a fine tide-pool area. Legend has it that this gouged-out rock, also known as Bathtub Rock, was the site of a luckless Scottish miner's search for coal. Common tide-pool residents in the rocks at the base of the bluff include barnacles, mussels, crabs and sea anemones.

Guy Fleming Trail, a half-mile loop that travels through stands of Torrey pines, honors a man who worked for a half century to protect these trees.

Fleming came to San Diego from Nebraska in 1909. The young man worked as a landscaper, and soon took a strong personal and scientific interest in the rare groves of pine trees that grew south of Del Mar. The finest groves belonged to Ellen Scripps, who hired Fleming as caretaker and naturalist.

With the aid of Ralph Cornell, a famed landscape architect, Fleming developed a plan to preserve the Torrey pines in a park. During the 1920s, Fleming also rose through the ranger ranks of the California state park system and by 1932 was district superintendent for all state parks in Southern California. In 1950, Fleming and friends founded the Torrey Pines Assn. and successfully lobbied to get the groves protected by state reserve status.

Fleming guided thousands of visitors around the path that now bears his name. Hikers get a close-up view of the Torrey pines, of course, and much more. Guy Fleming Trail leads to North Overlook, where you can look down on Penasquitos Lagoon, one of Southern California's few remaining wetlands. From South Overlook, a popular place for weddings, you can view La Jolla, and, on a clear day, even see Santa Catalina and San Clemente islands.

Torrey Pines Reserve Nature Trails

Parry Grove Trail:

0.4 mile round trip

Guy Fleming Trail:

0.6 mile round trip

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