Even before we planned our visit to San Diego, Torrey Pines had long captured my imagination. I love exploring wild, undeveloped areas and Torrey Pines is just that – 1,500 acres of land that is pretty much as it was over the past few hundred years. One need only look north or south from the reserve’s many viewpoints to see reminders of how heavily San Diego has been developed over the years. In the reserve, you can see native plants like the maritime chapparal, the Torrey Pine (which only exist in this reserve) and miles of unspoiled beaches and lagoons. Because Torrey Pines is a reserve, targeted for conservation and not a park, it carries special rules and conditions to protect the habitat there. If you have the opportunity to visit, please ensure you understand and follow the rules there.
Of the 279 locations in the California State Park system, only 14 have reserve status and Torrey Pines is one of them.
Looking North Along the Shoreline of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, 2018
As an introduction, perhaps sharing a bit of history about the Torrey Pine and the Reserve can best be taken from the Torrey Pines Docent Society Web Page: (Unless stated otherwise, this History Section of the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve ® was written by Judy Schulman, TPDS Docent.)
Naming of the Torrey Pine
Because groves of trees were not common along the Southern California coast, early Spanish explorers (1500-1700 AD) referred to this area as Punto de Los Arboles, which literally means “Point of Trees.” They used this area both as a landmark and as a warning that they were too close to the shore in the fog.
In 1769, the Portola-Serra Sacred Expedition passed through nearby Sorrento Valley on its way from San Diego to colonize Monterey and establish missions along the way. The trail they used is referred to as El Camino Real. The trees themselves were referred to as Soledad Pines (Solitary Pines) by the first non-Native Americans to visit the area. The name remained until 1850.
The first modern account of the Torrey pine occurred with the renaming of the tree in 1850. It was “officially” discovered by Dr. Charles Christopher Parry. This was the year that California became a State of the Union. Parry was in San Diego as botanist for the US-Mexico Boundary Survey. The purpose of the survey was to determine the boundaries between Mexico and California. Parry was a medical doctor with an interest in botany: specifically, why plants grew where they did and how Indians used plants. This area and the Torrey Pine tree were brought to his attention by entomologist Dr. John Le Conte. Parry named the tree for his mentor, Dr. John Torrey, of New York. Torrey was one of the leading botanists of his time. He had co-authored A Flora of North America, and was the sole author of A Flora of New York State. Unfortunately, Torrey never came here. But Parry did send him samples of seeds, branches, and cones.
Protecting the Torrey Pine
In 1883, Parry re-visited the area. Surprised at the lack of protection for the trees, he wrote a historical and scientific account of the pine emphasizing the need to protect the tree from extermination. This was presented to the San Diego Society of Natural History.
The first source of protection came in 1885 from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. They posted signs citing a reward of $100 for the apprehension of anyone vandalizing a Torrey pine tree.
This attempt to protect the trees was reinforced by botanist J. G. Lemmon of the newly formed California State Board of Forestry. In 1888, he suggested that appropriate legislation be mandated to protect the tree. That same year, the mystique of the tree was enhanced by botanist T. S. Brandagee’s discovery of Torrey pines on Santa Rosa Island. Several theories have been set forth trying to explain the two stands of trees some 175 miles apart. These include that trees were planted there from bird droppings; that earthquakes moved landmasses over long periods of time due to plate tectonics; and that the trees were once more widely spread along the Southern California coast.
In 1890, some pueblo lands in San Diego were leased for cattle and sheep grazing. This was in spite of early warnings for preservation. In order to clear the land, trees were cut and hauled away to be used for firewood. The present Torrey Pines area was included in this lease.
Establishment of the Torrey Pine Park
Persuaded by city father George Marston, botanists David Cleveland and Belie Angler, the City Council in 1899 passed an ordinance to set aside 364 acres of pueblo lands as a public park. Unfortunately, the ordinance made no provisions for protecting the tree.
After the turn of the century, the lands surrounding the park were in danger of being commercially sold. Between 1908 and 1911, newspaper woman and philanthropist, Ellen Browning Scripps, acquired two additional pueblo lots and willed them to the people of San Diego. This added to the park the area of North Grove and the estuary. By the time she died in 1932, Miss Scripps had contributed greatly not only to the establishment of our park, but also to the Natural History Museum, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Zoo, the La Jolla Childrens’ Pool, and the Scripps Clinic and Research facility.
Representing the San Diego Society of Natural History and the San Diego Floral Association, Guy Fleming and Ralph Sumner visited the park in 1916 to conduct botanical studies. Their report of damage caused by picnickers and campers resulted in public support for the preservation of the area. The movement was spearheaded by Miss Scripps.
In 1921, Miss Scripps and the City Park Commission appointed Guy Fleming as the first custodian of the park. A former naturalist and landscaper, he later went on to become the District Superintendent for the State Park System in Southern California.
In 1922, Miss Scripps retained Ralph Cornell, a well known landscape architect, to suggest a long term plan for the park. His three-part plan called for restrictions against changing the original landscape or introducing plants or features not indigenous to the area or over-cultivating the Torrey pine to the exclusion of open spaces. – Judy Schulman
Torrey Pines Sandstone Cliffs, 2018
When you arrive to the reserve, you are given two options – the low road or the high road. The low road will take you to a parking area where you can find access to the beach trails, while the high road will take you up the steep hills (you can hike up, if you’re so inclined) to the lodge or a couple of additional parking areas. As I recall, it was a $15.00 entrance fee – a bargain, if you ask me.
We chose the high road, parked the car and hiked toward the shoreline. It was not an ideal day – the marine layer was in play and the sun stayed out of sight for most of the day. That turned out to a blessing in disguise as bright sun makes the rock formations a very pale yellow and can hide some of their details. As you can see in the cliff picture above, the sandstone gradations are quite beautiful.
The views are nice but not necessarily awe-inspiring. However, if you’re a bit patient, you’ll soon be rewarded with extremely interesting rock formations and of course, Torrey Pines. Torrey Pine trees are scrubby, low pines with sparse clumps of long needles and trucks and branches that have clearly been shaped by the forces of nature on the California coast.
Lone Torrey Pine and Sandstone Formation, 2018
The rock formations are quite interesting and varied. You have the variegated loose sandstone, like the image above and you can also have smoothed rock formations with holes that have been carved out and smoothed over the eons, as shown in the image below. The formations at Torrey Pines are sedimentary rocks and were formed as the faults of earth’s geography and the actions of the wind and waves acted upon the landscape.
A note of caution here. While the geology here is amazing, the stone formations are porous and loose, and the drop can exceed 300 feet – straight down. There are frequent slides where hundreds to thousands of pounds of rock and debris can slide without warning. There are signs and barriers where you need to be cautious and heed the warnings. People DIE or are seriously injured every year at Torrey Pines! Most, if not all of the deaths can be attributed to not following the rules and venturing out where they shouldn’t be. Don’t be a statistic.
Sandstone Formations and Native Vegetation, 2018
As we hiked our way along the trails laid out for us, we noticed a bit of wildlife along the way, including a juvenile hare and a very cheeky raven. We reached the safe edges of the cliffs and saw the beauty of the ocean and beach below. We also saw the famous Torrey Pines golf course to the south and beyond that, the Torrey Pines Gliderport. It would have been nice to see the gliders and parasails, but this was definitely not the weather for it. Maybe next time.
Raven on Dead Pine and Hare in Brush, 2018
Having seen the beach from above, my wife and I decided to take the low road and explore the beach. The cliffs take on an imposing view from the bottom and the beach seems to stretch on forever. It was getting late and chilly, so we only stayed a half-hour or so but enjoyed it immensely. Always leave something unseen as a reason to return, I always say.
Beach View of Sandstone Cliffs, 2018
Walking South Along a Seemingly Endless Beach, 2018
Sun Playing Hide-and-Seek with the Clouds, 2018
As I wrote at the outset of this post, Torrey Pines held my interest long before we arrived in San Diego and it didn’t disappoint. If you have the opportunity, I whole-heartedly recommend it and look forward to returning myself one day soon. As we were walking back to the car, my friend the raven stopped by one last time, although whether to chide us or thank us we’ll not know.
How Croaks the Raven?