After last week’s visit to the local favourite, Potato Chip Rock, we are exploring another iconic landmark in San Diego – Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve! We put aside climbing steep inclines and soaring summits for a leisurely walk with remarkable ocean scenery! Living in California and San Diego County, it was about time to add a beach experience to the 52 in 52 series!
Getting to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Situated a short 30-minute drive from San Diego, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a very popular tourist destination! Coming from the North or South, you will have to follow Highway I-5 before taking the exit for Carmel Valley Road. Continue west and take another left where Carmel Valley Road ends. Drive along N Torrey Pines Road as it follows the coastline until you reach the park’s entrance and parking area.
We took a left immediately after the entrance and parked there. The road, however, continues further to another parking area on top of the hill. That would spare you from climbing up the hill and you will be closer to Torrey Pines’s trails and overlooks. If you are only taking a stroll down the beach or want a good leg workout, leave your car at the first parking lot!
When to Visit Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
Catching the sunset behind the peaceful ocean waters was our goal with visiting Torrey Pines State Reserve. We arrived a few hours before dusk as we also wanted to traverse the Reserve’s many sprawling trails! With approximately 2 hours, we had enough time to explore a considerable portion of the nature preserve and soak up the breathtaking ocean vistas!
While Torrey Pines is definitely a photographer’s paradise for sunset shoots, it is definitely a great option for early morning strolls as well. With barely any shades along the park’s trails and the blazing afternoon sunlight, you would want to avoid visiting during the hot summer months. The ocean breeze was quite pleasant and refreshing at 3 pm in January!
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The park is operational year-round from 7:00 AM until sunset. You will see a sign at the gate stating what time they close. We found out that the time only indicates when they stop allowing cars to come in, however you would still have approximately another one hour after to leave.
Note: You might want to check out Torrey Pines Natural State Reserve trail map.
A fee of $10 per vehicle is collected at the park’s entrance. Before you reach the gate, as you are driving along the coastline, you might be able to find an open parking spot. If you do, you can park there for free and you would not have to pay the entrance fee. Note – unlike National Parks, this is a State Reserve and as such military id holders do not gain free access.
As this was our first visit to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, and we had not researched it much, we neither knew what to expect nor did we have a plan. I mentioned earlier that we left our car at the parking lot by the beach, which is at the north side of the park. Because of this, we found ourselves at the base of a steep hill. We did not mind the incline plus we still wanted to end our little hiking exploration at the beach, so we followed the side of the road up for about 0.7 miles before taking one of the footpaths to the right.
At around 0.5 miles there is a small pullover and right next to it is the trailhead to the most popular hiking path at Torrey Pines – Guy Fleming trail. This is a 0.8-mile loop and it quickly gets crowded during the weekends. We decided to skip it and instead continued along the road. The Whitaker Garden attracted our attention and we followed the trail through the iconic Torrey Pines. Native only to the Californian coast, Torrey pines are not only an endangered pine species but also the rarest trees in the United States.
The small but quiet garden was a great spot to learn more about the desert flora and local plant species. This short, picturesque footpath ends at a wooden bench at the Scripps Overlook. A mesmerising scenery of endless ocean waters lies before your eyes. Take a moment and just soak up the beauty – only a handful of trails and overlooks in Torrey Pines Nature Reserve will treat you to such peace and quiet!
The Whitaker Garden path also connects to Parry Grove Trail – another 1-mile loop, which we left for our next visit to Torrey Pines. Instead, we went back to the main road. Shortly after, we saw a sign pointing towards High Point Overlook on the left. Just a few steps later we were on top of a small hill. Located on the opposite side, this viewpoint treated us to a 360-degree view of varying sceneries. On one side, ocean waves were relentlessly crashing into the golden sandy beach while on the other land and city stretched away inland.
Our desire for something a bit more exciting took us back on the main road; shortly after we were following another small dirt path overlooking the ocean vistas ahead. At this point, I just kept going straight as my heart was calling for the beach. Despite still being hidden behind the steep cliffs, it was the refreshing breeze carrying the ocean scent implying that we were getting closer to the beach. It was thanks to my husband Alex, who was following the trail signs and his loyal navigation app – Pokemon Go – that we did not get lost in this section of the park.
Numerous different trails intermingle in this part of Torrey Pines Natural Reserve to create a maze of trails through beautiful rock formations and green vegetation. We started at Razor Point Trail before reaching another viewpoint overlooking the endless blue sky and the ocean. We then took a small detour to Red Butte. As one of the most easily recognizable wonders in Torrey Pines, Red Butte is an incredible geological rock formation resembling a massive rocky mushroom.
After climbing on top of it and taking a moment to admire the striking vistas surrounding us, we followed a narrow footpath as it slowly meandered downhill. Somewhere along the way before reaching Razor Point Overlook, another natural wonder came into sight. The rugged cliffs in front of us were covered in golden colored ravines and heavily eroded cliff sides reminiscent of badlands. As we kept making our way to the overlook, the beach finally appeared behind the badlands and hoodoos. The view was absolutely surreal!
Eventually, we joined the popular Beach Trail and began our descent. The terrain is uneven and sandy and might have to be taken a bit slower when with children, though it does take you directly to the beach. If your aim is the beach, make sure to visit during low tide as high tides can completely cover the beach and parts of the stairs, rendering them unsafe and unusable.
Once we finally made it to the beach, there was nowhere to hurry. We enjoyed a slow jaunt along the beach. The wide sandy beach was surrounded on one side by striking colourful cliffs and rock formations and the constant blue ocean waves on the other. I have yet to find a beach as stunning as Johnson Beach in Pensacola, but I admitted that the one at Torrey Pines State Reserve is absolutely remarkable in its uniqueness and roughness. We will certainly be visiting again.
After approximately a mile of strolling down the beach, we made it back to the parking area. We found a comfortable rock by the beach and enjoyed the sunset for a few minutes. Inspired by the golden hour and the incredible scenery, it was impossible not to capture the sunset. After a few photos, I put the camera away – it was time to soak up the last moments of dusk in silence. The last sun rays were breaking through the clouds, illuminating the surface of the ocean in gold as the sun slowly descended behind the horizon!
I have no idea how many miles we tracked that day. I am only presuming close to 3 miles while we explored the trails along Torrey Pines Natural Reserve. I know there is much more to explore, so we will be going back! Maybe there will be a full guide to Torrey Pines in the future?! In the meantime, make sure to come back next week for another episode of our adventure to complete 52 in 52!