Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Extension


If you enjoy viewing the sculpted sandstone and rare trees at Torrey Pines, but don’t like the crowds and high parking fees, you need to check out this hike. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Extension was acquired in 1970, 11 years after the main Torrey Pines Reserve became an official State Park. Local conservation groups, concerned about the destruction of rare Torrey Pines north of Penasquitos Lagoon, garnered national media attention and managed to raise the funds necessary to acquire and establish the extension.

While weekend mornings find the main Torrey Pines Reserve teeming with hikers and beach-goers, the Extension is a quiet, lesser-known destination. The Extension trail system appears to be less thoroughly maintained than the main Reserve, providing for a more rustic and natural experience as well. The only thing the main Reserve has that the extension lacks is beach access. But did I mention the free parking? That’s right, there’s no fee.

There are several access points to the Extension in surrounding residential areas. We chose to begin from the trailhead on Mira Montana Drive, next to Del Mar Heights Elementary School. This area has some dedicated parking spots at the end of the cul-de-sac, whereas the other trailheads are all street parking only. From our parking spot, the trail was easy to locate, right alongside the road at the end of the cul-de sac. We turned right and headed along the path leading towards the elementary school. 


The Reserve has a network of short looping and out and back trails that we were hoping to combine into a single excursion of respectable length. We made our way along the sandy path surrounded by mixed coastal sage scrub and chaparral. At .1 mile we encountered a junction and took the branch forking off to the left. This path led to the Red Ridge Trail on the eastern edge of the preserve. It would have been possible to walk along a private roadway above to get to the trail, but this route was may more scenic and avoided the weirdness of passing right by people’s homes.20150815DSC_2524-EditTorrey_EXT

The trail was easy to follow since it was marked with a small wire fence on one side. Almost immediately we started to get some beautiful views of the sculpted cliffs and ocean vistas.20150815DSC_2525-EditTorrey_EXT

The ground along this section was a very distinctive dark red and topped with a thin layer of loose rocks that were all almost perfectly round. It was almost Martian looking.20150815DSC_2566-EditTorrey_EXT

We found some beautiful eroded sandstone bluffs that easily rivaled those at the main Reserve.20150815DSC_2537-EditTorrey_EXT

At .3 miles we turned right and came to the proper start of the Red Ridge Trail.20150815DSC_2543Torrey_EXT

The trail here was soft and sandy, with large Torrey Pines above.20150815DSC_2545-EditTorrey_EXT

At .6 miles the path came to an open area atop some bluffs, making a wonderful viewpoint. To the west we could see Penasquitos Lagoon and the beach beyond.20150815DSC_2560-EditTorrey_EXT

Just south of the beach was the main Torrey Pines Reserve, but in the foreground were some beautifully sculpted sandstone formations. I was oddly fascinated by one unstable looking rock that was supporting a telephone pole, and wondered how long it would last.20150815DSC_2558-EditTorrey_EXT

To the east was Interstate 5 and a sprawling mass of houses and buildings.20150815DSC_2547-EditTorrey_EXT

Here, we made the mistake of just returning the way we had come. According to the trail map, this trail is actually a loop and you can return from this point along the top of the cliffs on the left, reconnecting to the main trail near the gate. But given my untrusting nature and the notorious instability of these sandstone cliffs, I’m not too distraught over our choice of routes.20150815DSC_2557-EditTorrey_EXT

So we retraced our route all the way back to our turn off near the elementary school. Here, at the 1 mile point, we turned left along the Margaret Fleming Nature Trail.20150815DSC_2572-EditTorrey_EXT

After a short stroll through the chamise, the trail made a sharp left and began to descend slightly.20150815DSC_2575-EditTorrey_EXT

We followed the trail west, still marked by the wire fence.20150815DSC_2578-EditTorrey_EXT

At 1.2 mile the fence disappeared. We briefly continued straight, then turned left down a slight slope. A sculpted bluff rose in the distance.20150815DSC_2582-EditTorrey_EXT

As we approached the bluff, it appeared that like many of the tall formations in the area it wasn’t particularly stable, and a warning sign announced the area was closed.20150815DSC_2704-EditTorrey_EXT

So we continued on the trail which passed around the left side of the sandstone protrusion, and wound down a series of wooden steps.20150815DSC_2587-EditTorrey_EXT

We descended down into the sandy canyon through sage and other brush. Occasionally we’d pass a derelict post with a number on it, the remnants of an interpretive trail for which I can find no associated guide. Torrey pines could be seen in the distance, lining the sides and tops of the canyon walls.20150815DSC_2588-EditTorrey_EXT

In the middle of the canyon floor, we found a vast field of some kind of reed-like plant and some nice views of the shore.20150815DSC_2594-EditTorrey_EXT

The trail continued on towards a residential area, and we began to hear the distinctive sounds of a tennis game in progress. At 1.6 miles, we came to another junction. The left path led to another trailhead located at the end of Del Mar Scenic Parkway, right next to a tennis court. The right fork was labeled “Margaret Fleming Nature Trail B,” but according to the printed trail map was actually the Mar Scenic Trail. Turning around to look the way we had come, we noted the path was labeled “Margaret Fleming Nature Trail A.” We headed up Trail B/Mar Scenic Trail.20150815DSC_2600-EditTorrey_EXT

The trail meandered through the brush, and briefly turned into a soft pit of deep sand.20150815DSC_2604-EditTorrey_EXT

The trail began a gentle uphill ascent. Soon we were passing through a narrow, eroded channel cut into the dirt.20150815DSC_2605-EditTorrey_EXT

We quickly encountered another junction, a branch forking off to the left and ascending to the ridge on our left. The path straight ahead led to another neighborhood access point, this one on Mar Scenic Drive.20150815DSC_2616-EditTorrey_EXT

Just for fun, we walked the short way to the Park boundary. It wasn’t particularly remarkable in any way, so I’d recommend just taking the left branch when you get to it. We retraced our route to the junction and headed up the ridge to reach the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) Trail.20150815DSC_2620-EditTorrey_EXT

At first we were surrounded by tall chamise and other brush, with the occasional yucca thrown in.20150815DSC_2622-EditTorrey_EXT

The top of the ridge was lined with large pine trees, and we found ourselves eagerly anticipating the shady coolness ahead.20150815DSC_2627-EditTorrey_EXT

We weren’t disappointed. Tall brush and towering trees provided a lovely respite from the relentless rays of the sun.20150815DSC_2630-EditTorrey_EXT

We found a little turnout with a commemorative plaque and some nearby benches that made a great spot to sit and enjoy the trees.20150815DSC_2634-EditTorrey_EXT

Continuing on, the trail made its way along the southern flank of the ridge through more of the beautiful Torrey pines.20150815DSC_2641-EditTorrey_EXT

We crossed the ridge and encountered another “T” junction, as well as some fantastic views of the State Beach below.20150815DSC_2643-EditTorrey_EXT

We turned right and followed the trail as it descended somewhat, making its way along the northwestern flank of the ridge.20150815DSC_2648-EditTorrey_EXT

After a brief stretch of open, sandy trail with unencumbered ocean views, we were plunged back into the cool shade of a pine grove.20150815DSC_2651-EditTorrey_EXT

This section of trail was heavily forested, and pausing a moment, I could imagine what the surrounding San Diego coast must have looked like 100 years ago before houses and development transformed the landscape.20150815DSC_2657-EditTorrey_EXT

Eroded sandstone protruded from the thick undergrowth, reminding us that we were on the coast, lest we become confused by the plentiful pines and think we’d somehow been transported to the local mountains.20150815DSC_2653-EditTorrey_EXT

The trail continued on a little further, crossing a small wooden footbridge and curving down a few steps before we once again had to squeeze through a narrow, eroded gash in the ground.20150815DSC_2662-EditTorrey_EXT

On the other side of the gash, we came to a “T” junction. The right fork appeared to go towards some neighboring houses, so we headed left up some old wooden steps.20150815DSC_2665-EditTorrey_EXT

The trail petered out shortly beyond, and we could see more houses close by through the trees. We took this as our cue to turn around, and retraced our route to the last junction. We continued straight this time, heading uphill. Just after that junction, we noted another fork off to the left which led back down to the Mar Scenic Trail. That was the route we’d be taking back, but for now we continued straight.20150815DSC_2674-EditTorrey_EXT

This short spur trail wound along the ridgetop through a dense canopy of pines. There was a thick carpet of pine needles beneath our feet.20150815DSC_2675-EditTorrey_EXT

We quickly came to an overlook – a wide spot with the requisite wooden bench where you could sit and enjoy the cool breeze and quiet solitude.20150815DSC_2681-EditTorrey_EXT

There was a gap in the surrounding trees that allowed us to look out across Penasquitos Lagoon and see the beach and ocean beyond.20150815DSC_2685-EditTorrey_EXT

After enjoying the views, we retraced our steps to the previous junction and turned right.20150815DSC_2690-EditTorrey_EXT

This little connector trail descended from the ridge down to the Mar Scenic Trail and our return route. It also happened to pass right by one of the largest Torrey Pines we had encountered.20150815DSC_2692-EditTorrey_EXT

As we approached the behemoth, we found that some of its branches overhung the trail, giving us an up-close opportunity to examine the rare tree.20150815DSC_2693-EditTorrey_EXT

From here it was a short stroll back to the Mar Scenic Trail, where we turned left to connect back with the Margaret Fleming Nature Trail and made our way back to our car.

From I-5, take the Del Mar Heights Road exit. Head west on Del Mar Heights Road for approximately half a mile. Turn left onto Mercado Drive, then left onto Cordero Road. Turn right onto Mira Montana Drive and follow until the road ends at a cul-de-sac where you will see parking spots and the trailhead. map

Total Distance: 4.3 miles
Difficulty: Easy – Moderate
Total Ascent: 743 feet
Dog Friendly?: Dogs not allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes not allowed
Facilities: None
Fees/Permits: None

For more information, visit:
Torrey Pines Extension Guide
Torrey Pines Extension Map

2 thoughts on “Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve Extension

  1. Awesome information. I’ve lived in San Diego over 50 years and I never new this little tidbit. Priceless info! Thank you.