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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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|