January 4, 2012

Torrey Pines State Reserve, San Diego County

Torrey Pines State Reserve, just north of La Jolla, is home to the rarest pine tree on the planet. The Torrey pine exists at only two places on the planet, in this small reserve on a hilltop above the sea and in a grove on Santa Rosa Island, 175 miles away, in the Channel Islands.

Scientists hypothesize that the pine was probably much more common during the Ice Age, with a range all up and down the Southern California Coast. As conditions warmed and dried out, they disappeared from everywhere except these two groves. They are dependent on coastal fogs for much of their moisture, and as such, have very long needles to catch the fog droplets and direct them down to the ground. Their closest relatives genetically are down in central Mexico.

Torrey Pines State Reserve sits on a highly eroded hillside of weak sandstones. Where no trees grow, coastal sage scrub and head-high chapparral shrub grows. It is a heavily visited site with lots of hikers on its short trails across the hilltop and down to the beach. There is a nice visitor center that discusses the natural history of not just the trees, but the animals and other plants who live in the area.

As you head out onto the trails in the reserve, panoramic views of the coast and ocean. Many people drive up the hill to the visitor center, but if you park in the lower lot near the beach, then you can walk up the hill and do a loop across the reserve.

The salty air and warm sunshine make this a wonderful place to spend an afternoon. As you approach the steep cliffs above the beach, there is only one way down. The other side trails that take you to the panoramic overlooks site precariously on the edge. Even the official way down is slick and steep.

But, once you are on the beach, then it is miles of sandy comfort on your feet and waves crashing offshore. The walk back to the lower parking lot is quite easy and enjoyable if the tide is low or the wave action is not too rough.

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