Hiking California’s Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

The stunning views from Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve.

Like Colorado, picking one hike to do in California might be a giant challenge for most. For me, it was simple. I had to return to my favorite park as a child, the one where we went for every field trip every year, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. But on this return, the best parts of Facebook helped me out–I was able to connect with my sixth-grade-buddy-turned-docent, Meg, to hike this La Jolla treasure.

The Beetles Kill the Trail

Bark beetle damage

When Meg and I attended primary school together we’d field trip to this great park. Many people know “Torrey Pines” as the majestic public golf course where the PGA holds it grand Open tournaments. For me, the name “Torrey Pines” takes me to my favorite all time trail, Fat Man’s Misery. Sadly, due to erosion and bark beetle kill, the trail is no longer accessible. So instead, Meg and I headed down the Guy Fleming Trail.

A Lovely Lady and a Wonderful Tree

Bark beetle traps

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve owes its existence to a famous San Diegan who had generosity, smarts, and vision on her side, Ellen Browning Scripps. You might know her impact from the Scripps Institutes, at UC San Diego, the San Diego Zoo, and other San Diego institutions, including this park. The pine tree, Torrey, was identified as a unique species by Dr. Charles Christopher Parry who worked for the US-Mexico Boundary Survey and named the tree after his friend and botanist, Dr. John Torrey.

Torrey pine graveyard

The Guy Fleming Trail

My six-year old self couldn’t wait to get on the trail. Meg picked out the Guy Fleming Trail. Named after the original caretaker of the park hired by Miss Scripps, this short one-mile long trail loops the apex of the park to the best views in southern California. (If you want a longer hike, start at the park’s entry and hike the road up. See the optional yellow line in the map below.)

6th grade best buddies and one amazing docent

We started the hike with Meg identifying the plants from the coastal sage scrub and chaparral communities. “Cowboy Cologne” leaves spiked a musty mint and coastal sage perfumed the air between the rare, five-needled Torrey pine. Ravens flew over head as we watched for falcons on the cliffs, gray whales off the shore, and Pacific rattlesnakes, gopher snakes, kingsnakes, and striped racers.

Dr Seuss wrote nearby. Perhaps these plants influenced his Lorax?

Meg and I shared stories of growing up in the beautiful North County of San Diego, stumbling upon old memories with old friends, some of which we still keep in touch. And then I mentioned that I used to babysit for the ranger every Saturday night while I was in college.

Always look for the hearts

The Guy Fleming House and a Long-Ago Babysitting Job

“Where?” she asked.

In the ranger house, I said. Little did I know that the “ranger house” was the historic Guy Fleming house that few people have ever been in. I was one of the few. We hiked up to the high point to see the house, now occupied by the local lifeguard. My “ranger” was long retired and his two-year old was now 37 years old.

Guy Fleming house

Never Forget the Rangers

Meg then pulled magic out of her hat and found two of the local park aides on duty in the park. Due to Covid, the Torres Pines Lodge was closed and the rangers weren’t public-accessible. But Meg asked them to come out, and we spent an hour discussing the park, its history, its beetle infestation, Miss Scripps, and Guy Fleming. They even pulled out a giant archival book of news clippings and photos.

Rangers (and their staff) and libraries. The best people on the planet.

I learned that the interior road within the park–the one which switch-backed up the mountain that I rode my bike up to get to college–was the original Hwy 101. Model Ts would struggle to get up the hill because their gravity-fed, gas engines would peter out on the incline. They’d have to turn around and go backwards up the hill. I only wish I had known that strategy when I petered out on my bike each morning!

A bonus to the visit with the rangers: we got to see gray whale skulls!

A gray whale skull

Lunch with an Old Friend and a Fabulous Teacher

A visit with a 6th-grade friend wouldn’t be complete without lunch with our 4th-grade teacher! Last year, I had dedicated my latest book to Mrs Karen Haas, my 4th grade teacher. Both Meg and I had her class, and we were able to find her on Facebook as well. We invited her to lunch at the best Mexican food restaurant in the US, Fidels (a close second is Tony Jacals followed by excellent street Mex, Robertos.)

And a Donut…

Old fashioned chocolate donut from VGs. The donut of all donuts.

After hugs and thanks to a great friend and a wonderful teacher, we headed north toward Death Valley National Park. But not without a quick stop through the world’s best donut shop, VG Donuts, and another stop at the fabulous Neels Nursery (owned by my buddy Torrey–named after Dr John Torrey–Neel) to buy some of the native plants we learned about at Torrey Pines. It all came full circle in so many ways.

Where to eat: Fidels
Where to stay: Moonlight Beach
Where to shop: Neels Nursery
Where to donut: VG Bakery


What You Need to Know about This Hike (click for interactive map)

https://caltopo.com/m/9MNJ

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handsome hiking couple

Chris and Steve, the empty-nesting nomads, travel the world, one month at a time, housesitting and Airbnbing along the way. We uncover urban walks, great hikes, and vegan/vegetarian eats that other guide books miss. And we throw in a bit about Forex trading along the way.

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