Character of the Torrey Pine

What makes the Torrey Pine so special? According to Hank Nichol, writing in “Nature Notes”, it is not the rarest, oldest, largest, or most useful pine. It is not even on the endangered species list. Yet, it stands out as a survivor in a particularly unforgiving environment. It grows on the sandy bluffs of the cliffs overlooking Torrey Pines State Beach, in dry, sometimes draught conditions. It withstands harsh sun, wind and storms, adapting to the conditions by growing bent and turned to protect itself. As Mr. Nichol put it, this tree, like some people, has character, developed during hard times.

A Torrey Pine, shaped by the forces of nature.

A Torrey Pine, shaped by the forces of nature.

We had the opportunity to get a close look at these pines, along with other interesting vegetation, along the hiking trails of the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. The reserve is just north of La Jolla, along the coast of the Pacific Ocean, in San Diego County. There is parking on the highway alongside the beach, but it fills up early with cars and vans of people out for an early morning walk on the sand, those going surfcasting for sea perch, corbina and other surf fish, and gnarly looking types who just seem to live at the beach. Other parking options include the lot to the south, closest to the reserve, and the lot to the north, off Carmel Valley Road , both of which require a parking fee of $10 or $12 depending on the day of the week. The hike begins at the south parking lot, and starts with an ascent up a paved road. It is a steep climb, and if the sun has broken through the morning fog, quite warm and dry. Prickly pear cacti grow in large bunches along the road, between other typical chaparral. I was happy to see the bee in this one’s flower, showing there are still wild bees out there in nature.

Prickley Pear in Bloom

Prickley Pear in Bloom

Also found on the land side of the cliffs are mojave yucca, which have a long history of being used by aboriginal americans. The long, blade-like leaves were used to shred for fibers for rope and sandals, the seed pods were eaten, and the roots used to make soap.

Mojave Yucca.  The fibers were used for rope and sandals, the flowers eaten, the seeds ground for flour, and the root used to make soap.

Mojave Yucca. The fibers were used for rope and sandals, the flowers eaten, the seeds ground for flour, and the root used to make soap.

Another form of the prickly pear, which I had not seen before, is the prickly pear tree.

Prickley Pear Tree.  A cactus on a tree trunk.

Prickley Pear Tree. A cactus on a tree trunk.

As one gets to the top of the road, and before turning onto the trails along the cliffs, one passes the Torrey Pines Lodge. It is a very nice hotel in a beautiful setting.  The hiking paths are well marked, and it is clearly shown on signs that straying off the trail is not allowed. The surface of the cliffs is very susceptible to erosion and the plant life is needed to stabilize the cliffs. Large fissures do occur from time to time, and huge slabs of sand and boulders can come down in a flash. Another interesting plant seen along the trail is the yerba santa, which has soft furry leaves and a very interesting aroma. Like yerba mate, it can be used to make tea, or as a seasoning. The leaves also can be dried and smoked.

Yerba Santa, or holy herb.

Yerba Santa, or holy herb.

As the trail winds it’s way closer to the ocean, the village of La Jolla can be seen in the distance, along with another of the eponymous Torrey Pines. The pine cones are very large, and the seeds edible, although one is not permitted to take anything from the trail.

A larger Torrey Pine with La Jolla in the background.

A larger Torrey Pine with La Jolla in the background.

There are some nice opportunities along the trail to get a great view from on high of the beach. Here, my daughter and I stopped to admire the view.

On a sandy rise, a nice view of the Pacific Ocean.

On a sandy rise, a nice view of the Pacific Ocean.

The last stretch of the trail is really the only tricky part. As one descends towards the beach, there are a couple of sets of stairs, carved from the sandstone and covered in loose sand. These are slippery when dry, and would probably be a lot worse when wet. The trail ends on the sands of Torrey Pines beach. It is a very interesting look at a sensitive and unique ecosystem which is constantly changing, due to the effects of nature.

On the trail down to Torrey Pines Beach

On the trail down to Torrey Pines Beach

The last segment of the trail is several stairways which finally end on the beach.

The last segment of the trail is several stairways which finally end on the beach.

The wind, sun and rain form interesting sculptures of the sandy cliffs above Torrey Pines Beach.

The wind, sun and rain form interesting sculptures of the sandy cliffs above Torrey Pines Beach.

This is my favorite beach in San Diego. It is easily accessible, stretches for a couple of miles, has great waves for surfing, body surfing or boogie boarding, and has nice opportunities for surf casting. If one walks south along the cliffs, eventually one reaches a narrow spit of sand which is often under water at high tide. Around here there are tide pools with small crabs and sea anemone. Beyond this spit is Blacks Beach, the infamous nude beach in San Diego. Walking north, one returns to the start of the hike, and where most of the visitors congregate. We spent the rest of our morning here doing a little fishing (caught some sun, no fish), throwing the Frisbee, and enjoying the sound of the waves.

Leave a comment

4 Comments

  1. TonyWalter

     /  May 22, 2013

    another great write up and how I enjoy the pictures. If this were a PBS special on TV I’d watch it for sure. My question is why is it so much fun to say “prickly pear”? And now there’s a prickly pear treee which I didn’t know. Kind of ugly though. I think one night in college I smoked dried Yerba Santa leaves but I’m not sure I don’t remember. I’d rate this a 4 prickly pear blog.

    Reply
  2. Thanks Frank for the Nice walk!!!!

    Reply

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