An Overview of the Reserve

By Marty Bressler, Torrey Pines Docent

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is an unusual place and one that offers a great diversity of things to see.

It has been known as an unusual place for a long time. Spanish sailors in the 1500’s saw trees growing on a high bluff and marked it on their charts as Punta de los Arboles or Wooded Point – a good reference point on a dry coast where trees are common only along streams or in the mountains many miles inland.

The trees themselves were identified many years later in the mid 1800s, as a separate species of pine, and one that grows naturally only along a small strip of coast from Del Mar to La Jolla, and on Santa Rosa Island which lies off in the sea about a hundred and seventy miles to the northwest. The Torrey pine is the rarest pine in the United States and one of the rarest pines in the world.

The terrain of the Reserve is quite varied. The sand and clay of beaches and lagoons of fifty million years ago have become sandstone and have been raised far above sea level by tectonic forces. The main entrance road, from the Coast Highway to the Lodge, rises three hundred feet in 0.8 miles and has become part of the exercise routines of many walkers, joggers and bikers.

As the sea rose and fell over the past million years, shelves or marine terraces were cut into the sandstone at various levels and other sediments were deposited on these shelves. The Reserve or a large part of it can be considered as a set of shelves or ancient beaches. These shelves and their sediments have in turn been eroded, gouged, stained, and carved by rain and drainage streams. There are views along the hiking trails which wind through these terraces and combine wind bent trees, abstract sandstone formations, wildflowers, and the sea or lagoon below – prospects which constantly change with season and weather. Many artists and photographers come to the Reserve to enjoy and record these changing scenes. During a series of ice ages the sea level has been as much as three hundred feet lower than it is at present. A river flowing from the inland mountains through what is now the Reserve cut a deep channel through the raised sandstone formation to reach the sea. When the sea rose to its current level at the end of the most recent ice age about eleven thousand years ago, the deep channel became a bay and then was gradually filled with sediments to become the lagoon portion of the Reserve which currently connects to the sea through an inlet bridged by the Coast Highway.

The sea continues to cut shelves and beaches into the sandstone and has eroded the western side of the sandstone rise into steep bluffs which provide excellent cross-sectional views to beach walkers of the constituent sedimentary layers. Sediment grain sizes, layer thicknesses and directions, as well as the number, size and type of plant and animal fossils contained in these layers, provide clues to geologists as to how, where, and when these rocks were formed.

There are sections of hiking trails which parallel the bluff edge high above the sea and several viewing platforms built right at the bluff edge. They are excellent sites for observing the yearly migration of the gray whales and the dolphins who patrol the shores year round.

These high viewing sites also allow one to look down at a steep angle and see beneath the sea surface. With a monocular telescope set up at one of these spots I was once shown leopard sharks swimming by several feet beneath the surface and could clearly see the creatures and the spotted markings that explain their name.

The range of elevations, from sea level and below to 300 feet; soils which vary from silt and mud to sand and eroded sand stone; varying exposures to salt water, fresh water, tides, wind, and fog: all these factors have produced many different environments for living things within the relatively small, two thousand acres of the Reserve. The plant communities include coastal strand, coastal scrub, chaparral, Torrey pine woodland, salt marsh, as well as fresh water marsh and riparian. And each of these communities or ecosystems includes its own interdependent web of insect, reptile, fungal, and bacterial life as well as the characteristic plant species by which it is defined.

There are many other interesting things, many not easily categorized. Here are a few samples:

There is a genuine adobe structure built by Mexican labor which has been in continuous use for more than seventy five years (and which currently serves as Visitor Center, museum, and offices for Rangers, docent volunteers, and scientists working at the Reserve).

A classic example of a geologic fault, the Carmel Valley Fault, can be seen in the road cut on the highway south of the entrance to the Reserve.

You may be able to see a stabilmentum, a very regular and distinct zigzag pattern which the silver argiope spider adds to the web it usually builds in the prickly pear cactus, thicker and more visible than the strands of the web itself, its purpose is still unknown.

Witches Broom

Witches Broom

You will certainly be able to see an aberrant growth referred to as a “gorilla’s nest,” or “witch’s broom” – any docent or ranger will be able to point one out to you – a place of very bushy, heavy growth on a Torrey pine, of unknown cause, possibly a genetic disturbance analogous to a benign tumor in a human.

Who comes to the Reserve to see these things? Just about everyone. People from homes adjacent to the Reserve and people from other states, countries and continents. People who simply enjoy the peace and beauty of natural surroundings, classes of grade school children being shown how the land once looked and told about the Native Americans who lived here, bird watchers, whale watchers, wildflower lovers, geology and oceanography classes from local colleges and their professors, conservationists and ecologists, beachcombers, surfers, joggers, photographers, painters, and if they haven’t already been mentioned, people just like you.