Beginner’s Trail Guide: Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

Torrey Pines is a must-do if you’re visiting San Diego. It has stunning cliff views and plenty of beginner-friendly hiking options. Plus, if you’re a nature nerd like me, the Torrey pine trees are a completely unique species and there was a lot of cool wildlife and other plants throughout our hike.

My husband and I visited in mid-September (because we are perpetually making our travel plans around when we can avoid crowds). We weren’t able to do the classic beach walk because of the timing of high tide, and also because I was six months pregnant and didn’t want to wake up early enough to beat high tide or walk that far. I did really want some cool views, I just really did not want to hike up the cliffs to see them.

We originally aimed for three short trails – North Fork to see the Broken Hill Overlook, the Red Butte loop, and Guy Fleming. We didn’t make it to Red Butte because I was running out of gas and didn’t want to miss the crazy cool views of Guy Fleming. All in all, we hiked just over 2.5 miles on some beautiful (and flat) trails!

How do I get there?

Drive north from San Diego. Make sure you type Torrey Pines State Reserve into Google Maps so you don’t accidentally navigate to the golf course. That will get you almost there, but obviously not quite to where you’re looking to go!

Taking the 5 is faster, but driving through La Jolla is way prettier. Plus you can stop at Bird Rock Coffee, which ended up being one of our favorite finds during our trip. If you’ve never been to La Jolla, add a stop at La Jolla Cove to see the sea lions and take the scenic route back to stop at Mt. Soledad.

Ok back to Torrey Pines. Once you get there, there’s free parking at the beach and a paid parking lot for the reserve. Don’t be fooled, this is not the only parking lot and you don’t have to walk up the giant hill along the road. Pay to enter the reserve (they take credit cards as of Fall 2019), drive up to the visitors center, and park there. This takes you to the top of the cliffs and gives you easy access to a bunch of different trails.

The drive is easy. The road is paved the entire way, but does get a little steep and curvy – just drive slowly and keep an eye out for pedestrians and cyclists.

Where do I go?

There is only one road, so it’s pretty much impossible to get lost!

If you want to do multiple trails, park at the Visitors Center (and take a quick peek inside if you feel like it or want a free map). There’s a parking lot directly at the visitors center and one across the road – the one across the road is a few steps closer to the trails and bathrooms.

We hiked multiple trails – Broken Hill Overlook via North Fork Trail (~1.5 miles round trip), poking around very briefly at Red Butte (~10 minutes of waddling), and Guy Fleming trail – and walked a combined 2.63 miles on all three trails. If you’re interested in more, add on on the entire Red Butte overlook after North Fork. The trail starts at the parking lot across from the visitors center.

If you only want to do one trail, do Guy Fleming. It’s got insane beach views from the top of the cliffs, cool wildlife, interesting plants, and of course, the iconic Torrey pine trees. Instead of going to the visitors center, park at the Guy Fleming trailhead (2/3 mile total). The parking area will be before you get to the visitors center on your right. There’s a dirt shoulder off the main road where you can find parking.

guy fleming trail torrey pines hiking guide beginner friendly trails san diego la jolla
This is why the Guy Fleming Trail is a can’t miss! Guy Fleming is the white guy who was a big preservation advocate for Torrey Pines, but he seemed not awful based on the information plaques along the trail.

If you’re doing multiple trails, start with North Fork. A significant part of the trail is walking along a paved path/tiny road that gets hot very quickly. We started at 10 am in September and were very glad to be done (aka very very sweaty) by the time we were hiking back.

The North Fork trail is an “out and back,” meaning you hike out to the overlook and then hike back on the same trail. There are a few trail junctions, so make sure to follow the signs for North Fork so you don’t end up hiking all the way down to the beach, or missing the overlook by hitting South Fork. The trail was easily marked, so you will be fine!

After getting your Broken Hill photo op, hike back to the car and decide whether to add on Red Butte or go straight to Guy Fleming. It’ll likely be getting hot at this point, and Guy Fleming is also mostly in the sun (basically the entire park is mostly in the sun), so keep that in mind. This is also your chance for a pit stop at the port-o-potties (as of Fall 2019 the bathrooms were under construction). Make sure you bring hand sanitizer!

guy fleming trailhead torrey pines state reserve san diego la jolla hiking beginners guide
The Guy Fleming trailhead – you can see this sign from the road just beyond the parking area.

Whether you poke around Red Butte or not, drive over to the Guy Fleming trailhead to wrap up your day. It’s on your way out and there’s only one road, so it’s not hard to find! Guy Fleming is a “lollipop” trail, meaning you walk a short ways to a loop (so the trail looks like a lollipop on map). Because it’s a loop, it doesn’t matter which way you go. We went counter-clockwise to end up in the shade on the end of our hike.

What is the trail like?

The North Fork trail is mostly flat with scrubby brush until you get to the overlook. You can see the famous Torrey Pines golf course, but other than that the hike out isn’t particularly notable. The combination of desert plants and ocean is interesting, but the real reward is the view at the Broken Hill Overlook, which my photo honestly doesn’t do justice to.

broken hill overlook torrey pines state reserve san diego la jolla california hiking beginner friendly
Broken Hill Overlook

The Guy Fleming trail is slightly hillier, but more scenic for the entire time with two crazy cool overlooks. You also get to actually see the Torrey Pine trees on the north half of the loop, which can only be found in the park and on a few coastal islands. Plus, more pine trees means more shade!

guy fleming trail torrey pines cliff views la jolla san diego hiking for beginners
The beginning of the Guy Fleming loop if you go counter-clockwise (so the south end). It gets a little hillier than this between the two overlooks, but there are benches to take breaks on.

Keep a close eye out for the little lizards that live in the park! We saw them on both trails. Walking along the cliff overlook on Guy Fleming was also a great opportunity to watch the peregrine falcons swooping around. The trail also had a bunch of different cacti, including really huge prickly pear.

guy fleming trail torrey pines cliff views la jolla san diego hiking for beginners
These views were not bad. Looking north from the overlook on Guy Fleming – you can see the beach area where you came in to the park.

All of the trails were well-marked and easy to follow. I still recommend bringing a map just in case! The map makes everything look really far apart, but once you’re up at the top of the road, it’s actually all very close together.

What should I wear and bring?

We hiked Torrey Pines in September, on a sunny day with highs in the 80s. It got hot quickly, so dress for warm weather, bring lots of water, and slather on that sunscreen! I also recommend a hat or sunglasses or both – see my entire list of what to wear hiking here.

north fork trail broken hill overlook beginner hiking guide torrey pines
Denser vegetation on the North Fork trail, but still baking in that sun! I was glad to have a bottle of water with me while hiking.

I wore regular sneakers, not even grippy trail runners, and was totally fine. Parts of the trail are a little sandy, but overall there is nothing that you would need all-terrain shoes for.

You’re never too far from the car, so you don’t need to bring a backpack for the trails in this post. I was six months pregnant and eating every five seconds, so I packed plenty of snacks but just left them in the car. We had lunch back in Pacific Beach (where we were staying), but you could also pack a lunch to enjoy on the beach when you’re done hiking!

Is it crowded?

On the weekends, yes. In the summer, even more so. We went in September on a weekday and it was still very busy. This is not the place to go for solitude, but it is totally worth all the company for the views!

Do you have other Torrey Pines tips? Add them below in the comments!

Published by Laura Cardon

Laura Cardon moved to Colorado as an adult and quickly realized how difficult it was to get started exploring the outdoors in a state full of experts. She founded Outdoor Beginner in 2014 to fill the gap in beginner-friendly content for camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In addition to Outdoor Beginner, she coaches beginner trail runners and works at Runners Roost in Golden, Colorado, where she lives with her spouse and toddler.

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