Along Del Mar Beach, the power of the surf is awesome and cliff collapse unpredictable. At this beach, permeable layers of rock tilt toward the sea and lie atop other more impermeable layers. Water percolates down through the permeable rocks, settles on the impermeable rock and "greases the skids"--an ideal condition for collapsing cliffs.
This hike takes you along Del Mar Beach, with a safe, shore bird's-eye view of the dramatic cliffs. You'll visit the superb Flatrock tide pool area, and detour up the bluffs of Torrey Pines State Reserve.
Directions to trailhead: By train: Board a southbound train at Los Angeles' Union Station or another station along the line, and get off in Del Mar. Reservations are usually not necessary. Amtrak fares and schedules: (800) 872-7245.
By car: From Interstate 5 in Del Mar, exit on Via de la Valle. Continue west to Highway S21 and turn left (south) along the ocean past the race track and fairgrounds to reach the town business center. Turn right on 15th Street in Del Mar to reach the train station. These days construction projects have reduced the amount of parking near the station, so you might have to park in town.
Consult the tide table in The Times to schedule your walk at low tide when there's more beach to walk and tide pool life is easier to observe.
The hike: From the train station, cross the tracks to the beach and begin hiking south. With the high cliffs on your left and the pounding breakers on your right, you'll feel you're entering another world. Follow the sometimes wide, sometimes narrow beach over sparkling sand and soft green limestone rock. Holes in the limestone are evidence of marine life that once made its home there.
You'll hike past a couple of numbered lifeguard towers. When you reach Tower 5, turn left and make a brief detour through the Highway S21 underpass to Los Penasquitos Lagoon, a saltwater marsh patrolled by native and migratory waterfowl. After observing the least terns and light-footed clapper rails, return to the beach trail.
After three miles of beachcombing, you'll see a distinct rock outcropping, named appropriately enough, Flatrock. Common tide-pool residents housed in the rocks and base of the bluff include barnacles, mussels, crabs and sea anemones.
Just north of Flatrock, a stairwell ascends the bluffs to Torrey Pines State Reserve. Torrey pines occupy the bold headlands atop the cliffs. Clinging to the crumbling yellow sandstone, these rare and graceful trees seem to thrive on the foggy atmosphere and precarious footing.
A warning: The reserve is filled with beauty--and prohibitions: no flower picking, no picnicking, no walking off the trail. Unpack your picnic lunch down at Flatrock or along the beach; it's the only place where picnicking is allowed.
Return the way you came.
Train Station to Torrey Pines State Reserve: six miles round trip.