Two patches of beautifully preserved open space divide the woodsy community of old Del Mar from the emerging suburban sprawl of Carmel Valley. These remarkable islands of tranquility are barely three minutes from either Interstate 5 or the old Coast Highway--easily reached by any commuter willing to detour off the beaten road for half an hour or an hour's spell of exercise and fresh air.
Torrey Pines State Reserve Extension, the better-known and more varied of the two, stretches south from Del Mar Heights almost to the shore of Los Penasquitos Lagoon. This detached section of state-owned parkland lies a bit farther from the ocean than the main Torrey Pines Reserve, but it offers some distinct advantages. The extension area's narrow, ill-maintained pathways offer a sense of peacefulness and isolation you can't get along the main reserve's well-beaten trails. You'll discover similar formations of eroded sandstone, and a still-healthy (after years of drought) stand of Torrey pines shaped by constant struggles against poor soil and salt-laden ocean breezes.
The heavy March rains triggered a vernal splendor not seen here for years. Three kinds of sage (white sage, black sage and California sagebrush) scent the air with the resinous essence of wild Southern California.
Bowers of wild cucumber vines affixed to the larger shrubs are sending forth spiny, heavy-hanging, green fruits. Bush poppies and black-eyed Susans sway in the breeze. Each week brings a new complement of wildflowers and blooming shrubs to replace those that are starting to wither under the warming sun.
Of the extension's many entrance points, the terminus of Del Mar Scenic Parkway is perhaps the easiest to find. Park near the end of the cul-de-sac and choose either Trail A to the right, which goes up a sage-filled basin sparsely dotted with Torrey pines, or Trail B to the left, which leads to the superb D. A. R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) Trail. The latter trail slants up and then along a linear ridge to the west. From the Torrey-pine-shaded south brow of this ridge, you can look across the Los Penasquitos lagoon to the bluffs of the main reserve, and out to the ocean horizon. West of this ridge, a spur trail descends into an intimate little hollow with picturesque sandstone walls and gnarled Torrey pines.
The lesser-known of the two open-space parks, Crest Canyon, fills a valley gently sloping from Del Mar Heights Road on the south to the San Dieguito Lagoon on the north. From Racetrack View Road on the north, a dirt road swings uphill onto the canyon's broad, sandy floor, which was graded some years ago in an attempt to solve an erosion problem.
Here the native sage-scrub and chaparral vegetation mixes with African daisies, ice plant, saltbush and other hardy plants introduced in an effort to bind the loose soil together. Young Torrey pines are being introduced as well, hopefully to join the handful of century-old trees that have established toeholds higher up the canyon's sides.
When the road peters out about two-thirds of the way up the canyon, you can find and follow steep paths leading either right toward Crest Way at La Amatista, or left toward Durango Drive.
Currently some fine examples of blue-blossoming ceanothus (wild lilac) can be seen in Crest Canyon. Also be sure to look for North County's native member of the citrus family, coast spice bush, now exhibiting myriad small, white flowers and round, reddish fruits.
If you plan to poke around off the beaten trail, keep in mind a couple of caveats: Crest Canyon's cliff-like exposures of sandstone, especially on the east side, are interesting to look at (from afar), but unstable and potentially hazardous.
Also be aware that rattlesnakes could be active this time of year in just about any wild area of North County. Rattlesnake sightings are uncommon, but you can minimize the chance of an unexpected encounter by carefully scanning the trail ahead of you. When off the beaten path, tread with heavy footfalls so that any rattlesnake will be advised of your presence well in advance and rattle (unmistakably) as a warning.