Home on the “La Jolla range”: Who gets to live here and how?

This house at 11606 Flintkote Ave. is one of the most rurally isolated homes in La Jolla.

Hidden inside the other slope of Torrey Pines Mesa — the one facing away from the ocean — is the most lushly situated, rurally isolated house in La Jolla. It has three bedrooms, one bathroom and a porch, and its neighbors are all wild animals.

It doesn’t matter how many millions or billions of dollars you have, they can’t buy 11606 Flintkote Ave. This house belongs to the California Department of Parks & Recreation (State Parks) and can only be occupied by a park ranger.

“Living on State Park property presents unique obligations for tenants, who are employed by State Parks to balance the private use of the property with the stewardship of the resource,” a State Parks communications officer told the Light. “Having a park steward on site allows for public safety, resource and facility protection outside of normal use hours.”

The more easily accessible public trail to the ranger house winds past this roadblock at its southeast end, near where Flintkote intersects Estuary Way in Sorrento Valley.

The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve — 1,435 of the most untouched acres of land on the Southern California coast — had its roots in a park the City created in 1899 to protect the Torrey Pine, the rarest pine tree in the state and the third-rarest in the world, from encroaching development.

The park originally consisted of 364 acres — until newspaper heiress/philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps made it the next project in her mission to make La Jolla a better place. Between 1908 and 1911, Scripps purchased and donated adjoining parcels that today comprise the Reserve’s Parry and North groves. (In 1959, a special election turned the City park over to the State, which has more legal authority to protect endangered species.)

There were originally five residences in the reserve, three of which were removed in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. The remaining one that most people know is the Guy and Margaret Fleming House at 12279 Torrey Pines Park Road. Guy became the park’s first caretaker in 1921, then district superintendent for all Southern California State Parks in 1932. The house he built in 1927, designated historic in June 1998, now also houses a ranger.

The Marsh Trail in Torrey Pines Natural Reserve, which winds around the Los Peñasquitos Salt Marsh Preserve, is home to pickleweed, California sagebrush and (of course) Torrey Pines, which are in turn home to migratory waterfowl, racoons and rattlesnakes.

The more isolated and officially unnamed house on Flintkote Avenue is believed to have been built in 1922 and added onto in 1950, according to State Parks, which acquired it in 1987. It lies in a section of the Reserve bordering the Los Peñasquitos Marsh Natural Preserve, which boasts some of the only remaining coastal sage scrub in San Diego County.

Although the 1,500-square-foot house was purchased and is maintained with taxpayer dollars, it is not open to the public. (The Light made that discovery when the person answering its intercom politely declined to provide a tour, an interview or their name.)

Hiking the trail winding past the front of house invades no one’s privacy, however. It is accessible by ascending an easy 1.5 miles of public trail from a gated-off Flintkote Avenue in Sorrento Valley, or by descending three miles of much more difficult (and difficult-to-find) trail from the parking lot across Torrey Pines Road from the Reserve’s main entrance.

Called the Marsh Trail (sometimes the Flintkote Trail), it appears on only some maps and is identified solely by a marker over the embankment stating that no bikes or dogs are allowed.

The Reserve’s most unusual resident

This was the cave built in the Torrey Pines Natural Reserve by ‘Torrey Pines Hermit’ Nick Connell (inset), who passed away in 1994.

There is apparently another way to reside in the Torrey Pines Natural Reserve — and it requires no ranger training. It’s entirely illegal, of course, but it worked out for one man for way longer than he had a right to expect.

Following a nasty divorce during which his wife suggested he go off and live in a cave, David Wesley “Nick” Connell — a reclusive and broke 50-year-old ex-circus performer and philosopher from New Hampshire — began exploring the reserve for just such a cave in 1971. He never found one. But — according to “San Diego Legends,” a book by journalist Jack Innis — after Connell fell into a ravine by the Marsh Trail’s northwest entrance, a vision of a white-haired man told him to create his own on the spot.

A few months of digging later — using only a screwdriver, Bowie knife and pickaxe — Connell had transformed a soft sandstone wall into a dwelling deep and wide enough for two rooms with domed ceilings and a window. He called it “East of Echo,” and painted its walls with mythical characters and religious philosophy.

“When I was a kid, I always envisioned myself as a hermit and I never lost that ambition,” Connell — dubbed “the Hermit of Torrey Pines” by park visitors and staff — told the Los Angeles Times in 1991. “So I built a cave where I could surround myself with art and write a book about what life is all about.”

Park rangers discovered the the cave in 1988, while investigating a nearby homicide, and notified park officials.

At the same time, word was spreading about Connell’s secret dwelling thanks to a regular column, “View From a Cave,” he decided to publish in a weekly New Hampshire newspaper called The Hudson News. In 1990, more than 300 people signed the guest register at its entrance.

“In the end, this hermit’s celebrity helped bring about the cave’s closure,” Innis told the Light.

“East of Echo” was filled in and sealed in 1991. Connell died three years later.

“I was very impressed with what Nick Connell was able to accomplish with that cave,” reserve supervising ranger Robert Wohl said in the Times story, “but Nick also broke a lot of laws along the way.”