Like A Hawk

Tandem paragliding flights are the closest you’ll ever come to flying like a bird.

Ever since I can remember I’ve had a recurring dream where I’m able to soar gracefully like a hawk in flight, looking down at the earth from above, feeling the cool breeze in my face and the warmth of the sun on my skin. And I’m here to tell you that I’ve just turned that dream into reality several hundred feet above the Pacific Ocean.

As I rolled into the dirt parking lot of the Torrey Pines Gliderport on that postcard-perfect southern California afternoon, the gods of flight smiled on me with a steady 14 mile-per-hour breeze off the ocean. When those remarkably consistent winds hit the steep cliffs here they create the “ridge lift” that makes this one of the world’s best places to experience the sport of paragliding.

One look at the dozen paragliders soaring up and down this five-mile stretch of coastline seemed to confirm everything I’d ever heard about the unparalleled beauty and freedom offered by this unique form of flight. Still, the idea of running off the edge of a jagged precipice, suspended only by a handful of thin nylon lines attached to an oversize kite, left me feeling more than a little uneasy. The fact that I had to sign and initial an eight-page liability waiver in what seemed like 47 places didn’t exactly add to my peace of mind.

Thankfully, I didn’t have too much time to fret over the sport’s potential, ahem, downside as my tandem paragliding instructor Tad Hurst introduced himself and led me outside to the Gliderport’s gently sloping lawn. After buckling into helmets and harnesses, Tad offered a few basic words of instruction and tugged on the lines to fill the 35-by-15-foot canopy with the incoming breeze. After a quick walk down-slope the ground fell away and we were flying.

Once we were off the ground, my anxiety was replaced with an uncommon sense of joy and wonder as we soared above the rugged cliffs and deserted beaches of the Torrey Pines State Reserve. Contrary to its daredevil appearances, paragliding is among the safest forms of recreational aviation because you’re hooked to what is essentially an oversized parachute at all times.

Tad and I spent more than 30 minutes banking and wheeling like a hawk in flight, with only the occasional gentle ruffling sound of the canopy in the wind to destroy the illusion. All too soon we came in for a gentle stand-up landing on the brilliantly green lawn of the Gliderport.

Despite my initial apprehension, I came away thoroughly enamored by paragliding’s ability to strip away virtually all the man-made technology inherent in other forms of flight, leaving behind an experience that is the closest I will likely ever come to living out that dream of flying like a bird.

Xtrordinary Xtra
There are less than two dozen paraglider pilots in the U.S. with a top-level “Master” certification and three of them are on the staff of Torrey Pines Gliderport.

Xtrordinary Xtra
If something strikes you as odd about the folks sunbathing on the beach below but you can’t quite put your finger on it, it could be that they’re not wearing any clothes. Turns out that the stretch of sand directly below the Gliderport is one of the few “clothing optional” beaches in all of California.

The Facts
Name: Torrey Pines Gliderport
Location:, La Jolla, CA (20 minutes north of downtown San Diego).
Phone: (858) 452-9858

My Advice

  • Tandem flights are available seven days a week. When planning your day, however, keep in mind that flying conditions don’t usually get good until early to mid-afternoon.
  • While the weather is ideal for tandem paragliding flights here more often than not, it pays to call ahead to check on current conditions.
  • Bringing your camera or camcorder is encouraged. Just make sure it has a securely attached neck or wrist strap as dropping it will surely void the warranty.
  • The Gliderport’s facilities include a snack bar and picnic tables with one of the most stunning views in all of southern California.