From north to south, here’s a sunny dose of SoCal as we profile the best stretches of Pacific coastline from San Onofre to the Mexican border.
SAN DIEGO — It was still winter and I was having a beach day, complete with bathing suit and bare feet.
You have to love the nation’s eighth-largest city for that.
What other major metro area on the West Coast has such friendly weather and pristine beaches for swimming, surfing and hiking? Even though more than 3 million people live here, the county’s beaches are remarkably clean and inviting.
Visitors can go high-end — staying at famous ritzy enclaves in Coronado, Del Mar, La Jolla or Torrey Pines — or do what I did and camp right on the beach at one of many fine state parks. Either way, the experience is pretty special.
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Over the course of two days, I explored as many beaches as I could in San Diego County. From north to south, I found a lot to love on all of them.
These surfer-friendly beaches have some of the best breaks in Southern California. And thanks to the U.S. government (Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton is nearby), no housing developments encroach on the gorgeous north-county coastline.
A little south along Old Highway 101 are the striking San Onofre Bluffs, where you can camp high above the ocean, or walk down trails to explore some of Southern California’s most remote coastline.
Carlsbad to Del Mar
Some fantastic beach parks can be found in this stretch of coastline of the north county. Carlsbad is a funky-cool beach community that so far hasn’t turned into a gated enclave for 1-percenters.
Access is available at South Carlsbad State Beach, Moonlight State Beach and San Elijo State Beach, where I camped not more than 70 yards from the frothy Pacific. Sure, busy U.S. 101 was right to the east, but as the sun started to set, the traffic didn’t matter. All attention was on the water, the waves and the orange skies.
Amazing. Remote. Gorgeous. Pick another gushing adjective and it probably fits.
High on bluffs above the ocean is Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, a true wilderness in the middle of urban SoCal. There, you will find miles of trails with grand views of the Pacific that take you through a striking landscape of native plants, including the namesake Torrey pine, a tree found only here and in the Channel Islands off the Santa Barbara Coast.
If you want to get a taste of the reserve but still get to the beach, start from the bluff-top parking area and hike ¾-mile on the Beach Trail, descending 300 feet to Flat Rock. A side trip to Yucca Point offers a dramatic view of the ocean and beach far below.
If you just want beach access, start at the north end at Torrey Pines State Beach and head south. The coast gets wilder the farther you go. In all, you can hike five miles along roadless beaches all the way to La Jolla.
If you embark on this adventure, be ready to see naked people. Just past Flat Rock, the coastline is clothing-optional on what’s known as Black’s Beach, one of the largest nude beaches in the U.S. Forgot your swimsuit in Seattle? It’s no problem here.
Any mention of this area has to include Torrey Pines Golf Course, one of the best municipal courses in the country (with two 18-hole layouts; torreypinesgolfcourse.com). The venerable Lodge at Torrey Pines (lodgetorreypines.com) is a splurge-worthy shrine to the famous links.
Sure it’s a haven for San Diego’s richest, but La Jolla also has some of the nicest beaches in the county. La Jolla Shores is a city-run beach right in the middle of all the affluence, accessible to all.
To the south, you’ll find a couple of other attractions along the ocean. La Jolla Cove is a tiny, picturesque inlet on the north side of Point La Jolla, popular with snorkelers and divers for its easy access into the water.
Just to the west, you’ll find La Jolla Children’s Pool, where seals and sea lions — and oodles of tourists photographing them — like to hang out.
Pacific Beach to Mission Beach
You’re into the heart of the city here, and amazingly, it’s all beach. The strand is warm and inviting, and it’s a scene on hot sunny days.
Beach-friendly watering holes line nearby Mission Avenue, but to really explore the coast, use a bike, a skateboard or inline skates. The three-mile boardwalk is its own movable feast for people-watching — jump in and ride along.
Your wheel tour can continue on the Mission Bay Bike Path, a 12-mile route that follows the shoreline of the bay.
Ocean Beach to Point Loma
For an artsy, more counterculture vibe, head south to Ocean Beach. OB, as locals call it, still feels like the hippie community it once was, and like all of the beaches in San Diego, it’s friendly — it just comes with more tattoo and piercing studios.
For one of the best views of the coast, head to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park just to the south, where you can walk along the bluffs for up to two miles.
Top off your tour by heading south to Point Loma with a visit to Cabrillo National Monument, where you can learn about California history and get a great view of San Diego Bay.
Coronado to Imperial Beach
The Coronado Peninsula juts northward along San Diego Bay’s western edge. Besides having one of the nicest beaches in all of Southern California, it also boasts the historic Hotel del Coronado (hoteldel.com), featured in the classic 1959 Billy Wilder film, “Some Like it Hot”, with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
Coronado is a must-visit destination in its own right. The upscale beach community has great shopping and many fine restaurants.
One of the best ways to visit is by taking the Coronado Ferry from downtown.
For $4.75 one way, it’s a bargain. The 15-minute journey takes you across scenic San Diego Bay to a landing where it’s a pleasant mile-long walk across the peninsula to the beach. Make sure to check out the lobby at the 1888-era Hotel Del when you get there.
For a more blue-collar experience, head south eight miles to Imperial Beach, near the Tijuana River Estuary and U.S.-Mexico border. There, you’ll find lots of touristy kitsch, funky bars and taco stands — and yet more beautiful beaches worthy of exploration.
IF YOU GO
Less expensive accommodations can be found in Oceanside, Carlsbad, Encinitas, Pacific Beach, Mission Beach, Ocean Beach and Imperial Beach.