Our San Diego beach guide takes you on a tour of the coast, north to south, to sample the county's finest collections of sand and surf
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You’ll be competing for parking spots with minivans and jostling past strollers while making your way down the long wooden pier that forms the center of the action at Oceanside. Having evolved from a mainly military hangout to a nice all-around beach, O’side not only has a whole lotta sand enjoyed by families and single 18-to-25ers, it also comes complete with an event/concert space, a playground for kids and plenty of facilities (bathrooms, showers, lifeguards).
Extra: A walk down the pier is a must, to catch views of the surfers and watch fishermen so comfortable with the resident pelicans that they feed them by hand. At the end of the pier is Ruby’s Diner, possibly the only fast-food restaurant at which you’d wait 30 minutes for a table (it’s the view).
Despite its rugged coastline, Carlsbad has a few choice spots for tanning and swimming—namely Tamarack and Ponto Beaches. The former, situated closer to the village, has a few more tourists sharing the sand with families, kite-flyers and boogie-boarders; anglers like to fish off the jetty on the south end. On the other side of the campgrounds at South Carlsbad State Beach, quieter Ponto has a local-beach vibe and nice soft sand, making it a great spot for walks at low tide. There’s a small makeshift parking lot at the south end, where you’ll also find a few beach volleyball courts.
Extra: When cruising through Carlsbad Village on the away to or from the beach, take time to notice the 26 imaginatively painted fire hydrants scattered throughout the town.
Encinitas & Leucadia
In the center of Encinitas, Moonlight State Beach is a bit small, but it’s sweet—and everybody knows it. The large free parking lot crowds with cars of people who come from all over to play volleyball, picnic and lay out; a grassy area with benches, fire pits and a kids’ play area (not to mention plenty of bathrooms) makes it great for family outings too. To escape the crowds, some local surfers head south to access the beach at D Street, where the sandy strip is narrower, especially at high tide. Same goes for Leucadia State Beach, which runs long and skinny—and sometimes rocky and kelpy—between Encinitas and Carlsbad and is dotted with good surf spots. A switchback-laden access path at the south end leads down to Beacon’s Beach (foot of Leucadia Boulevard); there are also stairs on the north end at Grandview Beach, named after the tiny residential street taken to get there.
Extra: The shops lining Highway 101 in Leucadia capture the town’s one-of-a-kind style, especially Ducky Waddle’s (a quirky art gallery/gift shop/bookstore), DeepFling Jewelry and Lou’s Records.
The coastline between San Elijo Lagoon and Swami’s handles big swells well, making these beaches popular for surfers. Flat but rocky, the southern, lagoon-adjacent end of the beach can be a fine place to walk off a Mexican dinner at nearby Las Olas—as long as you’re wearing shoes. A little farther north, Seaside Beach can be accessed by cutting through the San Elijo Campground; just look for the Cardiff Kook, the much-maligned statue of a surfer that’s regularly styled by anonymous locals in anything from a toga to a miniskirt to a lucha libre mask. The view is stellar, but the parking is scarce at Swami’s; the small lot fills quickly in the summer. The spot gets its name from the neighboring Self-Realization Fellowship Temple, whose gardens are open to the public and worth a post-beach visit.
Extra: Make a pit stop at popular V.G.’s Bakery for coffee and glazed donuts, then snap a photo with the Kook.
It’s puppy paradise in Del Mar: Though off-leash dogs aren’t allowed during the busy summer months, leashed pups can play at North Beach, a crowded cove on the other side of a rocky outcrop where the San Dieguito River meets the sea. After summer’s over, leashed dogs are also allowed on the northern end of Del Mar’s main city beach, accessible at the end of 29th Street. From there, bipeds can enjoy a nice walk southward past the oceanfront homes toward 15th Street, where grassy Seagrove Park has picturesque trees that grow almost sideways.
Extra: North Beach also has volleyball courts and a view of the action at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Torrey Pines & Black’s
Yes, the storied clothing-optional beach between Scripps Pier and Torrey Pines State Beach is, in fact, as advertised. On weekends you’re likely to see people (mostly guys) enjoying Black’s signature black-sand beach and gentle waves while wearing nothing more than the suit they were born in, but the spot is also shared by (clothed) surfers, UCSD students and housewives out for a workout on the steep path from the gliderport parking lot above. Hiking the bluffs and walking the beach are the star attractions at Torrey Pines State Beach. Two spacious (and pricey) pay lots at the foot of the reserve accommodate the large weekend and summertime crowds.
Extra: If you don’t feel comfortable ignoring the “DO NOT USE” sign posted at the top of the partially washed-out path to Black’s from the gliderport, you have a few other options: Either walk northward for a couple of miles from Scripps Pier or south from Torrey Pines—but remember that these routes only work at low tide.
No wonder it’s near-impossible to find a parking spot anywhere in La Jolla on a summer day: Each of the town’s beaches has its own (big) crowd. The large, flat, great-all-around beach at La Jolla Shores is shared by surf camps and picnicking families, not to mention gear-laden snorkelers, kayakers and swimmers crossing over toward La Jolla Cove to watch the leopard sharks and explore the underwater Ecological Reserve and La Jolla Cave. Children’s Pool, meanwhile, is a magnet for tourists surprised to find a seal colony instead of splashing toddlers. Locals and surf rats congregate at legendary Windansea and Marine Street beaches to soak up the rays—but don’t dare drop into this territorial lineup unless you really know what you’re doing with a surfboard. Extra: Nothing hits the spot after a long day in the sun like Margs and guac at Su Casa on La Jolla Boulevard.