They don't call California the Golden State for nothing and the beaches of San Diego County are a great place to experience some of the many reasons why. But there are a lot of stops on 70 miles of coastline and which one you should visit depends on what you're looking for. This guide to 12 sandy spots specializing in fun in the sun should help you find the ocean vibes you seek.
Regularly appearing on “best of” lists, mineral mica makes the golden sand glisten, literally. The affluent community, especially along Orange Avenue, is home to shops, restaurants, and lots of resorts including the grand dame the Hotel Del Coronado. It’s a great spot for brunch, a family vacation, or a romantic rendezvous. Find it on the southern end of Coronado Central Beach, which also has a long paved path and tide pools. Play with your pooch on North Beach. A grassy park, playground, and petite sandy spit make Glorietta Bay perfect for families. Bayside Ferry Landing Marketplace has a small patch of sand and sweeping views of downtown. Most have restrooms, lifeguards, and west-facing waves gentle enough for novices to try boogie boarding. Stay for the sunset show and try to catch the green flash, a phenomenon caused by the refraction of light. To get there, take a car across the 200-foot-tall bridge from downtown (there’s ample free parking surprisingly), the Coronado Ferry, or a water taxi.
Mission Beach & Mission Bay
Mission Beach is a classic boardwalk beach town complete with an as-seen-on-TV (The Bachelor) amusement park (Belmont Park), featuring a vintage wood roller coaster, bumper cars, arcade, and mini golf, and a convivial nightlife hub packed with bars and restaurants. It’s a good place to bike, boogie board, and fish off the jetty. The wider, quieter south end is known for its beach volleyball scene. A series of shipwrecks placed purposefully a half-mile off the coast to create an artificial reef has become a diver’s nirvana.
Home to SeaWorld, Mission Bay is the largest aquatic park of its kind in the world promising a full day of fun for water sports enthusiasts as its calm waters and many rental facilities make it ideal for kayaking, sailing, kite boarding, standup paddle-boarding, and water skiing. The land surrounding it beckons the outdoorsy with miles of grassy parks, playgrounds, picnic tables, and paved sidewalks. Quivera Basin offers fishing and scuba diving charters. Dana Landing marina is a starting point for sailing, sport fishing, and whale-watching excursions. Fiesta Island is covered in dunes and has an off-leash dog beach. Build bonfires and picnic at Ski Beach.
The beaches in and around this posh village feel like a postcard. Think white sand beaches, deep blue water, expert level surf breaks, gentle bays, active kelp beds, rocky shores, dramatic cliffs, healthy reefs teeming with orange Garibaldi, sea caves, wildlife, and grassy knolls.
La Jolla Cove affords amazing swimming, diving, and snorkeling thanks to rocky grottos, its sheltered location, and protective restrictions (no fishing, rafts, surfboards), but it is tiny and has a tendency to get very crowded on hot days.
Head south to find Boomers, a wave reserved exclusively for body-surfing. Shell Beach is known the California Grey Seals who congregate there. When their rock is hidden by the tide, seals head over to the little plot of land inside The Children’s Pool breakwall. The beach is closed during harbor seal pupping season (Dec. 15 to May 15). Hospitals has a subpar beach, but is a great dive site with underwater arches and ledges with lots of lobsters when conditions are just right.
Just past where the road diverges from the shore is Marine Street Beach, the prettiest whitest beach in all of San Diego. It’s home to the wicked Womp shorebreak where short, deep tubular waves that hit a steep shelf and unload onto the shore). Womp and the fickle unnamed breaks around it aren't for beginners. Many of these beaches have tide pools at low tide and are great for shell collecting.
Scripps Beach is adjacent to the U.C. San Diego Institution of Oceanography campus. Although its long concert pier isn't open to the public, it's fun to wander and swim under the hefty structure. Much quieter than most La Jolla beaches and offers a dedicated surfing area north of the pier.
South of Marine is this locals-heavy rock-strewn beach made notorious by Tom Wolfe’s story “The Pump House Gang.” The surf site with natural sandstone alcoves aalmost always provides waves with easy left/right peaks and is subsequently crowded, competitive, and highly territorial. Swimming is best between Kolmar Street and Big Rock. Lifeguards supervise in the summer near the Sugar Shack, a Polynesian-style grass shack built in the 1940s by area surfers. Seasonally, whales can be spotted during their migration to Mexico from Windansea.
Torrey Pines State Beach
It has long stretches of serene sand ideal for family fun and laying out in the sun, but the real draw here is lush 300-foot sea cliffs that tower above it providing spectacular horizon views and nature walks through wildflowers and other native vegetation. Extend your visit at the charming craftsman Lodge at Torrey Pines.
Go to this North County spot if it’s seclusion you seek as the beaches here are difficult to find. Located below vertical cliffs, take three steep stairways down from Neptune Avenue to legendary surf spots Grandview, Beacon’s, and Stone Steps. No bathrooms, lifeguards, or facilities. The community strives to “keep Leucadia funky” and it shows in the assortment of shops and eateries lining the main thoroughfare, the coast Highway 101.
Five miles from the border, this four-mile stretch of sand is the southernmost beach town in California. And that’s not its only claim to fame. The Tijuana River meets the ocean and creates the largest saltwater marsh in SoCal (Tijuana River National Estuary), which in turn creates an awesome spot for bird-watching. Contamination can be an issue so swim elsewhere. Stroll the pier at sunset as fishermen cast madly. Also has surfing, beach volleyball, and horseback riding. It’s home to a sandcastle festival (Sun & Sea) and an outdoor surfboard museum. The narrow Silver Strand isthmus, popular for camping, connects Imperial to Coronado.
The coast in these parts is a mix of small beaches divided by sea walls, tidal wetlands (Batiquitos Lagoon), lagoons, and South Carlsbad State Beach (Ponto to locals), which houses a campground and lots of visitor services including bathrooms, showers, and lifeguard stations. Go to the jetty by the power plant, Tamarack, and Terramar for surfing, Aguq Hedionda for waterskiing, and Carlsbad Lagoon for kayaking and SUPing (warning: wind whips up in afternoons). Take a bike ride or jog on the paved path along the scenic bluffs. Dogs allowed on leash.
It’s another coastal enclave with great places for fun in the sun like Moonlight State Beach with its large sandy area, playground, fire pits, volleyball courts, and snack bar, D Street (the rocky ground makes it better for water sports than sunbathing) or Swami’s, a surf break at the southernmost end of town below the golden spires of the Self-realization Center. Sea Cliff park is great for picnicking pre-swimming with its shade trees, clean bathrooms, and barbecues. The town itself has cute boutiques, restaurants, and a vibrant vintage car collector scene.
It’s not for the faint of heart. First, you have to get there. It involves a treacherous climb down unstable cliffs on a trail known for accidents or a two-mile hike south from Torrey Pines (blocked at high tide). Second, there are notoriously strong currents, big winter swells, and no lifeguards. Third, no bathrooms. Fourth, you might be scarred by what you encounter as it has been the county’s de facto nude beach for decades despite being illegal. Nude volleyball cannot be unseen.
Just north of Point Loma, this small town and beach are a throwback to a groovier time. VW vans drive past surf shops and taco stands, mainly along Newport Avenue. Pups can be off leash at Dog Beach. There are lifeguard-supervised swimming and surfing areas. Find great wave-watching at Sunset Cliffs and no-license-required fishing off the long concrete Ocean Pier, which is also ground zero for the annual street fair and chili cook-off, Wednesday market, Oktoberfest, and an Independence Day fireworks show.
Next door to Mission Bay, the beach party never seems to stop in P.B. Ride slow, slope-y waves at Tourmaline Surfing Park where the La Jolla headlands end or swim in the lifeguard-supervised patch surrounding Crystal Pier. Huddle up to bonfires at night or extend the party at any of the hood’s many restaurants, clubs, and bars, some of which are mere steps from the sand. P.B. is very popular with twenty-somethings and always crowded, which can make biking or skateboarding treacherous.