San Diego County is blessed with 70 miles of sandy coastline and more than 30 individual beaches. When it comes to enjoying the San Diego shores, though, a word (rather, four) to the wise: May Gray and June Gloom. They're both names for a local weather pattern that can be counted on to foil sunbathing most mornings (and sometimes all day) from mid-May to mid-July. Overcast skies appear as the desert heats up at the end of spring, sucking the marine layer -- a thick bank of fog -- inland for a few miles each night. Be prepared for moist mornings and evenings (and sometimes afternoons) at the beaches this time of year. But remember: The sun may not be shining brightly, but that doesn't mean you're not being exposed to harmful UV rays; always wear sunscreen during prolonged outdoor exposure. Another beach precaution worth remembering is the "stingray shuffle." At beaches where the water is calm, such as Mission Bay and La Jolla Shores, it's a good idea to shuffle your feet as you walk through the surf -- it rousts any stingrays that might be in your path.
Another sting to beware of is the pain you might feel if you're caught drinking alcohol on any San Diego beach, bay shore, or at coastal parks. In 2008, voters approved a ban on alcohol at the beach; first offense has a maximum fine of $250. Smoking is also illegal at all city beaches, boardwalks, piers, and parks.
Exploring tide pools -- potholed, rocky shores that retain ponds of water after the tide has gone out, providing homes for a plethora of sea creatures -- is a time-honored coastal pleasure. You can get a tide chart free or for a nominal charge from many surf and diving shops. Among the best places for tide-pooling are Cabrillo National Monument, at the oceanside base of Point Loma; Sunset Cliffs in Ocean Beach; and along the rocky coast immediately south of the cove in La Jolla.
Here's a list of San Diego's most noteworthy beaches, each with its own personality and devotees. They're listed geographically from south to north. All California beaches are open to the public to the mean high-tide line (essentially the hard-packed sand), and you can check www.sandiego.gov/lifeguards/beaches for descriptions and water quality. Beach closures due to bacterial contamination are a modern-day fact of life, especially following storms when runoff from city streets makes its way to the ocean -- check for posted warnings, or call the county's Beach and Bay Status hot line (tel. 619/338-2073) for the latest info. For the daily beach, tide, dive, and surf report, call tel. 619/221-8824. Note: All beaches are good for swimming except as indicated.
Imperial Beach is just a half-hour south of downtown San Diego by car or trolley, and only a few minutes from the Mexican border. It's popular with surfers and "I.B." locals, who can be somewhat territorial about "their" beach in summer. There are 3 miles of surf breaks plus a guarded "swimmers only" stretch; check with lifeguards before getting wet, though, since sewage runoff from nearby Mexico can sometimes foul the water. I.B. also plays host to the annual U.S. Open Sandcastle Competition in late July -- the best reason to come here -- with world-class sand sculptures ranging from sea creatures to dinosaurs.
Lovely, wide, and sparkling, this beach is conducive to strolling and lingering, especially in the late afternoon. At the north end, you can watch fighter jets in formation flying from the Naval Air Station, while just south is the pretty section fronting Ocean Boulevard and the Hotel del Coronado. Waves are gentle here, so the beach draws many Coronado families -- and their dogs, which are allowed off-leash at the most northwesterly end. South of the Hotel Del, the beach becomes the beautiful, often deserted Silver Strand.
The northern end of Ocean Beach Park, officially known as Dog Beach, is one of only a few in the county where your pooch can roam freely on the sand (and frolic with several dozen other people's pets). Surfers generally congregate around the O.B. Pier, mostly in the water but often at the snack shack on the end. Rip currents can be strong here and sometimes discourage swimmers from venturing beyond waist depth (check with the lifeguard stations). Facilities at the beach include restrooms, showers, picnic tables, volleyball courts, and plenty of metered parking lots. To reach the beach, take West Point Loma Boulevard all the way to the end.
Mission Bay Park
This 4,200-acre aquatic playground contains 27 miles of bayfront, picnic areas, children's playgrounds, and paths for biking, in-line skating, and jogging. This man-made bay lends itself to windsurfing, sailing, water-skiing, and fishing. There are dozens of access points; one of the most popular is off I-5 at Clairemont Drive. Also accessed from this spot is Fiesta Island, where the annual World Championship Over the Line Tournament is held to raucous enthusiasm in July A 4-mile road loops around the island. Parts of the bay have been subject to closure over the years due to high levels of bacteria, so check for posted warnings.
Bonita Cove/Mariner's Point & Mission Point
Also enclosed in Mission Bay Park, near the mouth of the Mission Bay Channel, this pretty and protected cove's calm waters, grassy picnic areas, and playground equipment make it perfect for families -- or as a paddling destination if you've rented kayaks elsewhere in the bay. The water is also cleaner for swimming than in the northeastern reaches of Mission Bay. Get to Bonita Cove from Mission Boulevard in south Mission Beach; reach Mariner's Point via Mariner's Way, off West Mission Bay Drive.
While Mission Bay Park is a body of saltwater surrounded by land and bridges, Mission Beach is actually a beach on the Pacific Ocean, anchored by the Giant Dipper roller coaster. Always popular, the sands and wide cement "boardwalk" sizzle with activity and people-watching in summer (or anytime the weather is nice); at the southern end, a volleyball game is almost always underway. The long beach and path extend from the jetty north to Belmont Park and Pacific Beach Drive. Parking is often tough, with your best bets being the public lots at Belmont Park or at the south end of West Mission Bay Drive; this street intersects with Mission Boulevard, the centerline of a 2-block-wide isthmus that leads a mile north to Pacific Beach.
There's always action here, particularly along Ocean Front Walk, a paved promenade featuring a human parade akin to L.A.'s Venice Beach boardwalk. It runs along Ocean Boulevard (just west of Mission Blvd.) to the pier. Surfing is popular year-round here, in marked sections; and the beach is well staffed with lifeguards. You're on your own to find street parking. Pacific Beach is also the home of Tourmaline Surfing Park, a half-mile north of the pier, where the sport's old guard gathers to surf waters where swimmers are prohibited; reach it via Tourmaline Street, off Mission Boulevard.
The fabled locale of Tom Wolfe's Pump House Gang, Windansea is legendary to this day among California's surf elite and remains one of San Diego's prettiest strands. Reached by way of Bonair Street (at Neptune Place), Windansea has no facilities, and street parking is first-come, first-served. It's not ideal for swimming, so come to surf (no novices, please), watch surfers, or soak in the camaraderie and party atmosphere.
Think clothing-optional Black's Beach is the city's most controversial sun-sea-sand situation? Think again -- the Children's Pool is currently home to the biggest man-vs.-beast struggle since Moby Dick. A seawall protects this pocket of sand, originally intended as a calm swimming bay for children. Since 1994, when a rock outcrop off the shore was designated as a protected mammal reserve, the beach has been colonized by a harbor seal population. On an average day (usually fall to spring) you'll spot dozens lolling in the sun. Some humans did not take kindly to their beach banishment, and the fight was on. After much heated debate (and even acts of civil disobedience), swimming was reinstated -- to the displeasure of many. So while it is possible to now swim at the Children's Pool, keep in mind those are federally protected wild animals and it is illegal to approach them or harass them in any way. Volunteers, with speed dials set to "lifeguard," keep watch to make sure bathers don't interfere with the colony -- scofflaws will get arrested. The dispute rages on -- for the latest info check www.lajollafriendsoftheseals.org. The beach is at Coast Boulevard and Jenner Street; there's limited free street parking.
La Jolla Cove
The cove's protected, calm waters -- celebrated as the clearest along the coast -- attract snorkelers and scuba divers, along with a fair share of families. The stunning setting offers a small sandy beach, with Ellen Browning Scripps Park located on the cliffs above. The cove's "look but don't touch" policy protects the colorful garibaldi, California's state fish, plus other marine life, including abalone, octopus, and lobster. The unique Underwater Park stretches from here to the northern end of Torrey Pines State Reserve and incorporates kelp forests, artificial reefs, two deep canyons, and tidal pools. The cove is terrific for swimming, cramped for sunbathing, and accessible from Coast Boulevard; parking is scarce.
La Jolla Shores
The wide, flat mile of sand at La Jolla Shores is popular with joggers, swimmers, families, kayakers, novice scuba divers, and beginning body- and board-surfers. It looks like a picture postcard, with fine sand under blue skies, kissed by gentle waves. Weekend crowds can be enormous, though, quickly claiming fire rings and occupying both the sand and the metered parking spaces in the lot. There are restrooms and showers, as well as picnic areas at grassy, palm-lined Kellogg Park.
The area's unofficial nude beach (though technically nude sunbathing is illegal), 2-mile-long Black's lies between La Jolla Shores and Torrey Pines State Beach, at the base of steep, 300-foot-high cliffs. The beach is out-of-the-way and not easy to reach, but it draws scores with its secluded beauty and good swimming and surfing -- the graceful spectacle of paragliders launching from the cliffs above adds to the show. To get here, take North Torrey Pines Road, watch for signs for the Gliderport (where you can park), and clamber down the makeshift path, staying alert to avoid veering off a false trail. To bypass the cliff descent, you can walk to Black's from beaches north (Torrey Pines) or south (La Jolla Shores). Note: There's no permanent lifeguard station, though lifeguards are usually present from spring holidays to October, and no restroom facilities. The beach's notoriety came about when, from 1974 to 1977, swimsuits were optional -- the only such beach in the U.S. to be so designated at the time. Rich neighbors on the cliffs above complained enough to the city about their property being denigrated that the clothing-optional status was reversed. Still, citations for nude sunbathing are rarely issued -- lifeguards will either ignore it or just ask you to cover up. Tickets will be written if you disregard their request.
Torrey Pines Beach
Past the north end of Black's Beach, at the foot of Torrey Pines State Park, is this fabulous, underused strand, accessed by a pay parking lot at the entrance to the park. Combining a visit to the park with a day at the beach makes for the quintessential San Diego outdoor experience. It's rarely crowded, though you need to be aware of high tide (when most of the sand gets a bath). In almost any weather, it's a great beach for walking. Note: At this and any other bluff-side beach, never sit at the bottom of the cliffs; they are unstable and could collapse.
Del Mar Beach
The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club's slogan, as famously sung by DMTC founder Bing Crosby, is "where the turf meets the surf." This town beach represents the "surf" portion of that phrase. It's a long stretch of sand backed by grassy cliffs and a playground area. This area is not too heavily trafficked, and you can dine right alongside the beach at Jake's or Poseidon. Del Mar is about 15 miles from downtown San Diego.
Northern San Diego County Beaches
Those inclined to venture farther north in San Diego County won't be disappointed -- Pacific Coast Highway leads to a string of inviting beaches. In Encinitas there are peaceful Boneyards Beach, Swami's Beach for surfing, and Moonlight Beach, popular with families and volleyball buffs. Farthest north is Oceanside, which has one of the West Coast's longest wooden piers, wide sandy beaches, and several popular surfing areas.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.