Make the most of your visit to one of San Diego's stunning beaches by understanding the rules and responsibilities required of beachgoers with this handy FAQ.
Getting there and special events don't have to be a hassle, though it's good to be aware of closures and restricted-use rules, and be sure to always practice good beach etiquette.
Parking at the beach requires good planning and a good attitude. Think about what you're getting yourself into. If it's a holiday weekend like the Fourth of July, don't expect to breeze over the Coronado Bridge at noon and find a front row parking spot. If you find yourself stuck in slow-moving traffic or are having no luck finding a parking spot, consider leaving the immediate area and looking a few blocks away. In the long run, you may well get to the beach sooner that way. Other tips include:
The beach is a magical place at night, ideal for a romantic cuddle with your sweetheart or a fireside chat with your friends. Just make sure you're not going to return to find your car locked in a parking lot until morning and a ticket on your window. Some beaches—particularly those within the jurisdiction of the State Parks system—close down at sunset. Others close at 2:00 AM and re-open at 6:00 AM, and some never really close.
Unless you're a registered guest of an official campground, you are never allowed to stay overnight at any beach. Beaches, parks, parking lots and campgrounds can also have scheduled seasonal closures or unscheduled closures due to weather, construction and other unusual circumstances. Call ahead to find out the current status (619-338-2073).
Many of the most popular and impacted beaches have designated separate areas for swimming and boogie boarding, board surfing, boating, fishing and diving. Though it may seem like an imposition when the lifeguard asks you to paddle your surfboard north of the checkered flag at La Jolla Shores, or keep your waverunner outside the buoys in Mission Bay, understand that it's the only way to ensure everyone's continuing freedom to do their thing at the beach.
Observe signs, follow directions and everyone will have a safe and satisfying time.
Special events like weddings, big gatherings and competitions all require special permits, usually obtained months in advance through the appropriate division of the local beaches or Parks and Recreation offices. There are restrictions regarding noise, structures (tents, fences, banners), concessions and other issues. Local governments and other organizations offer all kinds of great events at the beach—from live music concerts to fireworks displays, triathlon races to sand castle contests—which are often only publicized by word of mouth.
Before heading out to enjoy a day of sun and sand, it's helpful to review the basic rules regarding beach access and personal responsibility along with what to do with your trash, glass, alcohol, fires and pets.
San Diego is privileged to have almost universal access to the coast. With the exception of a few ecologically sensitive areas and isolated government installations, anything below the high tide line is open to the public. Even in locations where private homes and businesses dominate the horizon, you will find public right-of-ways and easements permitting access to the beach.
The City of San Diego and other city, state and county organizations provide and maintain an excellent network of public parks, picnic areas and pedestrian paths, with bathroom facilities, recreational areas and lifeguard services available in most locations. With these invaluable rights come a personal responsibility to keep the beach safe, clean and enjoyable for all. Every location has its own rules and regulations, always clearly posted on and around major facilities and thoroughfares.
Besides being illegal, littering is uncool and totally contrary to beach protocol. Even if no authorities are on hand to issue a citation, fellow beachgoers often police litterbugs with fierce public scoldings and the 'stinkeye.' If you can't find a trash or recycling receptacle, pack up your garbage and take it home with you. Better yet, make your visit to the beach a constructive one and dispose of any other trash you find.
Bare feet and broken glass are a recipe for disaster, so it's a good thing that glass is never permitted anywhere at any time on any of San Diego's beaches and boardwalks.
Alcohol is no longer allowed on any San Diego beaches, including Coronado and State Beaches.
All bonfires are restricted to designated fire rings, and there are rules limiting the size (typically fuel must not exceed 12 inches above the side of the ring). Barbecues are generally permitted at all parks and beaches and many even provide special receptacles for hot coals. Never dump coals or firewood in the sand; they can burn well into the next morning, leave nails and other debris on the beach, and have been the cause of untold injuries to bare feet.
Nobody enjoys the beach more than a dog, and it's a shame that so few beaches in San Diego allow them. A few places have literally gone to the dogs—notably Dog Beach in Ocean Beach, The Rivermouth in Del Mar and North Beach in Coronado. Other spots only allow them before 9:00 AM or after 6:00 PM. You can do your part to ensure that our furry friends don't wear out their welcome altogether by carefully observing local regulations, keeping your dog on a short leash (especially around children), and always cleaning up after them.
Common sense is the best safety tip, along with listening to the lifeguards. Also, a basic understanding of possible hazards will go a long way toward safely enjoying San Diego's marine life, sea cliffs, sun and sand on your vacation.
The most qualified person to watch after you and your family at the beach is you. Know your limits, get the facts and trust your instincts. But, even with the greatest of skills and best of judgment, accidents can happen to anyone. A few simple precautions will diminish the odds of it happening to you.
Choose a beach that is supervised by a lifeguard. At some beaches lifeguards sit in one place (usually a raised tower) and SUPERVISE the area immediately in front of them. At other beaches and at certain times of day or year, there is no supervision or only a lifeguard PATROL by car. Choose a supervised beach whenever possible, and then find out what hours the lifeguard is on duty (typically from 9:00 AM until sunset). With or without a lifeguard on the job, keep your eyes on children or novice swimmers at all times. It may or may not reassure you to know that San Diego lifeguards make hundreds of successful rescues every year. In addition to their role as lifesavers, they also perform a critical role in preventing accidents by warning swimmers away from potential dangers and enforcing beach regulations.
NOTE: In the absence of lifeguards, always call 911 to summon help in an emergency.
The ocean is a powerful and unpredictable force, never to be underestimated. Waves, currents, tides, rocks, reefs and riptides can all present hazards. Lifeguards, mariners and surfers who have spent time around the ocean can read its subtle signs and recognize potential dangers. Look before you leap into the ocean, or better yet ask: is this a safe place to swim; what should I watch out for; how deep is it; are there any concealed reefs?
Steer clear of visible hazards like rocks, jetties, piers and boat traffic. If something should go wrong, wave your arms and yell to call attention. Use your head, keep your eyes open, and avoid the urge to panic. Breaking waves have a tendency to push you back toward shore, while rip currents will generally let up just beyond the surf line.
To escape a rip, swim sideways parallel to shore instead of fighting it by swimming straight for the beach. The lifeguard will often know you're in trouble before you know it yourself, and can usually reach victims in moments. Never refuse a lifeguard's assistance or instructions. There is no shame in accepting their help, but there can be grave consequences if you don't.
Stingrays, jellyfish and other sea creatures in San Diego are minor threats compared to the sea itself. They're rarely encountered and not life-threatening. In shallow water at sandy beaches, shuffle your feet over the bottom as you walk instead of lifting them. This will prevent you stepping down on a stingray, and will frighten away any that might be in your path. Seals and sea lions are the dogs of the sea and, like dogs, their behavior can be unpredictable.
It is illegal to harm or harass marine mammals like seals, and they will general flee from humans anyway, so the best advice is to admire them from a distance, or at places like The Children's Pool in La Jolla where they congregate on the rocks and beaches. You may also be fortunate enough to see dolphins and porpoise playing in the surf off San Diego's beaches, and California gray whales spouting offshore as they migrate south in the winter. None of them pose a threat to swimmers.
The steep bluffs at places like Black's Beach in La Jolla and Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma have been the scene of numerous tragedies and close calls. Don't be next. Use only officially marked and maintained trails. Even these can be challenging, especially after a rain. If you question your ability to safely climb down or up any trail, don't make the attempt. These cliffs are in a constant state of erosion, and from time to time, they slide or cave sending tons of debris crashing onto the beach below. Avoid setting up camp close to the base of cliffs, especially if you see loose rocks and boulders in the area.
A day in the sun can charge you with energy, but it can also dehydrate you and burn exposed skin. As obvious as it may sound, we have to repeat it here: wear your sunscreen. And don't wait until you're already scorched to reach for it; put it on before you ever leave home and reapply throughout the day.
Other less obvious sun-related hazards are the black asphalt of streets and parking lots and the black sand near the shore-ward sides of beaches that get dangerously hot on a mid-summer day. Shoes and sandals are the only defense, and always a good thing to have along for that unplanned trip to the bathroom or beach bar.
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