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The San Diego Beach Scene

Where to Go, What to Bring and Much More

Thanks to San Diego’s west-by-southwest coastline orientation, the continental shelf protecting us from the brunt of localized north pacific storm surges, distant southern ocean swells and a temperate climate, San Diego's beaches are safe and pleasant virtually year-round.

Swim, Swells & Ratings

The North County coast is characterized by sandstone bluffs and picturesque beaches from Torrey Pines to San Onofre, while the Central Coast is marked by dramatic headlands at La Jolla and Point Loma with the expansive waterways of Mission Bay bookended in between.

In the South Bay, the long, beautiful beaches of Coronado and the Silver Strand provide a natural barrier that has made San Diego one of the world's great seaports and one of America's finest cities.

Water & Weather

San Diego enjoys relatively mild winters and balmy summers. The late summer and early fall months from August, September and October are invariably the best, while the late winter and spring (February to April) are the least predictable. In May and June, morning fog usually yields to sun by midday, and in the height of winter, from December to January, the weather alternates between gloomy and delightful, as violent but short-lived storms pass in and out of the region. Even on the hottest of days, it's always a good idea to bring extra clothing in case you prolong your stay into the evening, or want a little protection from the sun and wind. Water temperatures range from the low 50s in winter to the low 70s in the summer. If you plan to spend a lot of time in the water during non-summer months, you'll want to wear a close-fitting wetsuit. For sustained immersion activities like diving, a 5mm-7mm full-suit with hood, booties and gloves is standard fare, while a 2mm-3mm suit is the call for surfing. Wetsuits can be purchased or rented in any dive or surf shop around town.

Wind & Waves

The most powerful storms come from Alaska in winter, bringing large northwest swells, variable north and west winds and some rain. In spring a mixed bag of medium-sized west swell with steady afternoon onshore winds is the norm. South swells arrive throughout the summer with the biggest and best ones coming toward the end. Local warming patterns called Santa Anas generate offshore breezes in the fall that bring fantasy days of warm, clear, dry conditions to the coast and groom the shape of the surf, while the global climatic condition called "El Niño" (the child) can throw extreme conditions (both naughty and nice) at San Diego once or twice each decade.

Tides & Tidepools

The tidal range in San Diego is relatively mellow, a maximum of about 8 feet of change around the time of new and full moon phases. Still, on a flat or gently sloping beach, that can leave you high and dry or running for the hills in a matter of hours. Knowing if the tide is rising can prevent you from a rude awakening as a set wave rushes in and soaks all your gear. A low tide will expose underwater reefs (especially around La Jolla and Bird Rock) and reveal a fascinating world of tidal plants and animals. Daily tides are usually posted at lifeguard towers and provided on phone and Internet surf reports.

Where To Go

Which beach you choose should be based on one or more of three factors: what will it involve to get there; what are your expectations; and how adventurous do you feel? We've taken the liberty of rating the different beaches to help you decide, indicating how 'tame' or 'wild' an experience that spot offers. Depending on your tastes, a hike down the Razor Point Trail at Torrey Pines State Park may be infinitely more rewarding than a picnic on Mission Bay—or vice versa.

  • Expedition Level
    Someplace hard to find or access. Requiring a long, strenuous trek. No permanent facilities or lifeguards. Dangerous water conditions. Hardcore locals.
    Examples include: Leucadia, Black's Beach and Point Loma.
  • Adventure Level
    Relatively isolated or deserted. Few if any facilities. Perhaps a stony beach or primitive campground.
    Examples include: San Onofre, Cardiff and Solana Beach.
  • Road Trip Level
    A beach with features of specific interest to enthusiasts or locals. Requiring an extra measure of effort for tourists.
    Examples include: Carlsbad, Pacific Beach and Imperial Beach.
  • Cruise Level
    An easy-access sand beach with basic facilities and lifeguards. Likely to offer a cross-section of young and old, natives and neophytes.
    Examples include: Oceanside, La Jolla and Mission Beach.
  • Resort Level
    The complete package: safe, clean, comfortable and family-friendly. Lifeguards, bathrooms, showers, recreation, access to parks, restaurants and shops.
    Examples include: Moonlight (Encinitas)Del Mar, Mission Bay and Coronado.

What to Bring

A bathing suit or wetsuit for swimming; shoes, sandals or booties for roads, rocks and hot sand; warm clothing and a hat to cover up from wind and sun. Sunscreen, towels, food and drinks, and any valuables you don't want to risk leaving in your car. Other ideas include: umbrella, folding chairs, beach toys, boogie board, mask, fins and snorkel, books, magazines, a kite or ball and big bag or backpack to carry everything in. SECURE your car keys, wallet, watch, jewelry, cell phone and other critical items somewhere safe where they're not apt to be lost in the sand or sea.

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