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Best Beaches in San Diego

October 19, 2022
Ocean Waves off the coast of San Diego

There was a time when surfers were creatures of the sea, barefoot bohemians who lived their lives in the water and on the sand. Shirts and shoes were for special occasions. Shorts were all they needed. Meals came from the boardwalk. Nights were for evening swims and bonfires. Sunsets were best watched sitting on a board just off the shoreline. Life didn’t play out between four walls. Buildings were for work and study. Everything worth experiencing happened on the beach. It was simple–rigorous, sure, but worth every second, because every bit of effort they were willing to put in, the further they paddled out, and the more they explored, it would pay off a thousandfold.  

Things have changed a little bit. Surfers traded their old shorts and bare feet for wetsuits and water shoes. The lineup is a bit more crowded, and there’s not as much room on the sand. But meals still come from the boardwalk. Sunsets are still viewed from the water, and surfers still schedule their lives around the tide. It’s because of what they inherited–sea cliffs, caves, underwater forests, and canyons–fishing, dolphins frolicking close to shore, and whales migrating annually. There’s no place like San Diego. 

There’s magic here–natural wonder; it can’t be contained within four walls. It’s too grand, too magnanimous. We all see it blossoming, spreading across San Diego’s beaches, racing along the shore. There’s secrets, hidden wonders, elusive mysteries, and small worlds, all ripe for exploration.

Windansea

In San Diego, beaches are more than just strips of sand. They’re sacred ground, defined by their fragile ecosystems and geology–all diligently protected–as well as their rich heritage, which is mostly centered around the city’s hundred-year-old surfing sub-culture. Windansea is one of those places where legends roam.

It’s not the kind of beach where tourists swarm the sands and kids dart through the waves. It’s for local surfers, and they feel quite strongly about that. Many of them are from that neighborhood. Their greatest memories were made there, and they don’t don’t want a thousand outsiders crowding the waves. It’s bad enough everywhere else in the city. So they defend their turf. They chase off anyone who hasn’t earned their respect–the same respect that they pay to the place they care about so much. 

It’s not the nicest sentiment, and things can turn ugly, but it has its endearing qualities. Many professionals–people who have defined the sport–consider it their original haunt. They do sometimes paddle out, and when they do, the lineup backs away to let them have their turn.

Windansea Shack outside tunnel on Windansea Beach in San Diego

Chad McDonald / Flickr

The beach is also home to the hallowed Windansea Shack, which was built by surfing pioneers Fred Kenyon, Don Okey, and Woody Ekstrom in 1946. They wanted a shady spot for their families to sit and watch them surf. So they went to Scripp’s Hospital and cut down some eucalyptus trees to build it. It quickly became a hotspot for rowdy Hawaiian parties. They’d go on all night until the police would come and break them up. That’s how the shack became a legend, and it’s offered shade to many icons over the years. It was destroyed in 1949, then built back up again. This happens periodically. It’s had to be relocated due to the waves, but the locals keep up on it. It’s a historical site now, and it means a lot to the surfing community as a whole. There are people all across the world who would mourn its destruction. 

Yes, Windansea is for locals, but it’s not the kind of place where beginners should be surfing. Its rocky bottom and sandstone formations make it hazardous even for experienced surfers. But if you are in the area, you might want to check it out at low tide. There are some amazing tidepools, and it’s a great place to watch the pros ride the waves.

La Jolla Cove beach from seacliff on a cloudy day in San Diego.

Łukasz Lech / Flickr

La Jolla Cove

If there was such a thing as Disneyland for oceanic explorers, La Jolla Cove would be it. The small beach is located at the outer edge of the La Jolla Underwater Park, which spans 6,000 acres of ocean and tidelands. That might not seem like much; it is at the bottom of the sea, but that’s the point. The underwater park is one of the most popular places in the world to go snorkeling and scuba diving.

There’s a 100-foot kelp forest filled with sea turtles, an underwater canyon, and artificial reefs created from submerged quarry rock to encourage marine life. The park has a “look but don’t take” rule. There’s no fishing, no hunting, and no shelling allowed, which means its a safe haven for sea creatures, and when you dive down, it shows. 

Due to the reefs, the waves are typically small, making the area a good launching spot for kayakers. They’ll often paddle out to the sea cliffs to the north, where there’s a series of sea caves. One of them is an artificial tunnel used for smuggling. It can be accessed through a shop onshore. 

Surfing isn’t normally a thing at the cove. The waves are small, but when a swell rolls in, watch out. They’ll come tumbling in fast and hard, and if you’re not careful you’ll wipe out and hit the sea bottom and bash your head.

Nearby La Jolla Shores is quite popular for beginners. The waves there are high enough to avoid the foam but consistent and small enough to make them perfect for those looking for a regular place to practice. The beach is also a friendly place for outsiders, unlike many other San Diego beaches where locals dominate the game.

Blacks Beach

Black’s Beach is another strip of hallowed sand, known for having some of the biggest waves in San Diego. At any given time, you can expect the waves to be a foot higher than anywhere else in the city. It also has a wicked current, suitable only for experienced swimmers and surfers, especially considering the artificial reef located just offshore.

Everything about Blacks Beach screams strange. At high tide, it’s mostly accessible from a highly eroded trail leading down the sandstone bluffs which line the coast. Rock slides are common, and they’ve claimed many lives. Even people standing below have been known to get hit. There are signs everywhere warning off would-be hikers, but it’s still the most popular way down. 

A portion of the beach is cordoned off for rogue nudists who, despite the law, have taken ownership of that area. The authorities have tried to come down on them before, but to no avail. This has happened several times over the decades.

Earning Your Stripes

California’s thriving tourism industry and the spread of surfing have caused what locals in San Diego call the “kook” invasion. A kook is someone who doesn’t understand surf etiquette. They put people in danger on the water. They don’t wait their turn in the lineup. They litter, and they don’t know how to maneuver in the water. Residents have designated their best beaches kook-free zones. The only way to surf there is to earn your stripes. Prove yourself out on the water by finding a good instructor, and wow them with your skills. It takes time, but it’s well worth it. There’s nothing like riding a good barrel on a chill summer day.

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