Going tide pooling is one of the best things to do in San Diego in winter. San Diego tide pools are usually exposed between November and March when very low, minus tides happen during the day.
One of the many neat things about tide pooling in San Diego is that each beach’s terrain is a bit different. There will always be something new to see because California tide pool animals move between habits. No two visits will ever be the same.
To get the most out of your tide pool experience, it helps to arm yourself with some fun facts. This is especially true if you’re you’ve chosen this winter activity from my list of best things to do in San Diego with kids. I’ll also share tips about where to find the best tide pools in San Diego, what to know before you go, when to go, animals to see, and much more.
Fun Facts to Enhance Your San Diego Tide Pool Visit
Learn a little bit more about what they are and why you’ll see.
What Are Tide Pools?
Tide pools form when water gets trapped during low tides, creating small pools that provide a habitat for marine life.
Tide pools are pockets of water found in rocky parts of the coast where the ocean meets the sand. There are three tide pool depths that are broken down into zones that are each important to the ecosystem: the splash zone, the intertidal zone, and the subtidal zone.
The splash zone is where few animals like chitons live because the tides rarely reach them. These animals are nourished by splashes of water and can tolerate salt from evaporated water. The subtidal zone is always covered with water where there are there are bottom-dwelling invertebrates and bigger fish.
For the sake of this article, we’ll focus on the intertidal zone. The pools that form here during low tide are what most people are thinking of when they refer to tide pools. Even in the highest areas here you’ll start to see snails, crabs, and a few anemones. The lower the tides, the more California tide pool animals, including chitons, sea urchins, sea stars, and small fish, you’ll see.
How to Know When to Go
Knowing when to go tide pooling in San Diego or anywhere else is easy. All you need to do is check the San Diego tide pools chart. It will show tides measured in feet relative to the average water level. Low tide is less than 1 foot or lower. However, you’re looking for negative tides or tides close to 0.
If you see a tide chart say -1 or lower, that’s the best time to go. Even if you can make it an hour or two before the lowest tide, you’ll have a blast and enjoy beautiful views.
What Makes California Tide Pool Animals So Unique
Twice a day, a whole new world is revealed on the rocky coastline, making it an amazing place to explore — especially with kids. All you need to do to find interesting wildlife is to turn over a few rocks carefully.
Some plants and animals can only be found in this dynamic habitat. To live in California’s tide pools, they have to be tough enough to withstand extreme fluctuations.
During rainy days, a tide pool that’s usually salty may be flooded with fresh water. On hot days, the water in a tide pool can get quite warm. And depending on the weather, the water level in tide pools may get quite low. Without the protection of the ocean, sea life suddenly becomes vulnerable to birds and other land predators.
San Diego Tide Pool Animals You Might See
Despite the unpredictable conditions mentioned above, a lot of really cool animals live in tide pools. In San Diego, CA you might see:
- sea anemones
- baby fish (tide pools serve as hatcheries for some species)
- translucent ghost shrimp
- brittle stars
- sea stars
- brightly colored nudibranchs
- purple sea urchins
- hermit crabs
- two-spot octopuses
- sea hares
- sea cucumbers
- small sea snails like periwinkle snails and black turban snails
- small rock crabs
- California mussels
Pick up a brochure about the tide pools and the types of sea creatures you’ll find; trying to identify them all makes for a great game or outdoor scavenger hunt with the kids.
10 Best Tide Pools in San Diego County
- Coronado Tide Pools
- Cabrillo Tide Pools, Point Loma (top pick)
- Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, Ocean Beach
- Ocean Beach Pier
- Tourmaline Surfing Park, Pacific Beach
- False Point, La Jolla
- Shell Beach, La Jolla (top pick)
- Dike Rock, La Jolla
- Cardiff State Beach
- Swami’s State Beach, Encinitas
The above San Diego tide pools are listed from north to south with a few of my favorites called out.
1. Coronado (in front of Hotel del Coronado)
The best Coronado tide pools are right in front of the Hotel del Coronado, Curio Collection by Hilton. They are not big, but it’s a good choice for visiting San Diego tide pools for kids because you don’t have to wander far out onto the rocks to see sea life. Plus, since this beachfront San Diego resort is one of the most popular with readers, it’s worth pointing out tide pooling as something to do in the late fall and winter.
What you’ll see: You will definitely see sea anemones, barnacles, limpets, chitons, and likely some hermit crabs. If it’s a really low tide, then perhaps small fish and sea hares.
When I walk along the shoreline here in the morning, I tend to find sand dollars and other pretty shells. If you’re lucky, you might also enjoy an enormous and ornate sandcastle creation by the Sandcastle Man.
How to get there: You can pay to park at the resort, whether you’re a hotel guest or not. Or, street parking is an option. You’ll see a jetty in front of the hotel (popular for family and wedding photos). The tide pools are on the hotel side of the jetty.
FUN FACTThe SS Monte Carlo shipwreck is located just south of the hotel. If it’s a VERY low tide after an El Nino storm powerful enough to uncover the wreckage, you will be able to see what remains of this 1920s gambling ship.
2. Cabrillo Tide Pools, Point Loma
The Cabrillo tide pools among the best tide pools in San Diego. The waters surrounding the Cabrillo National Monument, a popular tourist attraction, are home to an incredible ecosystem of unique plant or marine life. They are often referred to as the Point Loma tide pools, as this National Park is located in the Point Loma neighborhood.
The coast that hugs Cabrillo National Monument is home to a protected and easily accessible rocky intertidal zones in Southern California (remember, the word ‘intertidal’ refers to the ecosystem that sits between the high and low tides along the shore).
What you’ll see: The area closest to shore is home to invertebrates like periwinkle snails, lined shore crabs, acorn barnacles, troglodyte chitons, and various limpets.
The middle intertidal zone is the area that’s fully submerged during high tide and fully exposed during low tide. Creatures you’ll find here include California mussels, aggregating anemones, limpets, chitons, California sea hares, snails, crabs, fish, lobsters, and octopuses.
How to get there: The Cabrillo tide pools at Cabrillo National Monument are located at the bottom of the park. You’ll enter the park and pay the entrance fee. Next, go straight. Just before the main parking lot, you’ll see signs to turn right into the tide pool area. The address is 1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr., San Diego, CA 92106.
The drive down to the tide pools is beautiful and very picture-worthy; if you aren’t driving, make sure you’re on camera duty. The parking lot in this area isn’t very big and can fill up quickly. You can also use the bigger lot near the Visitor Center and walk down.
Note: Cell phone reception is very spotty at the Cabrillo tide pools, so be sure to make arrangements beforehand if you’re getting a ride or need to coordinate with others. Remember that fourth graders receive free entry as part of the National Park Service’s Every Kid Outdoors initiative.
VISIT THE REST OF CABRILLO NATIONAL MONUMENTDon’t skip the rest of the park! After exploring the tide pools, head back uphill toward the Visitor Center. Take a photo in front of the Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (he is the Spanish Explorer credited with the discovery of California), admire the San Diego Bay views, and walk the hiking trails.
3. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, Ocean Beach
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park stays true to its name of being one of the best places in San Diego to watch a sunset. The beach below the park is also referred to as Garbage Beach but popular for surfing and beachcombing. Water fills the flat rock channels here along the shoreline, which reveals plenty of sea life at low tide. You’ll see a more rocky terrain on the north side of the stairs to explore also.
What you’ll see: Smaller limpets, crabs and fish in addition to snails and sea anemones.
How to get there: The stairs down to the beach are roughly where Ladera Street and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard meet. You’ll see plenty of street parking but also a nearby dirt lot. Don’t try to scramble down the sandstone cliffs!
4. Ocean Beach Tide Pools
If you’re in the eclectic Ocean Beach neighborhood during low tides, head over to the pier, where you’ll see lots of low-lying sandstone rocks where lots of sea life lives. This is actually a good San Diego tide pools spot for kids because the rocks are relatively flat with shallow pools. (You’ll still need to keep an eye on them and make sure they’re wearing proper footwear to navigate slippery terrain.)
What you’ll see: Sea anemones, barnacles and limpets, pretty sea grasses, hermit crabs and some small snails.
How to get there: The OB Pier a the end of Newport Avenue. You can’t miss it. There’s a small (usually full) parking lot north of the pier. So, your best bet is to look out for metered street parking or one of the several paid lots.
5. Tourmaline Surfing Park, Pacific Beach
Though mainly known as a popular San Diego surfing spot, Tourmaline Surf Park in Pacific Beach is also home to some extensive tide pools. They’re located north of the surfing area (just a few minutes’ walk) and are tucked away in the soft sandstone and on top of a larger boulder field.
You’ll find plenty of tube snails, barnacles, and anemones here, as they do well with the slow water flows. The rocks are typically covered with very slippery algae, so shoes with good grip are a must.
What you’ll see: Sea snails, red thatched barnacles, aggregating and solitary anemones, limpets, and tube snails near the low water line. The little ones will enjoy looking out for hermit crabs here and other shelled creatures as well.
How to get there: Take La Jolla Blvd. until you reach the Tourmaline St. intersection. Then, turn onto Tourmaline toward the beach and into the parking lot. Park in the lot (or on La Jolla Blvd. if the lot is full) and start walking north until you reach a large boulder field with some smaller rock outcroppings. Start looking for snails in the sand before you reach the rocks. They like to hide!
CARRY A PLASTIC BAGWe’ve participated in organized beach clean-ups here because trash and microtrash tends to wash up onto this beach. If you see any, please pick it up if it’s safe to do so. Litter is harmful to sea life.
6. False Point, La Jolla
You’ll find these Bird Rock tide pools at the bottom of a (relatively steep) staircase a mile or so north of Tourmaline. This is a rockier area than most, but the abundance of pebbles and shallow spots makes for an excellent tide pooling experience.
Additionally, the area is rarely crowded because of its somewhat secluded location and creates a much more tranquil environment for exploration. The ocean sunset views are incredible here, so if you’re going later in the day, be sure to stick around for a burst of color and an excellent photo op. You need to be careful if taking kids because the rocks are slippery.
What you’ll see: Hermit crabs, sea anemones, brittle stars, sea urchins, and occasionally lobsters.
How to get there: There is street access from the Linda Way and La Jolla Blvd. intersection below Sea Ridge Drive (you’ll see access signs just to the left of 341 Sea Ridge Drive). The ramp and stairs take you directly down to the boulder and tide pool area, but it gets rocky very quickly. The large rocks could be challenging to navigate and climb down unless it’s extremely low tide. Be sure to wear shoes with a good grip and practice extra caution in this area.
7. Shell Beach, La Jolla
This little La Jolla beach is an excellent option for checking out La Jolla tide pools. On a good day, you’ll be able to see some pretty shells and colorful wildlife; however, the key here is to come at very low tide.
A fun aspect of the tide pools here is Seal Rock Reserve, a rocky island just offshore that is protected and reserved for the La Jolla seals and sea lions. Keep an eye out for them, as they’re often swimming around or sunning themselves on the rock. If you want to make a day of it, pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it underneath the shade of the green hut just above Shell Beach (called a belvedere), this hut dates back many years and is a great spot to watch the waves.
What you’ll see: True to its name, you will see plenty of seashells of all sizes, which means you may also spot hermit crabs, seagrasses, sea anemones, and more.
How to get there: Shell Beach tide pools lie at the southern end of Ellen Browning Scripps Park in La Jolla, at the bottom of a small cement stairway. Look for the green hut and walk down the stairs to the left; “Shell Beach” will be engraved in the cement above it.
WHY IT’S A TOP PICK — LOTS OF NEARBY TIDE POOLSIf it’s a minus tide, La Jolla tide pools will also appear all along the Coast Blvd. boardwalk north and south of Shell Beach. Start at La Jolla Cove and then walk to Shell Beach. Next, keep walking south to the Children’s Pool, where the harbor seals hang out. Behind the lifeguard station, there is South Casa Beach, another tide pool spot. You can even keep walking south to Hospital Point, where there are even more tide pools. Read my full list of La Jolla tide pools for more information.
8. Dike Rock, La Jolla
A favorite of UCSD® biology students, this La Jolla tide pool is essentially a rocky area just north of Scripps Pier. The beach’s name refers to a slab of volcanic rock that has forced its way through a large gap in the sedimentary rocks, which you’ll see once you get down there. This area is protected as part of the La Jolla Underwater Park marine reserve.
For an in-depth experience at La Jolla tide pools, sign up for a Tidepooling Adventure Tour by Birch Aquarium (highly recommend). Their trained naturalists will be able to point out all kinds of wildlife and answer any questions you have. We have taken a tour and it’s great outdoor fun for the whole family.
What you’ll see: Look for rare starfish, hermit crabs, sea anemones, and octopuses during minus tides.
How to get there: Start at La Jolla Shores Beach (8200 Camino Del Oro, La Jolla CA 92037) and walk north along the shoreline. Pass Scripps Pier, then pass another rocky area until you reach the dike, which juts out slightly.
9. Cardiff State Beach
Another one of the best tide pools in San Diego is Cardiff State Beach. These tide pools are located about thirty minutes north of La Jolla in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, a small, quiet little seaside community that you’d miss if you blink — it’s nestled right between Encinitas and Solana Beach.
The tide pools here are comprised of 45-million-year-old sedimentary rocks containing embedded fossil clams, a fascinating and rare sight you won’t see at any other local tide pools. You’ll find them on the south end of the beach in a spot called Seaside Beach.
What you’ll see: Besides fossils, look for starfish and sea cucumbers in addition to the usual residents — hermit crabs, limpets, chiton, and other mollusks.
How to get there: The Cardiff tide pools are located by the bluffs at the south end of the parking lot at Cardiff State Beach. Drive along the Pacific Coast Highway past Solana Beach and just north of Lomas Santa Fe Drive. You’ll see a sign labeling Cardiff Beach and a large parking lot. Before you walk down to the rocky area, there will be a small information board with illustrations of tide pool life.
10. Swami’s State Beach, Encinitas
This Encinitas beach has long been a haven for surfers and is known for its excellent surf break. Located just north of Cardiff, it’s home to a substantial reef formation that becomes visible during low and minus tides.
You’ll find oyster fossils here, and on good days an extensive flat, rocky area is revealed (referred to as Tabletop by the locals). If you’re in the mood for a walk, you can head toward the San Elijo Lagoon and even the South Carlsbad Beach jetty from Swami’s — it’s in an excellent central location.
What to look for: Octopuses, crabs, brittle stars, starfish, sea hares, and sea cucumbers.
How to get there: From Cardiff, continue north along the Pacific Coast Highway until you see Encinitas’s southernmost part. The parking lot for the beach will be on your left just before you reach downtown; if you see the white domes of the Self-Realization Fellowship™, you’ve gone too far. There are no visible signs, but look for the carved wooden tiki head statue on the grass!
Bonus: Year-Round Tide Pools at Birch Aquarium
You can see San Diego tide pools year-round at Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public outreach are for the world-famous Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When people ask me where to see tide pools during the summer, this is where I send them.
Tide Pool Plaza is located on the back patio, which also happens to sport panoramic Pacific Ocean views over La Jolla Shores Beach. Here, under docents’ supervision, you can safely touch some of the sea life like a sea anemone or hermit crab. Be sure to use the nearby hand washing stations to wash your hands before (to wash off lotions or hand sanitizer) and after touching.
What to look for: Rare California abalone live in these tide pools, which are difficult to see in the wild. There are also usually sea anemones, sea stars, hermit crabs, and sea hares. During normal times (these group activities are temporarily paused), you’ll want to check the daily schedule for tide pool feedings. Also, they usually lead some fun tide pooling tours during the winter season.
How to get there: The address is 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, CA 92037. The aquarium has a lot with free three-hour parking for guests. It does fill up, so arrive early. Otherwise, you can find street parking but be careful that some areas are marked for UC San Diego permit holders.
Things to Know Before You Go Tide Pooling
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- Wear close-toed shoes with a good grip, as the tide pool rocks can get slippery when wet. Also, wear clothing and footwear that can get wet because it’s likely that you’ll be getting wet.
- Your shoes should be sturdy enough to withstand a bit of rock scrambling, and it’s always a good idea to bring along a towel and a change of dry clothes or extra shoes.
- Sunscreen is a good idea even during a San Diego winter.
- There are two high and low tides a day, and it is always best to go at low tide or minus tide. Check the local paper, obtain a tide table from a dive/surf shop or lifeguard station, or check a San Diego tide table online to determine the best time for tide pooling.
- If this is your first tide pooling experience, you might want to bring along a tide pool guide book. It’s great to observe the unique creatures you find, but it can be even more exciting to learn exactly what the animals are and how they got there. And don’t forget to bring a camera – tide pools and their residents can be very colorful!
- Be aware of the incoming tide at all times, especially if you are with younger children.
- The collection of any natural item or living organism is strictly prohibited at all San Diego tide pools. Respect the wildlife and take care when you’re walking around the intertidal zone.
- Many tide pool animals can be safely touched, as long as you’re extremely careful and gentle. Rinse your hands first to make sure all hand sanitizer and anything that might harm them is washed off.
Frequently Asked Questions About Tide Pools in San Diego
Lately, thanks to current world circumstances, I’m receiving quite a few questions about going tide pooling San Diego and elsewhere in California.
Why is winter the best time for tide pooling?
During late fall and winter, when the tide ebbs in the mid-afternoon or evenings, the water levels are significantly lower than during other times of the year. This exposes more of the fascinating intertidal zone that you can see in daylight.
These low tides happen at night throughout the rest of the year, which obviously makes visibility an issue. It’s not impossible to see some of the high intertidal zone exposed during the summer months, but it’s pretty rare. You might see an occasional sea anemone or limpet but not much else.
What are the best San Diego tide pools for kids?
The best San Diego tide pools for kids are ones where they can walk on sand or flat rocks to avoid tripping and slipping—two easy things to do when navigating this kind of beach terrain. You’ll want to avoid rocks covered with seagrass or algae. Kid-friendly tide pools I like are also close to other family activities that you can pair a visit with.
With the above in mind, I think that the La Jolla tide pools are best for kids. You’ll find tide pools along Coast Boulevard between roughly La Jolla Cove and Hospital Point, including Shell Beach, all within walking distance of each other. In this area, parents can surely find suitable areas to explore for their children’s ages and abilities. Plus, families can catch a glimpse of our seals and sea lions along the way. Check my list of things to do in La Jolla.
My second choice is Cabrillo National Monument because the area to explore is quite large. Plus, you can combine your tide pool visit with a chance to learn about the discovery of California in our only National Park. The mild hiking trails are also fun to explore.
Where are the best tide pools in California?
There are tide pools up and down the California coast, though, of course, I’m biased and think that some of the best tide pooling in Southern California can be found right here in San Diego (Cabrillo National Monument and La Jolla are recognized as top places for this in the state).
There are also multiple spots along the Laguna Beach coastline that are popular for tide pooling.
What is the best time to visit tide pools?
The best time to visit tide pools is during low tide, in the late fall and winter. On the California coast, there are two low tides each day, and the timing of those tides varies from day to day.
A minus tide, indicated on a tide chart by a minus sign, is optimal because California tide pools will be the most exposed.
Can I see San Diego tide pools in the summer?
It’s possible to go tide pooling in San Diego during the summer months, but you’ll need to do some planning. If there is a low tide, it’s likely very early in the morning and only on a handful of days during sunlight. For example, you can catch low tides on a few days during June and July, 2021 around 7 a.m. Check the San Diego tide charts.
If you aren’t an early bird, go to Birch Aquarium at Scripps to see their tide pools. Sure, they are humanmade, but they do look exactly like the ones at the beach and house the same animals. Plus, you have a docent there to answer questions.
Are there tide pools at SeaWorld San Diego?
There are no authentic tide pools at SeaWorld San Diego. What they do have is a touch pool area called Explorer’s Reef where you can touch harmless reef sharks and California round rays. It’s supervised by Animal Care Ambassadors.
Will I see starfish?
Several different types of starfish live in California tide pools. The most common starfish you’ll encounter in San Diego tide pools will be the ochre sea star, which comes in colors like orange, brown, and purple. Look for them near mussel and barnacle beds.
The colorful bat star is easy to recognize because its arms are connected by a web. The brownish brittle star has five skinny arms that it uses to move around and can often be found under rocks.
Giant sea stars are much bigger than most other sea stars in the intertidal zone, growing up to two feet in diameter, but are seen less frequently because they like to live in the deepest areas. The same is true for pink sea stars. I hope you get lucky and see one of these amazing creatures because they are rare to see lately.
What animals are found in California tide pools?
The intertidal zone supports a tremendous diversity of life. In the shallowest or nearly always exposed area — the splash zone — you can see periwinkle snails, acorn barnacles, shore crabs, chitons, and limpets.
You’ll see California mussels, sea hares, lobsters, octopuses, flowering anemones, sea stars, and a variety of crabs and fish in the lower zone. And as you move deeper into the intertidal zone during the lowest tides, you may see bigger fish, larger sea stars, urchins, and other larger animals.
Why are tide pools important?
Tide pools are an important ecological habitat on the California coast because they provide a safe haven for many small creatures and an important food source for larger ones. They also serve as an important barrier that slows down water flow to keep our cliffs from eroding.
It’s important to examine animals in tide pools gently and respectfully, but even our behaviors at home impact their ecosystem. Remember that storm drains around San Diego wash everything from trash to fertilizer into the ocean.
Are tide pools dangerous?
Tide pools can be dangerous to humans if you do not walk carefully around them. Algae and seagrasses that line some of the rocks can be slippery and hide pools you might not see. You can slip, twist ankles, and fall rather easily if you are not careful.
Tide pools can be dangerous for the sea life who lives in them if humans behave recklessly while exploring them. Don’t litter; watch where you are walking; and keep in mind that shells, rocks, sticks, and grasses might be someone’s home.
How do tide pools form?
You might think that tide pools only form when the tide goes out and exposes depressions in the rocky ground, but new tide pools can also form when big waves are driven further up beaches by storms or high wind.
These waves push sand and stones ahead of them, creating mounds that run parallel to the shore, and the water that rushes over these mounds is trapped. Any time water is trapped in a low area, a tide pool may be the result.
If ocean activity is significant enough to change the shape of a beach or other coastal area, the resulting pool can become a permanent feature and wildlife will eventually populate the pool.
Which San Diego tide pools do you like to visit?