Top 8 Places to Go Tide Pooling in San Diego County
This is definitely 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 and minus tides happen during the day. One of the many neat things about tide pooling in San Diego is that each spot’s terrain is a bit different and you can see different sea life every time.
We’ll share tips on where to go tide pooling in San Diego. It’s definitely on of the best things to do in San Diego with kids (and without) during the winter season.
(Stay tuned for an in-depth interview with La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium about tide pool etiquette and the animals you’ll see.)
Table of Contents
Know Before You Go Tide Pooling
- Wear close-toed shoes with 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. If you’re caught by a larger rogue wave, wait and maintain your footing until the wave passes and then walk slowly towards the shore.
- 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.
- 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.
Best San Diego Tide Pools
Cabrillo Tide Pools
The Cabrillo tide pools are one of the best places to see San Diego tide pools, as the waters surrounding the Cabrillo National Monument are home to an incredible ecosystem. It’s one of the best locations to see unique plant or marine life in all of San Diego, actually.
Tide pools form when water gets trapped during low tides, creating small pools that provide habitat for marine life. The coast that hugs Cabrillo is home to one of the best-protected and most easily accessible rocky intertidal zones in southern California (the word ‘intertidal’ just 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 tide pools at Cabrillo National Monument (1800 Cabrillo Memorial Dr, San Diego) are located at the bottom of the park. Once you enter the park and travel past the fee collection station, go straight until you see signs to turn right into the tide pool area just before the parking lot for Cabrillo Monument. 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.
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. Also, fourth graders receive free entry to the park this year in honor of the National Parks’ centennial.
Tourmaline Surfing Park
Though mainly known as one of the best surfing spots in San Diego, Tourmaline Surf Park 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 absolutely 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: 1) 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!
False Point, La Jolla
A mile or so north of Tourmaline you’ll find tide pools at the bottom of a (relatively steep) staircase. This is a rockier area than most, but the abundance of pebbles and shallow spots makes for a great tide pooling experience. Additionally, because of its somewhat secluded location the area is rarely crowded 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.
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 and the large boulders could be difficult to navigate and climb down unless it’s extremely low tide. Be sure to wear shoes with good grip and practice extra caution in this area.
Shell Beach, La Jolla
This is a great option for checking out La Jolla tide pools. On a good day, you’ll be able to see some pretty 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 area offshore that’s protected and reserved for the local 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 actually 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.
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 just to the left; “Shell Beach” will be engraved in the cement above it.
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 name of the beach refers to a volcanic slab of 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 and is actually on UCSD property, meaning there is a great chance of seeing some interesting wildlife.
For an in-depth experience at La Jolla tide pools, sign up for a Tidepooling Adventure Tour by Birch Aquarium (we’re signed up for one in December… will tell you all about it). Their trained naturalists will be able to point out all kinds of wildlife and answer any questions you have. They go to different tide pools in La Jolla throughout November-March, and each tour is $16 per person.
What you’ll see: Look for rare starfish, hermit crabs, sea anemones and octopi during minus tides.
How to get there: Start at La Jolla Shores (8200 Camino Del Oro) and walk north along the beach, then past the rocky area until you reach the dike, which juts out slightly. The best tide pools are over the rock to the north side.
Cardiff State Beach
More 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 actually comprised of 45-million year old sedimentary rocks that contain embedded fossil clams, a fascinating and rare sight you won’t see at any other local tide pools.
What you’ll see: Besides fossils, look for starfish and sea cucumbers.
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. 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 with the kids.
Swami’s State Beach
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 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 towards 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 the southernmost part of Encinitas. 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!
Which San Diego tide pools do you like to visit?