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 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 California tide pool animals every time.
In this post, I share tips about how to find the best tide pools in Southern California and where to go tide pooling specifically in San Diego. It’s definitely one of the best things to do in San Diego with kids (and without) during the winter season.
What Are Tide Pools?
So let’s talk about what tide pools are along with where tide pools are located.
A lot of people assume that tide pools are just puddles you find on the beach. That’s way too simple a description.
Tide pools are areas of the coast that are teeming with life that has evolved to live in what’s called the splash zone, the intertidal zone, and the subtidal zone.
Each of these zones is different and important to the ecosystem, though it is the pools that form in intertidal zones during low tide that most people are thinking of when they think about tide pools.
In the highest areas that are only covered with water during the highest tides, you’ll find barnacles, snails, crabs, and a few anemones.
In the mid-intertidal zone, you’ll find more California tide pool animals, including chitons, sea urchins, sea stars, and small fish, and in the deepest part of the intertidal zone (which is almost always covered by water), there are bottom-dwelling invertebrates and bigger fish.
The tide pools in Southern California are an essential part of the ecosystem, as some animals can only be found in this dynamic habitat.
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.
How 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.
Why California Tide Pool Animals Are So Unique
Tide pools can make a pleasant habitat for certain types of coastal animals because between tides they are warmed by the sun, calm, and cut off from predators for most of the day.
But the plants and animals that call California’s tide pools home have to be tough enough to withstand extreme fluctuations in their world.
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.
Even with these unpredictable conditions, a lot of really cool animals live in tide pools. In addition to the ones briefly mentioned above, there are also sea cucumbers and barnacles, baby fish (as tide pools serve as hatcheries for some species), brittle stars, shrimp, translucent ghost shrimp, brightly colored nudibranchs, and even the dark red, crevice-dwelling Pacific octopus.
Why Winter Is the Best Time for Tide Pooling
A lot of people visit tide pools in the summer because it’s warm and the sun will almost always be shining when low tide occurs around midday, but there is a good reason to try tide pooling in the wintertime.
In the winter season, when the tide ebbs in the mid-afternoon or evenings, the water levels are much lower than during other times of the year, exposing more of the fascinating intertidal zone.
There’s simply more to see in the best tide pools in Southern California in the winter months, which is why I recommend you visit then.
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. If you’re caught by a larger rogue wave, wait and maintain your footing until the wave passes and then walk slowly toward 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 Tide Pools in San Diego
Cabrillo Tide Pools
The Cabrillo tide pools are one of the best tide pools in San Diego, 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.
Tide pools form when water gets trapped during low tides, creating small pools that provide a habitat for marine life. The coast that hugs Cabrillo National Monument 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 Cabrillo 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 main parking lot for Cabrillo National 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. The parking lot isn’t very big and can fill up quickly.
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 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: 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 an excellent 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. This is one of the best tide pools in San Diego.
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 rocks could be challenging 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.
See also: Tips for Visiting La Jolla Tide Pools
Shell Beach, La Jolla
This is an excellent 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 is 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 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 an excellent chance of seeing some exciting wildlife.
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. They go to different tide pools in La Jolla throughout November-March, and each tour is $18 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
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 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, 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 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!
Frequently Asked Questions About Tide Pools in Southern California
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 pools in Southern California can be found right here in San Diego.
Cabrillo National Monument, which is maintained by the National Park Service, is particularly notable for the wide variety of fish and the beautiful flowering anemones that call the area’s tide pools home. See further recommendations above.
When can you go to tide pools?
Low tide, in winter, is the best time to visit tide pools. On the California coast, there are two low tides each day, and the timing of those tides varies from day to day.
Tides are measured in feet relative to the average water level, and the ideal tide for tide pooling will be a low tide that is less than 1 foot or lower. A minus tide is optimal because any tide pools in the area will be fully exposed.
Do starfish live in tide pools?
A number of 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.
What animals are found in California tide pools?
The intertidal zone supports a tremendous diversity of life. In the shallowest area — the splash zone — you can see periwinkle snails, acorn barnacles, shore crabs, chitons, and limpets.
In the lower zone, you’ll see California mussels, sea hares, lobsters, octopi, flowering anemones, sea stars, and a variety of crabs and fish. 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’re also an important part of the tourism industry because they draw nature lovers from around the world. As long as we humans band together to help keep tide pools clean by making the choice not to pollute and to examine the animals in tide pools gently and respectfully, these habitats will be around for people to enjoy for a long time.
Which San Diego tide pools do you like to visit?