The La Jolla coast boasts some of the most fascinating geology in Southern California. That includes handsome bluffs and arches, not to mention two significant submarine canyons. But the area’s best-known coastal landforms are the seven La Jolla caves, likely the most famous sea caves in the Golden State.
These remarkable, brine-lashed caverns are a gem, and well worth checking out firsthand. They do take a bit of extra effort to see. All but one of the seven major caves are only reachable from the water.
Multiple options for La Jolla sea cave tours make viewing these local natural wonders up close much easier.
What Are the La Jolla Sea Caves?
The Seven Caves of La Jolla come gouged into a 200-foot-high, mainly north-facing sandstone bluff line. Specifically, the sandstone cliffs represent the Point Loma Formation, which dates back some 75 million years to the Cretaceous Period. (For context, that was the last geologic stretch of the so-called Age of the Dinosaurs.)
These sea caves are thought to explain the name of the La Jolla coastline. “La Jolla” likely derives from a Kumeyaay Indian label, mut-lay-hoyyah, translating to “the cave place.” At some point the mut in that phrase was dropped, leaving lay-hoyyah—aka La Jolla.
Where Can I Find the La Jolla Sea Caves?
Coast Blvd., which runs along the Cove area in the Village of La Jolla, provides the only direct landward access to and viewing of the sea caves.
The best-known of the seven, Sunny Jim Cave, is also the only one generally reachable by foot (more on that shortly). The others are generally appreciated from a seaward vantage, by snorkeling or on a guided kayaking tour.
From east to west, the seven caves of La Jolla comprise White Lady, Little Sister, Shopping Cart, Sea Surprize, Arch, Sunny Jim, and Clam’s caves.
History of the Formation of the Caves
Seawater pounding into fractures in the Cretaceous-vintage Point Loma Formation sandstone helped form the seven caves.
Besides the mechanical pummeling of the breakers themselves, sand suspended in those surges ground against the rock to expand the clefts and crevices.
The depth of a sea cave depends on how the erosive penetration of breaking waves balances against the collapse of undercut cave walls and roofs.
These La Jolla sea caves also roughly mark the location of the Rose Canyon Fault Zone.
What’s There to See at the La Jolla Caves?
The innards of the sea caves include impressive rock formations, including colorful flowstone and intricate stalagmites and stalactites.
Pacific marine life is also often on display around the seven caves of La Jolla, including California sea lions and harbor seals that historically hauled out in these recesses.
During the summer, you may glimpse the richly patterned leopard sharks that gather along the La Jolla coast in globally significant numbers.
In winter, meanwhile, joining one of the La Jolla sea cave kayak tours geared more toward whale watching may also yield sightings of spouting gray whales on their grand West Coast migration.
What’s Special About Each Cave?
The seven La Jolla caves present striking oceanfront scenery. They also come richly steeped in history. I’ll briefly run down each of the caves in this section, proceeding east to west (or La Jolla Shores to La Jolla Cove).
White Lady Cave
While the details vary a bit, the basic story explaining White Lady Cave’s name is a tragic one.
Apparently, a newlywed couple, the Hathaways, who’d tied the knot in Los Angeles, came to the La Jolla seashore by stagecoach on a honeymoon in the 19th century.
A widespread version of the history suggests Mrs. Hathaway strayed onto the foreshore near the caves to hunt for seashells, only to be swept away by the waves.
A variation contends the Hathaways together sought a secluded, cave-set spot for a bit of romance, but were surprised by a rising tide. The wash of the breaking waves upon White Lady Cave, it’s said, reminded the grief-stricken husband of his wife’s wedding attire.
Little Sister Cave
Little Sister is named for the miniaturized resemblance of its mouth to White Lady Cave. It’s the smallest of the seven La Jolla caves and easily overlooked.
Shopping Cart Cave
Shopping Cart is most notable for boasting a west-facing entrance, unusual among the La Jolla sea caves. The name stems from its historical significance as a trapping site for spiny lobsters, coveted by local restaurants.
Sea Surprize Cave
Sea Surprize is a deceptive landform. Its modest-sized entrance and initially narrow tunnel belie the fact that there’s quite an extensive passageway within.
A 1982 survey revealed vivid orange flowstone walls and a pool populated by sea anemones crusted with calcite in the depths of Sea Surprize Cave.
Arch Cave—sometimes called Arches—is the deepest of the La Jolla sea caves. It accounts for more than 600 feet, split among six component corridors.
At one point two separate caves existed here, but erosion ended up connecting them into one system linked at a rock arch.
Sunny Jim Cave
At 320 or so feet deep, Sunny Jim is the second-largest of the seven La Jolla caves. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s also the only one that’s readily reached by land.
A German academic named Gustav Shulz conceived of the idea of tunneling into the cave to provide tourist access. The work was done by a pair of Chinese laborers. This access tunnel was improved with electric lighting and some 145 steps.
Where does the name “Sunny Jim” come from? The most widely referenced explanation is that the resemblance of the cave’s mouth to the profile of a cartoon character used to advertise a cereal brand way back in the day.
It’s said that none other than Wizard of Oz creator L. Frank Baum was the one who christened the cave for this association.
There are alternative stories, though. Another suggests the cave’s name is a nod to California governor “Sunny Jim” Ralph.
Either way, Sunny Jim Cave comes drenched in history. The legend goes that its portal was utilized to smuggle whiskey in the Prohibition days, not to mention opium and even people attempting to enter the U.S. under the radar.
The Cave Store, originally Shulz’s home, serves as the La Jolla Cove access to the Sunny Jim’s Cave tunnel. If you want to go inside, you’ll need to stop into the store to buy a ticket (and browse for souvenirs) before walking down the steps into the cave.
The Clam Cave (or Clam’s Cave) is named for its double-sided entrance and sloshing inflow and outflow of water. This is the only sea cave visible from land on Coast Blvd., though it’s accessed (when conditions permit) via kayak.
Bonus Sea Cave: La Jolla Cove
It’s not considered one of the seven La Jolla caves but there is a small La Jolla Cove cave adjacent to the beach. During low tides, you can walk through it but you must be careful of the surf. Sea lions usually hang out here and you can see small tide pools.
What Activities Are There to Do at the La Jolla Sea Caves?
Aside from the walk down into Sunny Jim Cave, the La Jolla sea caves are best appreciated from the water. (It is possible to access some of the sea caves at low tide by trekking along the coast in a wetsuit. This isn’t recommended unless you’re following the lead of a guide or unless it’s really low tide.)
GOING INSIDE THE SEA CAVESYou should not attempt to paddle or swim inside the sea caves. The currents can be strong and it would be very easy to lose control. One caveat is that some experienced tour guides will take you inside Clam’s Cave if the currents permit.
La Jolla Sea Cave Kayak Tours
On any given day you’ll see plenty of kayaks out in the ecological reserve. This is because the best way to check out the seven caves of La Jolla is on one of the many guided kayaking tours.
Depending on the tide and current conditions, these tours may actually enter Clam’s cave. Others are simply surveyed from offshore.
Given how rough and unruly the waters at the entrance to the caves can be, this kind of guided exploration with an expert guide is the best way to get a safe, up-close look at these La Jolla gems. Kayak rentals are available in La Jolla Shores for those who opt for a self-guided route.
NO KAYAKS LAUNCH FROM LA JOLLA COVEThe only place to launch a kayak is at La Jolla Shores. You can not do this from La Jolla Cove beach because it is part of the ecological reserve.
La Jolla Sea Cave Snorkeling
Lush kelp forests, cruising leopard sharks and vivid garibaldi (California’s state fish), the occasional fly-by from a sea lion: The submarine sights in this marine protected area can be fabulous!
Multiple tour companies lead snorkeling tours in the vicinity. Going with a guide is the way to do it. Attempting to snorkel on your own into the caves is not recommended.
I would highly recommend a snorkeling and kayak tour where you kayak out to the caves, tether the kayaks together, hop out, and go snorkeling.
EXCLUSIVE EVERYDAY CALIFORNIA DISCOUNT (AD)Use code lajollamom for a 20% discount on kayak and snorkeling tours to the La Jolla sea caves, lessons, and rentals. Book now.
Experience the Seven Caves of La Jolla
Since most of the La Jolla caves can only be seen from the water, many local residents don’t know they exist. Now that you do, let me summarize the best ways to see them. You can:
- View Clam’s Cave from Coast Blvd.
- Walk into Sunny Jim Cave via The Cave Store (also on Coast Blvd.)
- Take a kayak tour or snorkeling/kayak tour to the sea caves.
- Rent kayaks or an SUP and paddle over on your own.