Best San Diego Beaches – From North to South
San Onofre to Imperial Beach and almost everything in between
Seventy miles of coastline equals a myriad of San Diego beaches.
They differ in important ways, which means that some might be worth the drive versus selecting the one closest to you. Or, that you may consider choosing a San Diego hotel close to the beach that appeals most to you. With that in mind, we’ve put together a guide to the best beaches in San Diego, listed from the north to south.
See also: Best San Diego Hotels on the Beach
Table of Contents
- San Onofre State Beach
- Oceanside Beaches
- Carlsbad Beaches
- Encinitas Beaches
- Cardiff State Beach
- Solana Beach
- Del Mar
- Torrey Pines State Beach
- La Jolla
- Pacific Beach
- Mission Beach
- Ocean Beach
- Imperial Beach
- Tips for Visiting San Diego Beaches
San Onofre State Beach
A staggering 2.5 million visitors annually make San Onofre one of the top 5 most visited state parks in California. Find San Onofre State Beach north of Oceanside, past Camp Pendleton.
It’s also famous for the no-longer-active San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) and epic Trestles surf break.
San Onofre State Beach is made up of three parts.
San Onofre Bluffs
The Bluffs has day-use parking and camping adjacent to the sandstone bluffs. Six dirt trails run from the cliffs above to the beach below. The bathrooms are via chemical toilets only.
San Mateo Campground
It’s 1.5 miles inland from beaches, connected by a nature trail to Trestles Beach. Make reservations here well in advance.
San Onofre Surf Beach
San Onofre has several surfing spots. Some have easy access while others are harder to reach. Some are gentle enough for beginners while others, like the world-famous Trestles, have been thrilling surfers since the 1940s.
- Trestles: Inaccessible by car, getting there requires a walk on a nature trail from either the north or south end, running under the namesake Trestles Bridge.
- Church: Located near the Camp Pendleton Beach Resort, Church is primarily for bird watchers and sunbathers.
- Surf Beach: There are three breaks here including The Point, Old Man’s, and Dogpatch. Note that this entire beach area is covered by a rock reef, which can make walking in or out of the surf a challenge.
- Trails: Trails is the most southern of surf spot here.
The exit for the beach is Basilone Road (3 miles south of San Clemente) while the exit for the campgrounds is Cristianitos in San Clemente.
Oceanside has 3.5 miles of sandy beaches that are good for the typical array of beach activities. Beachgoers can swim, sunbathe, bodyboard, play volleyball and Frisbee, go surfing, and more.
Beaches north of Oceanside Pier have a lot more sand, and therefore a lot more space for visitors than those further south of the pier.
Oceanside beaches are divided into seven separately-named beaches staffed with lifeguards. For our purposes here, we highlight three areas.
Adjacent to the Oceanside Harbor itself, north of Oceanside Pier, this is Oceanside’s largest beach. Nearby, The Jetties is well-known surfing area, especially popular with surfers in the summer.
Breakwater Way is a family beach located south of Harbor Beach as there is no surfing allowed in summer months.
The Strand (top pick)
The Strand is a one-way, southbound, pedestrian-friendly street that runs parallel and alongside the beach on both sides of the Oceanside Pier.
As a result, it’s the local namesake for the adjacent beaches and boardwalk (Pier View North and Pier View South beaches). The area south of the pier is Oceanside’s most famous beach spot.
It is an excellent spot for families with kids, in part because several small parks dot the boardwalk, including a playground by the Pier, with restrooms and picnic tables. Leashed dogs are allowed to walk on The Strand.
Other Oceanside Beaches South of the Pier
During the summer, Oceanside Boulevard Beach has areas designated just for swimmers, i.e., no surfers. Sunbathers like Buccaneer Beach, as do families with younger kids just getting used to the water. Bathrooms and showers are available here. Cassidy Street Beach is south of Buccaneer Beach and is the southernmost beach in Oceanside. But it has no bathrooms.
Parking in Oceanside for beach-goers is a mix of free, paid, and metered, much of which is time-limited. So make a point to check the relevant signage. Free parking is available on residential streets.
Carlsbad’s five miles of pretty sandy beaches are often quieter than those in the south because in most parts the bluffs provide some privacy from city life.
North Carlsbad Beaches
This stretch of beach from the Oceanside border south to Pine Avenue, near Carlsbad Village is co-owned by the state of California and the local property owners.
As a result, these beaches are open to the public, but they do not have lifeguards or restrooms. These often-quieter beaches can be accessed via Carlsbad Village Drive, and select other local streets.
Tamarack Beach (Top Pick)
This is the main beach of Carlsbad as it’s close to the downtown area. Carlsbad State Beach, but more commonly known locally as “Tamarack Beach,” runs from Tamarack Avenue to Frazee Beach, near Carlsbad Village Drive.
Here, the mile-long Carlsbad Seawall runs from Carlsbad Village drive to Cannon, separating the beach from Highway 101. It’s paved and scenic (including very notable sunset views) making it a popular destination for cyclists, joggers, and walkers.
It’s great for families with young kids. Many of the usual beach activities are available like swimming and surfing as are scuba diving, kayaking, and fishing and other possibilities. There are lifeguard towers and picnic tables here as well.
As for parking, there is a small lot where Carlsbad Boulevard intersects Tamarack Avenue. (There is a restroom here, too.) Street parking is a better bet.
South Carlsbad State Beach
South Carlsbad State Beach extends from Palomar Airport Road to La Costa Avenue. It runs below some rugged cliffs and is not as easily accessible as other Carlsbad beaches. However, this is the location of the bluff-top South Carlsbad Beach Campground. It overlooks the beach and has stairs running down to it.
While it has few amenities, the beautiful sand makes it ideal for beach strolling and jogging.
This section of South Carlsbad State Beach includes Terramar Beach and North Ponto Beach. Terramar is the stretch of beach south of the Carlsbad power plant and north of Palomar Airport Road. There are no public restrooms or lifeguard stations, but lifeguards do patrol in vehicles. It’s primarily a spot for local surfers, but south of the campground can be popular with families in the summer. Here, there are no restrooms and only street parking.
South Ponto Beach
South Ponto Beach is technically part of South Carlsbad State Beach. It’s one of the few beaches in Carlsbad that has public restrooms and showers. It’s also one of the widest beaches in the area, make it popular with families in the summer though winter surf washes cobblestones up onto the sand.
It borders a rare, undeveloped part of town so has a bit of a rustic feel to it. (Batiquitos Lagoon, on the opposite side of the highway at the beach’s northern end, is one of the few remaining tidal wetlands on the coast of Southern California.)
Surfing events are held here periodically as well. It’s known for great sunset views and has a small parking lot, otherwise, try the pay parking lot at South Carlsbad State Beach.
North of downtown Encinitas, the beaches of Leucadia are at the base of seaside cliffs. Three stairways lead down to the beach, and they can be difficult for those unfamiliar with the area to find. These beaches are locally-known primarily as surfing spots.
The City of Encinitas operates Leucadia State Beach, located at Neptune Avenue. Many locals refer to it simply as “Beacon’s.” There is plenty of free parking along nearby residential streets.
Note that these beaches don’t have bathrooms or lifeguards.
Encinitas has six beaches (including Beacon’s mentioned above in Leucadia) covering six miles of coastline, headlined by one of our most popular San Diego beaches, Moonlight Beach, as well as Swami’s, a locally famous surf spot with some memorable public art, great views, and a lot of local stories.
Downtown Encinitas along Highway 101, nearly adjacent to the beaches, still retains some of its 1960s Southern California beach town charm with boutique shopping, new restaurants, and yoga studios mixed in.
As already noted above, Swami’s is a locally famous surfing spot, with great views along the beachside cliffs, as well as restrooms, picnic areas, and a parking lot. Swami’s takes its name from the Self-Realization Fellowship ashram built nearby in 1937.
Moonlight Beach (Top Pick)
Located where Encinitas Boulevard intersects Highway 101 at the coast, Moonlight Beach has it all in terms of facilities. In fact, it’s a beach of choice for some concierges at Carlsbad hotels even though it’s a bit further south than Carlsbad beaches.
Moonlight beach has a parking lot, restrooms, showers, volleyball courts, a playground, fire rings, and lifeguards. It is also ADA accessible.
The well-rounded offerings make it one of the best family San Diego beaches though it can get very crowded in the summer. No dogs are allowed.
A rocky beach south of Moonlight Beach that, as a result, is a surfing spot and not a sunbathe and play spot. No restrooms, but available street parking.
Cardiff State Beach
There is a campground here, as well as some excellent surfing spots. Low tides at Cardiff State Beach reveal tide pools in the exposed reef. The kelp beds here also make for some good diving. The beach in front of the campground is popular with families.
Lifeguards are seasonal but present in the summer. Parking is available, but you have to buy a pass at the ranger station at the campground. Free parking is also available along Highway 101. Cardiff State Beach also has public bathrooms and showers.
The 1.7 miles of beaches in Solana Beach are divided into four main but small beach parks.
Tide Beach Park
Tide Beach Park is located approximately 1/2 mile north of Fletcher Cove, at the intersection of Solana Vista and Highway 101. There are showers there, but no restrooms. The beach itself is primarily known for its large reef, or “Table Tops,” and its tide pools. Lifeguards are on duty there during the summer months.
The main beach in Solana Beach is Fletcher Cove, aka “Pillbox” (because a WWII gunnery installation is there) located where Lomas Santa Fe Boulevard meets the coast and just across Highway 101 from the Solana Beach train station.
There are public restrooms and showers, as well as picnic tables on the bluffs above the beach. Lifeguards are on duty from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. during the winter months, and from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. during the summer months.
A small public parking lot is located nearby in addition to free street parking on surrounding streets.
Seascape Surf lies about a 1/2 mile south of Fletcher Cove. It has wide sandy beaches for typical beach recreation and is also a favorite surfing spot. Lifeguards are on duty at only during the summer months.
Find public showers above the beach access, but there are no public restrooms. Free parking is available at a public parking lot located across the street from the beach access in addition to free street parking.
Del Mar Shores
Located at Solana Beach’s southern border with Del Mar, there is free street parking and three free parking lots located nearby. There are no public restrooms or showers, however at this San Diego beach. Lifeguards are on duty at Del Mar Shores only during the summer months.
Del Mar’s 2 miles of stunning sandy beaches are divided into three parks. All are family-friendly and one is dog-friendly.
North Beach (Dog Beach or The Rivermouth)
This is one of the best San Diego beaches for dogs (dogs must be restricted to leashes no longer than 6 feet). It starts north of 29th street, where the San Dieguito River meets the ocean.
This family-friendly strip of beach is good for walking regardless of whether Fido is with you. The water is shallow and typically without too many waves which is part of the reason why it’s popular with kids and dogs.
Free street parking is available. But, as with other Del Mar beaches, parking during peak times in the summer is tough.
Del Mar City Beach North (Top Pick)
Del Mar City Beach North starts at the end of 15th street and runs to Dog Beach. As 15th street is a central and main street in Del Mar, this means that shops and restaurants are also steps from the beach.
These are some of the best San Diego beaches for family-style beach recreation. Powerhouse and Seagrove public parks with their lovely grassy areas and playground are here.
There is a lifeguard tower at 17th Street, as well as restrooms and showers there. If you were to stay at Fairmont Grand Del Mar, the summer beach butlers bring guests to this San Diego beach.
Del Mar City Beach South
South of 15th street, the beaches become quieter and narrower. It’s possible to walk from here (assuming the tide isn’t too high) all the way down to Torrey Pines State Beach.
Torrey Pines State Beach
Open at 7:15 a.m. every day and closed again at sunset, Torrey Pines State Beach is roughly between Del Mar and La Jolla.
As you pull in, take the low road directly to the adjacent beach. This San Diego beach has lifeguards, restrooms, and showers, and is popular with families. Swimming, surfing, and fishing are popular at this family-friendly beach.
The high road leads up to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve on the bluffs overlooking the beach. In addition to another day use only, pay parking lot there, the Natural Reserve has a network of picturesque, coastal, hiking and nature trails. The Beach Trail leads down to the beach below the cliffs.
The two pay parking lots fill up quickly during peak season. Free street parking is available though the street is quite busy.
No dogs are allowed (even in cars) into the Torrey Pines State Beach or Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
From the towering 300 ft. sea cliffs below the Gliderport to the sandy beaches of La Jolla Shores, the coastline varies dramatically in La Jolla.
There are two primary recreational beaches in La Jolla (La Jolla Shores and La Jolla Cove), but Black’s Beach also deserves mention for its waves. You can also read about the smaller La Jolla beaches that you’ll stumble upon especially if walking along the boardwalk in the Village.
This two-mile strip of secluded beach below the cliffs of the Torrey Pines Gliderport (adjacent to the UC San Diego campus immediately south of Torrey Pines State Beach) is known for two things: (i) nude beach, and (ii) surfing.
The beach is named for the Black family, who formerly owned a farm on the cliffs above. They later sold the farm, and it was developed into the expensive residential homes of La Jolla Farms.
The access trail down to Black’s Beach from the Gliderport (which usually has ample free parking) is the most popular way to get there. However, it is also long and steep. If you’re surfing, surfers typically use the Salk Canyon road to access the beach from UCSD. It, too, is long and steep. You can also access Black’s beach, from Torrey Pines State Beach.
It is 1 of 9 beaches in San Diego with a permanent lifeguard station. Other than that, there are no amenities to speak of.
Be aware of stingrays in the water here when the water temperature rises above 50 degrees.
La Jolla Shores (Top Pick)
This mile-long sandy beach is my favorite of all San Diego beaches. The San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park offshore creates unique opportunities for water sports while (usually) limiting the size and strength of the waves. However, its designated surfing area is quite popular.
In addition to sunbathing and enjoying the ocean, kayak tours, snorkeling tours, surf lessons, SUP, and scuba diving all launch from here. The most significant annual aggregation of leopard sharks (harmless) happens each summer in the warm water here, so it’s not uncommon for them to swim near you in knee-deep water.
The Scripps Pier at the north end of the beach is where many locals come to take family photos (I recently took some pictures there with a Flytographer vacation photographer).
Two beachfront hotels, the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club and La Jolla Shores Hotel, provide epic beach vacations for guests while the shops and restaurants of La Jolla Shores are a few blocks away. There is also a beachfront playground and substantial grassy area called Kellogg Park.
It is one of nine San Diego beaches with a permanent lifeguard station. The substantial parking lot here fills quickly during peak days. Street parking also fills up. During those days, it’s best to come early or come late or take an Uber. Public restrooms and showers are also available.
La Jolla Cove
La Jolla Cove is also part of the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park, so no surfboards, boogie boards or inflatable devices are permitted. It is among San Diego’s most popular spots for swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, and kayaking. Indeed, it is widely regarded as the best snorkeling spot in San Diego.
The small white sand beach is popular with families. The waves are usually very small or often nonexistent in the cove which is great for young kids.
A rather large congregation of sea lions usually hang out on the rocks above the sand. While nothing separates humans from the sea lions (I’ve seen plenty of people take selfies with them), please keep your distance from these fun-to-watch wild animals.
Ellen Browning Scripps Park above the beach is also a favorite spot for picnics and Frisbee and the like.
Public restrooms and a permanent lifeguard tower overlook the beach. Outdoor showers are also available as is street parking.
A generation (or two) ago, Pacific Beach (or PB”) was a residential, beachside community of young families. Over the last 30 years, PB has become synonymous among locals with college students and young adults partying in the area’s many bars, clubs, and restaurants.
At the same time, Pacific Beach has three excellent San Diego beaches (including one many La Jolla families frequent), two of which are very popular with the tourists who keep Pacific Beach hotels and motels full many months a year.
Tourmaline Surfing Park
At the border of La Jolla and Pacific Beach, the end of Tourmaline Street leads to a rocky beach that is primarily popular with surfers and beachgoers who walk dogs, jog or enjoy sunsets (not necessarily swimming). These are regulars who often congregate in the parking lot to socialize in between surf sessions.
The small, free public parking lot fills up during peak times but usually has available spaces during non-peak days and times. There is also a public bathroom (not the greatest) and a couple of small picnic areas here.
North Pacific Beach
Running south from Tourmaline to Crystal Pier, this wide stretch of beach is calmer and has lifeguard towers at Law and Diamond Streets.
North Pacific Beach is popular with tourists, as well as with locals during peak summer days. The bathroom facilities at Law Street were recently renovated and are very nice (for beach bathrooms). This is where we often go to the beach if not at La Jolla Shores. Law Street is the start of the boardwalk that runs all the way to the end of Mission Beach.
Local kids also often take surfing lessons here as the waves are usually quite good for beginners.
Parking in the residential streets in the area is fairly plentiful but fills up quickly in the summer.
Running from the Crystal Pier to Pacific Beach Drive, this is the biggest stretch of sandy beach in Pacific Beach and is among the most popular beaches in San Diego.
In addition to lifeguard stations, there are also bathrooms and small parking lots at Grand Avenue and Pacific Beach Drive. Bike rentals, bars, ice cream stands and coffee shops dot the concrete boardwalk that runs along this entire area.
See also: Things to Do in Pacific Beach with Kids
Mission Beach is a one mile stretch of beach bounded by Pacific Beach to the north and terminates at the South Mission Beach jetty with Ocean Beach on the other side.
The broad sandy beach is popular with families, tourists, swimmers, surfers, volleyball players and others. The people-watching here can have a Venice Beach-like aspect as well.
The oceanfront boardwalk continues from Pacific Beach and is lined with ice cream shops, bars, restaurants and vacation rentals. Several lifeguard towers dot Mission Beach.
Near the midway point, at the intersection of Mission Boulevard and West Mission Bay Drive, an old-style amusement park called Belmont Park, features a wooden roller coaster originally built in 1925, carnival games, restaurants, and other rides. It’s a local icon with a parking lot on each side.
South of Belmont Park, Mission Beach becomes a little quieter. Volleyball courts dot the beach here with a rather large grouping of courts at the beach’s end near the jetty where people like to also fish.
Also, the calmer waters of Mission Bay are a short walk across Mission Beach’s main street, Mission Boulevard.
Immediately south of Mission Beach, Ocean Beach (or OB as it is universally known locally) is sort of the last stand in San Diego of the 1960s/70s southern California beach town. (Though gentrification has gradually eaten away at that over the last 25ish years.)
As you drive west toward the beach down Newport Avenue, Ocean Beach’s main commercial thoroughfare you will first pass a string of locally renowned antique shops, then a series of beachside bars and taco stands, mixed amid organic restaurants, pottery and craft shops, the original home of what many consider San Diego’s best hamburger, Hodad’s, and OB’s pseudo head shop, a multi-generational local institution called The Black, and past a youth hostel.
You will eventually come to an end at the OB Pier, where skateboarders, locals, hangers-on, homeless, and tourists all congregate. Most people come away from a day in OB with the feeling that the day was unique, fun, and quirky, maybe with a couple of people watching stories mixed in.
If you dissect Ocean Beach, one may identify nearly a dozen beach spots. But for the casual visitor, there are just two.
Where Newport Avenue hits the beach at the end of the OB Pier, the road curves right to the north. If you follow that road north a short distance you will come to the other famous beach, Dog Beach.
Its northern border is the Mission Bay Harbor Channel and the jetty, so if you’re driving, you can’t miss it by driving past it. Dogs (and other pets) may run around here any time without a leash. There is also a public parking lot here.
Ocean Beach Pier
The most popular beach spot is at the Ocean Beach Pier. Surfers tend to surf the pier itself, but just yards north of that is a broad sandy beach that in the summer is full of beachgoers, sunbathers, families, swimmers, and bodyboarders.
As an aside, it is worth walking up on the pier itself. It’s free, and the panoramic view from the end of the pier is excellent. (It’s also usually dotted with people who are fishing.)
Street parking is also available on Newport Avenue and the surrounding residential streets. Just a few yards north is a lifeguard tower, with public restrooms and showers, as well as beach volleyball courts.
When most people think of Coronado, the iconic Hotel Del Coronado and the picturesque Coronado Bridge come to mind. Others probably also think of the US Navy. But Coronado’s long sandy beaches are consistently voted some of America’s best.
Most day visitors to Coronado who want to go to the beach typically head for what’s called Coronado Central Beach, in front of the Hotel del Coronado. Locals and dog owners may head north of that to dog-friendly North Beach instead. There are two other, less prominent beach areas in Coronado as well.
Like other excellent San Diego beaches finding a parking spot (on the street or in a lot, free or paid) anywhere near the beach areas of Coronado can be a challenge. There is a pay parking lot adjacent to the Hotel del Coronado that fills up quickly even though it is pricey.
Coronado Central Beach (Top Pick)
Coronado Central Beach is a 1.5-mile long beach that runs along Ocean Boulevard with the Hotel Del Coronado at the southern end.
This San Diego beach is popular with swimmers, sunbathers, and beachcombers, as well as surfers (in the spots where it is permitted). The beach is flat and wide, making it easier to find your place in the sand, which glimmers due to the presence of a mineral called mica. Tide pools also appear in front of The Del at low tides.
Find public restrooms and showers near the Central Beach Lifeguard Tower in addition to a handful of fire rings and beach volleyball courts. Lifeguards are on duty here from 9:00 a.m. to sunset. Free street parking is available along nearby Ocean Boulevard.
The western part of this dog beach is leash-free year-round, as indicated by signs that run along Ocean Boulevard from Sunset Park to the U.S. Naval Station. It offers excellent views of the Hotel del Coronado and the Point Loma and tends to be a bit less crowded.
Street parking is available along Ocean Boulevard, but it’s a bit of a walk to the beach from there.
Ferry Landing Marketplace
On the downtown San Diego side of Coronado (the opposite side of Coronado from the Hotel Del Coronado), Ferry Landing Marketplace has a sandy beach adjacent to fishing/ferry pier with great views of downtown San Diego and calm waters of the San Diego Bay.
A summertime shuttle takes guests from the Ferry Landing to the other side of the island.
Silver Strand State Beach
This beautiful beach area is located 4.5 miles south of Coronado Village along the 7-mile isthmus called The Strand, the spit of land that connects Coronado to the mainland. An underpass at Silver Strand State Beach (beneath this road) enables access to a bayside beach as well as picnic areas, and even Loews Coronado Bay Resort.
Here, visitors enjoy camping, boating, fishing, volleyball, kayaking, biking, sunbathing and more. It’s less busy and a bit more rustic down here, so it’s also an excellent spot for shelling. A concession stand opens during summer.
Lifeguards are on duty and the day use parking lot holds 1000 cars at a price of $10-$12 depending on the day.
Just 5 miles north of the Mexican border, the 4-mile stretch of beach in Imperial Beach is the southernmost beach in all of California. In addition to the traditional day-at-the-beach-type activities, Imperial Beach offers some excellent surf spots, fishing opportunities, beach volleyball courts, and even coastal horseback riding trails.
The Imperial Beach Pier, a few blocks south of Evergreen Avenue, boasts panoramic views of the ocean and shore, as well as of Mexico’s Los Coronados Islands (where a Prohibition-era casino was once located). Like other local beach piers, it’s a favorite spot to fish and watch the sunset.
An outdoor public art project around the pier named the Outdoor Surf Museum has also become a locally iconic image of Imperial Beach.
The area of the beach around the Pier, the most popular stretch of beach in Imperial Beach, has year-round lifeguards, as well as public restrooms and showers.
There is a mix of residential street parking and lot parking available around the beaches of Imperial Beach.
The City of Imperial Beach also operates 7 public parks adjacent or near various beach areas. These parks offer a mix of playgrounds, picnic areas, volleyball courts, restrooms and more.
The Tijuana River National Estuary, where the fresh water of the Tijuana River meets the salt water of the Pacific Ocean, is located in Imperial Beach as well. It is the largest saltwater marsh in Southern California and is among the best bird-watching spots in San Diego. The occasional downside is that sewage from Tijuana flows down the river and into the ocean prompting beach closures, but authorities keep an eye on this.
The annual Sun & Sea Festival in Imperial Beach is locally famous for its incredible sandcastle competition.
Tips for Visiting San Diego Beaches
Alcohol is not allowed on any San Diego beaches except for Del Beach, part of the Hotel Del Coronado, and the private beach in front of the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club.
Parking at San Diego beaches is challenging during summer, school breaks, and sunny weekend days from late spring to early fall. Either arrive early or late or take an Uber. If you drive, be sure to bring shoes or sandals, because your walk from your car to the beach may be a significant one.
To check for beach closures and conditions, check the always up-to-date County of San Diego Beach Water Quality website.
Which are your favorite San Diego beaches?