San Diego Beaches Planner
Even at summer’s hottest peak, San Diego’s beaches are cool and breezy. Ocean waves are large, and the water is colder than what it is at tropical beaches. Temperatures range from 55ºF to 65ºF from October through June, and 65ºF to 73ºF from July through September.
For a surf and weather report, call San Diego’s Lifeguard Services at 619/221–8824. Visit www.surfline.com for live webcams on surf conditions and water temperature forecasts.
The Green Flash
Some people think it’s a phony phenomenon, but the fleeting "green flash" is real, if rare. On a clear day and under certain atmospheric conditions, higher-frequency green light causes a brief green flash at the moment when the sun sinks into the sea. For a chance at seeing it, head to Lahaina Beach House in Pacific Beach. The bar has a large patio right on the sand and is a great place to grab a pitcher at sunset.
What to Bring
In addition to beach essentials like sunscreen, hats, and towels, many beachgoers bring bodyboards to ride the waves, blankets to lie on, buckets for the kids to make sand castles, and a beach umbrella for shade. Many beaches do not have shoreline concessions, so bring your own bottles of water and snacks. Surfers and bodysurfers often wear wet suits, which are available for purchase or rental in the shops in beach towns.
Despite Southern California’s famous balminess, fog and a marine layer may creep in unexpectedly at various parts of the day. This happens often in early summer, and is referred to as "May Gray" and "June Gloom." Bring a light sweater in case the fine mist rolls in, or if you plan on staying at the beach until dark, when temperatures get cooler.
Getting to the Beach
San Diego Transit buses www.sdmts.com stop a short walk from the beaches, but it’s better to rent a car to explore on your own. Driving the scenic coastal routes is fun in itself. County Highway S21 runs along the coast between Torrey Pines State Beach and Oceanside, although its local names (Old Highway 101 or Coast Highway 101, for example) vary by community.
Parking is usually near the beaches, but in a few cases, such as Black’s Beach, a bit of a hike is required. Finding a parking spot near the ocean can be hard in summer. Del Mar has a pay lot and metered street parking around the 15th Street Beach. La Jolla Shores has free street parking up to two hours. Mission Beach, and other large beaches have unmetered parking lots, but space can be limited. Your best bet is to arrive early.
Pay attention to signs listing illegal activities; undercover police often patrol the beaches. Smoking and alcoholic beverages are completely banned on city beaches. Drinking in beach parking lots, on boardwalks, and in landscaped areas is also illegal. Glass containers are not permitted on beaches, cliffs, and walkways, or in park areas and adjacent parking lots. Littering is not tolerated, and skateboarding is prohibited at some beaches. Fires are allowed only in fire rings or elevated barbecue grills. Although it may be tempting to take a sea creature from a tide pool as a souvenir, it may upset the delicate ecological balance, and it’s illegal, too.
Year-round, lifeguards are stationed at nine permanent stations from Sunset Cliffs to Black’s Beach. All other beaches are covered by roving patrols in the winter, and seasonal towers in the summer. When swimming in the ocean be aware of rip currents, which are common in California shores. If you are caught in one, don’t panic. Swim parallel to the shore until you can reach land without resistance. To be safe, go swimming near lifeguard towers where you will be visible.
Few beaches have lockers to keep your belongings secure. If you’re going to the beach solo and plan on going in the water, leave your wallet out of sight in your car.
San Diego’s beaches are well maintained and very clean during summertime, when rainfall is infrequent. Beaches along San Diego County’s northern cities are typically cleaner than ones farther south. Pollution is generally worse near river mouths and storm-drain outlets, especially after heavy rainfall. Call San Diego’s Lifeguard Services at 619/221–8824 for a recorded message that includes pollution reports along with surfing and diving conditions. The Heal the Bay organization (www.healthebay.org) monitors and grades California coastal water conditions yearly.
Overnight camping is not allowed on any San Diego city beach, but there are campgrounds at some state beaches (800/444–7275 for reservations www.reserveamerica.com) throughout the county.
Leashed dogs are permitted on most San Diego beaches and adjacent parks from 6 pm to 9 am; they can run unleashed anytime at Dog Beach at the north end of Ocean Beach and, from the day after Labor Day through June 14, at Dog Beach at the rivermouth in Del Mar. In Mission Bay near SeaWorld, there's an off-leash dog park on Fiesta Island where dogs can splash in the calm water.
When sporadic algae blooms turn coastal waters a reddish-brown hue, San Diegans know the "red tide" has arrived. Environmentalists may see it as a bane to healthy ocean life, but the phenomenon is welcomed as a chance to witness ocean phosphorescence. The phytoplankton that causes the discoloration is unsightly only until nightfall. After dark, the algae-rich waters crash against the sand, inciting bioluminescent plankton to emit a bluish-green neon light. The result is a marvelous display of glow-in-the-dark waves. California’s red tide typically occurs between April and August.