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9 of San Diego County's Best Coastal Hikes

San Elijo State Beach
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This guide is part of KCET's California Coastal Trail project, which looks at the state's massive undertaking to build a trail over 1,000 miles in length along its whole coastline.

With its urban waterfront, dramatic bluffs, wetlands, and golden sand, San Diego County hosts more than its share of coastal hikes, with nothing more difficult than negotiating a trail up or down bluffs. Here are some of the county's best, from the shadow of the Tijuana bull ring to the (sometimes) deserted beaches of San Onofre.

Border Field State Park

3 miles, Easy

Border Field State Park
Coastal wetlands at Border Field State Park.   | Tony Webster/Flickr/Creative Commons

Whether starting or ending an exploration of the California coast at the Mexican border, you can opt to do so from atop a horse, a choice not available in many coastal areas. Border Field State Park has a network of horse and hiking trails through the largest coastal wetland in Southern California. Why not begin by trotting along the stretch of beach between the border and the mouth of the Tijuana River, a one-and-a-half mile round-trip stretch. The adjoining Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve has a couple more miles of horse and hiking trails through a protected salt marsh ecosystem, if a longer ride, or walk, is in order.

Sunset Cliffs

1-2 miles, Easy

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Sunset Cliffs in San Diego  | Justin Brown/Flickr/Creative Commons

The name "Sunset Cliffs" gives an idea of what might draw visitors to this undeveloped stretch of coast along Point Loma. But the truth is the cliffs and beaches are gorgeous any time of day or night. A footpath follows the rugged shoreline along Sunset Cliffs Blvd., beginning where it intersects with Adair Street, for about a mile. The path and adjoining open spaces are super popular with runners, walkers, folks doing yoga or just taking it all in. It rarely feels very crowded though. And at the southern end of the walking path, the trail continues as a footpath about a block to the east. This is the beginning of Sunset Cliffs Natural Park, and like the name suggests, it's an undeveloped stretch of coast. You can follow a dirt path atop the cliffs for roughly a quarter of a mile. Spur trails give hikers access to the beach below, which can be followed for another half-mile or more (before turning needing to turn back because of topography) depending on tides and how adventurous you're feeling. This can be done on foot, or via stand-up paddleboard for a sportier experience. It's about 2 miles if you walk the entire paved path, then head out on the trail, down to the beach a ways, and back.

Pacific Beach to Mission Beach

3 miles, Easy

Pacific Beach
Sunset at Pacific Beach | Nathan Rupert/Flickr/Creative Commons

Take a cue from the locals and grab a skateboard, bike, or rollerblades and cruise the boardwalk between Pacific Beach and Mission Beach. No matter which way you do it, you will be treated to classic California waterfront and its attendant characters. There are plenty of places to stop during or after the outing to get a bite to eat, a drink, or to people-watch. It's three miles, one way.

La Jolla Cove

1.5 miles, Easy

La Jolla Cove Beach
La Jolla Cove Beach | Photo: **Mary**/Flickr/Creative Commons

Hikers can take a footpath tracing this knuckle of land from near Nicholson Point on the southern end, past Scripps Park, to the cove on the northern end. The path treats walkers to sweeping views of the Pacific, and the coast to the north. But anyone wishing for a closer view of the rocky caves at the base of the bluffs, or a glimpse of the ecological reserve just offshore, has options, too. Kayakers, scuba divers, snorkelers and swimmers can gain a view from the water with ease. The path is 1.5 miles, one way.

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and State Beach

3 miles, Easy

Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve
The beach at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve | Indy Randhawa/Flickr/Creative Commons

This park's lovely namesake trees are a must-see for anyone in the area. The pines grow only on these foggy hills and Santa Rosa Island, on one of the Channel Islands, 170 miles away. So, unless you're planning a trip to the national park, you might as well take this opportunity to commune with them. The park features mellow terrain throughout, with a handful of trails originating on the bluffs and descending down to an enchanting, windswept beach. For the best of the beach and bluffs, create a 3-mile loop by hiking the North Fork Trail to the Broken Hill Trail, then north along the beach to the Razor Point Trail, which will lead back up the bluffs to the road.

Torrey Pines to La Jolla Shores

5 miles, Easy

Torrey Pines Beach
Hikers pass Black's Beach, shown here, between Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and La Jolla Shores.   | Tony Webster/Flickr/Creative Commons

Then again, why trudge back up the hill at all? You may as well head south from the beach at Torrey Pines and walk along the remote and rarely crowded 5 miles of coast that stretches to La Jolla Shores. You'll pass underneath the world famous Torrey Pines Golf Course and amble through Black's Beach, a spot famous for its beauty and powerful surf and infamous for its nude sunbathers. Be sure to time the start of the hike with the beginning of an ebbing tide, lest getting stuck between crashing surf and the 300 foot bluffs that line the coast. This walk five miles one way and can be done in either direction.

South Carlsbad to San Elijo

7 miles, Easy

San Elijo State Beach
Coastal wetlands in San Elijo | Jim Tomcik/Flickr/Creative Commons

This region of San Diego County, from San Elijo to San Clemente, offers some of the best beach backpacking in Southern California because of the abundance of appropriately spaced campgrounds. A backpacker so inclined might consider strolling the seven miles of lovely bluffs and beaches that separate South Carlsbad from San Elijo. The going is easy and the scenery is sublime. This stretch is also one that offers a bike path or city streets for most of the distance, so if hoofing it is not your thing, bring wheels. Alternative paths are available beginning north of Leucadia to Birmingham Drive in Cardiff-by-the-Sea. This stretch of seven miles can be done in either direction.

San Elijo Lagoon

2.8 miles, Easy

San Elijo Beach Lagoon
A train rolls through the lagoon at San Elijo State Beach.   | Tim Buss/Flickr/Creative Commons

Rather than walking along the beach, the idea here is to explore a 1,000-acre coastal wetland, the type of which many did not survive the 20th century. Along its 7.5 miles of trails that wend through sage scrub and chaparral, hikers might glimpse egrets, great blue herons, hawks, ducks, foxes, raccoons, bobcats, rattlesnakes, and lizards. A nearly 3-mile trail from Rios Court, near the ocean, to El Camino Real will take in most of the wetlands. Walk this 2.8-mile stretch in one direction, arranging a car shuttle, or turn around at the end for a 5.6-mile outing.

San Clemente State Beach to San Onofre

7 miles, Easy

San Onofre Beach
Bluffs lining the beach at San Onofre   | Justin Meissen/Flickr/Creative Commons

This hike technically begins in Orange County, on the wide, sandy beaches of San Clemente, the kind Southern California is famous for. There is blissful little development along this nearly 7-mile stretch, though it is a hugely popular area. If tromping on the golden sand seems a tad slow, make use of the paved bike path the winds all the way from Avenida del Presidente in San Clemente, and passes the Bluffs Campground on its way to Camp Pendleton. This can be done in either direction.

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