Coastal CA

San Diego on the Cheap — Part 6: Hiking the Cliffs and Beaches of La Jolla

Monday May 21, 2012

Travel writers have an especially hard time not slipping into hyperbolic clichés. The views: stunning. Sunsets: breathtaking. And dinner at that 4-star restaurant, always, hands down, a-MAY-zing.

In our (my) defense, we usually are experiencing something that is stunning, breathtaking, and amazing. Unless you want me to start up a website called “Things I’ve Eaten That Were Perfectly Fine.”  So, appreciate that I struggled to avoid the hyperbole for my final San Diego recommendation: hiking around the La Jolla cliffs. Sure, I had to resort to all-caps and Hillary Duff songs, but what else was I to do?

La Jolla, twenty minutes north of downtown San Diego, is more Southhampton than Stinson Beach. The living is good, sun-drenched, enchanted, and rich.

Surfer in La Jolla, San Diego

Unlike my other San Diego recommendations, you could make a vacation out of La Jolla itself. The compact village is walk-friendly, with art galleries and museums, high-end decor boutiques, excellent restaurants, public beaches, and beautiful historic hotels with ocean views.

For your hiking trip, you’ll have to decide whether you want to hike north or south of La Jolla village. Each hike is approximately 6 miles round trip. Going north, you’ll walk through forests of wildflowers overlooking rocky cliffs strewn with a mess of pelicans and seals, before ending up on a mile-long stretch of sandy beach with a thousand or so San Diego natives. Going south, you’ll stumble along moss-covered tide pools and watch expert surfers, before seeing how San Diego’s 1% live. It’s a choose your own La Jolla adventure!


(For each hike, I only give one-way directions. Turn around and go back the way you came.)

North of La Jolla Village

Scripps Park, La Jolla, CA

Both hikes start from Scripps Park, a flat, grassy bluff overlooking the Pacific just east of La Jolla Village. The first part of the hike is easy – you’ll see a sidewalk meandering along the edge of the cliff; get on it.

You’ll walk past cliffs strewn with seals, pocked with tide pools, and covered in pelican nests (along with a shocking number of pelicans, baby pelicans, and their…refuse.) It’ll be tough overcoming the urge to wander out onto the bluffs and peek into crevices or take the perfect photo.

Coastal Walk, La Jolla, CA

The hike gets a little dicier (not really, but it’ll no longer be stroller friendly) once you pass Goldfish Point Café. To get to the Coastal Walk Trail, cross the parking lot in front of the The Cave Store and keep left.

On our early Spring hike, this stretch was covered with purple and gold wild flowers, greenery overflowing into the trail, with the cobalt blue ocean below. (More on why the ocean is so blue in San Diego later.)

Coastal Walk, La Jolla, CA

As we hiked along, I got shouty. A lot of “it’s SO BEAUTIFUL.”  And, “DAVID, DID YOU KNOW IT WAS LIKE THIS HERE?” “IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL HERE.” “DID YOU KNOW THIS WAS HERE?” Since he’s a western boy, I like to accuse him of keeping the most enchanting hikes to himself, even though I have no data to support this.

(Note that he did not have this same reaction when I took him to Rehoboth Beach. He’s still not convinced that it’s one of the nicest East Coast beaches there is. Because he’s a West Coast beach snob. Although, are you looking at these photos? He might have a point.)

Pelicans in La Jolla, San Diego

I’m still mostly naïve when it comes to Southern California, and so when we came upon two photographers camped out on the trail, I was psyched. Birding enthusiasts! With cameras! My people!

Except their super duper telephoto lenses were pointed in the wrong direction – at seaside mansions across the cove rather than the bird populations – and the men were clad in all black and sported an aura of seedy mixed with bored-out-of-their-minds. Dave whispered, “they’re paparazzi” and ushered this scandalized newbie along.

The Coastal Walk spits you out into a cute neighborhood that feels a bit more ramshackle than what we’ll see on the southern leg – maybe they’re old money or middle class homeowners who slipped in before Prop 13.

Coastal Walk, La Jolla, CA

Take a left at Torrey Pines Road. I apologize now for how car-swept you’ll feel for the next block. Sorry guys, but this is a part of Southern California that we day hikers/pedestrians need to deal with every now and then. There is a lot of questionable residential architecture up in the overhanging hills to occupy your thoughts during this difficult time; if you aren’t guffawing at some of these houses, you aren’t doing it right.

Take your first left onto Princess Street. (I know) After you round the bend onto Spindrift Drive, walk a little further and turn onto a pedestrian pathway right before The Marine Room. And voila! Flay, sandy beach!

La Jolla Shores is a sandy beach that stretches on for a mile, with a few beach shacks serving coffee and frozen yogurt on the side streets. Despite the few 70’s era ocean front motels, the crowd seemed to be mostly local families on their own day trip. As the sun started to set, families were replaced by packs of gangly teenagers, lighting bonfires, and taking in the sunset. Isn’t this exactly how you pictured high school in San Diego?


South of La Jolla Village

Mossy Beach, La Jolla, CA

Ok, back to Scripps Park just to the west of La Jolla village. Start walking south towards Children’s Pool, a large sea wall teaming with people, preservationists, and no children but lots of seal pups.

The idea behind the Children’s Pool was to create a sandy beach with a wave break, so children could swim safely in the at-times turbulent Pacific. It turns out that that the local seal population also thought this was a terrific sunning spot, and they soon migrated down from Seal Rock to their new home at Children’s Pool. As you watch the hundreds of seals and seal pups laze in the hot sand, eyes contentedly half closed, you can almost hear them sigh “Thank you humans of San Diego, for making us this wonderful beach.”

Seal, La Jolla, CA

San Diegans don’t find as much humor in this though, and since 2005, local judges have been deciding whether to require the city to remove the seal population. This is why you’ll likely be handed “literature” during your stroll.

After you pass the green Coast Boulevard Park, and maybe gawk at a wedding ceremony on its northern end, decide whether you want to walk along the water or stay on the sidewalk. The real fun is hopping rocks along the tide pools here, on the search for horseshoe crabs and other sea life. This path is not an easy walk, though, and probably not recommended for folks who don’t like leaping across coastal streams.

La Jolla, CA

The shore fluctuates between piles of boulders, moss-covered rocks, and pocked waterfront. The water is wonderously blue, thanks to the deep ocean trench that lines the San Diego coastline and giving it its distinct color and clarity.

Walking is dicey, and a few times, I had to get on hands and knees. And that still didn’t save me from a misstep that plunged me knee-high deep into an icy pool of water. While I viscerally channeled the Wicked Witch (“It BURNS, It BUuuurns…”), native San Diegans waded through the pools, up to their waists, and dangled crustaceans at each other.

Mussels on the Beach, La Jolla, CA

I’m not sure exactly which house Mitt Romney and family live in, but I think it’s somewhere along this stretch.  So, keep your eye out for any stealth body boarders with a Secret Service detail.

After a few hours of fun at the beach, we decided to head inland. Our goal was to reach the village of Bird Rock for fish tacos, and we were making very slow progress walking on the shore.

Walking along Neptune Place and then the Camino De La Costa, we could not stop ogling the seaside mansions. The architecture is too immaculate and tended-to be questionable. The medieval villas looked perfectly in place next to Norman turrets and neo-Spanish rancheros.

La Jolla, CA

As Dave excitedly put it, “This is the kind of place where people talk about housing prices in digits. ‘We were looking for something for 6, maybe 7, but then we found the perfect spot for 11 and it was just so us, you know, that we just had to have it.’”

Happily for us, the residents were strikingly friendly too. Homeowners in pressed khakis, sun hats, and matching gloves, tended to flower patches and greeted us as we passed. Packs of petite women with neat ponytails sped walked past us, in synchronous form. Everyone remarked on what a beautiful spring day it was.

It was like wandering on to the set of The OC to find it infiltrated with the singing villagers from Beauty and the Beast. Except we were the ones singing. The Laguna Beach theme song, performed by one Hillary Duff to be exact. Don’t judge us. La Jolla does that to you.


La Jolla Village

Hours: All day (a lot of La Jolla shops are closed on Sundays)

Admission: All public beaches are free

How to Get There: Bus route 30 from downtown. There is on-street parking for those in cars.

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