Tide Pools in San Diego County
Although much of the San Diego coast is lined with long stretches of sandy beaches, there are also many rocky areas that offer excellent opportunities to explore tide pools. Some of the best places to go tidepooling are within minutes of downtown San Diego. These rocky areas are conveniently located for classes of biology students from local colleges and high schools. North of Torrey Pines State Park, rocky areas are more scattered along the miles of predominantly sandy coastline, and they are generally smaller in size than are rocky beaches to the south.
Make sure the tide is low when you are there. A 1.0 foot tide or lower is OK, but you will have a better chance of seeing more marine plants and animals when the tide is minus. Check the newspaper or use the tide calendar or tide tables available at surf shops, fishing supply stores, and online (See links below.) If the weather is stormy or the surf is otherwise high, it is best to postpone visiting the tide pools until calm weather, since you won't see much, even at low tide.
The following are a few examples of good beaches where you can observe tide pool life in San Diego County. They have been chosen in most cases for their close proximity to parking. Please respect the rocky shore environment, and make sure you follow the rules of conservation when you go:
San Diego Metropolitan Area
Cabrillo National Monument: There has been some concern that the thousands of visitors to Cabrillo National Monument have damaged the tide pools. That is probably true, but the rocky shore at this park still has a lot to offer, and if you visit on a good low minus tide it will be worth the entrance fee. In the mid-intertidal zone you can see very large Great Owl Limpets. Hermit crabs are abundant here. During a museum tide pool class for kids this last spring, a girl found a homeless hermit crab (no shell) and some other girls hunted for and found an empty snail shell. We watched in excitement as the crab promptly accepted and fit into this shell. On the same day we watched a fairly large octopus walk in plain view on top of the surf grass for several minutes. Be sure you follow park regulations; the tide pool area is policed by park rangers. The rangers are helpful and will explain marine life and help visitors observe the animals.
Ocean Beach: There is a small tide pool area at the foot of Newport Avenue under the Ocean Beach pier. Compared to the other tide pool areas mentioned in this guide, there is relatively little to see during the average low tide. However, there are shore crabs, hermit crabs, and sea anemones, and lots of small chitons in depressions in the sandstone rocks. I once observed a small, brightly colored fish in a tide pool at this location. On another visit, I found a small hydromedusa jellyfish, Polyorchis sp., which I had never seen before, in a pool. There are other rocky areas in Ocean Beach at the ends of the streets to the south of the business district, but the one at the end of Newport Avenue is the most accessible. There are rocky areas all along Sunset Cliffs Drive, but the cliffs are dangerous, and tide pool exploring is not recommended here. For many years you could access the shore from a steep cement stairway at the south end of Sunset Cliffs Drive, but recent winter storms have severely damaged it and it has been closed.
Tourmaline Surfing Park: This is a favorite spot for classes of biology students. You can reach it by walking north along the beach from the parking area west of La Jolla Boulevard at the north end of Pacific Beach. There are many tide pools nestled in the sandstone which is full of cobblestones. Hermit crabs and sea snails are very common here. On a good low tide, you will have a chance to see sea urchins and brittle stars, or an octopus if you are lucky. Don't forget that you are one of thousands of people who visit this beach; do your part to protect the marine life.
Shell Beach, La Jolla: This little beach has a fairly good tide pool area at low tide. It is at the south end of Ellen Browning Scripps Park in La Jolla at the bottom of a small cement stairway. But the surf is fairly strong here, and you won't be able to see much sea life, unless you come when the tide is really low, preferably a minus tide. The big attraction of this beach is Seal Rock Reserve, a big rock offshore where seals and sea lions come to rest and sun themselves. A few years ago the reserve was expanded to include the sandy cove just to the south of Shell Beach.
Dike Rock: Another favorite of Biology students, this is a rocky area just to the north of Scripps Pier in La Jolla. The name of this beach refers to a volcanic bench of rock that has extruded through a large gap in the sedimentary rocks and runs perpendicular to the beach. To reach this area, you must walk a ways along the sandy beach, then walk over a rocky area until you reach the dike, which is located on a slight point. The best tide pools are over the dike to the north side. Here you may have a good chance of spotting a star fish or an octopus on a good minus tide. This tide pool area is located on UCSD property and is part of the La Jolla Underwater Park marine reserve.
North County Beaches
Cardiff State Beach: There is a nice tide pool area by the bluffs at the south end of the parking lot at Cardiff State Beach. You can get here on Pacific Coast Highway just north of Lomas Santa Fe Drive. Before you walk down to the rocky area you will see an information sign with illustrations of tide pool life. There is a box that is periodically stocked with a colorful brochure about tide pools. The rocks at this park are interesting sedimentary rocks about 45 million years old that contain fossil clams firmly embedded within. There are good tide pools here, as well as at San Elijo State Park and campground just to the north.
Seacliff Park, or Swami's: North on Pacific Coast Highway from Cardiff State Park is Swami's, which can be recognized by the gold colored domes of the Self-Realization Center. The parking lot is small, and there is a lot of competition for space on a sunny day. However, you can park along the highway to the south if the lot is full. There is a strong wooden stairway that allows access from the parking lot to the beach at the bottom of the cliffs. The rocky area is a short distance to the north. As at Cardiff State Beach, there are 45 million year old fossil shells in the hard sedimentary rock, oysters being the most common ones here. During a good low tide, the tide pools are revealed on an extensive flat area, and you have a good chance of seeing sea hares, brittle stars, and octopi.
San Onofre State Park: Reached by Basilone Road off Interstate 5 just north of the border checkpoint, you will find a cobblestone tide pool area north of the campground. To the south and at the base of the bluffs below the campground, there is a small rocky area that consists of a fascinating formation of steeply tilted sedimentary rocks exposed at low tide. Hermit crabs are common, and in the mid-intertidal zone there is a dense mussel bed. With some luck, you may observe an Ochre Starfish.
Photos from a San Diego Natural History Museum field trip. Purple Dwarf Olive (Olivella biplicata) shells with hermit crabs (See crab in lower right shell.) Girl in orange jacket is holding kelp holdfast stuck to rock.
Text by Scott Rugh. Photos by Liz Paegel.