One of the advantages of having a long coastline is an abundance of beach hiking opportunities beyond the tourist crush zones. This hike combines a relaxing beach walk with tide pools and can be done either as a 10-mile round-trip or as a 5-mile one-way by having a car at each end of the route. The straight-forward route starts in Carlsbad near the mouth of the Batiquitos Lagoon and ends at the San Elijo State Beach in Cardiff. Check the tide schedule before you go and try to time the hike for low tide for the best view of the tide pools.
Walking down the coast on the beach, note the battle that local homeowners have with cliff erosion. This is a difficult battle and we’ll share more about issues with invasive ice plant below. As you continue to the tide pools, look for piles of kelp that wash ashore. The piles attract sand flies, but fortunately these do not bite people and are only attracted to the kelp. They also provide an important source of protein for the various shore and migratory birds you’ll see along the way. This route is a prime opportunity for bird watching.
Also look for beach-rounded cobbles originating from the Lindavista Formation, similar to layers found in Tecolote Park. You will pass Moonlight Beach, which is a restored riparian area. If you’re hiking at low tide, view the tide pools and the associated marine creatures as you near Cardiff.
We’ve rated the difficulty for this hike moderate, with minimal elevation gain. Before you go, check to ensure the trail is open. More detailed information about the area can be found at South Carlsbad State Beach. And make sure to check the tide schedule.
You’ll see a lot of ice plant (Mesembryanthemum sp.) which would appear to provide a good, fast-growing ground cover, but its roots are not deep. In heavy rains, the mat gets heavy and can slide down the hill, making erosion worse. The ice plant also presents a unique fire hazard. The new plant growth showing on top looks green, but there may be a foot-and-a-half of flammable dead material underneath. This under-layer can burn quickly beneath the live layer on top, creating an effect like a chimney. Unfortunately, it crowds out the more stable dune forming plants which take much longer to establish, so the battle against the forces of erosion continues.
Bean clams and moon snails that frequent the kelp beds are often washed ashore with the kelp. You’ll see plenty of birds, too. In addition to gulls and pelicans, keep an eye out for grebes, long-billed curlews, marbled godwits, royal terns, and many others. Eel-grass is also frequently washed ashore. Interestingly enough, eel-grass is not seaweed, but a flowering plant (an angiosperm). The eel-grass acts as a nursery for young fish.
When exploring at low tide, step carefully. The anemones (Anemone sp.) are quite delicate. They can be surprisingly hard to recognize at low tide. Anemones tend to collect bits of broken shells on their outer surface. When they curl up as the water level draws down, the shells protect the anemones from the sun. At first glance, you may think you are looking at an area strewn with broken shells. Closer inspection will reveal dozens of curled-up anemones.
Other sea creatures commonly found clinging to the rocks include gooseneck barnacles, mussels, chitins, small crabs, and sand tubeworms. These creatures are filter feeders, straining food from water by running it through specialized filtering structures. Sand tubeworms (phylum Annelida) build their tubes out of sand grains that they cement together with calcium secretions. The calcium is absorbed from the ocean by the worms. The tubes are very delicate despite their rock-like look and can easily be crushed with fingers. Treat these creatures gently to avoid hurting them.
Limpets (class Gastropoda) tend to look a bit like part of the rocks, but if they are stuck tight to the rock that means they are alive. Limpets can create burrows in the rock over time. If you take a close look at the rocks where the various creatures live, you will notice that there are fossilized invertebrates under the live creatures. You are witnessing the ongoing development process of a reef.
From I-5 go west on La Costa Avenue for 0.7 mile. Turn right on Carlsbad Boulevard, go 0.7 mile. To get to the beach, continue past Batiquitos Lagoon and turn left onto Avenida Encinas, then another left onto Highway 101. Go 0.5 mile. Park along the side of the highway. If leaving a second car at the end of the 5-mile stretch, park near San Elijo State Beach. Trailhead GPS: N33.08405, W117.31191
Looking for more great hikes? Check out our Canyoneers page or purchase the book,
Coast to Cactus: The Canyoneer Trail Guide to San Diego Outdoors.
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