Bluffing Good!

Hike the San Onofre Bluffs Loop Trail in San Diego County

Woman hiking the San Onofre Bluffs Loop Trail to San Onofre State Beach in San Diego County

What if we told you there was a pristine stretch of coast with beautiful beaches, unique geological history, and picturesque sandstone cliffs with limited foot traffic in San Diego County? We promise we aren’t bluffing! Head to the northernmost point of the county, San Onofre State Beach, to find the 5-mile San Onofre Bluffs Loop Trail that explores both cliffs and coast.

Woman hiking the San Onofre Bluffs Loop Trail overlooking San Onofre State Beach in San Diego County

Woman sitting on a bluff top bench overlooking the Pacific ocean on the San Onofre Bluffs Loop Trail overlooking San Onofre State Beach in San Diego County

Woman walking along the sand towards a lifeguard tower on San Onofre State Beach in San Diego County

Park at one of the many lots and trailheads (there are six). We recommend Trail 1 just after the first restroom south of the park gate ($15 day use fee, or get an annual State Parks pass) and begin at the dirt path. The trail immediately offers incredible north-south views of the Pacific coastline; enjoy them from a bench before heading down the steep trail. There are often surfers at the beach because of consistent waves. To the north is the inactive nuclear power plant; try to spy San Clemente just past the rather ominous buildings.

Woman walking on the sandy beach next to a rocky section on San Onofre State Beach in San Diego County

Woman standing on a bluff overlooking the sandstone rock canyon formation above San Onofre State Beach in San Diego County

Woman walking beneath a trio of giant palm trees and the sandstone cliff formations at San Onofre State Beach in San Diego County

Head south on the sand, looking for gliding pelicans and scampering sandpipers along the water. The rugged canyon walls, sculpted by ages of winds and water, are a scenic geological gem throughout the trek. You’ll pass five trails on the beach stroll. Go up and down for more of a workout, or simply wait until Trail 6 to return to the bluff trail. Note: If the tide is high, you will have to maneuver over loose rocks; the rocky beach is a tough slog but also offers gentle, meditative sounds as waves crash and roll over the stones.

Lifeguard tower at San Onofre State Beach in San Diego County

Sign to Beach Trail 2 at San Onofre State Park in San Diego County

San Onofre Bluffs Trail overlooking San Onofre State Beach in San Diego County

Just before the Trail 2 marker, you’ll see a large gap in the bluffs. This is the Cristianitos Fault. There’s also a notable change in rock color—the light hues of the silt and sandstone San Mateo Formation lie to the north, while the Monterey Formation to the south offers much darker claystone cliffs. Continue past the earthquake fault line, which hasn’t been active for over 100,000 years (and we hope it stays that way!), until you reach your Trail 6 ascent. Along the bluff trail on the return trip, pass multiple vista-friendly benches and the San Onofre Bluffs Campground, a serene overnight option with 157 sites (reserve in advance) for those who find it tough to leave the bluffs. ’Nuff said!

To get to the San Onofre Bluffs Loop, parking lot, and campground, take exit 71 (Basilone Rd./San Onofre) off the I-5. Turn left (if coming from San Diego) or right (if coming from the north) and follow the Old Pacific Highway south for just under 3 miles to the park entrance. Always be aware of the tides. Dog-friendly!

Story and photos by Matt Pawlik

Trending Stories NorCal

View all Stories
  1. Woman hiking the Coastal Trail in the Marin Headlands

    Three Beaches to the Wind

    This beautiful 7-mile (round-trip) coastal hike in the Marin Headlands connects three beaches: Muir Beach, Pirates Cove, and Tennessee Cove.

  2. Damme Good Camping

    Just a few miles south of the town of Mendocino is one of the best hike-in (or bike-in) campgrounds on the California coast. Van Damme State Park follows Little River inland from the ocean, and the nine first-come, first-served environmental campsites can be reached via the Fern Canyon Trail.

  3. Hike Mount Tamalpais Matt Davis Steep Ravine Dipsea to Stinson Beach

    Tam Slam!

    This 8-mile (round-trip) hike is a pure classic, with redwoods, water-flows, and soaring views of the coastline. Oh yeah, and that ladder!

  4. Calaveras Giants

    Contending as some of the tallest, mightiest, and most muscular spectacles in the state are the hulking (and beautiful) trees of Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Hit the trails to witness spectacular groves of giant sequoia redwoods.


Trending Stories SoCal

View all Stories
  1. Sponsored

    Best of the Summer Fests!

    Outdoor winery events featuring films, food, wine, live music, and Sonoma’s cinematic scenery in the background: now that’s a blockbuster summer weekend!

  2. Hiker on Proctor Mountain Loop Trail in Sun Valley Idaho

    Storied Trail

    If ever there was a fairy trail, this 6.8-mile lollipop loop on Sun Valley’s Proctor Mountain is it. The Proctor Mountain Trail is a storied route in more ways than one, starting with its tranquil oasis memorial for a famous writer, Ernest Hemingway.

  3. Two bikers on the Wood River Trail in Sun Valley Idaho

    Two Wheels to Zen

    The family-friendly Wood River Trail goes over an historic bridge, past art sculptures and ranch-roaming horses, all amid sprawling green valley and a mountainous backdrop. Roll out from the Farmers Market at River Run Lodge and pedal the 8-mile (round-trip) ride to Sun Valley’s Sawtooth Botanical Garden.

  4. This Part of the Backbone

    The Ray Miller Trail comprises the final stretch of the Backbone Trail in Malibu’s Point Mugu State Park, and makes an idyllic moderate beach hike during spring and early summer.