Bluffing Good!

Hike the San Onofre Bluffs Loop Trail 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. Berkeley's Backyard Waterfall

    Tucked among the hillside homes of North Berkeley is a winding stairway that leads to the “secret” entrance of a Narnia-like canyon with a 40-foot waterfall.

  2. The Carson Show

    Carson Falls is ready for primetime. This three-tiered, 100-foot stunner is hidden back in a canyon outside of Fairfax and reached on a 3.25-mile (round-trip) hike. The start of th

  3. Falls of the Wild

    Through the redwoods you’ll go on this adventurous 9-mile (round-trip) out-and-back hike in the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park. This hike is loaded with charms, but the big riches come from viewing Maple Falls, a 30-foot stunner that comes to life after rains.

  4. Hood's New Trail

    Tucked just on the edge of Sonoma Valley near Santa Rosa, Hood Mountain Regional Park and Open Space Preserve has a brand-new trail leading up to a brilliant picnic spot with a panorama of Sonoma Valley all the way out to the ocean.


Trending Stories SoCal

View all Stories
  1. Can You Keep a Secret?

    The Southern Oregon Coast's Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor between Gold Beach and Brookings has so many sights to see, it’s hard to know where to spend your time. We like this trio of suggestions because you can do them as a three-in-a-row jackpot of coastal wonders.

  2. Secret Trail at Torrey Pines

    Find cliff climbs, sandy strolls, and secret hikes throughout “America’s finest sandy stretch" at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve in San Diego County.

  3. Ojai There!

    If a substantive and super scenic bike ride is right in your wheelhouse, do the 30-mile (round-trip) Ventura-to-Ojai bike path that begins (and ends) near the Ventura shoreline, pit stopping in delightful Ojai for food and drinks.

  4. Fountain to the Falls

    There are three ways to reach the lovely Monrovia Canyon Falls, but only one of them is worthy of being named a good challenge!