Best Tide Pools in San Diego

San Diego is known for its many sun-drenched beaches and surf breaks, and for good reason. Beyond catching waves and relaxing on the sand, another great way to explore the coastline is tide pooling – exploring the low-tide pools in rocky areas along the shore that are home to Southern California’s unique sea life.

Here, I’ve provided tips for finding the best times of day and year to go tide pooling and what to bring with you, based on my past experiences. Below that, you’ll find a list of some of the best places for tide pooling in San Diego.

When to go tide pooling in San Diego

Tide pooling is a low tide activity. Generally speaking, the lower the tide the better for exploring the rocky shelves along the shore, as more tide pools will be exposed and accessible. 

Tides vary on an annual cycle as a result of the gravitational force of the sun. Generally speaking, the best time for tide pooling in San Diego is between November and March when the lowest tides occur during the day. In some areas, the tide drops far enough to create pools only during this period, while in other areas tide pools are accessible year-round during low tides. 

The phase of the moon also influences the tides by exerting gravitational force on the ocean. Full moons and new moons exert the strongest gravitational pull and thus result in very high and very low tides. This can make for great tide pooling on low tides.

The tide cycles every 24 hours, 50 minutes, so that every day the high and low tides come 50 minutes later. To find out the tide schedule and height to find the best days and times, check the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website which offers daily tide charts and annual tide forecast tables. Where possible, I’ve provided information below on what tides work best for the different spots. Below is an example of a tide graph that shows the tidal cycle over a 24 hour period.

Example of a NOAA chart showing San Diego tide cycle

What to bring tide pooling

For tide pooling, you’ll want to bring the basics you’d typically bring to the beach. I like to wear a bathing suit, so I’m not worried about getting wet. It’s also wise to bring sun protection, including a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Another addition is some shoes you don’t mind getting wet, so that you can walk on the rocky shore without tearing up your feet. Closed toed shoes with grippy soles are best, as the rocks of the tide pools can be slippery.

Wearing shoes shouldn’t, however, be used as a license to stomp on sensitive habitat and sea life. Some people like to bring buckets with them for collecting shells and sea life as souvenirs, but it’s better to take nothing and leave nothing behind. Please respect the fragile ecosystem you’re entering and tread lightly.

Tide Pool Sea Life

San Diego’s tide pools are teaming with Pacific Ocean sea creatures, including crabs, star fish, limpets, chitons, sea urchins, mussels, anemones, and sea cucumbers. If you get lucky, you may even encounter an octopus. 

Please respect these fragile ecosystems and avoid walking on the sea creatures. Never remove sea life from its habitat. 

The shoreline can be broken down into three different areas that are defined by the depth of the water and the types of animals that live there. These are the splash zone, the intertidal zone, and the subtidal zone. The splash zone is the areas furthest up the shore, where creatures are sustained by splashes of sea water and rarely if ever become fully submerged. The subtidal zone is the further zone into the ocean where sea life is always underwater. The intertidal zone is the area covered by water during high tides and exposed during low tides. The intertidal zone is where the tide pooling fun happens.

Best places for tide pooling in San Diego

San Diego has a number of terrific places to look for ocean life in tide pools along the shore. Tide pools are found where the shoreline is rocky, so that when the tide recedes sea water is trapped in depressions in the rock. Many species call these shallow pools home, including fish, clams, sea anemones, crabs and sea cucumbers.  

Point Loma Tide Pools at Cabrillo National Monument

Tide pools at Point Loma’s Cabrillo National Monument

The Point Loma tide pools, located along the shoreline of Cabrillo National Monument, are the best known in San Diego. These pools are one of the best protected rocky intertidal areas in California. 

When to go: The tide typically covers these pools during the spring and summer, so the best times to visit are in the fall and winter. There are extreme low tides in summer, but they happen at night when the park is closed. The best times to explore the tide pools at Cabrillo are when the tide is 0.7 feet or lower. 

The tidepools can typically be visited approximately two hours before low tide time and two hours after. The park closes at 4:30 p.m.

Getting there: As you enter Cabrillo National Monument, a road to the right will bring you down the hill to a parking area near the tide pools. There is a kiosk that will guide you on the short walk and scramble down to the pools.

Large group permits: If you plan to visit the tide pools during a tide of 0.7 feet or lower with a group of ten or more, you’ll need to get a permit.

Sunset Cliffs Tide Pools

Another good place to find tide pools is Sunset Cliffs Natural Park at the north end of Point Loma, just south of the town of Ocean Beach. This is a fun area to explore for the cliffs and sea caves as well as the tide pools. The pools are mostly large channels in the rocky shelf that become exposed at low tides. 

Getting there: Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is located along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, south of the OB Pier. The tide pools are located near the intersection of Ladera Street and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. There is limited parking along the street, and a dirt parking lot up the street for overflow parking. A staircase will bring you down the cliffs to the intertidal zone where the tidepools are located.

When to go: The tide pools at Sunset Cliffs are accessible year-round, but as with all tide pools in San Diego, are best during the winter, when tides are lower during the day.

Dike Rock Tide Pools

The town of La Jolla, located north of Pacific Beach, offers some of San Diego’s most dramatic coastline, with coastal bluffs soaring hundreds of feet above the rocky coastline and beaches. There are a number of places to explore tidepools along La Jolla’s shores, but I’ll share a few of my favorites here. 

Just north of downtown La Jolla is the hamlet of La Jolla Shores, which is home to the Scripps Oceanographic Institute, one of the world’s foremost ocean and atmospheric research centers. At the north end of La Jolla Shores beach, past the Scripps research pier is Dike Rock, a shelf of volcanic rock that juts out from the shoreline. This is a smaller tidepooling area than the others on the list, but definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area anyway.

Part of the La Jolla Underwater Marine Park, these tide pools can be found north of the Scripps Pier and La Jolla Shores Beach. Along this volcanic bench of rock, look for starfish, limpets, mussel, anemones and the occasional octopus. To the north of the tidepools is Blacks Beach – a famed surf break and nude beach. 

When to go: The tide pools at Sunset Cliffs are accessible year-round, but as with all tide pools in San Diego, are best during the winter, when tides are lower during the day.

Getting there: The University of California San Diego has a paid parking lot at Scripps Oceanographic Institute (GPS: 32.863702, -117.253913), but the lot is closed to the public during the week. La Jolla Shores Park has free parking (GPS: 32.857869, -117.256177), which fills up quickly on weekends. There’s also street parking available. Once you are on the beach, head north and pass under the Scripps Oceanographic Institute research pier. Dike Rock is a couple hundred yards north of the pier.

Swami’s State Beach

Beachgoers exploring the tide pools during low tide at Swamis Beach.

Swami’s Beach, located just south of Encinitas, is home to a famous point surf break. The rocky shelf that protrudes from the shore creates consistent waves that wrap the point, making for terrific surfing. Likewise, this same shelf results in ample tide pools when the tide recedes. This is also a fun place to watch surfers riding the point break. 

When to go: The tide pools at Swami’s are accessible year-round, but as with all tide pools in San Diego, are best during the winter, when tides are lower during the day.

Getting there: Swami’s is located just south of downtown Encinitas and is accessed via a tall staircase that brings you from the high bluffs down to the beach. There is a public parking lot (1298 S. Coast Hwy, Encinitas) at the top of the staircase, and if that’s full, street parking is available a bit further north in town.  Once you’re at the bottom of the staircase, head north along the beach for 100 yards or so to get to the tide pools. 

Fun fact: The name Swami’s comes from the Self-Realization Fellowship, a spiritual group founded by an Indian guru that is headquartered at the top of the bluff over the beach.

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