Beach Hikes : Two Top Beaches Are Along the S.D.-Orange County Line

<i> Jerry Schad is an outdoor enthusiast, educator and author of books on hiking and cycling in San Diego County. </i>

Up Orange County way, two of Southern California’s finest beaches beckon. From the far corner of Camp Pendleton into San Clemente, the coastline is blessed with above-average scenery and relative isolation--good reasons why Richard Nixon located his “Western White House” here a couple of decades ago. Other than the occasional thunder of passing Amtrak trains, almost nothing disturbs the curling breakers, shifting sands and salty breezes.

Even if you don’t care for swimming or sunbathing, the beaches at San Clemente and San Onofre are quite inviting for jogging and hiking. Mornings and evenings are best if you enjoy cool temperatures and some measure of solitude.

Here are two of my favorite walks along this coastline:

The first, a 3-mile loop, begins at the day-use parking lot in San Clemente State Beach. To get there, take the exit ramp signed “Avenida Magdelena” from northbound Interstate 5, and cross over Interstate 5 to Avenida Calafia. (If you want to save more than a bit of pocket change, you can find a place to park on the city streets and walk in.)


First you head for the beach on either of two trails descending 120 feet through gaps in the cliff wall. The sculpted cliffs, consisting of soft marine sediments about 15 million years old, form the blunt edge of an ancient marine terrace that today supports much of the city of San Clemente and the coastal margin of Camp Pendleton. The hills to the east show evidence of other marine terraces, older still, the result of fluctuating land and sea levels over a million-year span.

Pass under the railroad tracks at the bottom of either trail and head south along the water’s edge past a row of pricey ocean-view homes. Tall palms and cypress trees partly conceal Casa Pacifica, the former Western White House, which enjoys a commanding view from atop a low bluff. The cliffs peter out at San Mateo Point, site of a small Coast Guard light beacon. Just beyond is Trestles Beach, a renowned surfing beach. Behind this broad strip of sand lies a shallow, cattail-fringed pond, where San Mateo Creek comes to an inglorious end after winding more than 20 miles from the Santa Ana and Santa Margarita mountains. Later in the year, this a good place to spot shore birds.

Now go inland, crossing under the low railroad trestle that gave the beach its name. Find and follow the paved path, sometimes clogged with surfers portaging their boards, that leads to the main bicycle path paralleling Interstate 5. Turn left (north) there. After a short climb you’ll come to Avenida del Presidente, the west frontage road of I-5. Follow Avenida del Presidente nearly 1 mile north to Avenida San Luis Rey, where a pedestrian back entrance on the left allows you to reenter San Clemente State Beach park.

The second walk encompasses the southern part of San Onofre State Beach, which sits on a strip of land leased from Camp Pendleton by the state. To get there from I-5, exit at Basilone Road and follow the west side frontage road--the old Highway 101--down-coast 3 miles (passing the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station) to the state beach entrance.

For almost 3 miles beyond the entrance, the old highway roadbed has been partitioned into parking spaces for campers and day users. Things are a bit bleak along this stretch, with little shade and constant noise from vehicles on the adjacent freeway. But a short stroll down any of the eight roads and paths descending from the bluff edge to the beach will reveal a long stretch of uncrowded sand and surf. Despite the domed profile of the San Onofre power station rising in the north, you can easily imagine yourself on some subtropical shoreline a thousand miles from home.

If you’d like to spend more time in the area, and camping is your preference, call (714) 492-4872. A new state campground has been established on Cristianitos Road, east of San Clemente, to handle overflow from both San Clemente and San Onofre state beaches.