This beach community located in North County San Diego is quintessentially Southern California. The residents are tanned, toned and embody the laid-back, beach loving vibe that California is known for. With beautiful beaches, peeling waves, a lively downtown, and the best burrito you’ll ever eat, spending time in Encinitas feels like living the Endless Summer dream.
Moonlight Beach: If you are traveling with children then this is must do. There’s a playground where kids can play and parents can keep one eye on their kiddo and one eye on the ocean. There’s also beach volleyball courts, bonfire pits, and a snack shack that actually serves some pretty decent food. (Park for free in the lot and walk down a ramp to the beach area)
Cardiff State Beach: Aka “the river mouth”, this is another fun for everyone option. The parking lot is right on the beach which makes unloading beach gear a breeze, although in the summer you’ll need to arrive early to get a parking spot. There’s almost always surfable waves, usually it’s best for longboarding although with the right board it can be shortboardable at times. When the waves are micro this is a great place for your little groms to learn to surf. The river that cuts through the beach will keep kids busy and depending on how quickly it’s flowing it’s sometimes possible to paddle a SUP or raft up the river a little ways. You’ll see fish and the occasional sting-ray. Not the most scenic river but fun for families. (Pay $10 to park in the small state park lot or find parking along Highway 101)
San Elijo Beach: Aka “pipes”, has a few different surf breaks and is part of a long stretch of sand. At high tide there is very little sand so this is best during mid-low tide. From the parking lot you can either take a ramp from the north end of the parking lot (walk past the showers), or stairs down to the beach. (Pay $10 to park in state park lot or find parking along Highway 101)
Swamis: Picturesque beach with tall cliffs and clear water. Almost always packed with people riding the shapely waves and watching the surf from the benches up on the cliff. If you’re planning on surfing expect a bit more localism than other spots in the area, however the overall vibe is friendly. It’s quite a few stairs down to the beach so if you’re planning a trip to Swamis pack light. (Park for free in the small lot or find parking along 101. Expect to need some patience and good luck getting a spot)
San Elijo Lagoon: There are several different access points to this little suburban wetland area. Depending on the tide/time of year/ trail maintenance ,the trails can be interconnected but frequently you can only do certain segments of the trail system. Starting on the Rancho Santa Fe side you can do a reasonably long walk with some small trees along the way to offer shade. This section is referred to as the “La Orilla Trail” and there is a small turnout along El Camino Real. If you start on the Solana Beach side of the lagoon you must make a trip to the “mushroom caves” via the Annie’s Canyon Trail. Park at the end of N.Rios avenue and when you get to the trail, head east for about a mile. You’ll be almost to Interstate 5 when you see the turn off to the mushroom caves/look out. Shortly after turning right at the turn off you will see a split in the trail that gives you the option of a more strenuous trip to the look out or an easier trail. Definetly take the strenuous one! As long as you don’t have severe joint pain, a stroller, or a dog you will love the thrill of squeezing your way through the narrow canyon passageways and climbing up to the different “caves”. We saw a family that had gone through the canyon section of the trail four times in a row and was amping to do it again. If you do plan on exploring the lagoon it’s best to do it in the morning or on a cooler day because it can feel quite exposed and hot mid-day.
Moonlight-Swamis: At low tide you can pretty much walk the entire Encinitas coastline. One of my favorite sections is between Moonlight Beach and Swamis. Park at Moonlight and walk south (take a left). The cliffs along the way are beautiful and something about this particular stretch of sand always feels a little enchanted.
Juanitas: We always tell our friends this is the first meal they should have when they’re visiting North County San Diego so that they have ample time to go back during their vacation. This is the classic bars on the window, squeeze containers of salsa, barefoot surfers chowing burritos, Southern California taqueria. (290 N.Coast Hwy 1)
Solace: A trendier, more upscale resturant in downtown Encintias. Not a great option with kids but the food is delicious and portion sizes will fill you up after a long day of being salty. If you’re on a budget the happy hour has some good deals.
VG’s: The donuts here are so good they don’t even seem like donuts. If you come in the morning you can snag a table on the patio and get a view of the ocean in the distance while you munch sugary-fried goodness.
Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream: Just a couple blocks from Moonlight Beach, this ice creamery has endless tantalizing flavors. Expect a huge scoop of ice cream and arm yourself with lots of napkins because chances are it will be melting under the warm California sun faster than you can devour it.
Honey’s: When you needs a break from donuts and Mexican food this little cafe in downtown Encinitas serves up a variety of healthier breakfast and lunch options.
Trattoria I Trulli: Cozy and quaint this is the place to go if you’re craving homemade pasta and a glass of wine. It can get noisy and crowded but that only adds to it’s charm.
We always stay with family but there are a plethora of AirBnb options in the area as well as a few basic hotels. Look for something that is west of Interstate 5 and walking distance to downtown/the beach if you want to minimize driving/ parking.
- Plan your day around the tides. Really low tides are great for beach walking, Mid-tide is best for most surf spots and high tide can mean very little sand at many of the beaches.
- Parking in the summer can be a challenge. Arrive at the beach early for your best chance at getting a spot
- July, August and Septemeber the ocean is the warmest and you can usually surf without a wetsuit. Beware June can be overcast.
- Some of the local surf shops have surfboard rentals. Check out Hansen’s if you’re interested in renting a board or if you just want to browse the cute surf inspired clothing..
- Do the “shuffle walk” when you enter the ocean. By dragging your feet along the bottom you reduce your chance of being stung by a sting-ray
- Beach umbrella/shade structure (most beaches don’t have much shade)
- Beach chairs
- 3/2 wetsuit depending on the time of year (4/3 on coldest winter days)
- Flip flops
- Beach games/sand toys
- Ziplock bags for keeping sand out of wallet/phone