From Beach Trail 1 to Beach Trail 6 is 5.6 miles round trip.
San Onofre is a place of steep bluffs overlooking a narrow beach with patches of cobblestone. The beach, named for Egyptian Saint Onuphrius, is a joy to walk. But be aware that some sections are impassable at the highest tides. Check the tide table before you hike this beach!
Aptly named Bluffs Beach, part of San Onofre State Beach, is a three mile long sand strand with a backdrop of magniﬁcent, 100-foot high bluffs. The dramatically eroded sandstone cliffs, a kind of Bryce Canyon by the sea, effectively shield the beach from sight and sound of two parallel transportation corridors—the railroad tracks and Interstate 5.
Unfortunately, something of the peaceful ambiance of the park’s coastline is diminished by the giant twin spheres of the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant located just north and Camp Pendleton Marine Base to the south. The nuke and the marines are still very much present, but public access to the splendid beach has loosened up some of late. It’s possible to walk a considerable distance both north and south of the power plant.
South of San Onofre State Beach is Camp Pendleton. The camp’s beaches are ofﬁcially off-limits, even if the no trespassing sign is removed, as it often is. However, the prevailing sentiment among beach goers is that the military is considerably less proprietary about its surf and turf these days.
San Onofre State Beach Campground is actually a length of old Coast Highway with some pull-outs. Charmless it is, but it’s popular with surfers and other coastal recreationists who rate beach access over amenities.
And the beach access is ﬁrst rate. A half-dozen signed trails (Beach Trail 1, Beach Trail 2 . . . ) descend from the bluffs to the beach. The paths vary in length from 0.1 to 0.3 mile.
Directions to trailhead: From Interstate 5, a few miles south of San Clemente, exit on Basilone Road. Head west, then south, following the signs to San Onofre State Beach. Park in the ﬁrst day-use area near the signed trailhead for Beach Trail 1.
The hike: I prefer starting with Beach Trail 1 and walking south along the state beach. From the beaches and bluffs, walkers sometimes spot dolphins, harbor seals and migrating California gray whales.
About three miles of beach-walking brings you to the end of state park property and onto Camp Pendleton’s beach. The long sand strand south of the park is popular with nude sunbathers; while it’s by no means a legally clothing-optional beach, be advised that many beach-goers opt for none.
To San Mateo Point is 3 miles round trip
“Our beach shall always be free from hurdy-gurdies and deﬁlement. We believe beauty to be an asset as well as gold and silver, or cabbage and potatoes.” This was the pledge of Norwegian immigrant Ole Hanson, who began the town of San Clemente in 1925. It was quite a promise from a real estate developer, quite a promise in those days of shameless boosterism a half-century before the California Coastal Commission was established.
Thanks in part to Hanson’s vision, some of the peaceful ambiance of San Clemente, which he regarded as “a painting ﬁve miles long and a mile wide” has been preserved. And some of its isolation, too. Most everyone in the real estate community thought Hanson crazy for building in a locale 66 miles from San Diego, 66 miles from Los Angeles, but today this isolation attracts rather than repels. This isolation was one of the reasons President Richard Nixon established his Western White House in San Clemente.
San Clemente State Beach is a great place for a walk. The beach is mercifully walled off from the din of the San Diego Freeway and the confusion of the modern world by a handsome line of tan-colored bluffs. Only the occasional train passing over Santa Fe Railroad tracks (located near the shore) interrupts the cry of the gull, the roar of the breakers.
The trestles located at the south end of the beach at San Mateo Point give Trestles Beach its name.
Trestles Beach is one of the ﬁnest surﬁng areas on the west coast. When the surf is up, the waves peel rapidly across San Mateo Point, creating a great ride. Before the area became part of the state beach, it was restricted government property belonging to Camp Pendleton Marine Base. For well over 25 years, surfers carried on guerrilla warfare with U.S. Marines. Trespassing surfers were chased, arrested and ﬁned, and on many occasions had their boards conﬁscated and broken in two. Find a veteran surfer and he’ll tell you about escapes from jeep patrols. Many times, however, the cool marines would charitably give surfers rides while out on maneuvers.
This walk’s destination, San Mateo Point, is the northernmost boundary of San Diego County, the beginning of Orange County. When the original counties of Los Angeles and San Diego were set up in 1850, the line that separated them began on the coast at San Mateo Point. When Orange County was formed from southern Los Angeles County in 1889, San Mateo Point was established as the southern point of the new county.
The enthusiastic, with the time and inclination can easily extend this beach-walk several miles south to San Onofre State Beach. Another option worth considering is to take the train to San Clemente and walk south from the Amtrak station.
Directions to trailhead: From the San Diego Freeway (I-5) in San Clemente, exit on Avenida Calaﬁa and head west a half mile to Calaﬁa Beach Park, where there is metered parking. You can also park (for a fee) at San Clemente State Beach. A limited amount of free parking is available in the residential area near the state beach.
North-bound motorists on I-5 will exit at Cristianitos Road, turn left and go over the freeway onto Ave. Del Presidente and drive a mile north to Calaﬁa Beach Park.
The hike: From Calaﬁa Beach Park, cross the railroad tracks at the newly erected stairway and head south. As you’ll soon see, San Clemente State Beach is frequented by plenty of shorebirds, as well as plenty of surfers, body surfers, and swimmers.
At distinct San Mateo Point, which marks the border of Orange and San Diego counties, you’ll ﬁnd San Mateo Creek. The headwaters of the creek rise way up in the Santa Ana Mountains above Camp Pendleton. A portion of the creek is protected by the Cleveland National Forest’s San Mateo Canyon Wilderness. Rushes, saltgrass and cattails line the creek mouth, where sandpipers, herons and egrets gather.
You can ford the creek mouth (rarely a problem except after winter storms) and continue south toward San Onofre State Beach and the giant domes of San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant. Or you can return the same way.
Or here’s a third alternative, an inland return route: Walk under the train trestles and join the park service road, which is usually ﬁlled with surfers carrying their boards. The service road takes you up the bluffs, where you’ll join the San Clemente Coastal Bike Trail, then wind through a residential area to an entrance to San Clemente State Beach Campground.
Improvise a route through the campground to the park’s entry station and join the self-guiding nature trail (brochures available at the station). The path descends through a prickly pear- and lemonade berry-ﬁlled draw to Calaﬁa Beach Park and the trailhead. The wind- and water-sculpted marine terraces just south of the trailhead resemble Bryce Canyon in miniature and are fun to photograph.
If you want to walk the whole nature trail, you’ll walk up to site #70 in the campground, then retrace your steps (100 yards or so) back to the Calaﬁa Beach parking lot.