Jealously claimed by Orange County, San Onofre is actually situated south of the county line in San Diego. bordered to the south and east by the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Reserve, San Onofre offers an opportunity to appreciate what Southern California's entire coastline may have looked like 100 years ago. Bluffs, native vegetation and a tidal wetland frequented by migratory birds and wild deer. In stark contrast to its primitive, natural side, San Onofre is also home to a nuclear-powered generating facility and a state-of-the-art military base. Ironically, it is these same forces that protect this area from development and provide the 20 mile coastal greenbelt that has prevented San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles from merging into one huge megalopolis. San Onofre offers three unique beach areas - Trestles, Old Man's and Trails - and two great ways to enjoy them - by day or overnight camping.
Lower Trestles, on the south side of the San Mateo Creek river mouth, is a world famous surf break with a packed and talented lineup to prove it. It's a long, steady and consistent, ideal for performance surfing. A lot of pro surfers have honed their craft at Lowers, and on any given day (but particularly in the summer/fall south swell season) you can witness modern power surfing at its best. If you're keen to paddle out and give it a go yourself, be warned that this same atmosphere makes for some chaotic situations – enter the line-up with awareness and respect The breaks to the north (Uppers) and south (Middles and Church) of Lowers offer mellower crowds, but at a considerable sacrifice in wave quality. The beach at Trestles is a bit sparse and difficult to access (see directions below) with cobblestones and submerged rocks by the waterline. It's not as diligently patrolled by lifeguards and offers fewer facilities than Old Man's down the coast.
Old Man's lies just north of the Nuclear Plant. Some locals swear the ocean is warmer at Old Man's, where water used to cool the reactors is pumped back out to sea, but at least, by all accounts, it is not radioactive. In fact, Old Man's is an easy spot to access, with good facilities and a safe, clean, sandy beach. Like its neighbor Trestles to the North, Old Man's - also known as San Onofre State Surfing Beach - is a world-renowned surf spot. Unlike Trestles, however, Old Man's won its fame in the early history of the sport, when heavy wooden longboards demanded softer, slower waves. It was here that 'beach boys' like Hobie Alter, Dewey Weber and Dale Velzy helped shape the sport and culture of California surfing for generations to come. Fun, gentle waves still roll through Old Man's making it a popular surf spot for beginners and veterans alike, while beachgoers will appreciate the neighborly, tailgate party scene in and around the parking lot.
Trails is the collective name for the three miles of beach fronting the San Onofre Bluffs State Campground to the south of the Nuclear Plant. The campground is set up in a linear fashion with campsites and bathroom facilities spaced at intervals all along the seaward side of the old Coast Highway. Campsites are open to tent and RV camping, but no hookups are provided. The prime sites are near the trailheads for footpaths leading down the bluffs to the beach. These access trails are numbered one through six, the beaches they lead to being their namesakes. TRAIL SIX is the most southerly and the most popular among day visitors, particularly the clothing optional set (even though nudism is not legal at San Onofre or any other beach in San Diego). The beach here is generally the same whichever trail you choose, predominantly sand with areas of rock reefs and tidepools at low tide. Surf here is fair, a bit punchier than Old Man's but not anything like Lowers. Campers enjoy surf-fishing and clam-digging. Parts of this expansive beach are patrolled by lifeguards and park rangers, but consider yourself at your own risk in all water safety judgments.
To find Old Man's and Trails, exit 5 FWY at Basilone Road and head south. The entrance to the San Onofre State Surfing Beach (Old Man's) is a turnout on the right before reaching the Power Plant. Continue south past the Power Plant to reach the San Onofre State Beach campground entrance (Trails). The rangers at either of these gates can direct you to a parking area and provide information about availability, regulations, fees and current conditions. To get to Trestles, first-timers are advised to park at Old Man's and walk north up the beach.
A more direct but rather adventurous route to Trestles begins at the parking area near the Carl's Jr. restaurant on the east side of the freeway at the Cristianitos exit. From here, walk, skate or bike down the paved path leading west to the beach on the north side of the San Mateo river mouth (Uppers), or follow the abandoned frontage road to an unmarked but well-used dirt path leading to the south side of the river mouth (Lowers).
People have died in attempts to use the railroad trestle over the creek as a shortcut between Uppers and Lowers; don't be tempted to try it yourself. It's usually an easy matter to wade across through the sea near the shoreline.