Off the Beaten Path: A Guide to Sunset Cliffs
Sunset Cliffs is a wonderful land of cliffs jutting out into the ocean, caves to explore, beautiful vistas and hills, fun trails, gorgeous rock formations, and, of course, amazing views of the ocean, perfect for sunsets. (Also perfect for trying to spot that elusive green flash at the end of one.)
Looking out over the Pacific Ocean, “The Cliffs” are famous for hosting awe-inspiring views and even more breathtaking sunsets. No matter the time, season, or weather, Sunset Cliffs is a remarkably beautiful place to be.
Whether coming to Sunset Cliffs seeking exploration and adventure, or peace and relaxation, you’re at the right place. There can be crowds at sunset, but if you know where to go, the crowds can be avoided (check the map at the bottom of the page). Sunset Cliffs is at it’s best when you can find your own little nook in the cliffs and relax, while watching sparkling waves roll in across a vast ocean, gradually getting closer until they finally crash into the cliffs below. In the moment, it becomes easy to forget what the world is like outside of this beautiful place.
Out of all of San Diego’s natural wonders, Sunset Cliffs is my all-time favorite. Standing on the cliffs looking out, the ocean seems endless. Its vastness stretches as far as the eye can see, and makes me realize how completely insignificant I am to it. The ocean has been here, bringing life and returning it to the sand, for millions of years, and will go on for millions more after I am gone. This should be an overwhelming and possibly frightening thought, yet, its not. Standing there on the cliffs, these thoughts bring a certain kind of peace; an appreciation for this continuous cycle of life, and for something much bigger than myself.
Sunset Cliffs is an amazingly peaceful place that makes you stop and think. However, after the epiphanies wash over you, it’s time to explore! Here are some of the coolest spots:
How to Get to Rope Beach
If you’re starting from the parking lot located at the very end of Sunset Cliffs Blvd, (map, directions, and parking tips below), there is a great sandy beach under the cliffs that is just as fun to get to as it is to be there. It involves repelling down a small cliff by holding onto a rope tied to a rock. I know, it sounds dangerous, but it really is pretty safe and not as crazy as it sounds. You could probably jump into the sand from the part of the cliff that you repel down without getting hurt (I know dogs can), but I would definitely advise against that, I’m pretty sure that rope is there for a reason. So, to get here, turn left once you can go no further on Sunset Cliffs Blvd (it’s easy because left is the only way you can go, the street is called Ladera) and take the very next right to get to the parking lot. Drive all the way down the road past a nice viewpoint and a little tree grove, and park in the lot. Walk west towards the ocean from the lot, onto the dirt trail, and keep going west. You will find a trail that leads down. Follow that trail, down along the chain link fence is one way; keep on the trail and you will come upon a rock with ropes attached to it. Grab the ropes, repel onto the beach, and you’re there! The sand on this beach is great; bring your dog if you want, because police and lifeguards are very rarely going to try to get down there. So be careful, because there will be nobody to save you if you get stupid!
Fun Hiking Trails and Secret Beaches
If hiking is your thing, here’s where you want to go. Park in the same parking lot I mentioned above, the one on the map at the bottom of this page. Walk south from the parking lot. From here, there is a myriad of trails to take. I suggest taking the ones that look like the trails less traveled (meaning not the wide trail that is furthest from the cliffs, that’s just kinda boring and much too easy). Continue south up and down ridges, or down almost any trail that leads you south continuously, and it will take you to a very cool tree tunnel. Continue on your journey through the tunnel (it rocks!), and you will come out onto an old soccer field. Cross that field, keep following that trail and you can go for miles. You can also get down to the beach after crossing the soccer field. Just follow the trail down at some point (it’s not too difficult to find, you’ll see the path because lots of surfers go down this way), and you’ll find a big sandy beach, or maybe a small sliver of beach, it all depends on the tide. The beach is great either way, just be prepared to get a little wet if the tide is high. You can walk along this beach for a while, and find cool rock formations and caves. The waves here are great for surfing, but if you plan to paddle out, be ready for territorial local surfers.
If you’re not planning on going too far, but still want to do some adventuring, there is another cool place to explore when you reach the tree tunnel. Instead of going into the tree tunnel when you reach it, look down and to the right. It looks like absolutely nothing is down there, just a big rock and overgrowth. However, if you choose to climb down to the rock and go around it, you’ll find another tunnel-like trail that leads to an ocean overlook, with many interesting things to see along the way. It is mostly a dirt trail, but some parts are concrete with graffiti on it, which I think ads to the character of the place. It’s pretty different, and for that I love going down that way. The view is also amazing once you reach the end.
There are about a million different trails you can take that will lead you to a million different, unique, and beautiful places. My advice: don’t go where everyone else gathers to watch the sunset. There are so many nooks, crannies, and gaps in the rocks that lead to perfect U-shaped seats and gorgeous outlooks for sunset viewing. It’s easy to find a private spot to hang your legs over and watch the vast ocean, with tiny surfers down below. When sunset comes, you’ll be glad to have a place away from the masses to contemplate on your own, or with a friend. If you want to take someone on a date, this place is perfect. Your best bet is to get there an hour or so before sunset, so you have time to explore, find the perfect spot, and wait to see the reason “Sunset Cliffs” got its name: different cloud patterns, colors, and rays of sunlight leaking through the clouds. There are so many different types of cloud, too: heavenly castles astonishing and high, the ends streaking across the seascape in wisps, or in a thousand little puffballs. If I came here every day to see this wonderful spectacle over the ocean, I couldn’t and wouldn’t ever take it for granted. It will always be unique, and just as stunning as ever. That’s the thing about Sunset Cliffs, it never gets old.
Parking tips: Go down Sunset Cliffs Blvd. until you reach the end, and turn left onto Ladera Drive. Take the next right onto a dirt/paved road and you will reach a parking lot. Park here, and follow the trails. The yellow line on the map shows the way from Sunset Cliffs Blvd to the parking lot.
- Driving Directions from Old Town Inn (4444 Pacific Hwy 92110) to
Ladera St. (Sunset Cliffs Parking Lot), San Diego, CA 92107:
- Head south on Pacific Hwy toward Smith St
- Make a U-turn at Smith St
- Turn left onto Sea World Dr
- Slight left to stay on Sea World Dr
- Continue onto Sunset Cliffs Blvd
- Slight right to stay on Sunset Cliffs Blvd
- Continue onto Ladera St (left)
- Next right into parking lot
Map #1 shows the way from Sunset Cliffs Blvd to the parking lot.
Map #2 is a close up of the parking lot and a few of the many trails to take from there.