On a hot January day (yes, it’s been a weird weather year in SoCal), we were looking for a place we could hike without suffering from heat stroke, so like we have done before, we headed for the coast! Regular readers know that we love to hike with our dog, and highlight our dog-friendly hikes, but since California State Parks almost all ban them on their trails, we tend not to visit them very often. We had heard that San Onofre State Beach was different, and that while dogs are banned on most of their trails, they are welcome in the campground and there are two bluff trails where they are welcome.
We found a trail guide on the State Park’s website that connected the two dog-legal trails and thought that would make a great trek. Well, while it was a great hike, the loop we did was not entirely legal with the dog. Turns out only 3 of the 4 legs of our loop are dog-friendly, and the beach stretch connecting them was not.
San Onofre State Beach is located on the Orange County-San Diego County line, adjacent to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) right off of Interstate 5. To get there, exit I-5 on Basilone Road and head towards the beach. Then head south past the nuclear power plant (joking immaturely about the shape, as every other person who passes by does) until the road hits the Ranger Kiosk.
On the day we were there, the kiosk was empty, but there was a parking fee pay station that worked on the honor system. Take an envelope from above the box, fill in your vehicle information on the envelope, put your $15 in the envelope (note–there is no change available if using the box, so you may end up paying $20 like we did if you don’t have exact change), and deposit it in the lock box.
This road is actually old Pacific Coast Highway, which was taken out of service when the I-5 was built. According to the park brochure, the park itself used to be California’s largest land grant, Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, but in 1942 was taken by the federal government to create Camp Pendleton, near the beginning of World War II. Basilone Road is named after Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, who won a medal of honor and was killed on the first day of fighting at Iwo Jima. He trained at Camp Pendleton and is one of the featured Marines in the excellent HBO series, “The Pacific.” In 1971, the US Government leased the part of Camp Pendleton that is now San Onofre State Beach to the State of California. The park today is bordered to the south and east by this historic (and still very active) Marine Base.
Most of the day use parking is adjacent to Trail 1 at the beginning of the park, or Trail 6 at the far end. In between is the very simple San Onofre Bluffs Campground area, basically extra wide, extra long parking spots with a patch of dirt with a fire ring and picnic table on it. These are very popular for RVs and trailers, but I always see tents there as well. You can start your hike on either end, but we started at Trail 1. The top of each of the trails had a serviceable bathroom with flush toilets, but I didn’t notice if all of them were open or not.
From the top of Trail 1 is is only a quarter mile or so down a well maintained dirt path to the beach. There are actually a couple of ways to get to Trail 1. We picked the first one, which was a bit narrower than the second one, which was the width of a fire road. Either way will present you with a nice view of the coast and the nuclear plant before you hit the beach.
At the bottom of the trail, there was a sign indicating dogs are acceptable to the right, but not to the left. We thought perhaps it was just referring to allowing dogs to play on the beach, and since we were just traversing from one dog-approved trail to another, it would be okay, though a friendly ranger later explained to us the error in our interpretation of the sign…
Adjacent to Trail 1 (and Trail 6) is really one of the few areas where the beach is suitable for playing in the water, as most of this stretch of beach is quite rocky, and you’d probably tear yourself up pretty good trying to boogie board, body surf, or just play in the waves here. As a result, and unsurprisingly, the roughly 3 mile stretch of beach in between Trail 1 and 6 was largely deserted, at least on this particular hot January Saturday.
As you can see, there is no formal, improved trail along the beach, and you simply walk across the rocks and sand beneath the bluffs as you please. The sandstone bluffs can be very beautiful, but they are also quite unstable, so climbing them is heavily discouraged. Many of the sandstone formations reminded us of the “hoodoos” we hiked to on our honeymoon in Banff National Park in Canada, but to be honest, these were better! There are several canyons in the bluffs along the way as well, but most of them don’t have any real trail access. It was a very scenic and relaxing walk, with the crashing waves on one side of us, and the craggy sandstone bluffs towering 150 feet or so above us on the other side along this entire stretch.
You will cross the bottoms of the other trails in between, and if we hadn’t had the dog and knew that they were prohibited on those trails, we might have explored a few of them, if not all of them in a zig-zag pattern just so we could experience as much of the bluff trails as possible.
When you come to the bottom of Trail 6, there is a lifeguard tower there, and a bit more of a crowd of people laying on the beach. This is also the approximate end of the “official” State Beach. We decided to continue until we hit a sign announcing we were entering Camp Pendleton, just to say we explored the full beach.
We were aware that south of “Trail 6 Beach,” there had been a long-running controversy between the State Parks and a relatively large group of people who wanted to make this stretch a nude beach. The battle had been fought all the way through the courts, until the state finally won the right to start citing those sunbathing nude. But some battles are easier to win than others, and despite the signage in the parking lot and on the lifeguard tower, fairly shortly after passing the last tower, we began encountering folks who were quite clearly defying the law.
I personally don’t have a big problem with setting aside a small part of a beach (especially one on the end of the property like this) for those who want to work on their all-over tans, but as we continued, we passed more and more people walking around in the buff and we got kinda creeped out and decided to turn around before we hit whatever “end of the beach” signage might exist. Kinda weird, but who are we to complain about the law-breakers when we had our prohibited puppy with us? Pointedly, a ranger/lifeguard in a jeep drove down and told us we weren’t allowed to have a dog on the beach, but apparently never bothered to head the other direction to notify the nudists of their own violations. So if you were wondering, Unattractive Naked People>Cute Beagles at San Onofre State Beach.
This shouldn’t discourage you from visiting the beach, as there was none of this whatsoever between Trail 1 and Trail 6, and we ventured past a final lifeguard tower and a big rock peace sign on the beach that probably indicated the beginning of the nudist stretch, so it is easy to avoid them if you wish to.
Just before the bottom of the main Trail 6 access, there was what looked like a fairly established trail up the bluff that looked more interesting than the dirt road next to the lifeguard tower. It was steep, and not terribly well maintained, but it is clearly an established trail that even featured a little wooden bridge and some steps carved into the sandstone along the way.
At the top of the bluff, there was a nice park bench with a view of the coast, and a junction with the main stem of Trail 6. From here, it was roughly a third of a mile to the top of the Trail and the parking lot. There was also a restroom here at the top of Trail 6. Just to the right/south of the bathroom is a gate across old PCH announcing the end of the park and the beginning of Camp Pendleton.
Heading north, there is a dirt path that parallels the parking lot with signage that seemed to indicate that dogs were permitted on leash. This stretch usually kept the campsites and road in site on one side, and standard coastal shrub on the other between you and the bluffs. At times, the trail went along deep canyons, and at other times (possibly because of erosion?) the trail disappeared and you had to walk a short stretch along the parking lot/campground instead. But each time, the trail re-appeared a short distance later. This three mile stretch back to where we parked was not terribly scenic, but we’ve certainly hiked in worse areas. There were restrooms (flush toilets!) at the top of nearly every trailhead as we passed them, so you can’t complain about the facilities.
As we hiked this, it was almost exactly 8 miles, but if you cut out the 8/10 of a mile foray down to the nude beach, it would be just over 6 miles round trip. As I suggested above, if you didn’t have a dog, you could also add more mileage and explore a few of the canyons by venturing down any of trails 2-5. We did the whole thing in hiking sandals, but the sand was mostly firm enough that you could walk it in regular shoes or hiking boots as well. Nearly the entire trail was flat, with the only elevation changes coming on the trip down the bluffs at the beginning and the one back up at the end.
On a day when it was too hot to hike inland, the weather on the beach was beautiful, and we really did enjoy the hike. It reminded us a lot of our hike along the bluffs between Refugio and El Capitan State Beach in Santa Barbara, though these bluffs were more impressive. After all, this is the only place in Southern California when you can hike along the beach from nukes to nudes!
ONE LAST RANT: This trail highlights the stupidity of the general ban on dogs on State Park trails. I understand there may be sensitive habitat along the top of the bluffs, and in specific areas of other state parks, but if you allow them at the top of the bluffs along the campground, and on Trails 1 and 6, there is absolutely no reason not to allow them (on leash) on the beach in between. There was no sensitive habitat along the beach to disturb, and there were virtually no people to bother. Charge us an additional “dog fee” if you want to pay for enforcement of leash laws and dog waste disposal rules, but banning dogs on this stretch of beach is just asinine.