Just north of Downtown Encinitas, you’ll find the popular Moonlight State Beach, located just down the street to your right. Before you cross B street, you may be able to smell the roasting beans of Lofty Coffee, which operates their original cafe on your right and their roasting works on the left.
The beach itself is well-known for its volleyball courts and is a regular practice spot for professional players. It has been a popular spot for beachgoers since the early 20th century. Early settlers of the area would do their laundry in nearby Cottonwood Creek, and hold family picnics on the beach while their clothes dried. By the 1920s, the beach had become a popular spot for North County residents and included a boardwalk, bathhouse, and even facilities for horse races.
Though that early beach infrastructure is long gone, Moonlight State Beach remains busy as ever. In addition to volleyball, this is a great spot for new surfers to learn the ropes – three local surf schools provide options for folks of all ages to get started.
Across the way from the beach, you’ll find Cottonwood Creek Park, where locals head for tennis, pickleball, and half-court basketball. There’s also a large playground where kids can run and play to their hearts’ content.
The north side of Encinitas is also home to the San Diego Botanic Garden, with 37 acres of plant life from around the world. The garden is a destination for plant lovers of all ages – it has the largest children’s garden on the west coast. With four miles of trails, you can get lost among exotic and native foliage as you learn about the history and cultivation of over 5,000 plant species.
Highway 101 will carry us most of the way on our journey today, serving as the main shopping street of most of North County’s beach towns. As you pass under the Encinitas sign that welcomes visitors to the city’s downtown area, you’ll pass the Encinitas train station on your left. Part of the COASTER line that connects North County with San Diego proper, this train provides fast and easy commuter transportation into the city. Parking at the station is free all day, and you can even ride the line three stops north to catch an Amtrak to LA in just a couple of hours.
Downtown Encinitas itself has a lot to offer. As you coast down the street, you’ll pass the bars and restaurants that keep the city fed and entertained. If you’re looking for a quick bite, consider stopping at the spot simply known as “The Taco Stand”. This local San Diego chain has recently expanded to include outposts as far away as Miami – they’re becoming well-known for their fresh, warm tortillas and authentic Baja flavors across the country.
Another cluster of restaurants and shops mark the southern end of Encinitas’ downtown strip. Some notable spots:
The Encinitas Fish Shop serves the “Freshest Seafood East of the Beach”. Their unique menu allows you to order exactly what you want, with hundreds of possible combinations that will have you trying something different with each return visit. First, you pick your fish, then choose from a list of 8 rubs and marinades, like a chipotle glaze or their house specialty cajun dry rub. Lastly, you pick your style - eat your fish as a sandwich, in a taco, on a salad, or just by itself!
On the next corner, you’ll find Union Kitchen and Tap, a gastropub that serves creative cocktails and cold craft beers alongside delicious shareable small plates. You’ll also pass Swami’s cafe, a small coffee shop and bakery located on the right-hand side of the street, across from the bookstore and gift shop of the Self-Realization Fellowship.
This area just south of downtown Encinitas is often referred to as Swami’s, named for Swami Paramahansa Yogananda. This famous Yogi is credited with bringing the practice of Yoga to the western world, and this hillside overlooking the Pacific served as his main headquarters beginning in 1936. The ashram and meditation gardens overlooking the sea are operated by Yogananda’s organization, the Self-Realization Fellowship.
At the foot of the hill, you’ll find Swami’s beach, a popular spot for surfers due to a point break caused by a curve in the coastline. Swami’s is the northern section of the larger San Elijo State Beach, which provides campsites, parking, lifeguard services, and a snack bar to surfers and beachgoers.
Farther up the hill you’ll find Encinitas Community Park, the city’s largest public recreation area. Especially notable is the massive Encinitas Dog Park, with almost three acres of space for your four-legged friends and agility equipment for playing and training.
Next, 101 will take us into Cardiff-by-the-Sea, a community that makes up the southern end of Encinitas.
Cardiff’s main shopping area can be seen across the tracks on your left. This is where you’ll find the neighborhood essentials – a bank, dry cleaner, coffee shop, and a couple of restaurants. You’ll also find the Seaside Market, a gourmet grocery store with hot and cold prepared foods and an outdoor eating area.
Running along the other side of the road, the Coastal Rail Trail provides a dedicated biking and walking path from downtown Encinitas to Cardiff’s restaurants and shops. It terminates at Glen Park, which you can see across the railroad tracks on your left. Its playground, athletic courts, and rolling landscaped hills make it a popular spot for local families to play.
If you’re looking to grab a refreshing libation after a day at the beach, The Shanty, located just down Chesterfield Drive, is the place to do it. This cozy cocktail lounge hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1964, and it proudly sets itself apart from modern bars and gastropubs. They serve cold beer and generous cocktails, with happy hour prices from 10 am-9 pm.
Crossing a small bridge, 101 crosses Escondido Creek and follows alongside Cardiff State Beach, on a narrow strip of land separated from the mainland by a wide floodplain. This unique tidal estuary is called the San Elijo Lagoon and is a dedicated marine conservation area. The preserve’s headquarters, located just up the creek from here, is the starting point for 7 miles of nature trails that wind their way through this protected land.
A small row of restaurants can be found just past the creek. Standouts include the Pacific Coast Grill, an upscale spot for sushi, oysters, and delicious seafood entrees. The waterfront atmosphere gives this fine dining establishment a casual air.
You may also want to check out the Chart House, which serves classic steakhouse fare, or the more casual Cardiff Beach Bar for wings, burgers, and cold beer.
And just like that, Encinitas is in the rearview mirror! Soon we’ll cross the city limits into Solana Beach.
Welcome to Solana Beach! This seaside town sits on the high bluffs that overlook the ocean south of the San Elijo Lagoon. Directly to your left, a small path leads to the Annie’s Canyon Trail, the southernmost and most strenuous of the Conservation Area’s nature trails. It climbs up into the Solana Hills, where it connects to other trails that run along Escondido Creek.
The main street is lined with small businesses, such as surf shops and tattoo parlors. If you were to turn right at Solana Vista Drive, you’d reach the access stairs that descend the cliff to Tide Beach. This small cove is entirely isolated from surrounding beaches when tides are at their highest. At low tide, however, you can walk all the way to Cardiff or south to Del Mar.
Up ahead you’ll pass Claire’s on Cedros, which is located on the other side of the train tracks next to the elementary school. This restaurant is especially popular for breakfast food and coffee! A couple of other spots to note as you head close to downtown are Pizza Port, with hot slices and classic arcade games, and Belly Up, a live music venue with a menu of food items inspired by California bands. Cedros is lined with many boutiques, wine tasting & art galleries.
Moving on, we’ll take a quick detour off the highway to get a good look at Fletcher Cove, one of the area’s most famous beaches.
Fletcher Cove is Solana Beach’s original and most famous beach access point. As I mentioned before at Tide Beach, the highest tides can come all the way up to the cliffside. Solana Beach was founded with the intention of becoming a resort town, and what’s a beach town without an accessible beach? Enter Fletcher Cove, the man-made beach at the heart of the city.
With the beach straight ahead, make sure to turn left to continue southward.
In 1922 Colonel Ed Fletcher and his brother-in-law purchased the land that is now downtown Solana Beach. Using high-pressure water from the Lake Hodges Dam, 10 miles away, a fire hose was rigged to erode the cliffside and create the sloping beach you see today. A single operator took three months to complete the job.
The cove’s unique shape made it a great spot for shoreline fortifications during the Second World War. A gunnery station was installed on the site, earning the beach the nickname “pillbox” after the shape of a common defensive structure.
We’ll make another left on Dahlia, followed by a right to continue on Highway 101.
While you make that turn, you can’t miss the Beachwalk Shopping Center on the right. This outdoor mall has everything you need, from neighborhood essentials like a dry cleaner and hair salon to yoga studios and restaurants. There’s also a local coffee shop, a brewpub, and a wine bar.
Across the train tracks on the left, you may get a glimpse of South Cedros Avenue, known locally as the “design district”. Running the length of the street, you’ll find interior design studios, luxury consignment shops, and stylists. Just beyond that street, up the hill, you'll find St. James Catholic Church, where famed actor Desi Arnaz’s funeral was held.
Just as you leave town, you’ll pass Brigantine on your left. Considered one of the best restaurants in the area, this second location was opened in 1977, four years after the original Brigantine opened its doors on Coronado. Primarily a seafood restaurant, Brigantine’s oyster bar is its main attraction. A reservable outdoor space overlooking the nearby lagoon can accommodate up to 200 guests for private events.
Now that you’ve passed Brigantine, you’re officially in the city of Del Mar. While most of Del Mar is south of the upcoming San Dieguito River, two important attractions can be seen before the bridge. First, and most important for pet lovers, is the Del Mar Dog Beach, where canine and human companions can run, swim, and play off-leash to their hearts’ content.
Across the Highway, on your left, you’ll see the vast expanse of the Del Mar Fairgrounds, home of the San Diego County Fair. From June to July, this space is jam-packed with rides, food vendors, and attractions for all ages. Their mainstage concert series features touring artists from all genres, so you’re sure to find a show you’ll love. Kids’ tickets are free on Fridays.
Even when the fair isn’t running, the Del Mar racetrack is open for business. Races take place four days a week during the summer months. The exposition halls host rotating exhibits and events year-round, so there’s always something new to see at the Fairgrounds.
Just over the bridge is the trailhead for the Coast-to-Crest Trail, which climbs along the river and up into the San Dieguito River Park. This trail navigates difficult uphill terrain, so be prepared for a workout.
Coming up, we’re going to leave the main road again, taking a right on Coast Boulevard to check out our next stop.
Just before we get to Powerhouse Park, you’ll pass Jake’s Del Mar, one of the more well-known restaurants in town. Jake’s serves a tightly curated menu of seafood and farm-fresh favorites, with vegan options and an inventive selection of complimentary cocktails. One thing you can’t miss at Jake’s is their dessert specialty, Hula Pie. Originally cooked up at their sister restaurant on Maui, the pie is made up of layers of macadamia nut ice cream, fudge, and whipped cream with a cookie crust. The slices are portioned for sharing, but they rarely go unfinished.
Having just passed Jakes, you can’t miss the large white smokestack of the Powerhouse Community Center, which sits at the north end of Powerhouse Park. This beautiful event space can be rented out for weddings and private parties and features wide paved outdoor spaces with shady pergolas. The building itself once served as the power station and water treatment facility for the old Stratford Inn, now called Hotel Indigo.
Powerhouse Park stretches along the coast south of the Community Center, with landscaped green spaces, picnic areas, and even an outdoor theater dotting its length. During the off-season, from Labor Day to June, four-legged friends can join in the fun, as the beach is open to dogs during that time.
Powerhouse Park flows directly into Seagrove Park, a spacious open lawn that climbs the hill to the Wave Crest Resort. Make sure to take a left on 15th street to return to Camino Del Mar, where you’ll take a right to see Del Mar’s downtown area.
On the opposite corner from where you turn, you’ll notice Del Mar Plaza, a tiered shopping center with a couple of fun boutique clothing stores and restaurants. Two standouts in the plaza are Pacifica Del Mar, serving fresh seafood for over 30 years, and Tamarindo, home to delicious Cali-Mex classics.
Keep an eye out on the left for the unique Del Mar Landmark called the Dinosaur Gallery. This geological shop sells geodes and fossils, from deep-sea ammonite to coral formations to real and replica dinosaur bones!
Continuing south, the road is lined on both sides with delicious and exciting restaurants. Try Board and Brew for sandwiches and beer in a casual atmosphere, hit up Beeside Balcony for Mediterranean Fusion on an outdoor deck, or check out Zel’s for classic bistro foods and craft cocktails.
Coming up, hang a left on Carmel Valley Road, which takes us away from the coast and into the last area we’ll see today. On the right, we’ll drive past the edge of one of the county’s best nature preserves.
The south end of town, where Del Mar borders the northwest corner of San Diego, is the northmost point of Torrey Pines State Reserve, 2,000 acres of preserved natural land, with miles of trails winding through the canyons and hills along the shore. Keep an eye out for dolphins, sea lions, and bobcats!
Torrey Pines State Beach, which spans the length of the Reserve, has miles of exposed beach break, making it a destination spot for surfers. While beaches like Fletcher Cove are best-surfed in summer, the shape of the Torrey Pines breaks makes this ideal for wintertime surfing.
Our last stop today is the San Diego neighborhood known as Carmel Valley. One of the city's newest communities, it was planned out in the late 70s and constructed in 1983 under the name “North City West”. In 1991, residents voted to officially adopt the hundred-year-old name Carmel Valley, which had been used to refer to the area since the 1890s.
Turn left on El Camino Real shortly after the freeway underpass.
As you can see, the buildings of Carmel Valley are largely newer than the other communities we’ve seen today. With a mix of single-family and apartment homes, there are tons of residential options in the neighborhood.
Just to your right, you’ll see a high wall with an open field on top. The top of that hill is home to the Carmel Valley Rec Center, where community members can take advantage of athletic facilities, fitness classes, and events. Amenities include tennis and basketball courts, a playground, a public swimming pool with a water slide, and two baseball and softball diamonds.
I’ll leave you today at One Paseo, a massive shopping complex that spans both sides of El Camino Real. A destination that draws shoppers from miles around, the area has its own apartment living for easy access to tons of restaurants and shops. Folks looking to relax after a long day should check out Harland Brewing for craft beers and good vibes, or check out the Sky Deck on the east side of the street, with delicious cocktails and 9 different kitchens serving all kinds of global cuisine.
That’s all I’ve got for you today! If you’re hungry after today’s journey, I highly recommend you stop by one of the amazing restaurants in the area – from poke to burgers, you’re bound to find something that satisfies.
I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know North County a little better! If you have any questions about San Diego or are interested in finding a home in one of these gorgeous seaside communities, feel free to reach out to our local expert Rhonda Hebert. You can reach her at (858) 945-0644 or send her an email at email@example.com. Thanks again for taking the time to tour today with UCPlaces.