In 1971, when Ronald Reagan was Governor of California, he created the 3,000-acre San Onofre State Beach from property belonging to Camp Pendleton. Today, the US Marine Corps still leases San Onofre State Beach to the state of California. This top-rated state beach, which sits just south of San Clemente State Beach, is one of the five most visited state parks in California, bringing in more than 2.5 million visitors a year. The park attracts surfers and history buffs, especially historians interested in ancient-American history. The park also attracts nature lovers, bird watchers, and individuals seeking to commune with the natural world. Not surprisingly, a large number of visitors to this picturesque state beach are also military families. Visitors to this state park enjoy a wide array of traditional beach activities such as fishing and surfing, as well as some activities not traditionally associated with beaches including birding and learning about American culture.
In November 2016, officials shelved plans to build a six-lane toll road through this area amid great controversy. Opponents to the project were concerned that the planned toll road would not only cause ecological damage to the beach and surrounding wilderness but also compromise Panhe, an 8,000-year-old heritage site sacred the nearby Achjachemen people.
San Onofre State Beach has two large RV camping areas. San Mateo Campground, near Trestles Beach, boasts sites equipped with electrical and water hookups, and the San Onofre Bluffs Campground provides primitive RV camping on the bluffs overlooking the beach. Whether you plan on camping in your RV overnight or simply stopping by for a fun-filled day, San Onofre State Beach is a perfect beach destination between Los Angeles and San Diego.
San Onofre State Beach is located south of Los Angeles, just off the San Diego Freeway. The traffic on Interstate 5 can be rather heavy, at least until you get out of Greater Los Angeles or Greater San Diego areas. The road is wide, with four lanes in each direction, and almost arrow-straight. Even novice RV drivers should have no problem navigating I-5.
At some point, you must exit the San Diego Freeway and get on the Old Pacific Highway, a narrower highway that’s between Interstate 5 and the water. There’s an exit right after Basilone Road. If you’re heading north from San Diego, you must pass San Onofre State Beach and double back.
If you need a GPS address, use 5200 S. Pacific Coast Hwy, San Clemente, CA, 92672. The Old Pacific Highway Parking Lot is located just behind the beach bluffs, and it’s huge. Additional parking is conveniently located near the campfire center and Panhe Nature Trail.
San Onofre Bluffs Campground is on the southern end of this state beach, just 25 miles north of the town of Carlsbad, CA. San Onofre Bluffs Campground has 157 primitive campsites, suitable for RVs or trailers up to 36 feet in length, arranged in a long line along the bluffs overlooking the beach. These campsites are equipped with fire rings, grills, and picnic tables, and they can be reserved up to six months in advance of your trip. The use of generators is allowed from 10 AM to 8 PM, but they must be silenced outside of quiet hours. The campground offers both rocky bluffs that provide sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean as well as flat, sandy beaches. Amenities include restroom and shower facilities, two dump stations, and two separate day-use areas. Six trails, including two trails which allow leashed dogs, lead from the bluffs to the beach. This campground is open during peak season, from May through September.
The San Mateo Campground is a popular place for San Onofre State Beach visitors to park their RVs because the campground is less than five miles south of the town of San Clemente. This large, beach-access campground has 157 sites. Of the 157 sites, 89 of those sites accommodate tents, RVs, or trailers, and 68 of those sites accommodate RVs and trailers. Each site has electric and water hookups, along with a campfire ring, grill, and picnic table, so you can camp without completely roughing it. Additional campground amenities include a dump station, an amphitheater, and restroom and shower facilities. Leashed dogs are allowed in the campgrounds, but not on the beach, and some trails permit leashed dogs. The San Mateo Campground has beach access for fishing, swimming, or surfing, and a 1.5-mile flat nature trail leads to the beach near the surfing area known as The Trestles.
This state beach boasts a handful of walking and hiking trails to help visitors explore this gorgeous beach. The Panhe Nature Trail is a family-friendly loop of about a mile-long that has educational markers which provide facts about the plants and animals that reside at the park, as well as information about the history of the area. The Trestles Beach Walk is a 1.2-mile paved pathway that connects the San Mateo Campground to Trestles Beach. The Christianitos Fault Loop is a 3.8-mile trail which traverses along a major fault line, less than a mile from the San Onofre Nuclear Power plant. Another trail, known as the Bluffs Beach Trail, goes high up into the bluffs, where the views are quite lovely. While leashed or confined pets are allowed at the campsites at San Onofre State Beach, pets are prohibited from visiting several of the beaches, and they are only permitted on two of the trails.
Birding at San Onofre State Beach is a popular activity as this beach, as it is one of the many locations along the Pacific Flyway. During the winter months, when the beach isn’t as crowded, it’s possible to see over 400 species of birds here. The tidal pools attract stopover birds, which are birds pausing between migratory flights. Stretches of this beach are protected, and the protection provides a sanctuary for several threatened and endangered sea birds, including Cassin’s Auklet, black-footed albatross, and California least terns. Brown pelicans, a species that has rebounded from their endangered-species status given to them at the beginning of the century, are often seen at this beach as well. The abundance of sea life also attracts a variety of raptors to this beach, including bald eagles, Cooper’s hawks, ospreys, and peregrine falcons, as well as migratory birds such as golden-crowned sparrows, whimbrels, and varied thrushes. While visiting San Onofre State Beach, bird watchers may also catch a glimpse of some native Californian birds, like loons, condors, western grebes, and Merlin falcons.
Once one of the largest of the ancient Acjacheman villages, Panhe, is situated at the confluence of Cristianos Canyon and San Mateo Creek. Originally developed over 8,000 years ago, it now serves as a burial site as well as a sacred ceremonial and cultural site for contemporary Acjacheman people. Panhe was also the first place that European explorers connected with the area’s indigenous inhabitants. When the Spanish first arrived in the late 1700s, the population of Panhe was estimated at around 300 individuals. In 1769, Father Francisco performed a Christian baptism on two young girls from the Acjachman village, and it became the first recorded Christian baptism in the Acjacheman culture. Each spring, generally in March, an annual festival, a celebration of native cultures, is held at the San Mateo Campground near Panhe. Large crowds of people from many cultures gather to observe traditional performances and ceremonies based on the history and beliefs of the Acjacheman people.
Surf fishing and board fishing are popular activities at San Onofre State Beach. Unless you fish from a board past the breakers, you will want to wait for high tide to cast your line because low tide's exposed rocks and the presence of kelp make fishing difficult and less productive. Some of the fish commonly caught along this beach include perch, halibut, and both yellowfin and California corbina croakers. Surf fishers can use clams or sand crabs as bait to catch croaker after croaker. Cast your line out as far as possible, but watch out for surfers, especially in the southern portions of the beach. The best to fish tend to be either the extreme north or extreme south ends of the beach. If shark and ray fishing is more your style, then you are in luck. Small leopard sharks and stingrays are abundant at this location and can often be lured in by using squid as bait, especially after dark. Be aware that this fishing area is also a hot spot for great white sharks, particularly juvenile sharks around one to three years of age. While juveniles typically stick to eating fish, they still range between six and nine feet long and may see your catch as a tasty meal.
Surfers who are planning a visit to this unique beach will want to pack their surfing gear in their rig before leaving home. Since the 1920s and 30s, when people first started coming to San Onofre, the beach has been regarded as a legendary Southern California surfing destination.
One of the more popular surfing beaches is Trestles. The Trestles is a series of surf areas in the southern portion of the state beach. It consists of the Upper Trestles towards the north, the Lower Trestles towards the south, and the Middle Trestles, which is situated between the two. The Lower Trestles is often referred to as one of the Crown Jewels of California surfing because of its consistent pattern of waves. The World Surf League and National Scholastic Surfing Associations frequently hold competitions and events in the Lower Trestles.
Another favorite surfing beach is Trails. If you have a longboard, this area is for you. There are six numbered paths that run from the sandstone bluffs down to the sandy beaches. This beach tends to be less crowded, and the waves are usually relatively consistent and gentle.
Surfers should also check out Surfing Beach. This surfing area, better known as Old Man’s, is further north than the other surfing spots. A coral reef creates varying breaks in this surfing area, and it is considered to be one of the top surfing areas for beginners in southern California.
High bluffs surround the beaches at San Onofre Beach, making the beach an ideal environment for swimming. The sand does not get too warm here, even at midday, and the scenery is stunning. Swimmers can stay and play at the beach for hours because there are restrooms and showers nearby. The water quality is usually high at San Onofre State Beach, although bacteria levels may rise for several days after major rainstorms. Before heading to the water, it’s a good idea to check for rain advisories. Lifeguards and rangers are on duty at Trails Beach, Trestles, and Surfing Beach, but only sporadically, so swimmers should enter the water at their own risk, especially if they plan to venture too far past the shoreline. Swimmers should always be shark-aware because the beaches are hot spots for juvenile great white sharks cruising the coastline for their fish dinners. Shark bites are relatively uncommon, but it’s best to use common sense when swimming near this beach; use the buddy system, don’t swim if you are bleeding, and stay out of the water when there is a shark advisory.