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Encinitas is a classic Southern California beach city with its dramatic beaches, palm trees, blue skies, surfers, taco shops, and stunning sunsets.
It’s often overlooked by road trippers on their way from Los Angeles to San Diego, but it’s well worth stopping.
We chose Encinitas as our base for a month in San Diego, on the hunt for sunshine in January (we were not disappointed with afternoon temperatures of 64-70ºF), and were happy with our decision.
It was easy to explore the rest of San Diego, but we found plenty to do closer to home and appreciated the quieter, more local vibe than the beaches further south.
In this post, I share our picks for the best things to do in Encinitas with a focus on the outdoor activities that this area is really all about—beaches, gardens, hikes, water sports—as well as some food recommendations (we ate a lot of ice cream!).
Where is Encinitas California?
Encinitas is located on the Southern California coast in North County, San Diego. It’s 26 miles north of central San Diego, about a 30-minute drive.
It’s 100 miles south (a two-hour drive) of Los Angeles International Airport.
The city of Encinitas includes the beach neighbourhoods of Leucadia (north of downtown Encinitas) and Cardiff-by-the-Sea (south of downtown).
It’s easiest to get around with your own car, but you can also take the Coaster train from San Diego to downtown Encinitas. Moonlight Beach is a short walk from Encinitas station.
See the map below for locations of all my recommended things to do in Encinitas.
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What to Do in Encinitas San Diego
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Best Beaches in Encinitas California
The beaches are the reason visitors and locals alike are drawn to Encinitas. Most of them are under craggy bluffs, reached by steep staircases, with eminently surfable waves (we felt like the only non-surfers in our Leucadia neighbourhood) and incredible sunsets over the Pacific Ocean.
These are the best Encinitas beaches from north to south.
1) South Ponto Beach
South Ponto is technically in Carlsbad (it’s at the south end of South Carlsbad State Beach), but it’s right on the city border with Encinitas and only a 20-minute walk from Grandview.
It’s one of the most accessible beaches in the area as there’s free parking right next to the sand (it can fill up on busy days). Restrooms are available.
The sandy beach is one of the widest in the area so there’s enough space to spread out.
It leads onto nearby beaches so at low tide you can walk in either direction to bluff-backed beaches.
While we didn’t find South Ponto as scenic as the beaches further south, it was easier to head here for a picnic when we had a lot of gear.
2) Grandview Beach
Further south the beaches are backed by crumbling golden bluffs. Grandview was our local beach in Leucadia and is reached by a steep staircase from the small free parking lot on Neptune Avenue.
It’s very popular with surfers, although I did manage to swim on calmer days—and on one memorable occasion, a dolphin joined me!
I also saw pelicans and even an osprey holding a fish while perched on the stairs to one of the beach houses.
The part sandy, part pebbly beach vanishes at high tide, so it’s not the best spot for sunbathing. It’s great for walking at low tide when you can walk for miles to Moonlight Beach and beyond.
Sunsets are also stunning—walk partway down the stairs for the best view.
There are no facilities here (the nearest restrooms are at South Ponto Beach).
3) Beacon’s Beach
Leucadia State Beach includes Grandview and Beacon’s. Beacon’s Beach is similar to Grandview—backed by bluffs, popular with surfers, no facilities—but perhaps a little busier.
There’s a small free parking lot at the other end of Neptune Avenue with a zigzag walkway down to the sand. You can enjoy the view (especially at sunset) from the parking lot.
It’s about a 20-minute walk from Grandview. If the tide is too high to walk on the sand, there’s a pedestrian lane on one-way Neptune Avenue.
Stonesteps is another access point to the beach, a mile south.
4) Moonlight State Beach
Moonlight is the most visited beach in Encinitas and much busier than Grandview and Beacon’s.
It’s not as popular for surfing, though, and is probably the best place to swim on calmer days as there are lifeguards even in winter.
Moonlight’s attraction comes from its accessibility. You can drive right up to the beach, but it’s drop-off only other than a few disabled spots. The large free parking lot is just above the beach with a ramp down, so it’s easier to manage than the stairs at other beaches.
There are also plenty of facilities—restrooms, showers, picnic tables, playground, volleyball nets, tennis courts, snack bar (with food that actually sounded decent), and a shop renting boogie boards and other gear.
It’s a five-minute walk to downtown, so you can easily combine a visit with shopping or eating out (we recommend an ice cream from Gelato 101).
The main stretch of sand is quite wide, so you can find space even at high tide. At low tide, it’s good for walking or running in either direction (south to Swami’s or north to Beacon’s).
We found Moonlight one of the best places to go in Encinitas for picnics as it’s so accessible. We’d often get takeout and eat it on one of the benches in the parking lot looking down on the beach.
5) Swami’s Beach
Swami’s is possibly the prettiest beach in Encinitas with its dramatic bluffs, wide stretch of sand, and aqua ocean.
It’s difficult to get a space in the small parking lot, and you’ll have to walk down plenty of steps to reach the sand—the views on the way down are beautiful, though.
We parked on the street near the meditation gardens (which you’ll want to visit) and walked to the beach in under 10 minutes. You’ll pass Highway 101 where you can find plenty of cafes and restaurants.
Swami’s is legendary to surfers and is good for walking at low tide. We walked to the start of San Elijo State Beach in about 20 minutes but you could continue south.
There are restrooms and picnic tables next to the parking lot.
6) Cardiff State Beach
For an easier beach to access by car, head to Cardiff State Beach, south of downtown Encinitas.
You can park next to the sand and there are no bluffs or stairs to navigate. This does mean the road is closer to the beach and it isn’t quite as scenic.
We paid for the parking lot at the northern end (there’s also one at the southern end) but later realised we could have parked for free along the road. There are picnic tables and restrooms.
The beach is wide and flat and ideal for walking. The waves also seemed calmer than elsewhere. We walked about 20 minutes south to the start of Tide Beach Park (in Solana Beach), which is even more beautiful with golden bluffs and mossy tide pools.
One of the most appealing aspects of Cardiff Beach is the only beachfront restaurant we saw in Encinitas—Pacific Coast Grill has an outdoor terrace with tables right next to the sand, away from the road, with the perfect sunset view. We didn’t eat in but were very tempted to stop for a cocktail.
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Gardens in Encinitas
Encinitas has a number of beautiful gardens that are well worth visiting.
7) San Diego Botanic Garden
If you are interested in plants and flowers, the San Diego Botanic Garden is a must-see in Encinitas. It’s one of my picks for the best outdoor activities in San Diego.
There are four miles of trails across 37 acres of gardens with a diverse array of flora. Themed gardens include Australian (the bottle tree was a highlight), African, Mediterranean (seeing the tree cork comes from is very cool), Californian, and Mexican (with amazing topiary mariachis made from succulents).
Other areas focus on cacti, bamboo, herbs, subtropical fruit, and there’s even a tropical rainforest with a waterfall.
San Diego’s mild climate means that even in winter there was plenty to see.
Don’t miss the Conservatory near the entrance which houses hanging tropical plants and orchids. All are epiphytes or ‘air plants’, which grow on top of other plants without any soil. Sadly, we just missed the rare corpse plant blooming—it only blooms once every 7-10 years!
Entrance to the garden is $18. You must book in advance on their website for a specific time. It’s open from 9am to 5am Wednesday to Monday and closed on Tuesday.
We visited at 9am on a weekday and had it mostly to ourselves, which was lovely. By 10am it was busier but by no means crowded. Allow around two hours for your visit, more if you want to linger.
I recommend wearing decent shoes as not all the paths are paved.
8) Self-Realization Fellowship Meditation Gardens
Another beautiful but much smaller garden in Encinitas is the meditation garden at the Self-Realization Fellowship Encinitas Temple.
It’s designed to provide a peaceful place to meditate (please explore quietly), but it’s become increasingly popular so this would be a challenge at peak times.
Nevertheless, it’s a lovely spot to wander past colourful flowers, cacti, and a koi pond, or just sit and enjoy the view of the surfers at Swami’s Beach below.
The meditation gardens are open Tuesday to Sunday from 9am – 5pm (from 11am on Sunday) and closed on Monday. Entrance is free and you can find free street parking outside.
9) Dave’s Rock Garden
We came across this cute little garden when walking from Moonlight Beach to Highway 101. It’s full of cacti, succulents, and colourfully painted rocks decorated with art and messages.
It was created by local resident Dave Dean, who transformed the previously trash-filled empty lot next to his home into a vibrant oasis. You can even add your own painted rock—visitors from 113 countries and all 50 states have contributed so far.
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Walks and Hikes in Encinitas
Encinitas doesn’t have a huge number of hiking trails, but there are plenty of places to stretch your legs. For even more stunning coastal walks, drive 15 minutes south to Torrey Pines State Reserve.
10) Walk on the Beach
All the beaches in Encinitas are good for a long walk if you visit at low tide. I think you could even walk all the way from South Ponto to Cardiff if you timed it right.
South Ponto to Grandview takes about 20 minutes.
Grandview to Moonlight via Beacon’s is about 2.5 miles and took us 50 minutes each way (plus an ice-cream break near Moonlight!).
Continuing on from Moonlight to Swami’s is another 25 minutes but we never managed to time this one right.
Swami’s to San Elijo takes 20 minutes and you could walk for an hour or more south to Cardiff and Tide Beach Park.
There are several tide pools on the route including near Moonlight, Swami’s, and the far end of Cardiff. The best time to spot critters is during a minus tide in winter.
11) Batiquitos Lagoon
This tidal wetland is technically in Carlsbad but it’s just over the border. It looks close to South Ponto Beach but unfortunately, there’s no easy way to connect them on foot.
Batiquitos is good if you want to look for birdlife or enjoy an easy, flat walk on a dirt path near the lagoon. I ran here a few times when I wanted to get away from the road (although you can still hear the highway).
There are various access points to Batiquitos Lagoon. If you park at the end of Gabbiano Rd (marked Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation on Google Maps), the walk or run to the other end of the park is about 3 miles return.
12) San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve
Another coastal wetland for an easy walk and birdwatching. There are a few short loop trails (0.3 or 0.7 miles) from the Nature Center or you can connect to the Pole Trail to reach the other side of the lagoon where you’ll find Annie’s Canyon (2 miles away).
You could combine a walk at San Elijo Lagoon with nearby Cardiff Beach.
13) Annie’s Canyon Trail
If you only have time for one trail at the San Elijo Lagoon, I recommend Annie’s Canyon just over the border in Solana Beach.
This short but fun walk involves walking through a slot canyon—unexpected in the middle of the city.
There are a few routes to the canyon. We did the shortest by parking on the street at the end of North Rios Avenue and walking for 10 minutes on the easy Rios Trail with lagoon and ocean views (although it’s a bit close to the highway) to reach the canyon loop.
The loop must be done one way and starts by delving into the sandstone canyon. It’s easy at first and then becomes narrower and narrower. You have to squeeze through the rocks, scramble in parts, and even climb a ladder.
It’s slightly challenging but not too difficult, and it only took us 10 minutes to reach the top where you can enjoy views of the lagoon. The switchback down only took five minutes.
Our total hike was 1.5 miles, 35 minutes and 269 feet of elevation gain.
Annie’s Canyon is a unique trail that’s well worth experiencing. I recommend going on a weekday (or very early on a weekend) as it can get crowded. Wear shoes with traction and make sure your hands are free for the canyon.
14) Manchester Preserve Hiking Trails
A 10-minute drive inland from downtown Encinitas is the Manchester Preserve which feels surprisingly far away from it all.
The quiet, sandy trails lead through scrubby native plants with some steep sections.
There are various trailheads and trails and it can be quite confusing. We just walked into the canyon, looped around the bottom and back up again. Or check out this 2.3-mile loop on Alltrails.
15) Encinitas Ranch Trail
We preferred Manchester Preserve, but the Ranch Trail is another pleasant area to walk away from the road. They are both more local spots than destination hikes.
The 2.1-mile loop (see it on Alltrails) took us 40 minutes and was easy with a few uphills.
We parked on the street at the end of Rosebay Drive (in a retirement community) and walked past a golf course and lots of houses until we reached a ridge with more open views of the hills beyond San Diego.
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Other Activities in Encinitas
Surfing is the number one activity in Encinitas. Grandview, Beacon’s, and Swami’s are all very popular surf spots.
We don’t surf but would have been tempted by a lesson if we’d been visiting in a warmer month. Wavehuggers offer private surf lessons in Cardiff, which has great conditions for beginners.
17) Stand Up Paddleboard at Agua Hedionda Lagoon
Stand up paddleboarding is more my kind of water sport. The ocean waves were too big for me, so I headed to Agua Hedionda Lagoon in Carlsbad, 10 minutes north of Encinitas.
This is the calmest place in the area to paddleboard or kayak. You can also rent boats and jet skis.
I rented a board from California WaterSports ($30 for 1 hour). If you have your own gear you’ll need to purchase a permit here.
Paddleboarders have to stay fairly close to shore to avoid the motorised boats in the middle of the lagoon, but once you reach the far end you have access to the whole space.
It’s a bit noisy at first as you are so close to the freeway, but it gets quieter the further you get and you can look out for birds like herons and pelicans.
One hour was enough for me to get to the end and back, but two hours would be better if you want to take breaks on the small sandy beaches along the way.
18) Leucadia Farmer’s Market
On Sunday mornings head to this large farmer’s market for an array of fresh produce as well as bread, honey, dips, kombucha, fresh pasta, fresh salsa, and olive oil.
The hot food stalls are also delicious—choose from Indian, Thai, Kenyan, Belgian, and more. We had a very tasty veggie samosa from the Indian stall.
The market was quite busy but there was enough space on the lawn for us to find a quiet spot to eat.
Leucadia Farmer’s Market is on Sundays from 10am to 2pm at Paul Ecke Elementary School, 185 Union Street.
19) Shop on 101
Highway 101 runs through Encinitas and its heart is in downtown Encinitas where you’ll find plenty of shops and restaurants just a few blocks from Moonlight Beach.
Look out for the famous Encinitas sign and La Paloma Theatre, San Diego’s oldest, which has been showing films since 1928.
Whether you are looking for surf gear, boho clothing, jewellery, or home furnishings, there’s lots of choice on the 101.
20) Enjoy a Delicious Meal
There are loads of places to eat in Encinitas.
Our favourites are Plumeria (vegetarian Thai), Nectarine Grove (organic and gluten-free—we love the fajita bowl), and East Village Asian Diner (healthy monk’s stone pots).
We found good vegetarian tacos hard to come by. Haggos Organic Taco has the most choice but we found the flavours a bit bland.
Corner Pizza has pretty good NY style pizza. The veggie options are a bit limited, though, and we much preferred TNT Pizza in downtown San Diego.
Prager Brothers Artisan Bread has amazing bread and pastries. Don’t miss the jalapeño cheddar sourdough, blueberry scones, and chocolate croissants. They also have sandwiches if you want an easy picnic lunch. Vegan options are available.
For groceries, we love Just Peachy in Leucadia. For a small store, it has an amazing range of health products and fresh fruit and vegetables. You can even buy delicious apple pies from Julian (a small, apple-growing town 60 miles inland from Encinitas).
If you want to discover the best vegan eats, this Encinitas food tour looks fun.
21) Eat Ice Cream
We made it our mission to hunt down the best ice cream in Encinitas. Here’s our ranking (although they are all good):
1) Gelato 101 – Our favourite! The chocolate gelato was rich and creamy and they have other classic Italian flavours like pistachio, stracciatella, and tiramisu. I appreciate that you can get two flavours in a small cone or cup (not the case everywhere). It’s within walking distance of Moonlight Beach.
2) JoJo’s Creamery – A close second for me. It has interesting seasonal flavours and the white chocolate peppermint bark was superb. You can get two flavours in a small and they come with a free mini cookie. It’s in a cute shopping area with outside seating just off the 101.
3) The Baked Bear – They specialise in decadent ice cream cookie sandwiches—choose two cookies and one scoop of ice cream. The caramel pretzel fudge ice cream was so good but the mint chocolate chip was disappointing. It’s in the heart of the 101.
4) Little Fox Cups + Cones – This hole in the wall in Leucadia sells ice cream in pots or waffle taco shells—fairly easy to transport to the beach if you have a cooler. The tacos are cute and there are interesting flavours to choose from such as pineapple jalapeno cream with lime zest. I liked the mint chocolate with brownie bits, but a whole taco was a bit rich. It’s only open Friday to Sunday afternoons.
5) Cali Cream – The closest ice cream shop to Moonlight Beach with a ridiculously huge list of flavours. We found it nice but nothing special. I didn’t like that you pay by flavour and one flavour was massive with three scoops, so you only get to try one.
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Where to Stay in Encinitas
We spent a month in this modern, two-bedroom Airbnb apartment with an ocean view in Leucadia. The location a few minutes’ walk from Grandview was great.
For a luxury stay even closer to the beach, check out the Alila Marea Beach Resort. We admired its location just above South Ponto Beach and the rooms look beautiful. Many have ocean views and some even have fire pits on their patios. There’s also an ocean-view pool and whirlpool.
If you want to be within walking distance of Moonlight Beach and downtown Encinitas, Moonlight Beach Motel is perfect, just a four-minute walk to the sand and even less to shops and restaurants.
For those on a budget, Rodeway Inn Encinitas North is one of the most affordable (though basic) motels in the area. It’s located on the main street in Leucadia and is a 10-minute walk from Grandview Beach.
Search for more hotels in Encinitas here.
If you want more space, take a look at these Encinitas holiday rentals on Vrbo. You can find everything from cute cottages to dreamy beach houses.
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Map of Things to Do in Encinitas California
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Is Encinitas Worth Visiting?
Yes, Encinitas is definitely worth visiting. This chilled surfer town is a quieter alternative to San Diego but still accessible if you want to explore the big city.
It feels more like a local spot and is ideal if you want to surf or enjoy the many beaches and gardens.
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