San Diego’s coastline features fascinating geological landscapes, including centuries-old rock formations that house stunning sea caves. The most famous (and easily accessible) are the La Jolla sea caves, with rich marine life in the surrounding waters. Most of these caves are only accessible by water, but a few can be reached by land.
It is important to look up the tide and weather beforehand, to ensure a safe visit as well as to make sure you can actually access the cave itself.
Here is a complete guide to visiting the sea caves in San Diego, including the seven La Jolla sea caves, the Sunset Cliffs Open Ceiling Sea Cave, and the Secret Sea Cave at the Cabrillo National Monument.
- Bring the right gear – that includes a bathing suit and water shoes if you’ll be kayaking, as well as sun protection even on those deceivingly cloudy days
- Check the weather/tides before you go – if you are going out by yourself, make sure to check the weather and the tides (Tideschart is a great resource) to avoid poor visibility / high tide
- Book tours early – especially in the summertime when the sea caves are a popular tourist destination in the area
Seven Caves of La Jolla
These sea caves are located as a coastal border for the offshore San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park Ecological Reserve, which is a popular place for snorkeling, kayaking, and swimming. They are located between La Jolla Shores Beach and La Jolla Cove Beach. Sunny Jim Cave is the only sea cave accessible by land while the rest can be reached by kayaking or snorkeling.
The sandstone bedrock that the cliffs were carved into along the shore is part of the Point Loma Formation which is part of the larger Rose Canyon Fault Zone in San Diego. The formation of these cliffs dates back to the Late Cretaceous Period, which is roughly 70 to 80 million years ago. So these cliffs have been around for a long time.
Sunny Jim Cave
This cave is the most popular of the seven due to its easy land accessibility and is the 2nd deepest sea cave at around 320 feet deep. It can be reached through The Cave Store, which has offered tours of the cave via a bootlegger’s tunnel since the early 1900s and was used as a way to smuggle illegal substances like alcohol and opium, especially during prohibition. The store is the original home of Gustav Schultz, who oversaw the construction of the tunnel by a pair of Chinese laborers.
The tours are around 15 minutes long and are self-guided. Be aware that there are around 145 wooden steps each way, which can be slippery so plan accordingly with proper footwear. Tickets are first-come, first-serve, no advanced reservations are available. Admission is $10 for adults and $6 for youth (3-17). There is limited street parking available.
This westernmost cave is the only one visible from the street on Coast Blvd., and is only accessible by kayak and swimming when conditions allow. The name comes from the two entrances on either side that mimics a clam. The position of the cave allows protection from harsh surf.
White Lady Cave
As local folklore has it, a newlywed couple was visiting from Los Angeles and the wife was tragically swept away by the tide. The waves crashing into the cave were said to remind the husband of his wife’s wedding attire.
Little Sister Cave
The smallest of the caves, this one is often overlooked. It sits next to the White Lady Cave and has a similar structure, but in mini
Shopping Cart Cave
This cave is known for its spiny lobsters that are in high demand during the limited season of October to March by local restaurants. Lobster traps are no longer allowed in the Marine Protected Area, but are still allowed outside. This cave is the only one that is west-facing, and therefore one of the best places to find lost personal belongings at sea due to the underwater currents.
The deepest of the caves at 600 feet, this cave was created by two caves combining to make a single one with only an arch remaining between them. There are narrow corridors and passageways that can be hazardous and it’s best to be viewed from the water outside.
Sea Surprize Cave
Unassuming from the outside, this cave opens up to 80 feet of passageway within its perimeters. The walls are an orange hue due to the rock deposits and there is a pool that contains calcite-crusted sea anemones inside its depths.
La Jolla Cove Cave
Not considered one of the seven caves, this cave is adjacent to La Jolla Cove Beach and is a popular spot for California sea lions. During low tide you can walk through it, just be aware of the surf. There are also small tide pools worth checking out.
Guided Kayak Tours
One of the best ways to see the La Jolla sea caves is by taking a guided kayaking tour. Hop in a single kayak or if you have a party of two take advantage of the tandem kayaks available. Entrance into the caves is weather permitting. During the summer keep your eyes out for harmless leopard sharks in the area. In the winter, there’s the possibility of seeing gray whales on their migration from Alaska to Baja California.
There are many tour operators in the area, and two highly reputable ones are La Jolla Kayak and Everyday California.
Snorkeling can be another great way to experience the La Jolla caves and the local marine life, including friendly harbor seals. If you are a beginner, it’s recommended that you go with experienced tour guides. The only criterion is that you know how to swim.
A popular option is a combination guided kayak/snorkeling tour, where you get to kayak around the caves and then snorkel in the reserve afterward.
There is also the option to go view the caves on your own, but this is only recommended for more experienced kayakers and swimmers who feel confident navigating the waters around the La Jolla Ecological Reserve. For swimmers, the easiest entry point is at La Jolla Cove since there are few waves and the waters are shallow. Note that the only place to launch a kayak is La Jolla Shores, not La Jolla Cove since it’s part of the reserve.
To rent gear head to the La Jolla Shores’ commercial district of Avenida de la Playa.
Additional Things To Do Around the La Jolla Sea Caves
If you plan on spending a full day or more in La Jolla, here are some more attractions located nearby the sea caves:
- WindanSea Beach – known by locals as a prime surfing spot, this beach is a great place to spend an afternoon and take a photo of the iconic WindanSea surf shack that was originally built in 1946 (destroyed and rebuilt a few times since) and is a beloved historical landmark.
- Birch Aquarium at Scripps – a popular destination for families with kids, this impressive aquarium is part of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. Learn about different local marine habitats like the giant kelp forests, as well as the ocean conservation efforts that are taking place at this institution. Reservations are required.
- Scripps Pier – north of La Jolla Shore Beach and a few minutes drive from the aquarium, this working pier is where scientists are able to do their experiments. Visitors are not allowed on the pier unless it’s a nighttime tour led by the aquarium. Underneath the pier is a popular photo opp, especially at sunset.
- La Jolla Playhouse – this Tony-award-winning theater is located on the University of California, San Diego’s campus and produces up-and-coming plays. Check out the full season here.
- Stuart Collection – this site-specific contemporary sculpture collection on UC San Diego’s campus has been running since 1981 and the pieces often blend with the university landscape. From Do Ho Suh’s iconic Fallen Star to Niki de Saint Phalle’s Sun God, these masterpieces are worth a stop.
- La Jolla murals – with a collection of 14 current murals that can be found brightening up the sides of buildings, the goal of this public artwork was to make art more accessible to everyone. Walking tours are available with reservations. A map for a self-guided tour is available here.
- La Jolla Historical Society – this non-profit offers a glimpse into La Jolla’s past and how it connects to the present and future through informative exhibits in its historic house museum as well as presentations, architecture tours, youth education, and annual community events like the Secret Garden Tour of La Jolla and the La Jolla Concours d’Elegance & Motor Car Classic.
- La Jolla Coast Walk Trail – a 0.6 mile path that is a great way to see stunning views of La Jolla without having to do a strenuous hike. Some highlights include Sunny Jimmy Sea Cave, Goldfish Point (look for the Garibaldi fish), a Dr. Seuss tribute (he called La Jolla home), and Vista Point, which is rumored to have some of the best views of the ocean.
- Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve – a hiking area where you could easily spend an entire day on the scenic trails overlooking the Pacific. The Torrey Pines tree is one of the rare plants that you will encounter on the reserve. The park is open from 7:15 am to sunset daily. The entrance to the park is $10-$25 per vehicle (depending on demand) and if you don’t want to hike up a steep incline to reach the trailheads, park at the top of the hill.
- Torrey Pines State Beach – adjacent to the reserve, this public beach is either accessible by itself or from a trail on the reserve. Lifeguards are present and there are restrooms with showers. The views are unparalleled with the dramatic backdrop of the cliffs and pine foliage above. Keep your eyes out for paragliders and hang gliders who take off from the Torrey Pines Gliderport and float on the air currents above the beach. Parking costs the same as the reserve.
Sunset Cliffs Open Ceiling Sea Cave
This massive open ceiling sea cave in Point Loma’s Sunset Cliffs neighborhood is worth visiting to experience its sheer size. Note that the cave is only accessible during negative tide, otherwise, it can be extremely dangerous. No matter how low the tide is, you will get your feet wet so bring waterproof shoes. If you are able to line up your visit with sunset, you will be treated to a spectacular front-row seat to the sun dipping into the Pacific through the main entrance.
For directions, it’s recommended that you enter Luscombs Point into your GPS and find street parking in the surrounding residential area. You will see the large gate that blocks off the top of the cave. To get to the cave you need to go to the end of Luscombs Point (where surfers go down to enter the water). For a detailed description of the trail, check out this California Through My Lens post.
Secret Sea Cave at the Cabrillo National Monument
A lesser-known sea cave exists at the southern end of Point Loma in this beautiful seaside national park. The trek to the sea cave is difficult and can only be reached during low tide or else it will be flooded and inaccessible. There is no marked trail, instead, you have to find your way with the use of landmarks. This detailed post from The Last Adventurer describes how to find your way to the cave. Safety travel tip: stop by the Visitor Center and ask a ranger if the tide is low enough to enter the sea cave.
There is a $20 vehicle permit to enter the park. There is also a $35 Cabrillo National Monument annual pass if you plan to go more than once during a 12-month duration. Park hours are 9:00 am – 5: 00 pm.