Distance: 22 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 660 ft
Cycling in San Diego is backwards. Usually when I’m in a city I can’t wait to get out of town and into the surrounding hills. But I’m not excited by the hills to the east of San Diego—the road contours are monotonous and the scenery is scrub. And riding in the burbs is endless big, straight, flat roads past gated communities. But the riding in town along the water is very good. City riding tends to be frenetic and dangerous, but not so here. Traffic is light, the roads are hospitable, bike lanes and bike boulevards abound, and the beach communities are cozy and charming. Bestrides discusses three of those ocean-hugging routes, all of them chestnuts to the locals: the ride to Cabrillo National Monument, the Bayshore Bikeway (in Adding Miles below), and this one. Since they hug the shoreline, all three rides are flat or nearly so, are slow-paced, and are perfect to do with your non-rabid partner on their e-bike. Comparing the three, this one is the slowest, Cabrillo has the climbing and the grand vista, and the Bayshore Bikeway has the solitude.
This is one of those urban adventure rides like the San Francisco Wiggle Route. It’s about poking your nose into interesting little corners of the city. It changes its personality every couple of miles, and it doesn’t have a boring moment, if you like SoCal beach culture and residential architecture, which I do.
Take your time on this ride. You’ll spend as much time watching seals frolic, assessing the skills of the surfers along the route, and sampling the fish tacos in a seaside taco shack as you do riding. This 22-mile ride took me about 4 hours. And even though it’s in the heart of a busy city, it’s 99% on neighborhood streets or sidewalks (!), so it’s almost car-free. I can’t think of a more pleasant way to spend an afternoon lazing about on your bike.
Our route starts at Mission Bay Park, where Clairemont Drive crosses the San Diego Freeway. Parking is plentiful—if you can’t park in the lot at the intersection, there are several parking lots to the north and south, and there is abundant curb parking in either direction on Mission Bay Drive. Ride north on Mission Bay Drive, an open, tranquil boulevard near the water’s edge with good views of Mission Bay and the grass fields and public beaches along its lip. From here on, with few exceptions, you just stay as close to the water as you can.
Soon you cross the cute little Mike Gotch Memorial Bridge over the Rose Inlet and your park boulevard becomes a street, Pacific Beach Drive. PBD is large and badly paved, but few cars use it. On your L is the Kendall Frost Mission Bay Marsh Preserve. The large stick mounds you see dotting the marsh are the nests of Ridgway’s Rail. The nests are tethered to the marsh grasses and float up and down with the rising and falling tides.
You can take PBD straight west to the ocean if you’re short on time, but our route takes a detour by staying close to the water and riding the perimeter of Crown Point, a peninsula that juts south into Mission Bay. Take Crown Point Drive, a large and open street, to the L. You can stay on it if it makes you happy, but I prefer the small paved trail that takes off soon to the L and continues between the street and the water, the Bayside Walk (weekend pedestrian traffic may make it unrideably crowded). It goes all the way to the southern tip of the Mission Beach peninsula, but before then we bail and take surface streets back to Pacific Beach Drive and take it L to the water (ignore the odd little jog south RidewithGPS invented).
Ride west until you’re gazing at the ocean and standing on the sidewalk fronting the beach. You’re now in Pacific Beach—not to be confused with Mission Beach just to the south and the more famous Ocean Beach on our Cabrillo Monument ride. The sidewalk you’re standing on is called Ocean Front Walk, and on a busy weekend day it may be nearly impassible with pedestrians, but you’re welcome to ride on it, and you should make the effort, because it’s a classic SoCal beach community scene—surfers in the water and prepping on the beach, girls in bikinis, customers drinking at the outdoor beer stands and watching the aforementioned surfers and girls, grass-roofed taco stands. Take Ocean Front Walk R/north and stay on it until it ends.
From the end of Ocean Front Walk you could take main streets all the way to La Jolla: Mission Blvd., La Jolla Blvd., and Prospect Street. They’re all wide, busy, and boring. We’re going to do the opposite and try to lose ourselves in the intriguing warren of beachfront streets to the west of them There is an almost infinite variety of routes available, and you can’t really go wrong or get lost, since you have the ocean on one side and the big streets on the other—just make sure you keep heading north. You’ll have the best time if you always choose to a) stay close to the water and b) take the smallest street that isn’t a cul de sac.
The rewards here are architectural. From Pacific Beach to La Jolla, every house seems to be unique, charming, beautifully maintained, and insanely expensive. Navigating is fun, especially since every street name seems to be some combination of playa (Spanish for “beach”), sol, arena (Spanish for “sand”), marina, vista, mar, and camino. Playa Del Sol? Vista Del Mar? Camino Del Playa? Playa Del Vista? Camino Del Vista Del Playa Del Mar? How many combinations can there be? You will also pass some sweet off-the-grid beach access spots if you want to dig your toes into the sand.
Arriving in La Jolla, you’ll find excellent shopping and eating, but I’m only interested in the shoreline. Your first stop is Children’s Pool Beach, where for much of the year you (along with a throng of others) can watch the mama seals teach their new babies how to swim. Heartwarming. Continue north along the water 1/4 mile to Point La Jolla, where you may see seals surfing the swells and leaping clear of the water before the crest breaks. Amazing. Just past Point La Jolla is La Jolla Cove, with more seals, caves, and dramatic coastal views.
You can continue on north as far as you want (see Adding Miles). Turn around when you’re ready and return to Pacific Beach. Retrace your route or discover a new one through the neighborhoods.
Before turning L onto Pacific Beach Dr., continue south on Ocean Front Walk and explore the community of tiny beach houses that begin at PBD and go south down the Mission Beach peninsula. They’re packed in between Ocean Front Walk and Mission Blvd., rows and rows of adorable bungalows separated only by walkways just wide enough for your handlebars. These “streets” are so small most maps don’t show them—as many as 7 or 8 in a normal city block—and they have names as colorful and imaginative as the cottages themselves: Zanzibar, Windemere, Yarmouth. It’s a private world, like the Berkeley Hills or Sausalito’s houseboat communities, one you can only gaze at and fantasize about the life within.
When you’re done, return to Pacific Beach Dr. and retrace your steps home. If you don’t need to see Crown Point twice, just stay on PBD and you’ll be home in minutes.
Shortening the route: it’s already short and easy, but if you must, the uniquely San Diegan part of the ride is from Pacific Beach to La Jolla, so park near the west end of Pacific Beach Dr. and ride from there.
Adding miles: You can keep riding north. I haven’t done it, but I am assured that the riding along the coast remains rewarding at least as far as Encinitas and probably all the way to Oceanside, where the Coast Highway deadends into Hwy 5.
Our Cabrillo National Monument ride begins and ends where this ride begins and ends.
With little trouble you can ride East Mission Bay Drive south from our starting point and continue on it (later called Pacific Hwy., then Harbor Dr.)) to another iconic San Diegan ride, the aforementioned Bayshore Bikeway. Once called the Bay Route Ride and supposedly renamed to avoid confusion with possible bike rides in Lebanon (truly), this favorite ride of non-cyclist tourists is described in detail in numerous websites of Things to Do in San Diego, so I will be brief. It begins with a ferry ride from the downtown Navy Pier to Coronado Island ($7 one way, leaving every hour on the hour) and follows a well-marked course along the southeast edge of Coronado, past the Hotel del Coronado, and down the Silver Strand, the spit connecting Coronado Island to the south end of the bay. It’s a separated bike path almost all the way and it’s dead flat, so you will see a lot of tourists on e-bikes. Coronado is charming in a big-money way, the Strand itself is prettily desolate (your path is on the east side of the highway, so you don’t see the ocean), there’s some interesting history and one State Beach along the way, and the south end of the bay is an interesting marsh with a bird sanctuary.
But there’s a trap. The Bikeway advertises itself as a loop and invites you to continue on northward up the east side of the bay. This I wouldn’t do. It’s ugly industrial, with bad road surfaces and occasional dangerous traffic, a poor patchwork of bike paths, sidewalks, main streets, baffling interchanges, construction sites, and parking lots. At one point the Bikeway’s own route signage directed me down a separated bike path along a major artery, a path which without warning turned into a sidewalk and then ended in dirt. So ride the Bikeway to the bird sanctuary, turn around, and retrace your steps.