There's no better time than fall and winter for great sunset watching in San Diego County. Picture yourself on a clear, late afternoon, perched atop one of the ocean bluffs or inland peaks, looking west. As you sit and watch, the sun, a battered, distorted orb, touches a sharply delineated horizon punctuated left and right by the low profiles of San Clemente and Santa Catalina islands. The sun sinks in two minutes, perhaps leaving behind for a moment a tinge of green as it disappears from view. The bowl of night advances slowly behind you, overtaking everything but a thin, orange band in the west that lingers for a while, then fades to blue-gray.
Before I mention a few of the better spots around North County to witness this kind of spectacle, let's discuss timing.
Starting about this time of year, wispy cirrus clouds drift across our skies with increased frequency. They can warn of an approaching storm, but quite often at this latitude, they simply indicate a disturbance that will pass clear of us. Cirrus and other high-altitude clouds may obscure the setting sun itself, but be patient: If you wait 5 to 20 minutes, these same clouds may cycle through an ever-changing palette of yellows, oranges and reds.
Right now, Southern California is well into the season of Santa Ana winds. Inland San Diego County may get warm, dry air from the east as much as half the time. Stronger Santa Ana conditions can push clear, dry air out to the coastline or even to the islands offshore. During the first couple of days of a major Santa Ana episode, surrealistically transparent air overlies the county, and sunsets become bright and lucid. But when a Santa Ana decays (usually by the third or fourth day) L.A.-area smog can sneak down the coast and lie heavily along North County's coast for a while. The fiery-red setting sun then recalls apocalyptic visions of Hades.
Optimum sunset-watching conditions sometimes occur after fast-moving Pacific storms pass. (This is most common December through February.) Cold, dry north winds often blow in the wake of these storms, sweeping all trace of polluted air from Southland skies. This is the best time to spot the prismatic effect called the "green flash." It appears to the naked eye as an emerald-green spot that lingers on the horizon during the last moment of the sun's demise. Clouds or haze can mask the phenomenon completely.
With the resumption of Pacific Standard Time on Sunday, Oct. 28, sunsets will be occurring much earlier--before 5 p.m. for most of November and December. That means there's lots of time to enjoy the whole sunset/twilight show well before your evening meal.
Some of the best places for sunset-watching may be as close as the local beach or coastal bluffs. The bluffs at Encinitas and Leucadia are ideal. Several stairways and ramps lead from Neptune Avenue in Leucadia down to the narrow strip of sand below. The trails of Torrey Pines State Reserve are closed after sunset, but there's always access to the beach there and also at Del Mar. Low tides are best for strolling North County's beaches, which aren't known for their great width. Early next month, the tide level reaches an extraordinarily low level of -1.5 feet two days in a row--Saturday, Nov. 3, at 3:40 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 4, at 4:32 p.m. These times are perfect for a pre- or post-sunset beach walk.
If you live inland, there's probably some high ridge or peak near you, perhaps with an ocean view, that is accessible by car or foot. Here are three North County peaks offering superb sunset and twilight panoramas:
Black Mountain (elev. 1,552 feet) in Mira Mesa, part of which is a San Diego open-space park. It can be climbed by way of dirt roads or firebreaks on the north and south slopes. You can start from either Paseo Valdear on the south, or the dirt portion of Black Mountain Road north of the peak. All routes to the top are quite steep, rugged and difficult to follow, so you should become familiar with them before attempting any descent in the dark.
Woodson Mountain (elev. 2,894 feet) outside Ramona. It can be climbed via a steep paved road (closed to autos) from California 67. Park on the spur road opposite the fire station three miles north of Poway Road. Walk past the station, then pick up the road going to the summit. It's an hour's hard climb to the top.
Boucher Hill (elev. 5,438 feet) in Palomar Mountain State Park is a bit remote, but its commanding height overlooks the coastline from Orange County to Baja California, and half of San Diego County to boot. You can either hike to it from the entrance to the park or drive all the way.
Don't forget to bring a jacket and flashlight if you'll be hiking after dark.
Mark Saturday, Nov. 3, on your calendar. From any vantage point offering a clear view of the eastern horizon, you should be able to see (weather permitting) a big full moon, orange as a pumpkin, rising a few minutes after sunset.