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A Coastal Walk in San Diego County

February 07, 1993|JOHN McKINNEY

Ever since I enjoyed an inn-to-inn walk along the Dorset Coast in England, I've pondered how--and where--we coast walkers could enjoy a similar experience along the California coast. Sunny San Diego--in particular its North County shoreline--is one good place for a long walk.

Twenty-five miles of beach await the hiker. Stretching between Del Mar and Oceanside is a coastline of black- and white-sand beaches, backed by bluffs and dotted with lagoons.

The towns and beaches here are quiet and give the illusion of being off the beaten track. Until 1964, the coastline was busier because Pacific Coast Highway, then the main thoroughfare between Los Angeles and San Diego, sent motorists whizzing along the coast. However, when Interstate 5 routed travelers inland, the Coast Highway--and the small towns--were left to residents and beach-goers.

To some casual visitors, the towns of Del Mar, Solana Beach, Encinitas and Leucadia all look alike, though residents are quick to dispute this and point out the superiority of their town and beach. And in truth, when you walk (as opposed to drive) through these towns, you'll find that each does indeed have a distinct personality.

Each beach seems to have its own character, too: from "best surfing" and "clearest water" to "most panoramic view" and "most bird life." The air and water temperatures are Mediterranean-like, the place names Spanish. North San Diego County is quite a bit removed from the bustle of California's second-largest city.

Amtrak stops at Del Mar and Oceanside, suggesting a European-style walking tour between the two beach towns. The walking distance from train station to train station is about 25 miles--a perfect two- or three-day weekend jaunt.

Feeling a bit leg-weary or want to bring along some pint-sized hikers? No problem. Hike until you're tired, then hop on one of the many North San Diego County Transit District buses that run up and down the coast.

My recommendation is: 1) Take the train from Los Angeles to Del Mar; 2) beach-walk from Del Mar to Encinitas, Leucadia or even Carlsbad and spend the night; 3) walk to Oceanside, and 4) take the train from Oceanside back to Los Angeles. It all adds up to a terrific weekend adventure.

You'll find camping at San Elijo State Beach and South Carlsbad State Beach, plus plenty of motels in all price ranges--from semi-seedy bungalows in Leucadia to Automobile Assn. of America-approved accommodations in Encinitas and Carlsbad.

Hikers certainly won't go hungry en route. But if you're not careful, you could get indigestion. In the beach towns, you can eat Italian, Hungarian, Armenian, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese food. And just a few blocks inland from the beach trail are scores of coffeehouses, juice bars, malt shops and fish taco stands.

But there's a more serious precaution to observe on this coastal hike: Consult a North San Diego County tide table or local newspaper and try to walk during the three hours before and after low tide; this is particularly important in winter, when the beach is narrow. During the summer, when the beach is wide, you can walk almost any time.

If waves are breaking uncomfortably close to the cliffs and there's little room to walk, head inland and walk the bluffs and beach towns for a while until the tide goes down. (A particularly narrow stretch of beach, with housing and sea walls crowding the shore, is south Oceanside.) There are plenty of officially designated coastal accessways from which to reach--or retreat from--the beach.

Directions to trail head: Figure about a two-hour train ride from Los Angeles to Del Mar. Try to catch one of the earlier trains of the 10 or so on the San Diegan Route, so that you have plenty of time to enjoy your walk. Note that weekend and weekday schedules are a bit different. Southland residents who live far from the coast or Los Angeles Union Station can obtain a schedule of San Diegan Route Inland Bus Connections from Amtrak. For information or reservations, call Amtrak at (800) USA-RAIL.

For those who choose to leave their cars behind, the Oceanside Transit Center offers plenty of options. Along with the Amtrak station, the center is home to Trailways and Greyhound bus stations and serves as a major arrival/ departure point for San Diego's North County Transit District buses. Route 301, with more than 30 buses a day, services the coastal towns between Del Mar and Oceanside. For route information, call (619) 722-NCTD.

The hike: From the train station, Coastal Trail travels south over Del Mar City Beach, "where the surf meets the turf," as modern-day advertisements boast. The long beach's northern end is directly opposite the Del Mar Race Track and County Fairgrounds. It's legal to exercise horses here, north to Solana Beach. You can watch trainers gallop their thoroughbreds in case you forget your own. Swimming and surfing are also popular activities.

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