From the south to the north, San Diego county has over seventy miles of pristine coastline that, among other things, is honeycombed with a variety of sea caves. Over the years, these caves have been used for a variety of purposes, including bootlegging, tourism (or in the case of the Sunny Jim Cave, both), and everything in between. While some of these caves are inaccessible without a boat, and some of these caves are flat out inaccessible or unsafe, the best place to visit and experience sea caves is in one of San Diego’s most popular public spaces, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park. While the sixty eight acres of Sunset Cliffs Natural Park are perhaps best known as a great place to watch the sun set for tourists and locals alike, its most popular - and striking area is an eighteen acre linear portion south of Ocean Beach leading down to Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument.
This area is infamous for its eroded sandstone cliffs, singular tiny hidden beaches (at low tide), rock formations, and great surfing breaks. The natural processes of wind, sea, and rain have also over the years eroded many of the cliffs into tiny and large sea caves. While some of these caves have collapsed (sandstone as a sedimentary rock is inherently unstable) and some of the caves look more like tiny tunnels, there are a number of caves that can be explored easily at low tide. At high tide, many, if not all of these caves fill with sea water, and cannot be accessed either by surfboard, kayak, or boat without great personal risk. A walk at low tide around Sunset Cliffs Natural Park provides even a casual explorer with a number of sights to see from tidepools, ocean, and the Bay Point and Point Loma rock formations. For the caving - or adventure enthusiast, at low tide, all of the hidden gems of the park are revealed. While all of the caves have their own unique charm, in the last ten years, one cave has become immensely popular, due to its unique features.
While it has many names - “The Hidden Arch Cave Under Sunset Cliffs” - or the “Open Ceiling Sea Cave” - or simply “that great photo spot”, all of these names refer to a sea cave that is approximately forty feet wide by forty feet high with an open (collapsed) ceiling of some thirty feet. With one entrance on the west side, this cave has become popular due to the intriguing (and non-photoshopped photos) that can be taken of a perfect ceiling circle framed by a nearby entrance. The interior of the cave is also a great spot to view the aforementioned Bay Point and Point Loma rock formations.
Directions: As the cave technically could be anywhere along the eighteen linear acres of the park, it is something that has been difficult to find. Having said that, the cave is actually fairly easy to find at low tide with the following directions. Visitors should look for street parking between Hill Street on the North, and Monaco Street on the South. In this block, Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is on the west (ocean) side and there are houses on the east side. As with any residential area, visitors should respect parties’ personal property. Simply put however, if one is looking for the cave not in this one block radius, you are looking in the wrong spot. Once one is parked (or is in the area), they will want to proceed into the park, meaning onto the cliffs that overlook the ocean. Again, as I have mentioned, if the tide is high, or normal, the route herein does not exist to this cave - or any cave - as the ocean is up to these cliffs. From the cliff, there are a number of routes that look like they can reach down to the coast/beach area. Visitors should choose carefully which route they take, because even at low tide, some of these routes are misleading and can at a minimum, lead to a painful fall (or at a maximum, broken bones or death). The best route is to scour the cliff for the western point, where there is a well-worn foot path for surfers and explorers down to the base that involves a very very moderate amount of scrambling. If one feels they are “climbing” on the route that they have chosen, chances are that you are on the wrong route!
From the base of the cliff, even at low tide, there is a traverse that involves some wading. Depending on the tide, this may involve wading in two feet of water or less, or five feet of water or more. If it appears the water is too high, or rough, visitors should not proceed for innumerable practical reasons (risk of death or drowning).
Traversing south, the route cuts in after about fifteen feet toward (at low tide) a beach. Visitors should follow the beach south for less than a tenth of a mile, and round a second corner, and at that point, the cave is readily visible. Even though it should be clear at this point, I will make it explicitly clear: the best - and safest time to visit this area is at low tide, preferably a negative low tide in excess of -1.2 feet. Attempting to reach this area at other times ranges from practically impossible or actually impossible. The return back is along the same route for a .25 roundtrip hike or less.
Tips: As discussed above, there are many sea caves in this area to the North and South. At a low tide, all of these are within .1 miles of the open ceiling cave, and while not as spectacular, will have a lot less visitors. Obviously, the best time to visit this spot is on a sunny day at sunset, but given the tide requirements, this only happens a few times a year. Plan accordingly, and be prepared to be there with many of your new best friends, as many people know how and where to go to visit this spot.
Disclaimers: While a short hike/climb, this is something that involves a fair amount of risk, especially during the wrong conditions (not low tide). Even at low tide, the rocks and cliffs will be slick from the ocean, or from ocean plants. Parties should watch their footing at all times. Finally, even though it should be obvious, visitors should be aware that caving and or spelunking in sea caves involves a high amount of risk in that the area is unstable. Cave-ins can occur at any time (which is how the ceiling disappeared!). As such, parties should judge accordingly where and when go into caves, especially in connection with the tides. Even though it is a simple spot to visit at negative low tide, sadly, a number of people have fallen and died at Sunset Cliffs Natural Park over the years, or have fallen and injured themselves. Do not be a statistic; and do not be a rescue. If the tide is normal or high, do not attempt this route. Finally, if you do not feel comfortable with scrambling or traversing rocks or the area around the cliff, also do not attempt this route. If you do go, be sure to exercise leave no trace principles and pack out your trash, and do not carve on the sandstone.