How to Spend One Day in La Jolla

Surrounded by the sea (well, on three sides), backed up by mountains, lined with cliffs, harboring views for days, sea breezes to die for, and marine life most only picture in movies, La Jolla is the kind of Southern California we always conjured up before finally getting the chance to live here. Think what you want about the politics or ideology of California, its natural beauty is undeniable…and addictive.  This is exactly why so many call this cute little village “the jewel of San Diego.” Boasting hundreds of adorable restaurants, local shops, and numerous hiking trails, we feel like this little spot situated just north of San Diego, makes a perfect addition to your greater San Diego getaway (with or without kids!).


Of course everyone has their take on where to begin, but if you’re short on time this is how we think you can maximize your adventure. The following is an itinerary for a (very) full day. For most people with littles, we think going at a relaxed pace the ideas below will fill ~1.5 days, so if you truly only have one day pick and choose! If you can, spend the night, take your time, and soak in every minute. It’s nearly impossible not to have a great time in someplace this beautiful.


1. Hike in Torrey Pines State Reserve

Good morning, La Jolla! What better way to get your day started than to feel your heart pumping in your chest? Hiking in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a great way to not only burn some calories, but also step into one of the only two places in the country where our nation’s rarest pine tree, the Pinus torreyana, can be found (the other area being Santa Rosa Island). The 1,750 acre preserve is home to ~3,000 of the these rare trees and also serves as an important habitat to local wildlife.



With eight miles of trails to choose from, with limited time it’s hard to settle on which one may be best. We found the Beach Trail to be a nice option, as it takes you up into the cliffs and then slowly back down to Torrey Pines State Beach.  Our kids had a great time playing in the sand and running from the waves. Just make sure to stay back a few feet from the cliff walls as they do sometimes collapse unexpectedly. With that being said, the Beach Trail seems to be one of the busiest paths, so if you are looking for a little solitude we recommend tacking on one of the smaller loops as well.  We added on the Parry Grove Trail, which was fairly short but blissfully absent of any other hikers.


Torrey Pines State Reserve:

  • Hours: Daily, 0715 – Sunset
  • Admission: Free!
  • Parking: Parking at the park $25/day. There are a few free parking spots nearby, and a few less expensive pay by hour spots farther up the hill (about a .75 mile walk from the entrance).


2. Walk Along the Beach at Scripps Pier

Full disclosure here, the pier isn’t open to the public and it’s not commercialized – it’s mainly for research, as it is attached to the adjacent UCSD Scripps Institution of Oceanography. So if you’re picturing a scene like something outta Santa Monica, then you’ll need to recalibrate your expectations here. But even with a walk along the pier taken out of the equation it’s still a great spot to stop as the beaches on both sides of the pier are open and generally have way less people on them compared to others in the area. Goodness, our littles could have spent all day playing in the sand and ocean waters! Built in 1987 and named for the largest donor (early on) to the Scripps institution, Ellen Browning Scripps (1836-1932), the pier is one of the largest research only piers in the world.

With the surrounding deep blue water and wide expansive beaches, the pier itself makes for great photos. If you are into photography, this is certainly a can’t miss location.


Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier:

  • Hours: Daily, Sunrise to Sunset
  • Parking: Free, just make sure to park on the road up above the university. It’s a quick walk down to the pier.


3. Explore the Ocean at the Birch Aquarium

We try to motivate our kids with rewards that are manageable and are somewhat educational at the same time. Heck, it’s a huge bonus if we think we will like it, too! Aquariums (albeit expensive) always seem to make the list. Located just south of Torrey Pines Reserve (and right up the hill from the Scripps Pier – see above) is the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The aquarium is fairly small and to be honest a tad expensive for the size. However, given that it is attached to the school there are some fantastic exhibits and they definitely put an emphasis on learning.


Here you’ll find 5,000 fish in over 60 habitats, enjoy panoramic ocean views, and experience interactive exhibits, and have a chance to get wet at the boundless energy play area. Usually big fan of the sharks, to our surprise our kids favorite sea creature here were the Sea Dragons, perfectly camouflaged to blend into plant life within their habitat.


The Birch Aquarium:

  • Hours: 0900 – 1500
  • Admission: $19.50/Adult, $16.50/Senior (60+), $17.50/Military, $15.00/Child (3-17), and free for children 2 and under
  • Parking: Free


4.Lunch in Downtown La Jolla

Hungry? Why wait? There are numerous spots in La Jolla to grab a bite, many offering outdoor seating. Just take a stroll and pick something that strikes your fancy. Trust us, there are no shortage of options. We tried Puesto because we were in the mood for Mexican and it was well reviewed on Yelp. A little expensive for what you get, but good nonetheless!


  • Hours: Sunday – Thursday: 1100 – 1900; Friday – Saturday: 1100 – 2200
  • Parking: There are lots all around the area and they vary quite a bit in price. We found a lot for $5/all day parking, however right across the street a different lot had $5/hour. Shop around a bit to make sure you don’t overpay.

Puesto Tip: Taco Tuesday goes down every Tuesday from 1500 to close and Happy Hour happens during the week (Monday through Friday) from 1500 to 1700.


5. Wave “hello” to the Seals at the Children’s Pool

Back in the 1930s, Children’s Pool Beach was designated as a protected spot where kids could swim. The sea wall was built to shelter the beach from waves, making for a peaceful (and safe) place for children to play. The problem is is that the native harbor seals like the calm waters just as much as the kids!

Increasingly, the beach has been used for more of a marine sanctuary than as a children’s play area. Technically swimmers are still allowed, although they are highly warned about getting too close to the (sometimes aggressive) seals. During pupping season, however, the beach is closed to ensure that the new mom’s are given time alone with their pups.

Children’s Pool:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset, but closed during seal breading season (Dec 15 – May 15)
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: All sorts of options, both free and paid, around this area. We left our car post-lunch in the same spot since we paid for all day parking and walked.


6. Look for Sea Creatures in Shell Beach Tide Pools

If you happen to be out and about at low tide, perhaps our kids absolute favorite thing to do in La Jolla is to check out the tide pools! The sandstone formations just below the waters make the perfect habitat for all sorts of small sea creatures. It’s easy to see lots of crabs, little fish, snails, and all sorts of other sea life. Beware that the rocks can be VERY slippery, however! (Dom might have left little a little skin behind).


Shell Beach Tide Pools are very close to La Jolla Cove, but are normally less crowded. We were still a few hours off from true low tide, but even then there was a nice little beach and some great pools to explore.


Shell Beach Tide Pools:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free, just find a spot along the neighborhood street. As always, be aware of the street parking signs.


7. Let Your Kids Run Free at Ellen Browning Scripps Park

One of the things Dom and I try and do on all of our adventures (no matter how big or small) is plan time for free play as we feel it’s a super important part of development.  Ellen Browning Scripps Park is a great green space located just above the sea wall in between Children’s pool and La Jolla Cove. There is no playground equipment, but it doesn’t matter, the green grass and ocean views more than make up for it!


Ellen Browning Scripps Park:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Both free and paid options available


8. Hang with the Sea Lions at La Jolla Cove

La Jolla Cove is a small protected marine area and beach surrounded by cliffs just off the main drag in La Jolla. During high tide the beach is pretty small, but it’s still popular enough to have lifeguards on duty from 0900 until sunset for most of the year. While the beach is nice, the real draw is under the oceans surface, the cove is an official marine reserve that is teeming with underwater life. It’s a popular spot with snorkelers and scuba divers.


Hundreds of Sea Lions also call The Cove home, and they are easily seen basking on the rocks above the crashing waves. Miles and Penny loved watching them interact with each other. Keep in mind, however, that these are (large) wild animals. Even though they are used to having humans around they are still unpredictable. If you end up checking out the cove make sure to give them some space!


La Jolla Cove:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Both free and paid spots available


9. Explore Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave

If you think that Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave sounds like a tourist trap, well, you might be right. That being said, however, sometimes tourist traps can be somewhat worthwhile. I’m not sure exactly who Sunny Jim is, but at some point he opened a walkway down to one of the caves opening into La Jolla Cove. From what we were told it was initially free, but now its $5 to take the walk down the steps to the cave.

Be prepared for a semi-claustriphopic walk down some slippery wooden steps down to sea level, where the steps open up into a cave overlooking La Jolla Cove. To be honest, for $5 its a bit of a reach, but the cave does give you a unique perspective of the bay.

Sunny Jim’s Sea Cave:

  • Hours: Monday – Thursday, 1000 – 1730 and Friday – Sunday, 900-1730
  • Admission: $5/Adult, $3/Child


Happy Travels!

pin it below

la jolla

Full disclosure we act as an affiliate for several sites, so clicking through and purchasing products via our links does make us a little money and allows us to continue to put out (hopefully) useful content. See our Privacy Policy section at the bottom for more details.


2 thoughts

  1. So glad you are back in the US, but do be careful about going out and about until this awful virus has run its course.

    1. Thanks so much for your concern! You are totally right, now is not the time to be out having adventures! This trip happened about a month ago, and we are using this new found down time to catch up on several articles, including international ones,that have been pending for awhile. South Korea coming soon…we certainly haven’t been there for awhile!

Leave a Reply