La Jolla beach
La Jolla beach
La Jolla Beach and Underwater Park. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)


I sought serenity in my “spot” from sunrise to sundown at the La Jolla Cove, but there were plenty of provisions, too. 

My mission in San Diego was rooted in the literary world – in the pages of Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden, which found him seeking not necessarily the meaning of life, but rather, what it is to literally “live,” which he did by immersing himself in nature for more than a year. 

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach…I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life…and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

I wanted to replicate this exercise…not for a year…but just over a day. And for years I knew just the spot I wanted to try it: The La Jolla Cove, a park along the Pacific Ocean in the San Diego area.

The La Jolla Cove Spot

I sought serenity in my “spot” from sunrise to sundown at the La Jolla Cove, but there were plenty of provisions, too. 

The Spot is also the name of a longtime, landmark restaurant on Prospect Street above the Cove on the main street in La Jolla. The spot I sought for my day of meditation psychological saturation was the La Jolla Cove. The Spot, owned by a family who moved decades ago from Illinois (and brought Chicago deep-dish-style pizza with them), is surrounded by blocks of other businesses including galleries, shops, boutique hotels, fashion stores, and real estate offices (for the real dreamers.)

George’s at the Cove is a large open-air restaurant, with its Ocean Terrace and Level2 options, has tiered seating built into the cliffside for panoramic Pacific views. Jose’s Courthouse, also on Prospect Street, is a colorful Mexican restaurant, with street-side outdoor seating, serving veggie burritos, ceviche and more with sauces, marinades and chips made in house. 

A Tale of Two Hotels

La Valencia Hotel is the nearly century-old “Pink Lady” – a Mediterranean-style celebrity haunt with a golden age glamour and stylish hotel with sweeping views of the cove. One arrives up at the Prospect Street entrance but only looks west at the sea and sunsets below after that.   

La Valencia Hotel San Diego
La Valencia Hotel is “in the pink.” (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

I had always wondered about the La Jolla Cove Hotel, which is positioned down below at park-level right at the Cove on Coast Road. It appears to be an approachable, California-styled hotel with three stories of balconied rooms and a rooftop event space. The price-point is approachable, and the location is perfect for parkgoers and snorkelers and divers. In 2013 the property was featured (and revealed) on the show “Hotel Impossible,” which presumably promoted renovations and upgrades. 

While walking on Coast Road sidewalk, I peeked into the little windowed lobby and walked a bit into the parking lot where a young couple was hosing the sand off under an outdoor shower after diving. On a second-story balcony above the sidewalk, I noticed another couple drying their beach towels on the railing while relaxing on the patio chairs. I took the opportunity to wave and call up to them.

“Excuse me. I’m just wondering…how is the hotel?”

The couple cheerfully assured me it was “fine” and noted the new construction taking place off the north end of the building. 

“Maybe when they finish building that they will upgrade these rooms,” the man speculated.

I was staying 10 miles away at the expansive, full-service Mission Bay Resort, to which I would retreat at the end of the day. Next time I will try La Valencia and the La Jolla Cove Hotel for an even more immersive cove experience. And I may even try snorkeling or kayaking. 

La Jolla Cove Hotel
The La Jolla Cove Hotel on the Pacific park lawn. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

Meditative State in the Golden State

I stop short of describing my retreat at the Cove as a day of exploration because that would be an injustice to the people who actually got into the cold Pacific Ocean there to snorkel and swim with the sea lions and kayak along the cliffs and caves.

My plan was more contemplative than collaborative when it came to communing with nature. I walked and wondered and watched how the colors changed throughout the day in the varying light conditions. I smelled the surf (a scent sometimes overpowered by the seals) and tiptoed through the tide pools. I listened to the crescendo of crashing surf splashing through the caves carved by centuries of Pacific pounding. 

Metered street parking was easier than I’d expected. I had no agenda and no reason to check my watch since I was staying until sunset, so I set out to get some steps on the sidewalks and scenic, sandy trails. The main, manicured Scripps Park at the Cove is tightly trimmed grass and trees for picnicking, sunning, and playing. Because I always wanted to, I engaged my sense of touch and took my shoes off to get my feet to feel the grass under the row of towering palm trees.

You’ll want your shoes on for this, but if you face the Cove and the Pacific, walking to the right leads you to a dirt trail cut along the edge of the top of the cliffs and rises up and down along them.

It’s a fun walk and not too far before getting around the bay and eventually turn back. I walked the trail a number of times that day and took my time stopping to take in the scenery which stretched all the way to Scripps Pier, La Jolla Shores, Torrey Pines and Black’s Beach, and the Gliderport above it. I also watched the guided groups of kayakers paddling on swells over the reserve and its marine life. 

La Jolla Cove beach
The road less traveled but accessible. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

Signed, Sealed Delivered

Most evident in sight, sound and aroma are the Cove’s California sea lions, who waddle and croak and bark along the Cove all the way down to what is known as Children’s Pool Beach to the south where you can get up close by walking on a break wall if you don’t want to get too close. Otherwise, on the cliffs along the way, you can take photos right next to them…though, as cute as they may be, of course, you should not touch or disturb them in any way.  

Since these are animals one does not typically encounter, especially visitors to California, I found myself spending lots of time watching their activities and interaction. The sea lions have bodies not well-suited for land, particularly rocks, but they manage to climb up to bask safely and sleep in the sun.

I watched, from a few feet away over Shell Beach near Rocky Point, a youthful little sea lion which seemed intent on moving around and exploring the rocky terrain from pillar to post (not that there were any pillars or posts.) 

At the other end of the circle of life I watched, at the Cove Beach a massive sea lion which seemed, like Mufasa in the Lion King, to be lording over the water and gritty sand from a rocky outcropping at the opening of a cave and croaking his presence loudly from time to time seemingly as a regal reminder of his perch and presence.   

La Jolla Cove wildlife
Love on the rocks. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

La Jolla Underwater Park

As I was breathing in the scene, I sometimes sat on a bench and watched people. In addition to hearing a number of different languages spoken by the couples, groups and families who strolled the Cove’s railed walkway along the sandstone shore, I saw people climbing down to the rocks to take selfies.

It’s wise to mind high tide and low tide, particularly at the small beach area since the surf can engulf all of it at certain times when the waves go right up to the stone staircase. The lifeguard station notice board overlooking the beach provides tides and temperatures.

If you don’t wish to get your toes in the sand the terrace level, where the lifeguard station is, gives a great view of the beach, surf, the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park, and the Seven Caves of La Jolla from just above water level. 

La Jolla Cove tide
Explore the tide pools with caution. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)

Cave in at the Sunny Jim Cave

An adventurous but safe way to get up close to and into one of the caves is the “Sunny Jim Cave” experience. Just before the trail, where Coast Blvd. comes down from Prospect, The Cave Store sells curiosities and subterranean access through its Shell Shop. For $10 those who are not claustrophobic (I did it anyway) can take a small staircase 144 steps down into the cave at water level.

I tend to embrace and indulge what some may refer to as “tourism traps,” especially those which are natural in nature or time-honored, simple, and charming. The Sunny Jim Cave experience is one of them. And I managed to park my car right outside the shop thanks to timed, limited parking, but you can walk there from anywhere at The Cove. 

Along the park, I also spotted two irresistible kiosks selling tie-dyed shirts and stuffed animals to support marine conservation. 

Sunset at the Cove

The day passed pleasantly and there was plenty to do and see at The Cove. Even closing my eyes and using the sound of a surf serenade as a lullaby was time well-spent. Whether you have an hour or an afternoon, La Jolla’s Cove area is like an amusement park without gates. With shopping and swimming and sightseeing and sundries, it has something for everyone…and everything for someone. 

I was correct in my assumption that the evolving light would change the colors during a daylong palette of tan, green, brown, blue, black, white, and more…from the smooth sandstone cliffs to the rugged tide pools and smashing surf. The sunset, which many people gathered to watch in reverence, was a soulful conclusion to a day well spent watching and walking in wonderment of a special spot. 

Sunset La Jolla Cove
Sunset on a serene day at the Cove. (Photo by Harrison Shiels)


Read more of Michael Patrick’s work at The Travel Tattler, or contact him at [email protected]

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