Head north—but not too far—for a surf- and
beach-centered day trip

BY Wendy Lemlin

Did you know that you can spend the day sauntering through iconic California beach towns, lazing on quiet beaches, shredding the waves at famous surf spots, strolling through lush botanical gardens, meditating at a world-renowned ashram, watching wildlife, and enjoying public arts projects ranging from colorful murals to whimsical sculptures—all without leaving coastal San Diego County? 

Welcome to Encinitas, named among the world’s 20 best surf towns by National Geographic, straddling the historic coastal Highway 101, about 25 miles north of San Diego. Encinitas includes the communities of Cardiff-by-the-Sea to the south and Leucadia to the north, and all three areas exude that pleasantly funky, laid-back, classically hip and totally unpretentious vibe that conjures up ideal Southern California beach culture. Yoga, spirituality and organic living are big here. Dining and retail therapy opportunities abound in each area’s “downtown” or “town center.” Wide, sandy beaches, towering sea cliffs and world famous surf spots, such as Swami’s, Beacons and Pipes, lie just offshore. How many times have you found yourself whizzing along I-5 and passing right by the exits for Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Birmingham Drive, Santa Fe Drive, Encinitas Boulevard, and Leucadia Blvd, without realizing the fun day that awaited you at the western ends of those thoroughfares? Well, it’s time to remedy that. He are some “don’t miss” sites and experiences for the best local “stay” trip.

San Elijo Lagoon

If you were a bird, you’d head just south of Cardiff to this 915-acre ecological reserve, one of the largest remaining coastal wetlands in San Diego County—and you’d be in good company. Forty percent of North American birds migrate past San Elijo Lagoon annually, and more than 1,000 species of plants and animals call it home. You can walk, jog, or bike on eight miles of trails and check out the San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center.


Cardiff is the hometown of several pro surfers, but these days, one of the town’s most famous residents is the Cardiff Kook. Officially known as “The Magic Carpet Ride,” the 16-foot bronze statue depicting a surfer on a wave has become a love-to-hate favorite, “vandalized” at various times throughout the year and dressed in outrageous costumes.

To Do: On December 3 from 6–10 pm, join locals at the Kringle Mingle for live music, food and holiday merriment at the Cardiff Town Center, presented by Cardiff 101 Main Street.


Although the beaches and surf get most of the buzz, Encinitas has much to offer beyond the sand. Myriad dining and boutique shopping destinations abound in the downtown section along 101 and in The Lumberyard complex. Find serenity in the beautiful gardens at the Self Realization Fellowship temple and hermitage, the one-time home of Swami Paramahansa Yogananda, and the reason the beach below and nearby surf break (as well as several local businesses) are named “Swami’s.” As you wander through this artsy town, find the six alleyway murals painted by local artists. Also of note in Encinitas are Lux Art Institute, the historic Paloma Theater and legendary Moonlight Beach.

To Do: The Holiday Street Fair is on Sunday, November 19, where you can shop for original creations from local artisans and craftspeople. With over 450 unique art, craft and food vendors, a beer garden, kids’ activities and live music and entertainment on four stages, the free event is family- and dog-friendly!

Leucadia 101 Main Street
Leucadia 101 Main Street


Named by 19th century English spiritualist settlers, “Leucadia” comes from a Greek word meaning “sheltered paradise.” Leucadia is known as the “art and soul” of Encinitas. With three secluded beaches accessed by stairways on the steep cliffs, a bustling Sunday farmers’ market and public arts projects currently including 10 murals, Leucadia’s six miles along Highway 101 start at Encintas Boulevard and end at La Costa Boulevard.

San Diego Botanic Garden

No, these botanic gardens aren’t found in Balboa Park, but rather off of Encinitas Boulevard, just east of I-5. Formerly known as Quail Gardens, the 37-acre urban retreat features four miles of trails wending through 29 uniquely themed gardens, as well as two children’s gardens showcasing over 4,000 plants species. Wander on your own, or take a docent-led tour.

To Do: San Diego Botanic Garden puts on its magical holiday finery during the annual Garden of Lights, running nightly from December 2–23 and 26–30 from 5–9 pm. One hundred thousand sparkling lights illuminate several spectacular garden areas, while the whole family can enjoy live entertainment, carts serving hot beverages and treats, horse-drawn wagon rides, snow for sledding and visits with Santa. Some activities are only available on certain nights, so check the website at sdbgarden.org/lights.htm for the complete schedule.

Other upcoming SDBG events:

Fall Plant Sale 10 am–4 pm, October 21–22 and 9 am–noon, October 23. sdbgarden.org/plantsales.htm.

Family Fall Festival: 10 am–2 pm, October 28. Kids are encouraged to come in Halloween costumes for such fall-themed activities as pumpkin painting, Halloween crafts and a petting zoo. sdbgarden.org/family-fall.htm

Make your next day trip a “stay” trip, and spend the day discovering what’s in your own backyard beach town.

Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden at 
San Diego Botanic Garden
Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden at San Diego Botanic Garden

Check out more

Encinitas Main Street Association

Cardiff Main Street Association

Leucadia Main Street Association

San Elijo Lagoon Nature Center
2710 Manchester Avenue,
Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA 92007
760.634.3026 sanelijo.org
Admission: free

The Lumberyard Shops
937 S Coast Hwy 101,
Encinitas, CA 92023

Self Realization Fellowship Temple
939 2nd St, Encinitas, CA 92023

San Diego Botanic Garden
230 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas,
CA 92024 760.436.3036 sdbg.org

Admission: Adults, $14;
Seniors, Students, Active Military,
$10; Kids 3–12, $8;

Members, Kids 2
and under, free. Parking: $2