beach chair under palm umbrella on san onofre old man's surf beach in san clemente california

San Clemente is a city in southern Orange County California but it has the vibe of a small surf town. In addition to many beautiful natural beaches, it has a cute downtown with upscale shopping and dining opportunities.  Let us guide your next trip to San Clemente. 

What is San Clemente famous for? 

Along the Southern California coast north of San Diego, San Clemente is a cute little town with an abundance of surf beaches.  The town is nicknamed the “Spanish Village by the Sea”.   It is a coastal paradise in southern Orange County.   

view of san clemente california from the pier

The sandstone coastal bluffs add to the beauty of the unspoiled beaches.   A large portion of San Clemente’s shoreline is designated as state park beaches which limits the commercial development.   After visiting, we understand why Southern California beaches have inspired so many musicians to write songs.   

wildflowers on california beach top cliff in san clemente

What are the popular outdoor activities in San Clemente? 

Surfing is the most popular outdoor activity in San Clemente but there are many other options available.  We enjoyed both active time mountain biking and leisurely time relaxing on the beach.  

san clemente pier in southern california

Admission to State Parks 

Admission is not cheap for Southern California state park beaches.  Daily admission is $15 per vehicle or annual passes are $195.  California Explorer annual passes include daily admission to all parks and Southern California beaches for $195 (without veteran, senior or income-related discounts).   There are other annual pass options but they do not include Southern California beaches.  

How to get into California State Parks for free? 

Although Southern California state park beaches are expensive, there is one great tip to save money.  A day use pass for one park can be used at any other California State Park on the same day.   

Also, while camping at a California State Park the day use fee for all other state park locations is waived.  We stayed at San Mateo State Park campground and had unlimited access to all of the area’s state beaches as a benefit.   

surfers at the san clemente beach from the pier

San Clemente: A Great Camping Destination 

Our favorite southern California camping destination is San Clemente, California.    We loved it so much we extended our stay more than once. San Clemente is a southern Orange County city with a small surf town vibe.  

It offers many amazingly beautiful natural beaches.  With multiple affordable state park campgrounds, San Clemente is a cheap and cheerful beach destination with so much more to offer. 

California State Park Campgrounds in San Clemente 

At both San Clemente and San Onofre State Park, campsites range from $40 for dry camping to $65 for water and electric hookups.  

Several of the state beach campgrounds were closed when we visited and the others were fully booked.  The less popular San Mateo campground within San Onofre State Park had empty sites every night during our visit.   San Mateo is located 1.5 miles from the beach.  Honestly, we loved the lush green park and extended our stay twice.   

If you are planning a trip to San Clemente and can reserve a site in advance, San Clemente State Park is the premier state park campground location.  Many sites are cliffside with views of the Pacific Ocean.   There is a paved beach access path down the cliffs with oceanfront restroom facilities.  

The Bluffs Campground was closed during our visit but we drove through it.  The sites are parking lot style with no ocean views.  The beach is close but we didn’t see easy access from the top of the bluffs. 

San Clemente Guide: Best Things to Do 

  • Go to the Beach   
  • Walk the San Clemente Pier  
    • Dining Out 
    • Visit a Brewery or Two 
    • Mountain Bike the Peaceful Valley 
    • Stroll Del Mar Ave for quaint shops 
    • Tour the Gardens at Casa Romantica 
    • Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center  
    • Walk the San Clemente Coastal Trail 
    • Learn to surf at San Clemente Surf School 

Guide to the Best Beaches in San Clemente 

During our week in San Clemente, we visited four different beaches and loved each one for different reasons. We visited a few more than once. 

Trestles Beach 

Trestles Beach requires walking nearly a mile on a paved nature trail but you will be rewarded.   The beach was nearly empty.   Plus, we didn’t mind sharing it with the local surfers since they provided great entertainment.   

San Clemente State Park Beach 

San Clemente State Park Beach is a popular beach with families and a few surfers camping at the park.  A 0.25-mile paved path provides easy access to an expansive pristine beach.   This was the widest beach we found in San Clemente and it offers plenty of space to spread out.   It is less rocky than other areas of the coast and offers a great sandy surface for biking, walking, or running on the beach.     

San Onofre Surf Beach 

San Onofre Surf Beach (aka Old Man’s Beach) is a little more rustic than its sister park, San Clemente.  The dirt parking lot is adjacent to the beach.  Many locals park their vans and truck camper’s waterfront and spend their day surfing at SanO beach.   The water’s edge here is a bit rocky for comfortable walking.  However, look closely and you will find anemone and sea snails around the rocks.   

San Clemente Pier and Beach 

lifeguard jeep on the san clemente pier in southern california

Easy access and sunset happy hours at Fisherman’s Oyster Bar set apart the San Clemente Pier and Beach from the other beaches we visited.  Public parking is available in two large lots or street meters for $1.50 per hour before 5 pm.   The pier is open to the public and offers a different perspective of the city.  There are many benches along the pier.  We saw several people fishing from the pier but didn’t see any catches. 

fisherman on the san clemente pier

The beach narrows at high tide and can feel a bit crowded compared to the expansive state park beaches.  Due to the nearby San Clemente Surf School, we saw the highest concentration of surfers around the pier area.   

San Clemente Off the Beach 

San Clemente offers many of the conveniences of a bigger city including a lovely downtown with many local coffee and taco shops, upscale shopping, and dining opportunities.  There is an abundance of highly-rated restaurants in San Clemente. 

Dining out in San Clemente 

We travel full time on a budget so we cook most of our meals at home and only eat out occasionally. On our way to San Clemente, we purchased fresh oysters at a local San Diego market and steamed those at our San Mateo campsite. While in San Clemente, we gravitated to the seafood dining out options.   

oyster roast at home

Our best meal was Muse Sushi but it’s wasn’t a budget meal.  We love sushi but rarely splurge on it.  Good quality fresh fish is not cheap.  We were leaving San Clemente and heading to the California desert for several weeks.  For our last seafood at the coast, we decided to get takeaway sushi from Muse Sushi in San Clemente.  It was solid sushi and we’d go back. 

sushi from muse sushi bar in san clemente

We also had dinner at Nomad Café because we liked the name.   However, our food was mediocre and we wouldn’t go back.  

We didn’t personally try any of these but a few other top-rated restaurants within the budget category in San Clemente are: 

Try a Brewery or Two 

San Clemente has a handful of breweries available for beer lovers.   We spent an afternoon visiting two of the local breweries. 

Artifex Brewing 

Artifex Brewing Company has two locations including a tasting room on Del Mar Ave and the brewery in a business park near Talega Golf Club.  The brewery location has a covered patio with heaters and several tables.   We visited near closing time and had the place to ourselves.   

Their flagship beer is a West Coast IPA.  We are not big IPA lovers so we skipped it.  Kevin had Bog Trotter, their Irish Red Ale. And I had the Cara Cara Orange Sour mixed with their Black Cherry Hard Seltzer per the bartender’s recommendation.  Our only regret was arriving so late that we could only try one beer. 

artifex brewing company

Lost Winds Brewery 

Lost Winds Brewery is located near the Artifex Brewery.   We walked between the two locations.  However, I recommend driving because it is a business area and there were no other pedestrians.    

Lost Winds has a nice back patio area and two stories of indoor seating. We spent the majority of our afternoon on the patio sampling the brews.  I don’t think we succeeded in trying all of the beers but we made a valiant effort.  Our favorite offers were their Belgian style ales. 

lost winds brewery menu
lost winds brewery in san clemente is a great place for beers on patio

Mountain Biking   

San Clemente’s Peaceful Valley trail system offers several intermediate and advanced trail options for mountain bikers.  The trails are best accessed from street parking along Avenida la Pata in town rather than from the Trestles Community Connector Trail.

kevin climbing the trestles community connector trail on his mountain bike in san clemente california

The Trestles Community Connector trail is a black diamond and I was sore for several days from pushing my bike up the steep hills on this trail to get to the Peaceful Valley trail system. We enjoyed mountain biking in San Clemente but let our hard lessons guide you. Unless you are an advanced cyclist or don’t mind walking your bike, do not attempt the Trestles Community Connector trail.   

trestles community connector trail in san clemente

What are the top attractions in San Clemente? 

Aside from the beach, San Clemente offers several attractions including shopping and educational options.  A few of the most popular options are detailed below. 

Stroll Del Mar Ave for quaint shops 

We live in a tiny space and aren’t consumers.  During COVID-19, we chose to skip the window shopping in San Clemente.  However, San Clemente is known for their unique locally owned shops along Del Mar Avenue. 

view of del mar ave from san clemente pier

Tour the Gardens at Casa Romantica 

Casa Romantica is a historic home in San Clemente with beautiful gardens.  Self guided tours are available for $5 per adult.   We didn’t make it to Casa Romantica on our visit but the gardens are a popular local wedding venue.   

Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center  

Learn more about the history of surfing in Southern California at the Surfing Heritage and Cultural Center.  Be sure to check their website for current hours of operation. 

surfer on southern california beach in san clemente

Walk the San Clemente Coastal Trail 

The 2.3 mile dirt San Clemente Coastal Trail runs from North Beach to Calafia Beach.   The midpoint is near the San Clemente Pier. All three points have parking but fees are required.   The trail can also be accessed from several beach paths but will require walking down steep paths from the bluffs above the beach and trail.   

Learn to surf at San Clemente Surf School 

While walking the beach near the San Clemente Pier, we saw an abundance of surfers especially children.  After a little Googling, I learned the San Clemente Surf School is located nearby.    First and foremost, San Clemente is a surfing town, and what better souvenir to take home than a new skill. We loved cheering the surfers from shore during our visit.   If you are interested in learning to surf, let the professionals at San Clemente Surf School guide you in the basics.

surfers in front of san clemente surf school

Is San Clemente worth visiting? 

San Clemente has something to offer for the whole family with an affordable price tag if you know where to look.  The main attraction, the beaches, don’t cost much if you follow our guide to saving money at San Clemente state parks. We loved San Clemente and believe it is worth visiting more than once.   

sunset at san clemente state beach

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