The small community of Cardiff-by-the-Sea is one of our favorite areas to hit the beach. Probably the most popular beach in the area is the portion of Cardiff State Beach at Cardiff Reef. This area opens to the San Elijo Lagoon, offering more recreational opportunities than most beach areas.
Beach Type: Large state beach
Access: Directly from parking lot
Parking: Cardiff State Beach, $10-20 per vehicle
Facilities: Full restrooms in the parking lot
Good For: Laying out in the Sun, scenery, swimming, surfing, family day at the beach, lagoon exploring, kayaking, paddleboard
Not Good For: Lack of crowds
Cardiff State Beach has two separate areas. The southern area is known as Seaside Beach. Cardiff Reef is at the northern end where the beach ends at the entrance of the San Elijo Lagoon. Across the lagoon is San Elijo State Beach. The parking lot is at 2500 S Coast Highway, right by the Pacific Coast Grill Restaurant.
I admit, most of the time when we come to this area we go to Seaside Beach. Mainly this is because the area is not as crowded and has a bigger parking lot. However, Cardiff Reef has some more activities and is in walking distance to the many great restaurants of Cardiff-by-the-Sea. It is right by the beach front establishments on Restaurant Row.
Parking in the official parking lot costs money, generally $10 to $20, depending on time of week and season. We invest in a California State Park annual pass. However, at $200 a year it takes a lot of visits to pay for itself.
If you don’t mind walking a bit you can find free parking either right along Highway 101 or in the center of Cardiff-by-the-Sea. Just don’t park in the heavily patrolled parking lot for Seaside Market or other establishments. Speaking of Seaside Market, this is a great place to get a take-out meal to enjoy at the beach.
A big attraction of the Cardiff Reef area is the entrance to San Elijo Lagoon. This area is undergoing major restoration, but the Cardiff Reef area remains a popular place to kayak and paddleboard. Across Highway 101 from the Cardiff Reef parking lot is actually a small sandy beach area on the side of the lagoon.
The calm water as the ocean enters the lagoon makes this a favorite spot for young kids. This was one of the first areas where our kids felt comfortable going into the ocean, back in their pre-school days. However, Cardiff Reef itself is further out and more for expert explorers. If you want basic tide pools, you are better going a mile south to Seaside Beach.
The small area where the ocean meets the lagoon tends to get crowded. However, you can avoid the crowds by walking a few hundred yards south towards Restaurant Row. This area known as George’s usually has limited crowds, simply because it is a ways from parking.
Before we had an annual pass we would actually go the north side of San Elijo Lagoon, and enter through San Elijo State Beach. This meant trying to find a parking space along Highway 101 or across the street along San Elijo Avenue. However, as our kids got older and required more equipment we found the parking fee was well worth it for a day at the beach.