It’s Like Walking on Mars: Exploring 12 Extraordinary Caves in San Diego

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Megan Bryant is a passionate writer and traveler who has combined her two loves to help others fulfill their traveling dreams. When she isn’t writing, she’s usually curled up with her 3 Dachshunds and a good book or planning her next adventure—wherever that may be.

Nestled amidst the sun-kissed landscapes of Southern California lies a hidden world of mystery and wonder. San Diego, a city renowned for its coastal beauty and vibrant urban life, may not be the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of caves. Yet, beneath the surface, a mesmerizing subterranean realm awaits exploration. 

In this article, we will embark on a journey to unveil the awe-inspiring caves of San Diego County, where ancient geological processes and captivating formations have created a unique and lesser-known facet of this region’s natural beauty.

Annie’s Canyon

Annie’s Canyon, more commonly known by the locals as the Mushroom Caves, was formed millions of years ago by water erosion. Today, however, the canyon has become a popular spot for adventure seekers who wish to hike and immerse themselves in the sandstone—there are even ladders to climb up and down, which only add to the adventure. 

And if all that wasn’t enough, before you even get started on the Annie’s Canyon Trail hike, you’ll have incredible views of the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, a critical migrating waterfowl habitat.

Arch Cave

Arch Cave
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Arch Cave is one of the seven caves of La Jolla that act as a coastal border for the offshore San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park and Ecological Reserve. Dating back to 80 million years ago, the sandstone bedrock cliffs that house the cave systems are a must-visit for people visiting the San Diego area, and the deepest of all the caves, Arch Cave, should definitely be at the top of the list. 

Arch Cave can thank water erosion for its incredible shape as two caves, which are now one, have come together to create an impressive arch between them. One thing we will mention, however, is that it is recommended that you only view Arch Cave from the water as the narrow corridors and passageways can be extremely dangerous.

Clam’s Cave

The second of La Jolla’s caves is Clam’s Cave, which is the westernmost cave in the cave system. Its position has actually meant that you can see it from Coast Blvd, and if you look close enough, you can spot where it gets its name from—its two entrances that resemble the two sides of a clam.

Clam’s Cave is only accessible by kayak or swimming when water conditions allow, so visiting the cave requires impeccable timing.

Shopping Cart Cave

You’re probably wondering where Shopping Cart Cave gets its peculiar name from, and well, that would be from the combination of two things. First, the spiny lobsters that reside in the cave, and second, the lost personal belongings that regularly end up in the cave thanks to underwater currents. Put these two things together, and you have a shopping cart full of goodies—pack your snorkel and see what you can find!

Sea Surprize Cave

La Jolla Caves
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The fourth San Diego La Jolla cave is Sea Surprize Cave, which has an enticing name, to say the least. Although from the outside, the cave looks unimpressive and slightly underwhelming, once you enter, you’ll be greeted with an 80-foot passageway with walls that glow an orange hue. 

As you venture further into the cave, you’ll come across a pool that is filled with beautiful calcite-crusted sea anemones and the various fish species that call the anemones home.

Secret Sea Cave at the Cabrillo National Monument

If you’re looking for a sea cave that is rarely visited by tourists, then the Secret Sea Cave at the Cabrillo National Monument will be just what you’re looking for. The reason why the Secret Sea Cave doesn’t attract the same amount of visitors as La Jolla’s caves, for example, is because the hike to the cave is extremely difficult, and you can only access the cave during low tide. 

It’s best to stop by the visitor center and ask if the tide is low enough to enter the cave, and as there are no official marked trails, you’ll need to find your way down by using the area’s landmarks. But hey, that’s all part of the adventure!

Sunny Jim Cave

The most popular of La Jolla’s seven caves is Sunny Jim Cave, and that’s because it is the only cave in the system that you can access by land. Coming in with a depth of 320 feet, Sunny Jim Cave is the second deepest sea cave in La Jolla and has self-guided tours on offer that delve into the history of the cave and how it was once used to smuggle illegal substances during prohibition.

Sunset Cliffs

A unique sea cave in San Diego is Sunset Cliffs, which has a massive open ceiling that lets in tons of light. Located in Point Loma’s Sunset Cliffs neighborhood, Sunset Cliffs can only be accessed during low tide, and even then, your feet will get wet, so it’s best to wear waterproof shoes with good grip. 

For the best experience, visit the caves during sunset and watch the sun dip through the cave’s main entrance.

La Jolla Cove Cave

Despite its name, La Jolla Cove Cave isn’t part of the La Jolla Seven Cave system, but thanks to its position adjacent to La Jolla Cove Beach, it has quickly become a popular spot for California’s sea lions. When the tide is low, you can walk through the cave and gaze upon the tide pools that form inside. Just be aware of the surf, as it can creep up on you without you even realizing it.

Little Sister Cave

La Jolla Caves 2
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The sixth La Jolla cave is Little Sister Cave, which sits next to White Lady Cave (which we’ll get into shortly.) Little Sister Cave is the smallest of all seven caves, but good things come in small packages, and it shouldn’t be overlooked just because of its size.

Valley of the Moon

Valley of the Moon is a boulderer’s dream as the remote, high-desert wilderness destination offers stunning views, numerous rock-climbing crags, and epic off-road trials.

Formed millions of years ago by erosion of the San Andreas fault, Valley of the Moon features various caves and mine shafts for visitors to explore, with two of the best being Smuggler’s Cave and Elliot’s Mine Trail.

White Lady Cave

And the seventh and final San Diego La Jolla Cave is White Lady Cave, which got its name from local folklore. It’s said that a newlywed couple were visiting Los Angeles when the wife got swept away by the tide. The husband claimed that the waves crashing into the cave reminded him of his wife’s white dress, giving it the name White Lady Cave.

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