La Jolla Sea Caves

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I decided that 2018 will be the year my family tries different things. There are still so many things in Southern California that I have yet to experience, and now that my youngest is able to handle a full day without a stroller we have no excuse not to! Making these day trips as inexpensive as possible is also a goal while we try to save up for a home. I’m curious to see how well we do this year!

Day trip #1 was on my radar for about a year…. exploring the Sunny Jim Sea Cave in La Jolla, California. This is the only sea cave in the area that you can access by land through a manmade tunnel created back in 1903. The entrance to the tunnel is in a tiny shop tucked into the far corner of La Jolla Cove. La Jolla Cove is also home to sunbathing sea lions and many bird species that nest in the rough seaside cliffs, as well as a thriving coastal community full of upscale restaurants and shops. The plan was to drive down, hike the cave, explore the beach, and grab some lunch before heading back.

Getting There

Learn from my mistake and leave early. We didn’t leave the house until about noon faced horrible traffic going south, then even more crazy traffic once we got close to the cove. In typical beach city fashion, the streets are laid out a bit haphazardly with lots of one-way streets. Once you turn on to Cave Street, you’ll see the Cave Store on the right and immediately face your first dilemma:  pay the $10 to park in the public lot to the left, or take a chance on finding a free parking spot along the cove. We took a chance on the first try and ended up spending an extra 30 minutes behind a long line of cars on a one-way street, trying to turn around and get back to that parking lot. Hopefully, if you go, you won’t encounter such a terrible parking situation!

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The silver lining to this was that we got a good overview of what kind of shops and restaurants were in walking distance from the cave, and the kids were entertained by the scenery and the bustling streets. The shops have a charming seaside look with lots of outdoor dining and little shops. Reminded me of Connecticut shoreline cities, but much more cramped together.

The Cave and Cave Shop

The Cave Shop is a weathered, brown-shingled building in the far corner of the cove. You immediately sense how old the building is as you walk across the creaky wood floors to look at shelves filled with knick knacks and souvenirs. It’s a small, quaint shop like many typical roadside stops. You’ll see the entrance to the tunnel as you walk in… a flight of wooden stairs leading down to a narrow entryway. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for children which you can purchase to the right of the cave entrance before heading down.

Compared to other natural caves, Sunny Jim is really nothing to get TOO excited about. There are certainly more impressive caves out there, so if you’re expecting to be blown away by natural wonder this is the wrong place for you. It is, however, a quick, fun and inexpensive activity suited for all ages…. A mini adventure without a major time commitment. It’s worth noting that the cave is extremely narrow and uneven with low ceilings. There’s only one flight of stairs, so it gets really tight when you’re walking down as someone else is walking up. If you are slightly claustrophobic, this could be an issue. There is a small wooden platform with rails at the bottom of the stairs where the cave opens up to the sea. The platform is only big enough for about 10 people at a time, with everyone taking turns to take their pictures near the front.

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My kids were a little disappointed that they couldn’t explore the rocks below to look for pirate treasure (ahem! A little too much “Goonies” for them, I think!), but we had fun reading the names people carved into the walls and watching the kayakers in the distance. I thought it was a nice peaceful place to rest before we began our trek back up the stairs. Going back up was a little bit of a workout and climbing 140+ stairs made my slightly out-of-shape butt burn by the time we reached the top. My 8 and 5 year old handled it just fine, in case you’re wondering how kids handled it.

The Cove

We began exploring the rest of the cove after our cave adventure, starting with the cliffs right next to the shop. There’s a short trail to the left that leads to a lookout platform with access to the cliffs. Everyone ignores the “Unstable Cliffs” warning signs and walks out onto the rocks to pose for their pictures. My son really wanted to go out there, but I only us to walk about 50 yards from the gate before marching them back. As you walk down the sidewalk towards the beach you’ll notice lots of sea birds nesting on the side of the cliffs…. And the smell that accompanies them! My eagle-eyed daughter spotted a bird sitting on her eggs in one of the nests. We were disappointed that the sea lions were not sunbathing on the sand, but that’s okay. I hear they’re quite the sight when they’re there.

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We were hungry, so we skipped walking down the beach. But without the sea lions I don’t feel like we missed much, though. The beach is very small and rocky, and I don’t know how relaxed I could be with a million birds perched on the cliffs right behind me. We continued walking past a large grassy area where people were enjoying picnics and playing frisbee until we reached the main road where all the restaurants were. Here is where my “cheap day trip” plans came to a grinding halt. Up until now, our journey has cost us only $31 for 5 people ($10 for parking and $21 for the cave entrance fee). Nearly all the restaurants in this area are in the pricey range. This was, after all, La Jolla. I would have been content with a panini at one of the delis, but my sister and husband were craving something bigger and we ended up at a charming Persian/Mediterranean restaurant called Olive & Basil. The food was delicious and the view from the balcony seating was great, but the prices ranged from $9 kid meals to $30 lunch specials so it was definitely NOT a cheap lunch! Oh well! Next time I’ll have to pack a picnic and hang out on the grass with the other people!

Since we had already blown our budget with lunch, we figured to go all out and get dessert too. My sister spotted Bobboi Natural Gelato nearby, so we walked over and stood in their very long line. I looked up their menu in line while we were waiting and was excited to see they had some truly delicious flavors waiting for me. They also had a dairy-free vegan menu, which I thought was cool. This place is family owned and uses all natural ingredients in their Italian family recipes. This was made clear when a 13-year-old boy approached me to ask for my order. (I had a flashback of the times I helped my mom out at her grocery store when I was about that age!) We ordered stracciatella (vanilla and chocolate chips) for the kiddos, honey & cinnamon and Agostino (dulce de leche with banana) for my sister, coconut and rosewater & honey for myself, and charcoal vanilla for my husband. It was all delicious. Really, really delicious…. They really deserve that 5-star Yelp rating. We took our gelato back to the cove and ate it as we watched the waves crash on the shore. Picture perfect and the absolute best way to end our day trip to La Jolla.

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I know it doesn’t sound like much on paper, but we all REALLY enjoyed this outing much more than I was expecting! The kids had zero complaints about being bored or wanted to go home to their ipads. We all got some sunshine and exercise while enjoying some great scenery, and we had our mini Indiana Jones moment as we explored a cave. And that gelato…. Perfecto. Here’s hoping that all of our day trips this year will be equally fun.

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