San Elijo State Beach vs South Carlsbad State Beach

Whether you’re looking for camping at the beach, excellent surfing, ocean swimming, or nearby shopping & eating, learn which beach offers the better options.
Jessica VanHook
Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means if you make purchases through them, I may be compensated at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.
San Elijo Beach vs South Carlsbad Beach
Known for Camping
Beach Activities
Save on Tours
Camping
Possible Crowds
Shopping & More
Safety & Rules

Highlights

San Elijo Beach vs South Carlsbad Beach
Scenery
Parking
Final Verdict
San Elijo Beach vs South Carlsbad Beach
Scenery
Parking
Final Verdict

Comparing Two Similar San Diego Beaches Known for Camping

Looking at the Beach at San Elijo State BeachHaving Fun at the Dog Friendly Campground at South Carlsbad State Beach

While both San Elijo State Beach and South Carlsbad State Beach offer many comparable features and amenities such as lifeguards, trash cans, public showers and restrooms, there are key differences between the two as well.

Both are located in a state park, so that makes them a little different than many of the most popular beaches in San Diego, but not unique to each other for that fact alone.

While you can surf at both beaches, the conditions aren’t the same. It’s also worth mentioning right up front that both beaches have campgrounds, which the founder of Go Visit San Diego Todd recently visited with his family. He has me up to speed on all the little details of both campsite and beaches and I’m excited to compare and share!

Read on to learn more about each and see which will win the campsite beach showdown! It’s time for San Elijo State Beach versus South Carlsbad State Beach!

Checking Out the Waves at Tippers Surf Spot
Checking Out the Waves at Tippers Surf Spot

San Elijo State Beach

San Elijo State Beach is located in the northern part of San Diego County, south of Encinitas, and just north of Cardiff State Beach.

It is a pretty, wide and versatile beach that's close to popular eateries and stores, and offers camping, surfing, swimming, showers, and picnicking.

Beautiful Sunset at South Carlsbad State Beach
Beautiful Sunset at South Carlsbad State Beach

South Carlsbad State Beach

Sandwiched between the area’s Ponto beaches - North Ponto Beach and South Ponto Beach - South Carlsbad State Beach is another popular beach known for its campgrounds, skin diving, and surfing.

It offers a bit less commerce in the area so if you’re looking to spend the day there, you’re best off to pack a cooler and come prepared for a picnic on the beach.

Local Tips
Camping Fan?
If you're looking for the perfect place to camp, then these two beaches are the most popular ones and by far, the best ones in all San Diego Couty!

On the Beach Activities: Swimming and Surfing

Surfing and swimming are popular activities at many San Diego beaches, but which one offers a better experience for visitors at these two beaches?

Longboarders Getting Ready to Go Out at Tippers at San Elijo State Beach
Longboarders Getting Ready to Go Out at Tippers at San Elijo State Beach

Surfing and Swimming at San Elijo State Beach

San Elijo State Beach is wider than South Carlsbad State Beach from the cliffs to the ocean, and has better surfing options than South Carlsbad State Beach. It’s also an excellent place for longboarding.

The swimming is better too as there are no rocks; it is just sand. I’d say it’s best for confident swimmers as there are rip currents to look out for.

Getting Ready to Surf at South Carlsbad State Beach
Getting Ready to Surf at South Carlsbad State Beach

Surfing and Swimming at South Carlsbad State Beach

Swimming is not as good as South Carlsbad State Beach. While it has a sandy bottom, the rocks still get thrown around and will hit your legs when the waves break. With that in mind, it’s more popular for surfers than swimmers.

Do know that during high tide the beach at South Carlsbad all but disappears.

New to Surfing?

If you’re new to surfing and don’t know where to begin, take a quick surf lesson in nearby Solana Beach!

Solana Beach is a picturesque and secluded area not far from these beaches that offers five main beach spots, with Seaside at its northern tip offering an excellent place to surf with an outer reef that breaks on big southwest swells.

Surfers at San Elijo State Beach
Surfers at San Elijo State Beach

My Winner: San Elijo State Beach

San Elijo wins this battle for me with its better swimming and plenty of surf to go around.

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Camping

By far one of the biggest and most defining features of both beaches is their campground areas. I would say that these beaches are the best beaches in San Diego County for camping!

Let’s compare the campsites.

RV at the Campground at San Elijo State Beach
RV at the Campground at San Elijo State Beach

Camping at San Elijo State Beach

There is a campground on the narrow bluffs overlooking San Elijo State Beach that offers fire pits and other expected amenities such as trash cans and bathrooms.

It is a large campground facility that includes 156 camping spots for the public to use, with half having electricity and water hookups. Each site has a picnic table and fire rings for your use.

Here you can fall asleep to the sounds of the surf crashing on the beach and enjoy beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean.

Know that it can often be challenging to book reservations for this campground, so I highly suggest that you reserve in advance - even as far as six months - to get access to the best sites closest to the water.

Tents Overlooking the Ocean at South Carlsbad State Beach Campground
Tents Overlooking the Ocean at South Carlsbad State Beach Campground

Camping at South Carlsbad State Beach

Overlooking South Carlsbad State Beach is a large bluff-top that offers excellent camping grounds.

With a smaller beach area primarily for surfing, I think of this beach as mostly for surfers and campers. The experience with the sounds of the ocean as you sleep is quite nice. I’d recommend giving it a night or two if you’ve never tried it.

Once again the camping area has all you’ll need, including parking, which can be nice since the beach itself has minimal spots mostly used by surfers. There’s also a handy store near the entrance – The Camp Store – where you can grab ice and firewood if you so desire.

San Elijo State Beach and Campground from Above
San Elijo State Beach and Campground from Above

My Winner: Tie

I hate to give this category a ‘tie’ as it’s a defining feature of both beaches, but they both just have so much to offer.

Whether you want to roast s’mores over a fire pit or experience spectacular Pacific Ocean views while nestling down at your campsite for the night, each offers a great escape for those looking for a relaxing overnight camping experience.

Managing Possible Crowds

When is the best time to visit each beach without a rush of other visitors?

We’ll focus on the campsites here as I’d say that both beaches won’t often have a huge beach overcrowding issue like is possible at some of the most popular San Diego beaches like the La Jolla beaches or Pacific Beach.

San Elijo State Beach and Campground from Above
San Elijo State Beach and Campground from Above

When to Camp at San Elijo State Beach

If you’re looking for a less stressful visit, camping at San Elijo is a lot less crowded on weekdays than on weekends, so plan a visit on a weekday if you want to avoid the crowds.

Tent with a View at South Carlsbad State Beach Campground
Tent with a View at South Carlsbad State Beach Campground

When to Camp at South Carlsbad State Beach

Camping at South Carlsbad is a popular activity, especially during the summer, so planning an off-season or off-peak visit there might be in order if you aim to avoid the hustle and bustle of crowds.

Catching a Wave at South Carlsbad State Beach
Catching a Wave at South Carlsbad State Beach

My Winner: South Carlsbad State Beach

Both campgrounds can be crowded at times, especially during the summer or on weekends, but I’ll give the slight edge here to South Carlsbad State Beach as last minute reservations at San Elijo State Beach can be hard to come by.

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Eating, Shopping, and Parking

Whether you’re interested in nearby shopping, eateries or finding accessible parking, let me tell you more about these important parts of visiting these beaches.

Looking at Tippers and Cardiff Reef Surf Spots in the Distance
Looking at Tippers and Cardiff Reef Surf Spots in the Distance

Eating, Shopping and Parking at San Elijo State Beach

San Elijo has stores and food close by, most within walking distance of the beach, making it a great place to visit for the foodie and the shopper within you.

It also includes a store near its entrance that’s in operation from March through October that offers rentals, sundries and food, as well as laundry facilities next door.

If you’re lucky, there’s an occasional food truck on site.

In terms of where to park, there are two parking lots just off South Coast Highway 101. The fee to park is $10 per vehicle. The fee jumps to $15 during holiday weekends. Additional spots can be found along the highway and on San Elijo Avenue.

The Rv Friendly Campground at South Carlsbad State Beach
The Rv Friendly Campground at South Carlsbad State Beach

Eating, Shopping and Parking at South Carlsbad State Beach

Located between North Ponto and South Ponto Beach on Carlsbad’s shore, South Carlsbad has less accessible commerce as beaches in San Diego go, so to me that’s a little tougher than San Elijo in terms of shopping and food.

For parking, to the north of South Carlsbad is a little street parking at a diagonal, but it is mostly for surfers. There is also a small amount of parking in the campsite, which has a small fee for those camping, but totally works with a camping trip.

Looking from Above at Turtles Surf Spot at San Elijo State Beach
Looking from Above at Turtles Surf Spot at San Elijo State Beach

My Winner: San Elijo State Beach

San Elijo State Beach takes the cake with this one with more parking options and for its convenient access to nearby shopping and eateries.

Safety & Rules

Before you go, it’s important to know a few rules for visiting each beach and campground.

Longboarder on a Wave at San Elijo State Beach
Longboarder on a Wave at San Elijo State Beach

Checking In to the Campsite and Dogs at San Elijo State Beach

Check in time for its campgrounds is at 2:00 PM, and there is no early check in available.

Dogs are allowed in the campgrounds and cliffs above the beach but not on the beach.

Dogs on leases are also allowed south of lifeguard tower 16.

Kids Figuring Out Their next Move for the Day at South Carlsbad State Beach Campground
Kids Figuring Out Their next Move for the Day at South Carlsbad State Beach Campground

Checking In to the Campsite and Dogs at South Carlsbad State Beach

Like San Elijo, check in time for its campgrounds is at 2:00 PM and there is no early check in available.

Dogs are only allowed in the campgrounds and not on the beach since it is a state park.

Campground at San Elijo State Beach
Campground at San Elijo State Beach

My Winner: San Elijo State Beach

I’ll take San Elijo State Beach here as at least there is a little beach access for dogs.

And Our Team’s Winner is…

San Elijo State Beach!

Cardiff Kook Statue at San Elijo State Beach
Cardiff Kook Statue at San Elijo State Beach

With its better surfing and swimming, nearby shopping and eating, and excellent campground and fire pits, San Elijo State Beach surpasses South Carlsbad State Beach as my choice between these two beaches!

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