He Nani e, He Nani no (Beautiful, Beautiful Indeed) is the inscription on the lone bench at the top of the bluff of this trail. Beautiful, sweeping sea vistas, the smell of salt water, and the sweet fragrance of blooming flowers await you on this great family hike. The fun starts at the Shell Beach Bluff Trail (see directions to trail head below). A paved walking path meanders along the bluffs with open views of the ocean. Watch carefully, as dolphins can be frequently sighted frolicking in the ocean below. The trail is easy and with little ones in tow will take about 15-20 minutes one way. Strollers are okay if you are just doing the first leg of the hike (packs or kids who can walk themselves are needed to go to the sea cave).
For more excitement continue the trail onto the dirt path over to Pirates Cove and the Sea Cave. There is a large warning sign to beware of the eroding cliff, but the trail is perfectly safe as long as you stay on it. The trail gets a little steep for a few minutes, but it's worth the hike as you're rewarded shortly by a nice bench to stop for a rest. Take in the breathtaking vista with views to the south of Guadalupe dunes and north to Avila Bay. Continue on the trail over to the dirt parking lot to Pirates Cove Beach. Look for the trail head down to the beach and follow it. You will come to a sign that says Beach/Cave. Go right to the sea cave. Follow it for about 5 minutes and you'll come to the wide opening to the sea cave. Enter the cave and have a look at the beautiful seascape. Keep younger children close to you as the edge of the cave is also the edge of the bluff. Rest for a few minutes then continue back the way you came. For added fun, you can take a detour down to the beach. The trail to the beach is steep with stairs and is eroded at the end. There is a rope to hold onto to get down. If you're steady on your feet then you can do it with little ones, but it's probably better for kids 5 and up. I was able to negotiate it with a small dog in tow. The beach is a nude beach, so if it's a little early to give your kids an education in anatomy, stay at the end toward the trail which I've found to be a "safe zone." The beach is one of my favorites and is a pretty cove. We saw sea lions on a rock and a lot of seabirds.
When finished, head back the way you came, through the parking lot and over to the Shell Beach Bluff Trail. Take in the salt air, the beautiful vistas, and a great day spent outdoors.
Directions: Heading North on Hwy 101 exit at Avila Beach Drive (not San Luis Bay Drive) Don't go right or left on Avila Beach Drive. Go across! This turns into Shell Beach Drive. Turn right at the first street, El Portal Drive. Drive to the end and take a right on Indio Drive. At the gated Bluffs Drive park on street (there is limited parking if you go down the hill to the left). Walk down the hill to the left and you will see the trail head. From the South, exit at Avila Beach Drive, go under Freeway and make your first left onto Shell Beach Drive. Follow directions above.
Length of hike: about 30-40 minutes round trip for the first leg. If you go over to the Sea Cave about 1 hr and 10 minutes (recommended for kids 4 and up or for kids in a pack).