Winter is an often perfect time for watching the sun rise or set in San Diego. Picture yourself on a clear late afternoon, perched atop a seaside bluff or on one of the hills that rise above the city, looking west. The sun, a yellow orb squashed by atmospheric refraction, just touches the ocean horizon. The sun sinks from sight in two minutes -- leaving, maybe, a fleeting flash of green. Afterward, the bowl of night imperceptibly advances, overtaking everything but a lingering orange or red band in the west. In the deepening blue-gray sky up high, steely first-magnitude stars begin to appear, flickering with light tickled by turbulent layers of air.
For the sunrise scenario, simply reverse the foregoing description. Sunrise -- for those who are able to drag themselves out of bed -- may deliver even more spectacular imagery. San Diego's air is nearly always at its transparent best on winter mornings -- barring occasional invasions of low-lying clouds or hazy marine air.
Here are a few of my recommendations for sun-watching spots around the metro area:
* For the sunset: Try any cliff edge from Sunset Cliffs in the south to Leucadia in the north. For a feeling of spaciousness, Sunset Cliffs Park (below Point Loma Nazarene College) on Point Loma and the Glider Port near UCSD are hard to beat.
* For both sunset and sunrise: Those willing to hoof it about three miles round trip should try either Woodson Mountain near Poway or Cowles Mountain in San Diego. Both offer metropolis-wide views backed by the ocean in the west and a wall of mountains to the east. Wear shoes with good traction for both, and have a flashlight handy for the ascent (at dawn) or descent (at dusk). For Woodson, park just off Highway 67 at a point 3 miles north of Poway Road. Walk past a fire station on the west side of the road, then join a paved path leading to the summit. It's an hour's hard climb to the mountain's 2894-foot summit. For Cowles, the main route starts at Navajo Road and Golfcrest Drive in San Diego's San Carlos district. A 45-minute walk puts most hikers atop the 1591-foot summit. The severely eroded condition of the main Cowles Mountain trail makes its decent tricky -- and certainly dangerous without a flashlight.
* For the sunrise: Mount Helix, east of La Mesa, collects far too many cars for far too few parking spaces during the sunset but is mercifully free of visitors at sunrise. Park (where you can do so legally) down below in one of the residential areas and walk up (a mile or more) toward the summit. Good views can be had along much of the narrow roadway that coils upward toward the summit. Another choice spot lies in the Del Cerro neighborhood of San Diego. From the east terminus of Dwane Avenue, walk only 200 feet east for a stunning view of Lake Murray at your feet and the sun just poking its head above the mountains far to the east.