In southernmost Orange County, a long, gently curving stretch of sand and surf beckons surfers, swimmers, sunbathers, and strollers. Closer to Dana Point, both the old coast highway (former Highway 101) and the tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad follow the beach. South into San Clemente, the highway turns inland, while the tracks, chiseled along the base of tan-colored cliffs, continue near the tideline.
South of San Clemente State Beach, the coastline is scenic and isolated, and it receives few visitors -- good reasons why ex-president Richard Nixon located his "Western White House" here. Only the sudden thunder of a passing train, every hour or so, disturbs the peace.
On the three-mile loop route described here, you begin by walking on the beach but return via an inland route that skirts the mouth of San Mateo Creek. The starting point is San Clemente State Beach, off Avenida Calafia, west of Interstate 5. This camping/picnic area on the bluff overlooking the beach has a large day-use parking area (fee charged). Free curbside parking may be available in the residential areas outside the entrance.
From the day-use area, descend to the beach on either of the two trails that drop 120 feet through gaps in the cliff wall. The cliffs, consisting of marine deposits about 15 million years old, form the blunt edge of the marine terrace on which much of the city of San Clemente rests. Cross the railroad tracks by going through an underpass, and head south along the beach onto a stretch overlooked by a row of modern homes. Although the upper beach is private here, California law protects public use and passage below the mean-high-tide line. Tall palms and cypress trees on the left conceal most of the former Western White House, perched on the cliff edge.
The cliffs peter out at San Mateo Point, where Orange County ends and San Diego County begins. In the water gap just ahead lies the marshy mouth of San Mateo Creek. On the right is Trestles Beach (part of San Onofre State Beach), a favorite of surfers. Ahead a little and back of the white sand lies a shallow, cattail-fringed pond where San Mateo Creek comes to an inglorious end after winding more than 20 miles from the Santa Ana Mountains.
Head inland now by crossing under the low railroad trestle that gave the beach its name. Pick up a paved service road/bike path, often clogged with surfers portaging their boards. After 0.3 mile, you'll reach the main bicycle path paralleling Interstate 5 through Camp Pendleton. Turn left (north) here, and after 0.2 mile you'll come up to Avenida del Presidente, the west frontage road of I-5. Follow Avenida del Presidente another 0.8 mile north to Avenida San Luis Rey, where a pedestrian pass-through on the left leads into the grounds of San Clemente State Beach.