It is hard to say who has more fun when watching the dogs and their humans play. Dog Beach, in Ocean Beach (O.B. to locals), was established in 1972 and has become a required destination for any dog lover’s vacation or weekend getaway. When it was created, the park was hailed as the first off-leash park of its kind in the nation. Today, Dog Beach is open 24 hours a day and is one of the dog-friendliest places in San Diego. Dogs of all breeds and ages are welcome and off-leash play is allowed for healthy and well-socialized dogs. However, it is very important to ensure that your pooch is up to date on all of their vaccinations.
The off-leash area starts north of the flood-control jetty, which is also the western end of the San Diego River bike trail. When watching the dogs at play on the beach, it is clear that they know that this is their place — a free zone for them to do what dogs do best: Run. Play. Smile. Of course, with all of the visitors comes a lot of poo, so cleaning up after your dog is necessary.
The San Diego River is part of the Pacific Flyway, which extends from Alaska to Patagonia on the West Coast. Every year, migratory birds travel a portion or all of the distance, following food sources, from breeding grounds to overwintering sites before returning to their place of origin. Smiley Lagoon attracts many migratory birds in the spring and fall as well as resident birds. Common birds spotted along the estuary include osprey, snowy egrets, ducks, cormorants, blue herons, the horned lark, and pelicans, to name a few. The estuary is a constant mix of salt and fresh water that creates a diverse habitat. Careful observation yields encounters with invertebrates, such as crabs, snails, and limpets, and with small mammals as well as reptiles.
Smiley Lagoon is not all about animal encounters. A host of native plants can also be found in the area. Pickleweed, evening primrose, alkali-heath, and telegraph weed are among a few of the plants growing in and along the lagoon. At any given time, visitors will find something in bloom.
On the south side of the jetty, there is a host of activities to enjoy. However, it is important to remember that all dogs must be kept on a leash on the south side of the jetty. The main attraction, south of the jetty is the O.B. Pier, where visitors can spend their time watching the waves or fishing (a fishing license is not required when fishing from the pier). Sand volleyball, yoga, plein air painting, and relaxing on the grassy areas are all popular activities.
For cyclists there is the San Diego River bike trail, a six-mile asphalt path that is wide enough for traffic in both directions. However, if folks are looking for something slower, they can visit Smiley Lagoon, the estuary along the eastern edge of the beach area. Signs posted in the area require dog owners to ensure that their pets are under control in this area that helps reduce the impact on sensitive habitat.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 8 miles. Allow 20 minutes driving time (Ocean Beach). From I-5 north, merge onto I-8 west, following signs to Sunset Cliffs Blvd., turning left with slight right to remain on Sunset Cliffs Blvd. Take a right on Voltaire St. to Ocean Beach parking lot. Finding parking in San Diego is normally not a problem before 10 a.m., even at Balboa Park unless there is a special event. That applies here also.
Hiking length: Dog Beach is approximately 0.3 mile long.
Difficulty: Easy, with less than 50 feet elevation loss/gain. Dogs must have a collar with license and are allowed off leash 24/7 on Dog Beach. The leash law applies beyond the Dog Beach bordered on the south by the San Diego River bike trail, north to Mission Bay Channel and east to Smiley Lagoon signage.
Note: All people bringing their dogs to leash-free areas enter at their own risk and accept full responsibility and liability for their dog’s actions. There are human-only restrooms and showers at the south end of the park near the intersection of Spray Street and Brighton Avenue.