For the record, I’m not a nudist. I feel too fat, am too vain; and in my mind, way too hairy. Besides, like most Americans, I’ve got a secret puritan lurking deep inside my liberal DNA.
Yet for some reason nudity keeps inserting itself into my professional life.
To supplement my freelance journalism work, I once provided media consulting to the late Will Walters. Will was the young San Diegan who took his life in 2016 after losing a prolonged court battle aiming to hold accountable five police officers who, at the 2011 LGBT Pride festival, arrested him for nudity, even though he had on a leather kilt and underwear when the cops nabbed him. (The city attorney declined to prosecute.)
I assumed I’d written my last article about nudity after Will hanged himself. But a year-and-a-half later — with Will gone and the lead defendant in his case now elevated to San Diego’s police chief — I find myself writing on a subject with nudism at its core: Black’s Beach.
Not a Naturist
René Torres, 35, says he’s a nudist. He first went to Black’s Beach in 2009. “It was with a friend while I was here on vacation; Black’s Beach was my first tourist spot in San Diego,” he tells me. “I had heard about it when I was in San Francisco and Miami.”
Torres is now a local. He’s a straight-up nudist — not a naturist. He explains the difference: “Naturists are more in tune with nature and hiking and being with and a part of nature,” he says. “That’s not me. For me being nude is personal — not about nature or the wilderness. It’s about being vulnerable and transparent.”
According to Torres, both nudists and naturists disrobe for reasons that are more spiritual than sexual. “Once you are actually undressed it’s no longer sexual,” he says. “Getting undressed is sexual. But being undressed in public for a while removes almost all the sexual tension and all sexual intention. It probably removes sexual attention too. You just feel like you’re you — nakedly yourself.”
Secluded section of beach beneath the bluffs of Torrey Pines, La Jolla
Still, there’s no denying sex is part of the scene at Black’s.
Craigslist shut down its Casual Encounters platform in late March, citing a law Congress recently passed, which the company says now makes the legal risks of running hookup ads too high. Regardless, you can still find artifacts of recent Casual Encounters ads online. They come in the form or Google search results with remnant descriptions that lead only to dead hyperlinks.
Among the remaining digital breadcrumbs are these from would-be Black’s Beach sex seekers…
- Mar 9: would love some fun company to hang with. 420/beer - m4ww 45 (Blacks Beach) pic; Mar 9: Let’s Swap H*ad in La Jolla for Lunch - m4m 41 (Blacks Beach / Hanglider Port); Jul 8: 20s couple looking to go to Blacks Beach and have fun around the city...
I may be the most clueless gay guy in San Diego, but a couple of visits to Black’s Beach did nothing to unveil to my eyes how the logistics of a sexual encounter, gay, straight or solitary could be pulled off. My best friend, whom I dragged along with me the second time I went, laid it out.
“Are you kidding?” he said sounding dubious about my ignorance. “They go in the water or in the bushes — jeez; grow up.”
The Ho Chi Minh Trail
It’s Easter Sunday. I’m at the top of Ho Chi Minh Trail above Black’s Beach with my best friend, Christopher Garcia, 35, who is possibly the world’s crankiest Millennial. He’s mad because he had to drive. He’s also pissed off there was nothing we vegetarians could eat at the barbeque place we just left but potato salad. It doesn’t help that I’m working during our beach day at Black’s. Unmoved, I begin looking for people to interview as we hike down the goat trail just south of Torrey Pines Gliderport’s dusty parking lot.
“You know, we’ve been down here before,” Christopher says. “Remember? When Jesse’s sister was visiting.”
It all comes back to me. A few years ago, our friend Jesse’s sister was visiting San Diego from a very small, very conservative town in Kansas. We drove her around La Jolla, ending up at the gliderport.
Showing an out-of-towner some local scenic beauty, we had driven around Torrey Pines State Reserve, UCSD’s North Campus, then south into the tony residential neighborhood of La Jolla Farms — ending up near the Salk Institute and the Torrey Pines Gliderport’s unpaved parking lot at the west end of Torrey Pines Scenic Drive, just off of North Torrey Pines Road.
We had been drawn to the we’re in today by the brightly colored wings of unpowered aircraft lilting in the clear air above the coastline. Back then, a spontaneous walk had turned into an impromptu and unexpectedly treacherous hike down a “goat trail” to a beach below the gliderport.
None of us realized then that nearby, just to the south of us accessible via La Jolla Farms Road right at the bend where the leafy street becomes Blackgold Road was a more famous hiking destination. “Ho Chi Minh Trail” is what locals have called it for decades. Now a movement to change that trail’s name to “Saigon Trail” appears to be succeeding.
Whatever you want to call it, that trail is the most celebrated of the several leading to San Diego’s nude beach.
By the time we’d arrived on the sand that day a few years back, Christopher had realized where we were. I still had had no idea. Though her stride seemed to hitch just a tad, our friend Jesse’s 23-year-old sister didn’t say a word or flinch as we moseyed along the surf just in time to encounter a completely nude man in his late 50s or early 60s emerging from a brush-shrouded spot. He and an equally nude woman of approximately the same age were camped out to sunbathe.
Today Christopher and I return with full knowledge of what lies beneath. Some tell me the relatively short, very vertical, and winding trail that begins about 150-200 yards in a southerly direction from the gliderport and breaks off to the west from La Jolla Trail doesn’t have a name. Others say it too is called Ho Chi Minh.
Christopher launches Grindr on his phone. Grindr is the gay version of Tinder, the GPS-powered dating and hook-up app, except Grindr came before Tinder. He shows me his screen. There’s a swarm of guys at Black’s Beach logged in on Grindr. Just about all of them are “looking.”
The G-rated stretch of Black’s Beach is the city-governed portion onto which you arrive coming down the trail just below Torrey Pines Gliderport. North about a 10-minute walk a formation of rock juts out into the water. Now I’m nearing the state-operated side of Black’s — officially Torrey Pines State Beach — nude sunbathers come into site. Fewer than 75 people appear to have thought the weather’s warm enough.
I ask two guys hanging out for an interview. They’ve been sunbathing in the buff since mid-morning. It’s shortly after 1 pm. One of the two agrees to chat and to be recorded. He’s visiting from France. His American friend was one of the guys logged in on Grindr. The American does not want to be interviewed. Amury, who was not on Grindr, says he’s happy to grant an interview, but only wants us to use his first name. Turns out he’s from Paris.
“I didn’t have any expectations,” he says in a thick French accent and impeccable English. “This place is very beautiful and wild. It looks very much like the beaches we have on the Atlantic Coast in Normandy — Omaha Beach in the north of France.”
Geographically, Amury says Normandy is a fair comparison to Black’s with its steep bluffs, clean water, and sparse vegetation — though Black’s is decidedly more desert brush than the grass and sand he knows from the beaches of Normandy.
“I love this geography,” he says. Equally enamored with the culture of Black’s Beach, Amury says he finds it also reminiscent of a famous European beach further to the south in France.
“There’s a mix of everyone here at Black’s Beach,” he says. “I feel very comfortable here. There’s gay, straight, black, Latino, white. There’s nude and not-nude. There’s families even — it’s so mixed. I thought it would be more divided, but everything seems to cross lines and comes together on the beach. It reminds me of a small French Riviera. I love it.”
But Black’s is much smaller than the Riviera, Amury says, “I would say there are about forty people here at Black’s today who are on the nude side and another eighty-five or a hundred the other side. I’m not here to come and have sex, but I’d say only a few of the guys are the look I would like to — what is the word?”
His friend shrugs and looks at his phone.
“I’d better not say.” He laughs.
A different type of nature lover is equally drawn to Black’s Beach. Enthusiastic hikers can’t resist the area’s rugged, challenging — sometimes deadly — cliffs, crags, and ravines.
“The Ho Chi Minh Trail is a relatively strenuous and rewarding half-mile hike,” according to a popular outdoor-enthusiasts site. “In the 1960s, the surfers who frequented this trail named it after the trail in Vietnam.”
A San Diego Hikers Association writer rated the Ho Chi Minh Trail as one she would never forget, adding that it’s “not for the faint at heart. It’s steep and slippery; but the view at the bottom is pretty sweet.”
Occasional hiker, Rolawn Pinkney, 30, agrees on all counts.
“I went with a friend,” Pinkney says. “It was my first time. He’s a regular hiker who was visiting from out of town. He wanted to find a trail and go hiking; so initially we were supposed to go to Torrey Pines, but that place was closed and the guy at the gate redirected us to Ho Chi Minh.... I kind of had an idea there was a nude beach somewhere down there, but I wasn’t sure if this trail was going to that go there,” Pinkney says. “I’d say my hiker friend is a free spirit, but that’s not the same as a nudist.”
He recalls giving his buddy a heads-up that when they got to the bottom they might land on a nude beach.
“I think he was looking forward to that,” Pinkney says.
Pinkney’s and pal’s hike began at the Ho Chi Minh trailhead at the junction of La Jolla Farms and Blackgold Roads.
“[The trail] actually starts in a neighborhood, so you have to go between houses that are in this really nice residential area — you almost feel like you’re trespassing, because you’re literally walking through a break in the rows of expensive houses,” he says. “You’re like, whoa, is this GPS app correct? Or, are we going into someone’s backyard?”
But the app was correct. The pair saw several dirt paths branching off beyond the entry gates to the trailhead.
“Since we were both first-timers on the trail and we didn’t know which way to go necessarily, we just kind of followed along in the direction that other people were going and figured it out as we went along.”
Pinkney was surprised by how steep some points along the trail were. “ I was like, ‘is this for real?’ There were some really tight corners and places where you had to hold on with your hands and get dirty. I wasn’t really expecting to get that dirty!”
As he got closer to the beach, things got more treacherous. Pinkney was happy to see that generations of hikers before him had installed guide ropes. “I mean, I don’t want to overdramatize it, but that trail is tough,” he says. “It’s doable. People have carved out little, like landing strips I want to call them, along the way so you can veer off as you come down fast in a few places without falling down the cliff or getting hurt.”
Black’s Beach is also flyover country for hang gliders and paragliders whose jumping-off point at nearby Torrey Pines Glider Port offers a bird’s-eye view of the storied strip of sand, surf, cliffs, and bare bodies below. But, say pilots, the nude sunbathers of Black’s Beach are no reason to take flight at Torrey Pines.
“You’re too busy trying to be a responsible pilot to pay much attention to that,” one frequent flyer at the gliderport explains. Declining to give his name, the paraglider refers to the state-operated, nude-beach side of Black’s, as just another piece of the picturesque local landscape. The state of California-operated side of Black’s Beach is officially part of the picturesque Torrey Pines State Reserve — for local unpowered-aircraft pilots it’s flyover country, California style.
“The whole scene is beautiful. It would be silly and dangerous to try and zero in on the best-looking naked people lying out on the beach. Frankly, most aren’t worth looking at anyway.”
What’s new at Black’s Beach is really what’s new above Black’s Beach: drones.
Martin Cross is a drone operator. Flying his four-rotor kit from the top of the cliff at the Black’s Beach overlook near the Torrey Pines Gliderport, he says Black’s and nearby Torrey Pines are great places to fly drones. “It’s obviously very beautiful,” he says. “But you have to have respect to fly here. You don’t come down here and think you’re going to get drone video of nude people on the beach. There’s a bunch of communities around here — paragliders, hang-gliders, drone pilots, and nudists. The people in the different communities are very respectful of one another. If you’re not respectful, you’re going to get called out and it’s not going to be pretty for you.”
Cross says all drones have cameras.
“You don’t operate your drone in ways you wouldn’t handle an XLR camera,” he says. “You wouldn’t zoom in with a handheld camera on someone on the beach, So, you don’t fly your drone that way. Bring your drone here for the natural beauty and the outdoor experience. Leave strangers alone.”
Big surf, bigger landslides
Surfers know Black’s as home to some of Southern California’s most powerful waves. But at least once, gravity impressed Black’s Beach surfer more than did the local waves, powerful, and peaky as they are. “At about 50 yards I peeked an initial glance over my right shoulder and saw a 300-foot tall dust cloud bearing down on me,” local surfer, Michael Schoaff writes at the Black’s Beach Foundation’s blog, describing a major rockslide a year-and-a-half ago that almost engulfed him.
“I continued my panicked sprint for another 100 yards before taking a second glance over my right shoulder, at which point, the way-too-thick-to-see-through dust cloud had halted about 40 yards behind me.”
When the massive crash of rocks and cliff material broke off onto the beach from a precipice of Black’s Beach October 9, 2016, several people thought Schoaff was a goner, according to his post. Bystanders were stunned to see him emerge from the dust cloud. They told him later that they assumed he would be killed by the collapse.
Not realizing the scale of the event at the time, he says he promptly dusted off his board and went surfing even as the dust had continued settling on the beach.
Détente and tragedy at Black’s
Recalling that the city-operated side of Black’s is definitely not clothing optional, it’s interesting to note San Diego’s official city webpage dedicated to Black’s offers nary a mention of its nudist-naturist legacy. There’s even ambiguity regarding the state side of the beach.
If you get there from the north via the Torrey Pines State Park, go south to find the nudity-tolerant part of the beach. But you may see an old sign that says, “Nudity Prohibited.” If you keep going south you’ll eventually see a large sea buoy on the beach. The buoy is the size of a small elephant and unofficially marks a boundary between the nude and non-nude sides of the beaches. Conflicting signage, websites, and landmarks about nudity on Black’s Beach are semaphores representing a longstanding, yet ill-defined détente about where the local community long ago drew a line in the sand regarding nude sunbathing.
Flatrock, a large slate of rock that you can walk upon sticks out into the Pacific Ocean at the foot of a towering, ragged outcropping of rocky cliffside. Some say it’s roughly the dividing line between the coastal geography that is the city’s no-nudity beach and the state’s unofficial “nudity-OKish” playa. Flatrock is about a mile and a half north from where Ho Chi Minh Trail deposits you onto Black’s shores — a little closer from where the steep goat trail deposited me and Christopher Garcia.
For its part, the city of San Diego seems to have washed its hands of concerns about nudity, leaving them to the state. Nevertheless, SDPD or city lifeguards will cite nude sunbathers on the “wrong side” of Black’s.
Long ago, Black’s Beach prompted national headlines about whether people had a right to bare it all on public lands in America. In September of 1977, NBC News stalwart David Brinkley opened a story on the network’s evening newscast by saying, “Black’s Beach was swimsuit-optional, and though the vote was not binding, public opinion in the city is unmistakable.”
Brinkley went on to explain that a non-binding referendum had shown that 55 percent of the local electorate opposed nudity anywhere on Black’s Beach. Court decisions have largely left the issue to be decided by local governments.
Whereas once headlines about Black’s Beach centered on cultural arguments regarding nudism, civil rights, and moral decency, today you’re more likely to see news from Black’s Beach relating to cliff-side rescues by the San Diego Fire Department. Overly ambitious tourists lured up the steep, rocky pathways veining up the soaring cliffs and bluffs above the beach frequently lead to disaster.
But sometimes, it’s the airborne traffic that makes tragic news at Black’s Beach. A few years ago, a woman paragliding died after she slammed into the cliffs.
So where did all the nudism fervor — pro and con — go? It’s hard to get anyone to say. Multiple attempts to get a comment from the City Attorney’s office and from the city’s chief lifeguard about the official status of Black’s were either courteously deflected or ignored outright.
Why most nude sunbathers are male
More surprisingly than the stonewalling I got from city government officials is the fact that three nudist and naturist groups declined to reply. I went back to René Torres, the spiritual nudist. Torres was candid about his own motivations, his outlook on nudism, and what newbies to nudism can expect at Black’s Beach.
“The first time I decided to go to a nude beach was in Haulover, Florida, near Miami,” he says. “The experience from my way of looking at it was very sexually driven the first time. So, I couldn’t get naked because I was too sexually aroused. But through the years, I started to relax at nude beaches. I’d maybe remove my swimming trunks in the water and then put them back on as I came out of the water. Finally, one time I didn’t put them on back on at all.”
He says his experience is not uncommon.
“Now, it’s not a sexual thing,” Torres says. “I mean, it’s still there just a little bit because we are all sexual beings. But sex is not the primary thought for nudists. You think of other things. It just becomes about having fun, naked. It becomes a spiritual thing, for me at least.”
He points out that not all nudists are fit. “The vast majority are in their ‘60s,” says Torres. “Black’s is divided into a gay and straight section. Straight people at nude beaches are mostly in couples. The reason why Black’s is majority male is because the gay area is disproportionately male.”
Nudist spirituality and the ‘human brand’
“Now let me tell you about the spiritual aspect,” Torres goes on. “There’s a lot of status that our clothes bring to us. The most spiritual part of nudism is you see the similarity of the human physical condition. When you’re dressed, you carry a brand and a culture that’s assigned to you or that you assign to yourself. But when you’re naked, your brand is ‘human.’”
A frequent Black’s beachgoer, Torres recalls his favorite memory of the destination. “One of the most beautiful days at Black’s I ever saw was during Pride, the year it rained. The rain turned the trails and canyons into waterfalls. The rain was warm, making it all the more mystical.”
You’re not likely to see a waterfall in the trails around and above Black’s Beach on an average day — but if there’s been a lot of recent rain and you can get there on a sunny day shortly after, according to Torres, you’ll be blown away by the natural beauty. Even overcast days at Blacks offer gorgeous scenic views, but not necessarily elusive waterfalls.
Torres offers one last piece of advice to first-time goers to Black’s Beach:
“Go with low expectations of what you will see; but go with higher expectation of what you will feel. If you decide to be nude, respect boundaries and have fun.”
A woman admonished me at Black’s. She’s a nudist about 70. Wrapped in a towel, she tells me to turn my recorder off and let’s me know that “like clockwork” a reporter or writer comes down to Black’s and writes “another half-baked story” about the beach she loves. She says she doesn’t want to be quoted, but that people don’t like being treated like exhibits at a zoo. She says she knows that’s what I’m doing no matter what I say.