Have you ever wished for your own private beach that’s free of parking problems, over-crowding, noise, and other irritants sometimes found at popular Southern California Beaches? Would you like to dive such an oasis at the peak of summer and on a weekend, but not have to drive to some remote section of the California coastline or shell out millions for your own beach house? Well, wish no more; La Piedra Beach awaits you.
Located just south of Decker Canyon, La Piedra, which is Spanish for The Rock, is the second in a series of three parking lots that access the beach below the bluff. Almost immediately south of Decker Canyon, near 32100 Pacific Coast Highway, is the parking lot for El Matador. La Piedra, also with its own parking lot, is a just short distance to the south. El Pescador, the third beach that makes up this short stretch of coastline, lies a little farther south. All three beaches have their own gated parking areas, which are opened by a ranger at 8 a.m. and closed at sunset. Currently, parking at La Piedra is free.
So what’s the catch? What keeps the crowds away? It’s the hill! La Piedra’s dirt parking lot is located on a bluff above the beach, and it’s the walk to and from the beach that sends many people a little farther up the coast to Leo Carillo, which offers a paved parking lot near the water and modern bathrooms. The walk to the beach isn’t that far at La Piedra—maybe a tenth of a mile—but it’s steep in terms of walking back up in full dive gear after a tiring surface swim. Don’t dive this site if you’re out of shape. However, with that said, the rewards of diving La Piedra far outweigh the inconveniences.
Most divers suit up at their cars, finding it more comfortable to wear their gear down the hill than suiting up on the beach. The surf line features scattered rocks, some of which are large enough to break the surface, so spend some time studying the surf to pick a good entry point. I always enter about 100 feet south of where the trail meets the beach, just to the left of a large rock that breaks the surface, but it’s possible to enter the water almost anywhere along the beach.
Although some divers have reported 40-foot visibility off La Piedra, I’d say that’s more the exception than the rule. I’ve found visibility on the outer reef to be in the 10-to 15-foot range and as low as two feet just outside the surf zone. Due to the limited visibility, I’d call La Piedra a hunter’s beach. Although macro photography is certainly possible, I’d recommend you bring your goody bag and leave your camera at home. Personally, I enjoy diving La Piedra just to sightsee.
Like many Southern California beaches, the main reef at La Piedra sits about 200 feet from the beach and runs parallel to the shore; its location clearly marked by a lush kelp canopy. When you arrive, survey the beach from the bluff by the parking lot. From this perspective you’ll be able to judge the kelp canopy and identify the largest sections of the reef and plan your dive accordingly. The reef at La Piedra is literally brimming life, with large kelp bass, schools of mackerel, sculpin, treefish, rock wrasse, large limpets, giant-spined sea stars, and sheep crab, all being fairly common.
If the visibility is good, you can see a lot by simply exploring the reef in a casual manner. If the visibility is low, think small and examine limited sections of the reef with a flashlight. Small octopus, lobster, scallops, nudibranchs, urchins, Christmas tree worms, and countless other invertebrates and little fish can be found all over the reef. La Piedra is a microcosm of Southern California marine life. For example, I’ve only seen a guitar fish a half dozen times in 20-plus years of California beach diving—and two of those encounters were at La Piedra. In fact, the last time I dived La Piedra I came across one that was close to three feet long and was able to follow it around for a while before the animal darted off.
In addition to free-swimming species of fish, I always encounter numerous flatfish in the low visibility close to shore. Generally, these startled animals are discovered after you swim over them—eyes glued to your compass. Due to the low viz I can’t attest to their size, but I suspect that experienced halibut hunters will find La Piedra prolific.
Shell collectors will find La Piedra to be very good. Chestnut cowry shells are common, as are leafy Hornmouths, turban snails, whelks, and tritons. A flashlight is useful when looking for shells. Try looking under the rocky ledges near the bottom as empty specimens can occasionally be found wedged in the sand at the base of the reef.
The next time you get the feeling you need to get away from it all and want to escape to a remote stretch of beach that’s all yours, consider giving La Piedra a try. All it will cost you is an air fill and a little gas money. How many deserted stretches of beach that feature great diving can you say that about?