How San Diego Gave Rise to the Country’s First Legal Nude Beach

How San Diego Gave Rise to the Country’s First Legal Nude Beach

Growing up, Black’s Beach was a fabled, taboo playground for public indecency in my mind. Visiting as an adult, I’ve found that the reality is quite different.

Welcome to Beach Week, our annual celebration of the best place on Earth.

Growing up in a Christian household where modesty was an enforced virtue, a naked body, to me, was as mythological as it was transgressive. Black’s Beach, a clothing-optional beach at the bottom of enormous bluffs in my hometown of San Diego, was a storied locale in my child’s mind—a place I only heard about for its prohibitive practices, but that I imagined as my own local French Riviera. Because my dad was a former Search and Rescue officer with the U.S. Coast Guard, I was a water baby, unafraid of swimming in deep ocean water, though completely unmoored by the idea of topless beachcombing. That all came to a head one day in my twenties when I found myself tits out and in tears after being stung by a stingray in the shallow water of Black’s shores. "By the way," said the lifeguard who dunked my foot in a bucket of near-boiling water to treat the sting, "this isn’t the nude side of the beach," pointing to my chest.

Before it was designated into "sides"—the northern section a state park and clothing-optional area, the southern portion (officially known as Torrey Pines City Beach) managed by the city, where beach attire is required—the cliffs and long stretch of La Jolla shoreline was a Kumeyaay burial ground with archeological evidence for entire village complexes. It wasn’t until the mid-1940s that controversial Texas oil tycoon William Black bought some 248 acres on the cliffs above the coastline and developed some of the land into a horse ranch, subdividing the rest into lots for an affluent residential estate that included the family’s own Pueblo Revival-style mansion, and involved a problematic history of discriminatory housing practices. The subdivision was among a number of wealthy San Diego neighborhoods segregated by coastal redlining until the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and access to the secluded section of beach below it was equally exclusive.

In the ’70s, though, after the Black family sold much of the oceanfront estate to the newly established University of California San Diego, the still-hard-to-reach coastal stretch started to become a popular spot for nudists. For several years, the 2.5-mile stretch was the first and only legal nude beach in the country after the city passed a vote to make it clothing-optional in 1974, attempting to control the masses of partially or fully unclothed beachgoers elsewhere in the area. "I remember there was a lot of giggling," says Karen Zirk, an interviewee described as a "full moon drum circle participant" in a KPBS documentary about Black Beach’s history. She recalls the mid-’70s scene with body-painting, drum circles, and other hallmarks of the era’s countercultural movements. The city-run portion of the beach prohibited nudity before the end of the decade, but the full moon drum circles are still a tradition on the clothing-optional end, even though naked crowds have significantly dwindled.

The ebb and flow of nudism’s popularity in the United States reflects the politics of each era in its history. In his book Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism, author Brian Hoffman writes that nudism arrived in the U.S. in 1929, when three German immigrants formed the American League for Physical Culture, the country’s first known nudist group. "Nudism grew out of a much broader Lebensreform, or ‘life reform,’ movement in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century," he writes. At the time, heliotherapy and seaside visits had been widely embraced across Europe and the U.S. as cure-alls for the ills of industrialization

Early practitioners of Germany’s Freikörperkultur ("free body movement") and Naktkultur ("nude culture") believed that the experience of being exposed to the elements was crucial to physical and mental health. American nudists followed suit, quite literally, meeting at members-only locations like naked gymnasiums and rural resort communities. From the late ’60s through the ’80s, members of the free love and gay liberation movements embraced nudism as a way to challenge mainstream values and advocate for politics of sexual liberation—particularly on public land, like beaches. But legislation has always been the struggle, making tucked away locales ideal places for nudists to find solace. Unsurprisingly, treacherous entryways seem to be part of the deal with America’s few nude beaches.

Black’s Beach is deeply secluded—getting to the clothing-optional stretch involves a long hike on a craggy, sandy path down a steep angled makeshift walkway which gives the area the air of a private Edenic enclave. (It’s also, unrelatedly, the site of the abandoned Bell Pavilion, a mushroom-shaped concrete guesthouse designed in 1968 by architect Dale Naegle for General Mills heir Sam Bell that’s built into Black’s towering cliffs and requires a daunting trek to get to.) Accessing the long-standing Hippie Hollow on the shores of Lake Travis outside of Austin, Texas, requires climbing jagged rocks affixed with razor-sharp mussel shells when the lake is low. It takes long, winding paths through forested areas to find Minneapolis’s Cedar Lake East Beach, also known as "Hidden Beach," a one-time nude beach that’s no longer clothing-optional, though there are some spots where rules are meant to be broken (wink, wink).

Even though the part of Black’s Beach where nudity is permitted is nowhere near as frequented as it was in its ’70s heyday, there still seems to be a dedicated crowd of nudists who share their clothing-free picnics and tips for avoiding creepers on the r/BlacksBeach subreddit and other online forums. Had there been any nudists out there the day of my rude stingray incident, I might’ve had a clearer sense of the ambiguous borders between the clothing-optional and -required sections and been able to avoid my awkward experience with the lifeguard. 

Maybe the tried-and-true naturists are trading complicated treks to secluded beaches where there are still "right" and "wrong" areas to be clothes-less for newer options like naked cruises advertised as "adventure[s] back to Bare-adise," where the scene might look something more like Black’s Beach once did, albeit in the middle of the ocean. It’s not quite what early nudists imagined for a naked America, but maybe a capitalist co-optation of the concept is the best we’re capable of until further notice.

Top illustration by Samantha Wang

Related Reading:

Who Gets to Use the Beach?


Get the Dwell Newsletter

Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.