It may be tempting to speed up thru a traffic light scarce piece of the notoriously congested Pacific Coast Highway (PCH or CA-1) in Southern California.
Why hit the brakes when there are not hundreds of cars or toasted beach goers in sight?
Well, I have a compelling reason to take it slow or, in the best of cases, stop at the stretch of road between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.
That compelling reason is called Crystal Cove State Park, one of the last undeveloped parts of the Southern California coast and considered by connoisseurs one of the hidden gems of Orange County.
The park is comprised of 3.2 miles of beach (in a natural state) where sunbathing, swimming, surfing, diving and tide pool viewing are permitted. Since the beaches are located at the base of 80-foot bluffs, a trail and viewpoints at the parking lot level afford expansive views of the coastline. In addition, there are 2,400 undeveloped acres of land ideal for backcountry hiking and primitive camping (known as Moro Canyon).
I cannot do justice to this park by covering all of its offerings in one post (that is while I have prepared several articles). This post is about the historic district located within park limits.
How the Historic District Emerged
The history of the area goes back to the native people of California, the Spanish mission era and the Mexican land grants (ranchos). Eventually, the region was bought and used for cattle / farming purposes by a financer from San Francisco and later incorporated to The Irvine Company (which still exists today).
Around 1927, The Irvine Company leased land to Japanese farmers, filmmakers and vacationers. The Japanese community lost their farms during World War II but the people in the movie industry started to build structures to use as tropical backgrounds.
In the 1920s, with the construction of the Pacific Coast Highway, Crystal Cove became popular and demand for places to stay increased. That is how the cottages in the area started to emerge (the development was limited to 46 cottages by The Irvine Company).
In 1979, The Irvine Company sold the land to the State of California and the cottages made it to the National Register of Historic Places.
Some of the cottages have been restored to its former glory by the California State Parks and the Crystal Cove Alliance.
The Historic District Today
Nowadays, it is possible to rent the cottages for personal or group use. Now, these structures are always in high demand because of its location and relatively low coast. Friends have told me they have tried to reserve with more than a year of anticipation without success. So, the possibility of staying here is a matter of luck and correct timing.
However, you don’t have to be a guest to enjoy the beauty and ambience of the area. Parking around Los Trancos entrance will give you direct access to the renovated structures (thru stairs). There is an opportunity to take a walk around the cottages, learn more about the history at the small museum and take a look at the insides at the Visitor’s Center.
You can also spend the day in the beach close to the cottages, under colorful umbrellas. Just remember this is where the crowds gather. There are quieter and more secluded areas in the park.
Don’t forget to check the tide pools and cool rock formations almost in front of the cottages. I loved to walk around here since there were rocks shaped like macaroons. Seriously!
There are limited but charming eating options in this area. The Beachcomber Café is located at the heart of the historic district right at the beach. It is a cool option for those wanting to get a vibe of the old days.
My favorite option is the Ruby’s Shack located to the top of the cliff overlooking the cottages. For many years, this was a date shake shack. It later passed to the hands of Ruby’s Diners (a California classic). They sell thick shakes and other frozen treats ideal for hot days. Order whatever you like and eat or drink it in the open air patio. They also offer a limited selection of other eating options.
- There is a $15 entrance fee to the park. It seems steep but it is worthwhile.
- Use the Los Trancos entrance for the historic district.
- The Shake Shack has its own (small) parking lot free of charge (only park if you buy)
Have you been to Crystal Cove?