Get to know Crystal Cove State Park, one of the most gorgeous stretches of coastline in Southern California.
When cruising around the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH or CA-1), it may be tempting to speed up in the sections where traffic is light.
I mean, some parts of the road can get congested. After one or two jams, you may feel like hitting the gas pedal.
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 pooling are permitted. In addition, there are 2,400 undeveloped acres of land ideal for backcountry hiking and primitive camping.
This article why you should make plans to visit Crystal Cove as soon as possible.
Crystal Cove State Park – Historic District
The Historic District is one of the most popular areas in the park because of its central location and amenities (cafe, cottages, restrooms, showers, etc.)
I recommend parking in the area and taking a look at the historical structures (since they are super cute). After that, you can start to hike/walk in either direction or claim a spot on the sand.
If you want a more secluded spot, walk away (north or south) from this area until you find a place of your liking.
The Historic District is accessed through Los Trancos entrance.
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 into 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 accommodations 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 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 ambiance of the area. Parking around Los Trancos entrance will give you direct access to the renovated structures. 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 interiors at the Visitor’s Center.
You can also spend the day on the beach close to the cottages, under colorful umbrellas.
Don’t forget to check the tide pools and cool rock formations located almost in front of the cottages. I love to walk around here since there ware rocks shaped like macarons. Seriously!
Crystal Cove State Park – Coastal Hiking
Since the beaches in the park are located at the base of 80-foot bluffs, a trail (Crystal Cove Trail) and viewpoints at the parking lot level afford expansive views of the coastline.
The trail follows the coastline and has the same length (3.2 miles). This is considered an easy hike because of the flat terrain (no elevation gain). I know 3 miles sounds like a lot but once at the park, you get absorbed by the gorgeous views. You barely notice you are making a physical effort.
And, of course, you do not have to walk the entire trail if you do not want. There are multiple access points and you can decide how much to see.
Crystal Cove State Park – Beaches
With such a long coastline, you can imagine there are many beaches in Crystal Cove.
This is my best effort to guide you through the different coves in the park (because I am a categorization freak). Even though you may not be interested in these formalities, I am sure you would be interested in taking a look at the photos of this place.
Let me tell you, this may be not 100% accurate since there are no signs informing you about the different coves. I compiled this information by using the map in the park’s brochure, googling, and organizing the photos I have taken in situ. In addition, some of these coves are not clearly defined and look more like a continuous strand of sand.
Documentation states the park is comprised of 7 separate coves. I was able to count 6 on the map and organize my photos based on that (help me if you know how the 7th cove is called).
Little Treasure Cove
This is the northernmost cove in the park. The Balboa Pier and the Corona del Mar beaches are easily seen from here.
The division between Little Treasure Cove and Treasure Cove is easy to identify. Now, it is not so easy to determine the dividing line between Treasure Cove and Crystal Cove.
According to the map in the park’s brochure, these two coves are separated by Pelican Point. The problem is that this point is not so easy to identify since it is not a prominent promontory.
I noticed that at the top of the bluffs a boardwalk takes you to Pelican Point. Voila! That is the information I needed. I was able to identify the exact point in one of my photos. Look below.
This is the biggest cove in the park and home of the Historic District. Numerous movies have been filmed here. It is truly amazing to take a look at this cove from the top of the bluffs.
This cove was easier to identify since Reef Point marks its southern boundary.
This area is full of neat rock formations.
This area is known as Moro Beach even though it is a pretty well-defined cove. The Lifeguard Headquarters are located here and there is a tunnel that takes you to the Moro Campground. The Moro Canyon Day Use area (from where the backcountry part of the park is accessed) is also located close.
Abalone Point is located at the end of the beach and marks the southern boundary of the park.
Crystal Cove State Park – Backcountry Hiking
As mentioned, Moro Cove is the area to go if you are interested in exploring the backcountry part of the park. Trails take visitors around a wooded canyon or the ridge of the canyon.
You can select the route you want to hike or choose one of the 4 suggested routes. The routes are classified by its difficulty level
Easy – In and out 3-mile hike covering the lower portion of the Morro Canyon Trail. Great hike for those who want to get awesome views of the ocean.
Moderate – Loop 2.85-mile hike covering the lower porting of the Morro Canyon and No Name Ridge trails.
Difficult – Loop 5-mile hike covering the lower porting of the Moro Ridge, Cut Across, and Moro Canyon Trails.
Strenuous – Loop 9-mile hike covering the entire ridge of the canyon
Keep in mind these are multi-use trails (horseback riding and biking is permitted),. Littering is prohibited. Rattlesnakes and mountain lions inhabit the canyon.
The Moro Campground has 60 spaces, 30 for trailers/RVs, and 30 for tents. Beach camping in California is in high demand. Grabbing a spot at this campground is not an easy feat.
Reservations have to be made using the Reserve California site. Camping inventory becomes available every day at 8:00 a.m. for a period of six months in advance. If you can reserve that much in advance, go ahead and do it. If there is no availability for your desire dates, you can set up the “Notify Me” feature to alert you went a site becomes available (due to cancelations).
I do not have a lot of luck with these systems but friends that are experts on grabbing the coveted spots check availability every two or three days (and have somebody else in the family checking availability).
Primitive camping is available in the backcountry part of the park.
There are limited, but charming, eating options inside the park. 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 nostalgic vibe. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served.
My favorite option is 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 offer a limited selection of eating options. Parking at the Shake Shack is free for customers.
The Crystal Cove Shopping Mall, located outside the park, has a decent selection of casual and high-end restaurants. A Trader Joe’s supermarket is located in the development too.
My advice is to bring food, snack, and beverages to the park. In that way, you do not have to worry about going in and out.
Crystal Cove State Park – Details
Crystal Cove State Park is located 50 miles from Los Angeles, 25 miles from Anaheim, and 85 miles from San Diego. The entrance fee is $15 per vehicle.
This is a place to spend most of the day, Make the necessary arrangements. Come prepared with the proper gear, sun protection, food, and water.
Little Corona del Mar – This cove, dotted with rock formations and tide pools, is located north of the park. You can walk there during low tide. There is a big rick arch between the park and the cove (ideal for sunset photos).
Read More: Little Corona del Mar
Corona del Mar State Beach – This state beach is located about a mile north of Little Corona del Mar. It has a half-mile sand strand and nearby green areas. People enjoy walking around the area (from beach to beach) with views of the ocean.
Sherman Library & Garden – This is a 2.2 acres botanical garden located in Corona del Mar (about 1 mile from the beach). If visiting, you will have the opportunity to observe 100 species of palms, a rose garden, a kop pond, carnivorous plants, and succulents.
Balboa Island – Balboa Island is pure charm. It can be accessed by using Marine Avenue but taking the ferry from the Balboa Peninsula is more fun. See the mansions on Bay Front Street, check out the businesses on Marine Avenue, explore the Grand Canal, and try a Balboa Bar.
Balboa Peninsula – The peninsula is the place to sunbathe, stroll the pier, practice watersports, and take a boat excursion.
Laguna Beach – There is a lot to do in Laguna. Start by visiting Downtown, one of the coastal parks and a hidden cove or two. During summer, make sure to visit one of the art festivals that get set up in town.
More of Orange County
Have you been to Crystal Cove State Park?