Whether you’re camping in Doheny Beach or looking to catch a wave in Surf City, Orange County has some of the best beaches in California. From beaches with big waves for world-class surfing to beaches with tidepools and rocky cliffs to explore, beach-goers can choose from a huge selection of beaches to create their ideal beach-day. And in Orange County, the beaches are nearly perfect all year long.
Corona Del Mar State Beach
Corona Del Mar State Beach is located near the intersection of Ocean Boulevard and Iris Street at 3001 Ocean Blvd, Corona Del Mar, CA 92625. The main beach is a half-mile long and is a popular spot for swimmers, surfers, and divers. There is a parking lot here for a fee, with restrooms and outdoor showers available. On less crowded days you can park for free on the streets above the beach, but it extends your walking distance to the sand. Visitors to Corona Del Mar State Beach also enjoy windsurfing and volleyball. Just south of the main beach, also called Big Corona, is a slightly less accessible beach, but equally as popular, known as Little Corona. Little Corona is accessible via a steep paved path down to the sand. There are no steps here so you can wheel your wagon full of beach supplies right down with you. Little Corona is a popular spot for exploring tidepools, sunbathing, and splashing in the waves. There are restrooms with flush toilets and showers about halfway down the ramp. Occasionally, the mobile aquarium parks near the restrooms to provide educational programs for visitors to help inform people about the importance of protecting the tidepool inhabitants and teach visitors about marine life.
Crystal Cove State Park
Crystal Cove is a State Park that sits between Corona Del Mar and Laguna Beach, with area extending inland offering camping and hiking trails to explore. Crystal Cove is most popular for the historic cottages that sit on the sand near the mouth of Los Trancos Creek. The cottages were built during the 1930s and 40s, and have been restored and preserved by the State Park System and Crystal Cove Conservancy. Visitors can explore the area, participate in an educational program, enjoy a day on the sand, and dine at the restaurants in the historic district. Twenty one of the cottages are available for public use and must be reserved in advance. Whether you are an Orange County resident, or just visiting the area, Crystal Cove is a perfect spot for a weekend stay, and there are several resorts in the area with breathtaking views including the iconic Pelican Hill Resort.
The water off Crystal Cove is a marine protected area to preserve the underwater ecosystems off our coast. This is a great place to scuba dive to see giant kelp, leopard sharks, dolphins, and more. Along the sandy beaches there are many rocky outcroppings offering visitors the opportunity to explore tidepools at low tide. The rocks are slippery and waves can come up unexpectedly, so be cautious while tidepooling. Enjoy looking at the many sea creatures who make their home in the rocks like small fish, sea cucumbers, anemones, urchins, crabs, and barnacles. Remember to follow tidepool ettiquette – watch where you step and never remove tidepool inhabitants from their homes.
The Crystal Cove campground is one of the most popular camping destinations in Orange County. Located on the opposite side of Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) overlooking the sandy beaches and the shimmering water of the Pacific Ocean, campers flock to Crystal Cove for a unique camping experience. There is a tunnel for campers to cross under PCH and walk out to the beach safely with a small parking lot for convenient access. The campsites themselves at Moro campground are equipped with picnic tables, nearby restrooms, and outdoor showers. There is a primitive campsite farther inland. The primitive, tent-only sites at Lower Moro, Upper Moro, and Deer Canyon require a 3-mile hike, as there is no vehicle access to the camp sites, and fires are not permitted in the park.
There are 18 miles of hiking trails in Crystal Cove through native wilderness and coastal sage scrub. Trails range from easy 1-hour hikes with minimal elevation gain, to strenuous 9-mile hikes with significant elevation gains. Trails that lead uphill offer striking views of the Pacific, and on clear days, Catalina Island in the distance. There is an easy Environmental Study Loop near the parking area that is a great hike for families with kids that includes interpretive signboards that discuss the wildlife and geology of the surrounding area. For more in-depth explorations, visitors can use the geology guides available online to learn more about the geologic formations and changes in Crystal Cove on the Geology Discovery Trail.
Huntington Beach has a long stretch of sandy beaches along Pacific Coast Highway stretching from the north at Seapoint Street running south to the mouth of the Santa Ana River, just past Brookhurst Street. The first section of beach between Seapoint and 21st Street is the designated dog beach. Dog Beach is open to the public every day between 5:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. There are parking lots above the beach for $1.75 per hour, public restrooms, and a grassy area. Dogs are allowed off-leash down on the beach but owners are required to maintain control of their dogs at all times. If your dog is aggressive or scared of other dogs, this might not be the best place to visit. However, if your dog is friendly and playful, pay dog beach a visit. Just remember to pick up after your pet and dispose of the waste properly and don’t let your dog drink the ocean water as it can make them very sick.
From 21st Street south to Beach Boulevard is Huntington City Beach, the main drag of Surf City USA. This area includes the Huntington Beach Pier and is a popular surfing destination. The pier and downtown area of Huntington Beach are busy all year long with weekly and annual event up on the street and down on the sand. The US Open of Surfing is held here every July and there are several craft fairs and farmers markets that take place weekly. There are restaurants at the pier and snack shacks along the bike path so you can grab a bite to eat during your long day at the beach. Likewise, many restaurants, bars, and stores for shopping line Main Street. The shopping center Pacific City is also near the pier, offering a whole new selection of shops and restaurants for visitors to enjoy. In fact there are many restaurants in Huntington Beach with amazing views to enjoy while you eat or have cocktails with friends.
The remaining stretch of sand is Huntington State Beach, and like Huntington City Beach, it is a popular spot for surfing, sunbathing, and beach events. There are bonfire rings here that are available to the public, volleyball courts, and bike path access. The bike path runs from Warner Avenue all the way into Newport Beach. Metered street parking is available all along PCH, otherwise, park in the lots for the City and State Beaches for a flat fee of $15 per car.
Laguna Beach stretches along PCH from Crystal Cove State Park to the area just before Crown Valley Parkway. Along this stretch of coastline, beach-goers can find many different coves to explore, as well as the main stretches of open sandy beaches. The main stretch of beach is near Main Beach Park where PCH meets Broadway. This is also one of the prime destinations for shopping and dining up on the street, as people peruse the art galleries and boutiques here. Main Beach Park offers grassy areas overlooking the sand and sea and the area is especially busy during summer months and events. Main Beach Park also has playground equipment, volleyball courts, basketball courts, restrooms, and benches.
If you’re looking for something more secluded or less accessible, you can find many staircases along PCH offering beach access to the various coves including 1000 Steps Beach, Shaw’s Cove, Woods Cove, Victoria Beach, and more. You can even see the legendary “pirate’s tower of Laguna” at Victoria Beach and be inspired by it’s mystique. It’s actually an enclosed staircase that was built in the 1920s, but it is no longer in use, and it’s more fun to image it as a pirate’s lookout. Most of the coves and beach access points require street parking and a walk along PCH to get to the staircases that lead down to the sand. During migration seasons, these coves and beaches sometimes give visitors views of majestic whales breaching and spy hopping as they make their way along the coast. Laguna offers a free trolley service on the weekends that runs the length of the city along PCH and Downtown allowing visitors to park where parking is available on the streets or in the parking lots, and take the trolley to the destination of their choice. And yes, the trolley stops at most of the beach access points along PCH.
Salt Creek Beach Dana Point
Salt Creek Beach is another popular spot, south of Laguna Beach, located in front of the Monarch Beach Resort and just north of the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel. The official address is 33333 S. Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point, CA 92629. Salt Creek Beach features a large grassy area on the bluffs overlooking the beach with restrooms, showers, and a snack shack that is open during peak season in the Spring and Summer. The family picnic areas on the grass feature barbecues, picnic tables, and a basketball court. There is a dedicated area for private parties and group events that is available to reserve in advance. Salt Creek is perfect for surfing, body boarding, group events, volleyball, exploring tidepools, and of course, relaxing. There is a nearby lot for parking at the rate of $1 per hour. The beach is very popular and gets crowded on weekends and during the Spring and Summer months, so plan to arrive early to get a spot.
Doheny State Beach
Doheny State Beach is located at 25300 Harbor Drive, Dana Point, CA, just south of Dana Point Harbor. Like Crystal Cove, Doheny also offers beach camping, but much closer to the sand, with 122 campsites, 33 of them beach front. They are dry campsites with no hookups and offer picnic tables and fire rings with nearby hot showers and restrooms. Visitors to Doheny will enjoy surfing the waves, shore fishing, volleyball, playing in the sand, exploring tidepools, kayaking, and wind-surfing. There is also a visitors center and an aquarium with a tidepool tank and five additional tanks with local marine species to explore at Doheny State Beach. The visitor’s center offers interpretive programs and Junior Ranger activities. Kids will enjoy the Whale Walk, where they can see life-sized paintings on the asphalt of the whales that migrate off the coast here. Every year, Doheny State Beach hosts the Doheny Surf & Art Festival. The two-day event celebrates surf culture and features live music and entertainment, food, vendors, dancing, and activities for the whole family. Doheny State Beach also offers hiking and biking trails and a butterfly garden and is an excellent spot for a day trip or an extended camping trip with friends and family.
Heidi Deal is the author of the 6th edition of the Newcomers Handbook to Living In Los Angeles (includes Orange County), an expert at exploring all that Orange County has to offer, and a children’s book author specializing in history and improving human rights.