Orange County Coasts: Three Beaches to Catch a Wave and More

Leigh Johnson | Staff Photographer

Leigh Johnson | Staff Photographer
The sandy coast of Crystal Cove State Beach shines near sunset.

California is known for its amazing state beaches. People come from all over the world to experience that glorious combination of sun and sand that stretches along our golden coastline.
These state parks offer far more than the typical sandy shoreline where you can throw down a towel and get a sun-burnished glow or catch a few waves on a surfboard. There are tide pools, teeming with life and with the right field guide you can spend hours discovering the multitude of species within them. Marine mammals can be seen from shore, from a kayak or boat, even from the water itself, by registered divers. Nature enthusiasts like myself have plenty of opportunities to see wildlife onshore, including a number of endangered species relying on the park’s protected areas for survival.
Crystal Cove State Beach is a haven for local flora and fauna. The California Gnatcatchers, small feisty blue-grey birds, can be heard giving their raspy mewing calls from clumps of the coastal sage scrub habitat they require up on the cliffs. Down along the waterline, Sanderlings, tiny shorebirds known to bird-watchers fondly as “peeps,” run up and down as the waves crash along the shore, looking as friends have often put it, “like little wind-up toys.” Brown Pelicans, a species just removed from the endangered species lists, surf along the waves searching for fish. Common dolphins jump in and out of the waves, to the delight of beachgoers.
The park has miles of trails perfect for walking and biking, and on a beautiful day you’re bound to run into many Newport Beach natives spending some time communing with the great outdoors. The park itself is easily accessible with multiple entry points along Pacific Coast Highway, and for a small fee you can come and go throughout the day.
If hiking or horseback riding in the backcountry is more your thing, El Moro Canyon is the part of Crystal Cove that extends inland into the hillsides on the opposite side of Pacific Coast Highway. It offers great trail experiences for those interested in running, hiking or biking, as well as for those who prefer to hike slowly, taking in all that the native life has to give.
You can also camp at one of two designated spots along the El Moro Ridge, deep inside the park. This will allow you to spend more time exploring the park from sunrise to sunset. However, these are not easy destinations because they require one to hike a few hours and pack in all of one’s own supplies.
South County’s San Clemente State Beach is one of California’s most popular beaches. Perhaps the portion of the park that is most well known is a beach called Trestles, popular for its amazing break off of San Mateo Point, attracting surfers from far and wide.
If you’re a nature nerd like me, it’s the birdlife that you’ll enjoy here. Willets and Godwits poke their long beaks into the surf line to pick out delectable small crustaceans, and the endangered Snowy Plover scrapes out a delicate nest in the sand to lay eggs. The panoramic scenes here are great for those artistically inclined, who could spend hours attempting to capture the beauty of the beaches on a canvas or in my personal style, with a camera lens.
San Clemente, unlike Crystal Cove, allows for beach camping in designated areas. It’s a wonderful way to spend a weekend, with early mornings spent surfing or hiking along the trails inland from shore. In the heat of the day, the visitor’s center offers an educational respite from the sun, with exhibits on the history of the park and lists of the local plant and animal species that can be seen in the park.
To the north of Newport Beach is Huntington Beach, “Surf City USA.” Huntington State Beach is a great place to spend a sunny day, as it has large stretches of flat sand to relax, throw a football or enjoy the sand volleyball courts. The surf is good when it isn’t too crowded, and in the evenings, the bonfire pits are a great way to enjoy a night with friends.
For nature enthusiasts, Bolsa Chica Preserve is just across the street, and since the restoration it has returned to the absolute bird-watcher’s paradise it was in the past. Thousands upon thousands of terns and gulls, including the endangered California Least Tern, which nests on Huntington State Beach, can be seen fishing in the waters above the boardwalk. Belding’s Savannah Sparrows, yet another endangered sub-species, can be found creeping around in the pickle weed. This place is wonderful for photographers as it allows them to get great photographs of birds flying back and forth over the path.
These three parks are just a few of the great coastal places in Orange County to inexpensively spend time enjoying the beauty of California’s natural treasures. They offer activities for anyone, and can be a welcome change from hours sitting hunched in front of a computer screen or an open book.