Orange County has just over 40 miles of gorgeous beaches perfect for swimming, snorkeling, surfing, fishing or simply basking in the California sun. The weather is FABULOUS year round with temperatures ranging from 50 - 90 degrees and water temps from mid 50s to mid 70s. Beaches are more crowded on weekends and anytime school is out but are equally enjoyable every day of the year. Orange County beaches start at the Los Angeles County line with Seal Beach and Surfside and continue to the San Diego County border at San Onofre. Take a drive down Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and make stops along the way….you may never leave! (Exit the 405 at Seal Beach Blvd and go west until you reach PCH, turn right for Seal Beach and left for all others)
Here are some of our favorites and a brief description of what we like to do at each:
Seal Beach - named for the seals that once visited the area, has the best blend of shopping, surfing and beaching and features free parking and an unbelievable friendly atmosphere. You can fish off the pier, enjoy a cuppa joe or go windsurfing in the town know in the 20s as the 'pleasure place'. Visit the Red Car Museum if you are into nostalgia and see how people used to get to the beach before we all had cars.
Surfside - is a gated community filled with brand new multi million dollar homes and tiny little cottages built as vacation getaways in the 20s. Residents constantly fight the battle of erosion and most of the year there is a giant berm (20 foot high wall of sand) trying to keep the ocean out of their homes. You can access the beach if you go south of the colony, park by the Tower House and walk in. (On crowded days this beach is virtually uninhabited due to the difficulty in reaching it.) Surfing and grunion running (See Locals Only page for more information) are usually great in Surfside since you have the place to yourself!
Sunset Beach - is a small little town located on both sides of PCH (population of just about a 1,000) and is a great place to get into a volleyball game or go windsurfing. Some days it has the best surf on the coast. There are plenty of restrooms but you do need to bring your own food. Did you ever see the soap, Sunset Beach?
Bolsa Chica Beach and Wetlands (across PCH) - is our favorite place to go surfing. JJ is a good (not great-yet) surfer and the waves at Bolsa are just perfect. Joe and I love to take him there because we always see a pod of dolphin and precisions of pelicans fishing just over the top of the water in perfect
rows. You can build a fire and cook in the provided pits but there are snack shacks with great food and plenty of showers and restrooms (clean restrooms!!!). Most weekends there are folks set up renting surfboards and giving lessons. Do give it a try….it is a lot harder than it looks! But there is no turning
back once you catch your first wave! The state currently charges $10.00 to park all day but once you leave that's it…no coming back for free. Do try to take a walk across PCH to the wetlands. There is always an amazing variety of birds that stop for a break as they migrate along the flyway. Bolsa has a huge RV camping facility with everything you need to settle in or stop for the night. You must have reservations so contact www.reserveamerica.com to book your reservations as early as possible. If you are not taking the scenic PCH drive you can reach Bolsa by exiting the 405 on Bolsa Chica going west and then taking a right on Warner to PCH and turn right again.
Huntington Beach - (Surf City) is changing every single day and that's why we just love to visit. Already well know for surfing, volleyball and extreme sporting events as well as the best 4th of July celebration on the coast - Surf City reinvents itself each season. The newest attraction is the romantic Sunset Gondola Ride which runs about $80.00 for two people (I understand this is a fabulous way to propose to your sweetie) and takes you on a tour around the six islands that make up Sunset and Huntington Harbor. Parking is available but don't forget to pay at the station before you take off to enjoy the sights! Walk out on the pier and watch the surfers in and around the pilings and have lunch at Ruby's Diner. Ruby's has great food and atmosphere - you can also find them on the piers at Newport and Seal Beach as well many other locations. (Try a chocolate shake and some onion rings!)
Newport Beach - The Real OC has it all and we are always up for a visit to Balboa Island and Newport Beach. After 3 seasons of hassles with the locals the cast of Laguna Beach relocated and renamed to Newport Harbor: The Real OC, an even richer and more prestigious location for the story (?) to continue. You may see Tessa and her friends being filmed during your visit. (look for brightly colored construction paper signs with black marker words - stuck up temporarily on street signs etc….to find movie and television shooting locations) The Newport Beach area has some of the finest hotels, restaurants and shopping in the world. The lifestyle is amazing and if you stay and spend a few days being pampered you will quickly see how Orange County got the name California Riviera.
Drive out on the Newport Peninsula and see some of the most expensive homes in the country. At the very end is the world famous Wedge - noted for the death defying waves coming off the jetty - challenging even the most experienced surfers. The beach along the peninsula was voted among the top ten in California for a reason….it has it all!
Along the way you will see the Newport pier, a wonderful village full of shops being redeveloped and the Balboa Fun Zone. Kids will enjoy the rock wall, bungy jumping, bumper cars and everyone loves the ferris wheel. There are some great restaurants and amazing snack stands and plenty of opportunities to book sightseeing depending on your budget and fondness for ocean based fun!
The Balboa Pavilion is our favorite and most inviting landmark and you can enjoy a snack or a drink while watching the harbor traffic right at sea level. You can book whale watching, boat rentals, harbor cruises or fishing expeditions along the waterfront and when you get back….take the ferry across (yes, with your car) to Balboa Island. (cost for car and driver is $2.00 plus $1.00 for additional adults).
As you make your way across Balboa Island to the main drag, Marine Street, start looking for a parking space and try to imagine (when you stop by a real estate office window and see the prices for homes) that in 1909 developers were unable to get the prices they wanted - $350 - $750 (yes, dollars) per lot and sold many for as little as $25.00! The 3 block village is a great place to pick up some OC treats for family and friends back home and 'fur sure' stop and get a Balboa Bar or a chocolate covered banana (my personal favorite) at one of the stands claiming to have invented these delicious marvels! The battle has been going on for years. As you drive down Marine you will cross a bridge and leave Balboa Island - keep driving up the hill (Jamboree) to the 405 or turn right on PCH to continue your discovery of OC Beaches.
Newport Back Bay - We often go kayaking in the back bay at the Newport Aquatic Center. They are very inexpensive and can accommodate singles, doubles or a whole bunch of folks in an outrigger or two lashed together. It can be a lot of work if you are rowing against the tide but the bird life and tranquility so close to so much is worth it.
Corona del Mar - the beaches at Corona del Mar are simply beautiful - great views and amazing photo opportunities but you cannot EVER find a place to park. If you are a dog lover you may wish to try, as the city run beaches are open to dogs after 5:00 pm and before 9:00 am. Gilligan's Island was shot here (does anyone remember back that far?) and Disney productions currently (I am told) uses this area for filming. The best beach is the Corona del Mar State Beach where the state maintains rest rooms, showers, fire pits and picnic facilities. Diving is always good here and surfing can be. Go down the access road located near Iris and Ocean, pay an entrance fee and enjoy a gorgeous day.
Crystal Cove State Beach - In 1979 the State of California purchased approximately 3,000 acres and some beach cottages from the Irvine Company and then it took 20 years to evict the people living in them. In June 2006 Reserve America began taking reservations for the newly renovated cottages. Each year there are more available…but reservations are nearly impossible to acquire as more and more people hear about them. Give it a try - at $150-$200 per night these cottages are considered the gem of the coast. I cannot believe I shared this…now I will NEVER get one! Go to www.reserveamerica.com to TRY to get reservations…on the first day of each month, the sixth month out becomes available - so 1/1 all of July becomes available.
Laguna Beach - See entire page dedicated to OUR beach, please!
Dana Point - the Dana Point Harbor is an absolute jewel. We take everyone who comes to visit whale watching (May - November) and dolphin running the rest of the year out of Dana Wharf. (about $30 for adults and $20 for kids - they often have specials - this week Tuesday is only $14.50 per person! They have fabulous food on board and while there are no guarantees I have never been disappointed. The last time we went, we were in the middle of several hundred dolphin for about ½ hour. You can also go sport fishing or arrange a private charter. If eating on a boat is not for you….walk down to El Torito for great food and a fun atmosphere at the edge of the harbor. Drive down to the end of the road (traveling north) and see the steep cliff cove seaman Richard Henry Dana described in his book Two Years Before the Mast as the "only romantic spot on the coast".
The port, then known as Bahia Capistrano was the major port between San Diego and Santa Barbara. Visit the Orange County Marine Institute, the tide pools or climb aboard the brig "Pilgrim", a full sized replica of the square rigged vessel on which Dana sailed into the cove. If you have time join a cruise aboard the Sea Explorer, a 70 foot research vessel designed to explore marine life offshore. This entire area is filled with shops, restaurants and interesting things to see and do. You will want to come back again and again. Take the very steep road up the cliff across from the Pilgrim to reach a memorable view of Dana Point Harbor.
Doheny State Beach - is right next door and since they charge $10.00 to park we try first to find a spot in the lot between the harbor and the state beach entrance (known as 'hole in the fence') and it is about $3.00. This, however, is not a good idea if you are lugging surfboards or picnic gear. I love Doheny and it is a great place to learn to surf because the waves are small, well spaced and conditions are predictable. The bottom is full of rocks so it is also one of the worst places to learn to surf if you don't have booties for your feet. We often rent a spot at this beach for a large crowd. You get barbeques, a fire pit and a big plot of grass right up against the boardwalk and the beach. They have volleyball, snack bars, rest rooms and equipment to rent including surreys. Stay out of the way if my family is having a race! Doheny also has camping and has been voted by 'reader's choice' as best camping in the country. You need reservations so go online to www.reserveamerica.com as soon as possible to make sure you are not disappointed.
San Clemente - is a charming town located on the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean with amazing beaches and warm, friendly people.
Casa Pacifica, the Nixon Western White House is located at the southern most point in San Clemente. Today it is privately owned and you can only get a look at it from the beach below. We plan to retire in San Clemente just as soon as JJ is out of high school. As you drive down the hill through town there is always some sort of street faire or festival going on. The beaches are open from 4:00am to midnight and are just perfect for surfing. The train pulls right into a small station at the pier and the view from the parking lot and the grass lawn park spilling down the hill is breathtaking. Be sure to pay at the parking station or face a huge fine! We love to eat at the restaurant as you enter the pier and sit outside! Great food and even better people watching! This pier was used to smuggle in booze during prohibition along with the one at Seal Beach. The surfing here is second best in JJ's view, second only to Bolsa and it is closer to where we live so San Clem it is! You can rent a surfboard here and give it a try…let us know how you did!
San Clemente State Beach - located south of town and is very popular with surfers and skin divers as well as hikers. I just cannot take the smell of sewage that seems to cut our visits short but others don't seem to notice. The campgrounds are located up on the cliff and there are trails cut into the bluff for beach access. This campground would require real vigilance for families with small children and can be booked by contacting www.reserveamerica.com as soon as you possibly can. You can get great views of whales and other sea creatures as they migrate up and down the coast.
Trestles Beach - located near the train tracks and very well appreciated for its amazing surf, this beach area is currently in the middle of a fight to either save the beach or build a much needed toll road. Everyone has an opinion and there is not much chance for compromise. The 3 ½ mile stretch of beach has several separate surf breaks: Uppers, Middles and Lowers. Parking for Trestles is located just off Christainitos Road. Walk across the freeway bridge, turn left down the trail and then right to the beach - about a mile. You will enjoy some of the last undeveloped coastal land in Southern California. Watch for trains and bring what you need….the only amenity you will find (if you call it that) is a portable toilet.
San Onofre State Beach - is a 3,000 acre scenic coastal canyon park divided into three areas. San Onofre Bluffs offers camping and day use parking adjacent to the sandstone bluffs. The beach below is accessed by rugged dirt trails. Campsites are a bit rugged with cold outdoor showers and chemical toilets and no hookups. You still need to book ahead with www.reserveamerica.com The San Onofre Surf Beach offers a world class surf break for day use only. There are portable toilets. The San Onofre/San Mateo Campground is across the freeway and inland about three miles. San Mateo Creek flows by the campground to the sea and the wetlands are home to many endangered species. This campground has it all, hookups, flush toilets, hot showers, fire pits and picnic tables but it is really hot here in the summer and the marines practice drills and maneuvers nearby with the helicopters creating a dust nightmare. Down at the very end of the beach there is a clothing optional area (naturist beach) located on about 600 feet of beach leased from the marines at Camp Pendleton. I understand the first time you try sunbathing in this fashion you better use a bunch of sunscreen!!
Orange County beach tips:
Make sure you are not parked illegally
Watch out for rip tides - if drug out to sea, STAY CALM, swim parallel to the shore
for about 10-15 feet - you will escape the pull and be able to swim back to shore
Wear sun block - even in the winter
The easier the beach is to get to - the more crowded it is!
Do not feed birds or disturb tide pools - leave everything just like you found it
Take all of your trash with you - we love our beaches and want to keep them FABULOUS
Always have a camera, an extra battery and more memory (or film) than you can imagine
EVER needing - You will run out!
Get back onto the 5 Freeway north to complete the loop. Or... head on down to San Diego or a bit further into Mexico. (Make sure you have proper documentation before you cross that border!)
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