Crystal Cove State Park has 3.5 miles of beach and 2,000 acres of undeveloped woodland, which is popular for hiking and horseback riding. The offshore waters are designated as an underwater park. If you’re looking for a unique place to spend a day or two on your California Vacation, you’ve come to the right place. Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County is one of Californias largest remaining examples of the natural seashore. It features 3.2 miles of beach, plenty of untouched tide pools, 2400 acres of backcountry wilderness, dramatic cliffs, snorkeling, and fantastic wildlife.
The offshore waters are designated as an underwater park. Crystal Cove is used by mountain bikers inland and scuba and skin divers underwater. The beach is popular with swimmers and surfers. Visitors can explore tidepools and sandy coves. Crystal Cove offers sand and surf, rocky reefs, ridges, and canyons – plus recreational opportunities – that appeal to everybody. State Park Rangers conduct nature hikes in the winter.
Camping at the park is not beach camping. After you park your car in El Moro lot, to reach the campground you must hike inland about three miles, mostly uphill. The trail is strenuous at times and is in the opposite direction from the beach. Some people report that it takes two hours to reach the campground, one way, while others report six hours. You must pack everything in, including water.
About the Beaches
The beaches at Crystal Cove State Park are some of the best California Beaches I’ve been too. The sand is soft, and there’s TONS of space. These beaches are not combed and cleaned every morning like some of the more popular beaches down south, so you will see lots of seaweeds and sea life along the beach.
There are four beaches at Crystal Cove:
- Moro Beach: Moro beach is popular with day-use visitors, bodyboarders, stand-up paddleboarders, surf fishermen, and kayakers.
- Reef Point: This beach some of the best Tide Pool areas in the park as well as some good diving spots.
- Historic District Beach: This is the beach in front of the popular Historic District, one of the last remaining examples of early 20th century Southern California Coastal development.
- Pelican Point: A one-mile multi-use trail parallels the coastline that offers a view of the coastal bluff vegetation and wildlife. There are some great tide pools along this beach as well
The backcountry area of Crystal Cove state park boasts 18 miles of walking trails. The higher trails feature beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean and the California Mountains. The inland park entrance is just down the coast from Reef Point. Backpackers and day-hikers can park their vehicles in the parking lot nearby and set out to follow the trails. El Moro Canyon Trail begins just inland from the highway and extends 3-1/2 miles to the upper end of the canyon in the San Joaquin Hills. El Moro Creek follows the trough of the canyon down to the ocean. It flows most of the year, fed by a dozen or so springs, which supply enough water for the wild animals of the area. The sides of El Moro Canyon slope gently near the coast, but they get steeper inland. the slopes are more than 50% at the upper end. Some ridges rise to over 900 feet, and one peak is 1,013 feet. Several smaller canyons connect with El Moro Canyon. More than 17 miles of trails follow both canyons and ridges.
While tidepool conditions vary on a day to day basis, it’s a lot of fun to scavenge the pools with your kids looking for all the different creatures. You’ll likely find some small crabs, urchins, and anemones. But lucky visitors who know what to look for might also see some octopus or sea snails as well.
The Historic District
The Crystal Cove Historic District is part of Crystal Cove state park and is a collection of 46 vintage coastal homes built in the 1930s and ’40s. The cottages were originally built as a part of a seaside colony nestled around the mouth of Los Trancos Creek and is one of the last remaining examples of early 20th Century Southern California Coastal Development.
- Camping at Cyrstal Cove State Park: The Moro Campground looks over the beautiful waters of Crystal Cove State Park and is well maintained. There are additional more “primitive” campground sites farther back inland. You can find out more about the camping at Crystal Cove on their website here.
- Guided Hikes, Tidepool Walks, and Geology Talks are conducted year-round by park staff. Check out the Crystal Cove Events calendar to see if one is happening during your stay.
Things to Bring
- Food & Drink: Outside food and drink is a must at Crystal Cove State Park. Just take care to clean up after yourself. There are trash cans at each of the parking lots to throw away any leftover scraps and wrappers before you head home. We like to bring this picnic blanket to the beach since its easy to fold up, lightweight and is pretty easy to keep the sand off of. We packed in lunch for our family and ate lunch on the blanket in between swimming.
- Water: Make sure to bring plenty of water. There are drinking fountains at each of the bathrooms, but they are a decent hike to get to from the beach.
- Dining Options: There are 2 dining options inside the Crystal Cove State Park.
- The Beachcomber Cafe: a restored beachfront cottage, offering a relaxed dining atmosphere with spectacular ocean views and a quality menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- The Crystal Cove Shake Shack: A ’40s-style chain diner serving breakfast & American comfort fare, salads & shakes.
- On the other side of North Coast Highway across from Reef Point, there’s a shopping area with a variety of coastal cuisine if you don’t want to stay in the park to eat.
- Wet Wipes & Hand Sanitizer: These are always nice to have on hand for a day at the beach.
- Camera: The scenery at Crystal Cove State Park cannot be beaten and it’s definitely worth bringing a nice camera. (I brought my Nikon 5200 and my 24-70 mm lens). Make sure to keep your camera in sand and waterproof bag when it’s not in use.
- Keep in mind; if you’re planning on spending a lot of time in the water with your family, you might want to leave the camera at home. While we hope that others won’t steal, I did notice that there was a warning on the Crystal Cove Website about keeping valuables with you at all times.
- Clothing: California beaches are amazing, but they are colder than Florida or Mexican beaches. Depending on the time of year, you might want to consider bringing a wetsuit with you. But at the very least you’ll want to bring swimsuits and towels and a change of clothes for later in the evening or before you get in the car. (There are bathrooms next to the parking lots where you can rinse the sand off your legs and change if you want to do so before getting in your car). After the sun goes down, it gets cold pretty quick – so bring some jackets as well.
- Stroller: We brought our trusty Baby Jogger City Select Stroller and it worked out great. The sand is pretty firm if you stick close to the waters edge, making it easier to push your stroller through. We pushed our stroller all the way from the Moro Campground Parking lot almost to Historic District without an issue. The Baby Jogger has so much room underneath and is a real pack horse so we loaded it up with beach chairs, a cooler, towels, a blanket, and water.
- Sunglasses, a Hat & Sunscreen: These are all must-haves for any day at the beach. Make sure to get a strong sunscreen that will hold up to a day playing in the water, and to reapply after a few hours. It might not seem hot outside, but trust me the sun’s rays are strong and you will burn!
Know Before You Go
Location, Directions and Hours
Location: 8471 North Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Directions: The park is located off Pacific Coast Highway between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach. You can access the park easily from I-5, 405 and 73. Pacific Coast Highway, Route 1, passes directly by the Park. There is parking both on the ocean side of Pacific Coast Highway at Reef Point and Newport Coast, as well as inland parking near next to El Morro Elementary School. A few miles north of Reef Point in the Los Trancos parking area with trolley access to the Historic District. You can find links to the various locations in the Crystal Cove State Park on their website here.
Hours: 6 AM – Sunset Daily. The Historic District stays open until 10:00 PM.
Parking Requires a Fee:
- Day Use: $15
- Annual Pass: $195
There are 4 parking lots in the park. 2 Along the bluffs at Pelican Point and Reef Point, and another two inland at Las Trancos (trolley access to the historic district) and one located next to El Morro Elementary School.
There are multiple bathrooms throughout the park. You can find a map with bathroom locations here. There are bathrooms at the Moro Campground Entrance on the South side of the park. There are additional bathrooms at the top of the bluff at the Reef Point Entrance next to the parking lot, in the Los Trancos parking lot and in the historic district.
If you decide to go to Pelican Point, then your closest bathrooms are going to be above the bluff. There are 4 bathrooms along the walking trail above Pelican Point.
Both the Moro Campground Entrance and the Reef Point Entrances have ramps, but I would recommend going to the Moro Campground Entrance over Reef Point. The ramp at Reef Point is exceptionally steep and long. I could not push the stroller up it on my own if my husband hadn’t been there. I was out of breath just carrying Bubba up it, let alone all our beach supplies!
The Moro Campground entrance is not steep but is mostly wet sand, and it was difficult to push a stroller through.