Written by Melissa Sims
I spend probably half of my year at the beach. No joke. We are a family of surfers, scuba divers, spear gun hunters and stand-up paddlers. Squeezing the amazing beaches of Orange County into a ‘top 10’ is no easy task. With over 40 named beaches (and I’m sure numerous unnamed), trying to pick the best is like trying to compare wine to beer. You just can’t…each beach here in the OC has something unique and breathtaking about it. So let’s start south and head our way up.
1. San Onofre State Beach (my personal favorite)
Located in the southernmost coastal part of Orange County, San Onofre state beach is an old-school surfer mecca. You will not find any food stands or bike rentals here – this is strictly for the dedicated beach goer, as you have to be in line for parking no later than 6:00am on the weekend in order to find a spot. They let a limited number of cars in, so if you show up late, you can count on waiting for someone to leave before you get your spot. Why such a draw? Well, for starters, you park DIRECTLY in front of the sand. No sidewalks, no hauling your cart-o-crap. Just open up the trunk and set up shop. Everyone that comes here respects the beach, and usually respects you (as long as you aren’t THAT guy). The surfing at San Onofre, affectionately called ‘Old Man’s,’ is smooth, somewhat consistent and perfect for longboarders and beginners (on a small day). You won’t find a lot of young groms here ripping arials. It’s an awesome vibe and a clean beach – the San Onofre Surfing Club takes impeccable care of this beach, with hand-built showers and garden walks. Cost to park = $15 (or buy a state park annual pass for $195, good at any state beach).
2. Doheny State Beach
Located in Dana Point, just south of the harbor, Doheny is notorious for it’s unhealthy water report. It has gotten cleaner in past years, but still ranks among the ‘bad’ in Orange County. So why is this beach on our list? Doheny is the ultimate beach trip – with an awesome snack shack, volleyball courts, barbeques, camping, grassy lawn and promenade with rentals. Doheny used to have one of the best breaks in Southern California, but once the jetty was built, the shape of the wave changed and it is now known as one of the best beginner spots in Orange County. In addition, the city of Dana Point puts on some spectacular events at Doheny, including Doheny Days, the Blues Festival and the annual Outrigger Canoe Races. Even if you don’t get in the water, Doheny is definitely worth a visit.
3. Salt Creek
Buzzing up the coast, just north of Doheny in Laguna Niguel, is a gem called Salt Creek. Not the easiest to get to from your car…you have to hike down a very steep hill to get to the beach, so pack lightly. The trek is worth it – trust me. With beautiful cliffs, crystal-clear waters, and a view of the Ritz-Carlton high above, you’ll feel like you’ve found a private paradise – except for the crowds. It can get quite busy here, so head out early. There is a snack shack and restrooms here, so you really just need the essentials. Salt Creek is a popular spot for surfers and skim-boarders, and not always the best for swimming. There is also a grassy park above the beach, for those that just want the view. Metered parking.
4. Treasure Island, Laguna Beach
Arguably one of the MOST beautiful beaches in Southern California, Treasure Island Beach is located below the famous Montage Resort in Laguna Beach. Meander along spectacular paths, peppered with California native plants and views of the posh resort. Take the stairs down to the beach and you will understand why this beach is so special. Not only is this beach spectacular in its own right, it is also known for it’s protected tidepools. The Montage Resort offers docents to educate the public on busy weekends and holidays, during low tide. Metered parking, very limited.
5. Crescent Bay, Laguna Beach
I like to pretend this is my little secret, I’ve just let everyone in on it! Crescent Bay is a beach found in a residential area of Laguna Beach. It is not easy to park, nor easy to walk to…but locals love this spot for it’s sheer beauty. Surrounded by cliffs, with mega-mansions to gawk at, this crescent-shaped beach is absolutely stunning. No sound of trains or traffic…just crashing waves and seagulls and pelicans. You will spot the occasional dolphin or sea lion, but mostly just sparkling waters and easy-going people. Beware – the waves can get quite powerful. Limited metered street parking.
6. Crystal Cove State Park, Newport Beach
Personally, I’m a state park kind of gal. I love feeling like I am getting away from the crowds and enjoying the beauty of nature. If you like that too, you’ll love Crystal Cove. Surprisingly, this is right off of Coast Highway – but has a huge preserve between the water and the highway, so you’ll never hear any traffic noise. The park is quite expansive, with 3.2 miles of coastline, offering mountain biking, scuba/skin diving, horseback riding, swimming and surfing. There is also a campground across the street and primitive camping at Moro Ridge. In addition, Crystal Cove is home to the famous Beachcomber Café and the Crystal Cove Beach Cottages, available for rent through ReserveAmerica.com. The history of Crystal Cove dates back to the early 1900s, as a favorite spot of the Irvine family and shooting spot for many classic movies. This is definitely one of Orange County’s best treasures!
7. Corona Del Mar
A favorite spot for families, Corona del Mar is located just south of the Newport Bay jetty, off of Ocean Blvd. and Breakers Drive. A huge parking lot and spectacular views bring lots of crowds, but this spot never feels touristy. This is a great beach for kids because the waves are much calmer than other local spots because of the jetty. But you’ve been warned – LOTS of kids. If you aren’t in the mood for that, go to elsewhere. Parking is $15, and even though this is a state beach, it is run by the City of Newport Beach – so you can’t use the annual parking pass here.
Little Corona is just south of Big Corona, off of Poppy Street. This is one of the only beaches where you don’t have to walk down stairs to get to the sand. It is a path entry, making wheeling your equipment down very easy. It has a public restroom and showers, and is a local favorite for diving and children. It is flanked on both sides with rocky reefs, so waves are not an issue here. Snorkeling is another favorite activity here. Street parking only.
8. The Wedge, Newport Beach
If you want to see some of the biggest, most mind-boggling waves, go to the Wedge. On a big day, the surf can reach 30 feet…yes, that’s right. 30 feet! Not known for swimming, this is mainly for bodyboarding and body surfing, and if the sets are optimal, surfing. In the winter, this is a major spot for watching some serious talent. During summer months, from May-October, boards of any type are not allowed so that others can enjoy the water. Not only good for water-watching, the beach itself is great, and offers amazing sunset views.
9. Newport Beach
Newport Beach is so spread out that it is hard to feel crowded in once you are on the sand. With great restaurants and bars close by, you’ll never get bored here. Rent a beach cruiser in town and experience Newport like the locals do. All thirteen of Newport’s beaches have been ranked superbly high in cleanliness. Just beware of major holidays, it can turn into a crowded party scene. If you want to be closer to the ‘scene’, head over towards 24th street. If you want to stay away from the crowds, head north, closer to 38th street or Superior. Parking is a nightmare, and you’ll likely circle for some time trying to find a street spot. But this is definitely not a beach you want to miss experiencing. Quintessential Orange County.
10. Huntington City Beach
Infamous, or just famous? With recent press, Huntington Beach is getting a bad rap. 90% of the time, this beach is just like every other beach. But during major holidays and events, it has been known recently to have a rough crowd. Located just off Main Street and PCH, Huntington is one of the most recognized beaches in America. Regardless of some of the recent events here, people still visit in droves to experience Surf City at its finest. You have the best of everything here – surf, sand, good food and great people watching. Not only can you walk the pier, you can hop across the highway to some of the hottest party spots in town. Visit in early August and watch the US Open of Surfing. This year, promoters are banning alcohol sales and will not have live music – in an effort to bring the focus back to the sport of surfing, and away from partying. I say, ignore the bad press and give Huntington Beach a chance. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Main Beach, Laguna
50% surfing, 50% people watching. Main beach is located in the busiest part of Laguna, right in the heart of downtown. There are volleyball and basketball courts right off the highway, and a boardwalk that snakes down the beach. There are tons of easily accessible restaurants right across the street, so don’t be surprised to see people walking barefoot through downtown in nothing but a bathing suit. This is probably the most crowded beach in Orange County…sometimes it is hard to see any sand because the beach is so full. This beach is great for families, as there is a large play area for kids. Regardless of the crowds, still one of the best beaches in OC. Park on a side street and you’ll be fine.
So, where will you be heading?
Connect with Melissa Sims at http://TheBoutiqueRE.com/Melissa-Sims or Melissa.Sims@TheBoutiqueRE.com