Orange County (OC) beaches have been compared to the French Riviera and are one of the best kept secrets in California. Great waves and dependable weather, along with decent parking for most of them, make these nine beaches shine.
Aliso Beach Park, located in the city of Laguna Beach, is where many locals go to set out a picnic, relax at the beach and watch the skim boarders who are drawn by how close to the shore Aliso’s waves crash. Although it is not the best place in the OC for swimming, the scenery is difficult to beat. Paid parking is available.
Balboa Beach, located on the Newport Peninsula, is a favorite for residents and tourists. Parking near Balboa Beach is a challenge during the summer, which is why many locals walk. A local trick is to park on Balboa Island and take the ferry across to the Balboa Fun Zone. The beach is just a few blocks away. On the harbor side of the peninsula, the Fun Zone has everything from whale watching to arcades and a Ferris wheel. On the other side of the peninsula is the beach with Balboa pier and miles of sand to wander. At The Wedge, a few miles south, body surfers ride waves that can top 30 feet. Although regular surfing is not allowed, body surfers throughout Southern California visit the Wedge to test their skills.
Although the parking cost is steep at $15, Corona del Mar State Beach delivers a quintessential Southern California beach experience and the locals consider this neighborhood jewel the best kept secret in the OC. Corona del Mar has everything from grassy picnic areas to bonfire pits, from volleyball nets to an out-of-the-way cave. Parents with small children might appreciate that the parking lot is adjacent to the beach, making trips back and forth easier than it is for some of the other locations on this list.
Fans of old beach movies flock to Crystal Cove, where movies like Beaches and Treasure Island were filmed. This state-run beach, located just north of Laguna, has a 1930s feel with a historical museum and refurbished cottages in addition to tide pools, walking trails and more than three miles of beach. On Wednesday mornings and some weekends, there is a table open where visitors can receive instruction to make their own jewelry from beach glass. Open only to foot traffic, the parking for this beach is located up on the cliff above the beach at the Los Trancos parking area off Pacific Coast Highway. For the fee of $1 each way there is a shuttle, or there are two main walking trails – one lets visitors cross over the road, keeping the beach in eyesight, the other goes under the road, ending right near the shuttle bus stop. Insider tip: a receipt from the restaurant or store will waive the $15 parking fee. Finally there is the local classic set above the cove on the Coast Highway, Ruby’s Shake Shack.
Huntington’s City Beach is the home of several national surfing competitions, which is part of why Huntington is called “Surf City USA.” This city beach near the pier has the advantage of restaurants and shopping in close proximity and an eclectic farmer’s market every Friday. The restaurants around the pier include the Longboard Restaurant and Pub, located in the oldest building in Huntington Beach, and ocean view local favorites like Duke’s, Ruby’s, Spark Woodfire Grill and Fred’s Mexican Café. Making an advance reservation is a good idea, especially during peak season.
Beach volleyball abounds at Laguna’s Main Beach, which sits across the Coast Highway from the main downtown area. Although the beach is popular with swimmers and body surfers, there is no surfing in the summer. The two basketball courts on the north end of the beach sit just below the cliff that houses the well-known Las Brisas restaurant, a cliff side park and a gazebo that features prominently in the city’s lore. There is regular bus service around the city streets, including and a trolley that shuttles between downtown and the art festivals Laguna Beach is famous for. Plenty of quarters are recommended for downtown parking meters and parking around the festivals.
Newport Municipal Beach has miles of biking trails that take visitors past everything from restaurants to million-dollar homes to an elementary school with its playground and basketball courts right on the beach. Although parking is sparse along this part of the Newport Peninsula, the beachfront stretches for miles. Plenty of quarters are recommended for parking meters as there are few non-metered parking spaces on the peninsula. Morning is the best time for walkers on the bike trail, since traffic flow is a bit lighter.
Salt Creek Beach in Dana Point is a haven for OC surfers, hosting several adult surf competitions each year. An offshore reef guarantees waves along the entire coast line of this beach. From sunbathing to tide pools, body surfing to swimming, this California beach has plenty to do and is almost never crowded. The beach’s grassy picnic area is also open to dogs. In addition to outdoor showers and restrooms the concession building is open all summer for food and beach supplies. Beach parking is close and fairly inexpensive at $1 per hour.
Shaw’s Cove, renowned among local Orange County SCUBA divers, is tucked into a residential neighborhood at Ninth Street and Cliff Drive in the northern part of Laguna Beach. Like 1,000 Steps Beach to the south, it is available only by several long of steps. Although this beach is not a good fit for those who cannot climb, it offers a very private experience for those who can, especially during the week. Snorkeling and diving aficionados will appreciate the calm water. Many weekends there is SCUBA instruction at this hidden little cove. This rarely crowded beach is a worthy addition to “the best kept secret beaches” in the OC and well worth a trip for any who visit California.
Opinion by Jenny Hansen