The history of Crystal Cove State Park

Orange County may not be known for its hiking, mountain biking and other outdoor adventures, but the free-spirited outdoorsman/woman knows much better. I’ve been exploring Orange County for two years and have never found myself unsatisfied by all of its opportunities.

The history of Crystal Cove is as fanciful and seemingly unreal as the place itself. Archeological findings indicate that as far back as 4,000 years ago, Native Americans camped at the small natural cove near Los Trancos Creek during the summer months, feasting on mussels, crabs, and sardines.

SAM_4560-001Located off busy Pacific Coast Highway between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove is one of Orange County’s largest remaining examples of open space and natural seashore. It is not surprising that artists were some of the first modern people to discover the picturesque location.

Established in 1979, but with a rich history that reaches all the way back into the 1920s, Crystal Cove hosts three miles of beautiful beaches and active tide pools, 400 acres of open bluffs and 2,400 acres of canyons that house California wildlife, a 1,400 acre marine conservation area containing the unique underwater park, and whose sandy Los Trancos shore is home to the nationally registered Historic District Beach Cottages.

James Irvine originally purchased the land in the 1870’s from the original ranchers that owned much of Southern California. It was his son, James Irvine II, who fell in love with the Crystal Cove area and allowed his family, friends, and employees to build the bungalows.

Elizabeth Wood named “Crystal Cove” in 1927 “because the name seemed right for such a beautiful place.” The site was always a favorite spot of the owners James Irvine II and James Irvine III, who spent much time enjoying the beach setting.


SAM_4611-001Early 20th century filmmakers, charmed by the primitive setting, shot some of the periods most memorable movie scenes here, including portions of the 1950 silent film classic Treasure Island, along with Sea Wolf, Stormswept and Sadie Thompson.

Its secluded location between Newport and Laguna Beach, in a private cove, meant the chance to create a fantasy world. Movie companies used the cove as a stand-in for tropical locations like Hawaii and Polynesia, planting palm trees that remain there today and building grass shacks as movie sets.

SAM_4647-001The film crews would sometimes leave their sets behind, and families started staying in them. It was a wild era, with film companies partying on the beach at night, while rum-runners anchored offshore in boats painted black and loaded boxes of illegal liquor into waiting cars at the cove.

By the late ’20s, a sophisticated tent city lined the beach during the summer months. Though cottages and tent dwellers had no official rights to the land, the same families claimed plots year after year. Then in the ’30s, tents bloomed around them, soon giving birth to a community.

The last remaining original beach community in Southern California, spans the 12.3-acre area now called the Crystal Cove Historic District. Not only are the bungalows a gorgeous sight to enjoy but the towering cliffs, walking trails overlooking the ocean views, the stunning sunsets over the water, an the Beachcomber Café.

SAM_4642-001The Historic District is an enclave of 46 vintage rustic coastal cottages nestled around the mouth of Los Trancos Creek.

Initially, state plans were made to build a pricey resort on the site – with rooms estimated to cost $350 to $700 per night. But public outcry stopped the deal, and a group of activists, led by Laura Davick, paved the way for the cottages’ restoration. Crystal Cove was then designated as a state historic park.

The surviving bungalows were renovated and restored with the help and development of the Crystal Cove Alliance in an effort to prevent a large planned resort from replacing the piece of California History. When the beach cottages were acquired by State Parks the Crystal Cove area was set-aside as parkland. Three-dozen cottages have been readied for rental to vacationers. You can find the rental list and information here.

This isn’t some decorator’s storyboard of what California beach homes should look like. This is the real thing – funky, beat-up and thrown together by actual beach-dwellers, who kept brushes tied outside the door to get the sand off their feet before coming into the house.

beaches-beach-house-joanne-coyleBe sure to stop by Cottage #13, it was definitely one of my favorites. It’s the last building at the south end of Crystal Cove; The cottage began as a 10-by-12-foot room built by six couples that first came to the Cove as campers in the late 1920s. Featuring a small porch, wooden floors and walls that were only 4 feet high, the structure was completed with screens that made up the top part of the walls along with a canvas roof.

In the 1930s, after a storm damaged the shack, the two remaining couples (the Parkers and the Lees) moved the cottage against the side of the bluff and repaired the porch, in addition to building a kitchen in back and a bedroom on each side.

The cottage played a starring role in the 1988 Bette Midler film, “Beaches,” which showcased a dramatic view of Crystal Cove from the front porch.

Today, the cottage pays homage to Crystal Cove’s cinematic roots. During Phase II restoration efforts that took place in the Historic District, part of CCA’s overall commitment to preserve the integrity of the Park, Cottage #13 was carefully transformed into a media center showcasing Crystal Cove’s rich film history.

SAM_4663-001The Historic District beach area, rustic Beach Cottages, Beachcomber Cafe, Bootlegger Bar, and the Ruby’s Shake Shack are all most easily accessible by means of the underground tunnel to the beach, or by the shuttle through the Los Trancos entrance located on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway.

slideccThe primary activity for Crystal Cove is hiking. A network of well-marked trails permeates the park and allows the hiker to explore nearly every canyon of the park. This area is beautifully Mediterranean, which means there is a wide variety of plants and animals. This is one of the premiere spots in southern California to experience wildlife viewing.

There are too many trails to list here, so I’d recommend getting a map at the park. Try and do one trail that takes you up a ridge line and one that takes you through the Canyons. Be on the lookout: Hikers share the trails with mountain bikers and the occasional horse.

Camping in the backcountry of Crystal Cove State Park is a great place to get out into nature and enjoy true primitive camp lifestyle, all while still having the luxury of being able to hear the sound of ocean waves crashing in the wind. All 32 4-person occupancy campsites, strewn out between three campgrounds, are only reachable by a three to four mile hike. If you plan on camping out for a few days I suggest getting yourself one of these nifty Holleyweb lightweight camping mats. It’ll feel like you’re in a bed, while listening to the waves.

No water or trashcans are available for use at these campsites and no open-flame fires are permitted. A permit is required to camp in the backcountry.

Note: No dogs are allowed anywhere in the campgrounds or on any backcountry hikes, for nature and wildlife preservation reasons.

The area between Little Treasure Cove and Treasure Cove is a great place to wander down into the tide pools and observe the active life. Treasure cove is best suited for swimmers, while Pelican Point proves to be aimed towards those interested in scuba or skin diving, surfing, as well as tide pool exploration.


Crystal Cove feels like a world away from the OC. The park is truly full of endless opportunities and adventurous fun, whether it is exploring nature in the backcountry, offshore activities in the refreshing Pacific Ocean, or simply gathering with friends and family along the beach enjoying the Southern California sun.




Published by

Wander Woman

I'm a Writer/Screenwriter fueled by proponent travel. When I decided to leave the only home I knew the journey grew into a fierce dream to travel and write about the places I explore. My adventures are a constant struggle between fear and courage, but we humans are explorers and pioneers, and we find our inner strength when the end state is the absolute unknown.

One thought on “The history of Crystal Cove State Park”

Comments are closed.