Hemmed in by hundred-foot cliffs on one side and the restless surf on the other, Crystal Cove State Park's three miles of sandy beachfront seem strangely detached from the busy Orange County world above. Aside from the quaint beachfront-cottage community at Crystal Cove, recognized on the National Register of Historic Places, the midportion of the beach is largely free of encroachment by manmade structures. Come very early in the day and you'll probably have the beach all to yourself.
From San Diego, make your way up Interstate 5 and exit at Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) in Dana Point. Continue through Laguna Beach to Crystal Cove State Park. Turn left into either the Reef Point Area or the Pelican Point Area, where you gain access to blufftop hiking/biking paths that lead in several directions toward the beach below.
The top of the bluffs represent the first (other than the one being cut by ocean waves today) of several successively higher and older marine terraces extending back into the interior San Joaquin Hills. Obviously, sea levels have fluctuated in this area over geologic spans of time.
Stay on the designated paths so as not to trample the sage-scrub plant and wildlife community that has been reestablished here over the past 20 years. Much of this vegetation looks brown and drab in the summer, when it's dormant, but it turns green and flowery during the rainy season.
Below the cliffs on the gently shelving beach, you can scuff through the warm, squeaky sand above the high-tide line, tiptoe through the beached kelp along with flocks of nervous shorebirds, or cool off in the undulating wash of the surf. Swimmers and surfers should beware of the rocky reefs submerged at higher tides. During low tides, the rocky reefs are exposed, promising tidepool discoveries. North of Pelican Point, the beach pinches out and the rocky coastline is dramatically indented by sea stacks and sea caves. That's where the tidepools are truly spectacular -- but only during the lowest tides.
Crystal Cove State Park, which has separate entrances for its beachfront and backcountry (inland) sectors, is open for day use from dawn to dusk. A parking fee is charged, good for both parts of the park. The entrance to the backcountry sector on the east side of Pacific Coast Highway features a small museum and visitor center.