Orange County Beach Cities

Want to Vacation in Orange County Beaches?

Join us for a brief safari through the Orange County Beach cities from north to south. Some of these communities actually have multiple beaches. Our comments are intended to give you some insight to help you decide where to spend your time. There are also some good web sites with specific information about these cities. However, they are stand-alone summaries; you get better perspective with a moving tour from one beach to the other.

Before departing on our little tour, if you’d like to see some details and photos of individual beach cities and towns, we can arrange that. One of our favorite niche web sites, mentioned elsewhere, is Beachyoc.com with its great interactive map. For another pretty good listing of these towns, click on Orangecounty.net. A larger list of beach communities throughout California click on this link toBeachcalifornia.com , where you’ll want to scroll down to the cities and beaches of interest. One other site worth checking out is Orange-county-beaches.com.

It is easy to get off on “rabbit trails” with these sites but new windows will open and you can come safely back here when done with your online rambling. We’ll provide a few more links to individual cities in the discussion below.

Let’s Get Started!

Seal Beach

As you leave Long Beach driving south on PCH, you first enter O.C. by way of Seal Beach. Now Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach may be better-known towns, but Seal Beach is the real deal. It is home to the second longest wooden pier in the state (which includes a Ruby’s Diner out at the end), a nice Main Street shopping district, and was one of the earliest beach towns with a beachfront amusement park (thriving during the 1920s until the Depression hit; now it’s just a part of O.C. history).

Some well-known surf businesses are found in this city, including the M and M Surfing School (are you a Gremmie {beginner surfer} or even a Hodad {non-surfer who hangs around the beach}? Look no further to become a surf legend!). It is also home to surfboard manufacturer Bruce Jones, among others. One reason the other beach towns get better press is that they are larger, with more beach frontage.

But if you’d like to avoid some of the tourists, and want a bit more of the feel of a quiet beach community, spend some time in Seal Beach. It’s charming, with a good beach and a true SoCal surf vibe. It also is home to Leisure World, a senior-citizen community of around 9,000 ex-surfers and elderly Hodads.

Continuing on our overview of Orange County beach cities, we pass by the Los Alamitos Naval Munitions Depot and the entrance to Anaheim Bay and Huntington Harbor (kayak alert– rent them around here for a half-day of marine wildlife watching; check out our beach activities page). The Navy loads munitions onto ships at a dock here and the armed guards watch you very carefully if you cruise by in a pleasure boat (they don’t wave back at you). Blink and you’ll miss the private beachfront community of Surfside on the right. There’s not much to do there as it is mostly a gated enclave of homes.

Seal Beach in 1920
Seal Beach in 1920

Sunset Beach

Next on our tour is Sunset Beach, an unincorporated part of Orange County. About a mile in length, you can find some funky little shops and restaurants along PCH and some side streets. You’ll know you’re there because the Peter’s Landing Marina and Shopping Center will be on the left, as well as waterways that are part of Huntington Harbor (which is a residential neighborhood within adjacent Huntington Beach). Look for the Water Tower House. You can’t miss it; just look up on the right side of the street!

This is another under-appreciated town with some legitimate surf history. A number of well-known surf companies started or are presently located here. There are no large parking lots here as in Huntington Beach, but the beach is known for its sunsets. If you turn right off of PCH towards the ocean on one of the numbered streets, you can find parking around the greenbelt that runs through town (once the right-of-way for the Red Car public transportation system, now long-since gone; they actually built some homes along this narrow strip up in Long Beach).

Take a walkway between homes down to the beach. It doesn’t take too much imagination to pretend that you’re a local, living in a nice beach town. You could spend a relaxing, low-key day in these northern O.C. beach towns.

Huntington Beach

South of Sunset Beach is Huntington Beach—Surf City USA. I don’t think Jan and Dean were members of the Chamber of Commerce when they recorded their hit (up in L.A. county; actually, Dean Torrence has been a Huntington Beach resident for many years and actually helped encourage the city to adopt the Surf City brand.).

This great town is as much at the center of the surf culture as anyplace, with several miles of clean, wide, sandy beaches. By the way, 2009 was the centennial anniversary for Surf City. Click on the photograph below of Duke’s statue for a link to the city’s centennial web page; that will also bring you to the official city website for more propaganda.

Huntington has a strong beach history, with Jack’s Surfboards, the Golden Bear music venue (RIP), many surf shops, the pier… But it has been renovated and modernized in a way that feels pretty touristy (and resulted in the loss of the Golden Bear). Main Street and the Huntington Beach Pier make up the focal point of Surf City.

They hold a number of international surf championships here and the area is always hopping. The biggest event is probably the U.S. Open surfing competition held mid-summer. While this area now is very “tourist friendly,” we fondly remember spending time here as kids, before beach volleyball was an Olympic sport and the surf shops were little hole-in-the-wall stores. (Sigh)

You’ll notice that there are no residences on the sand in Huntington Beach. There are a bunch of ocean-view homes along this stretch of PCH, built on 25-foot-wide parcels—that’s right I said 25 feet wide.

A few blocks south of the pier is the Hyatt resort. Additional resort development is underway a block or two away; these hotels are directly across the highway from the sand.

There are three distinct beaches in Huntington Beach. Driving down from the north, you first come across the Bolsa Chica State Beach. Immediately inland from there are the Bolsa Chica wetlands, a great place to view wildlife. The beach has public paid parking and is operated by the State of California. Further to the south is the City Beach around the Pier. Finally you’ll find the Huntington Beach State Park

So Huntington Beach is more developed, with large parking lots, beach concession stands, the Pier, fire rings and fairly large crowds on summer weekends. Because there is a lot of parking and there are three spacious beach destinations, this community draws beachgoers like moths to a flame.

Locals and tourists alike enjoy it here, although some of the more serious locals will avoid the crowds and go to other beaches. But if you do want to find a fire ring, or like to rinse off at a beach-side shower or rent a boogie board and get a burger at a concession stand, Huntington Beach is the place. Even if you don’t spend the day here, if time permits, you should at least drive along this stretch of PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) and maybe spend an hour or so at the Pier. Lots of places for a snack, a drink or a meal on Main Street. OK, we gotta keep movin’ as there are still many miles of Orange County beaches to visit.

Newport Beach

South of Surf City is Newport Beach , a good-sized city with several distinct communities. After you leave the H.B. State Beach, you’ll soon find residential development on the right, some of which include homes that back onto the beach sand. There are rock jettys along the Newport Beach coastline to protect the beach from erosion.

A lot of locals like this beach area, which stretches a number of miles down onto the Balboa Peninsula. Parking is more challenging here at times, but you can park for free on many of the adjacent streets. Because you don’t have the huge parking lots, the beach is generally less crowded. The waves are often better here, or maybe it just seems that way because of the free parking.

Balboa Peninsula

Roughly mid-way along the N.B. coast you’ll see the turnoff for Balboa Peninsula to the right. On the westerly side of this couple-mile-long strip of land is the same nice beach frontage. At some point the beach walk starts, a continuous sidewalk perfect for walking, biking, skating or performing handstands. The Newport Pier is found at the upper end of the peninsula, and is home to a working dory fishing fleet that provides fresh fish to local restaurants and stores. The Balboa Pier is at the southerly end. There are places for snacks and meals near each one. Also at the south end is the historic Balboa Pavilion and the Fun Zone, among many shops, food establishments and a few galleries and boat brokerage firms.

We said that the westerly side of the Balboa Peninsula fronts along the Pacific Ocean (which is larger than the Atlantic, by the way); on the inland side is Balboa/Newport Harbor. This is quite a large harbor, with shipyards, waterfront homes, commercial businesses and small parks. You can rent small boats at a couple of places, including down near the Pavilion. There are some serious yachts kept here. Both Newport Harbor and Huntington Harbor put on very cool Christmas Boat Parades in December. By the way; people with the money to buy some of these babies have the time and budget to decorate them to the hilt for the parade.

There are a number of noteworthy attractions at the south end of the Peninsula. First, let me note that the southern tip terminates at the main entrance to the harbor, with a large breakwater. As a result of the orientation of the beach, along with the effects of the breakwater on wave swells arriving from the southwest, the stretch of beach just before the harbor entrance can experience some killer big waves. They tend to break pretty near the shore in what is sometimes rather shallow water, depending on the tide.

This makes for some very dramatic surfing and bodysurfing conditions (you’re likely to see more bodysurfers than board surfers here). The focusing effect has caused this beach to be known as The Wedge. It may be better to watch others take on these waves on some days. Drive past Main Street check about a half-mile or so, through the residential neighborhood, until you reach the end; the Wedge will be the beach to the right.

Speaking of noteworthy attractions, pay attention to this neighborhood of beautiful homes at the end of the peninsula, many of which front along the beach (west side) or along the harbor (east). You can get some great landscaping ideas by driving or walking around here.

Balboa Island

The Fun Zone offers a Ferris wheel and a cleaner, smaller, nicer, safer, less-dense version of Coney Island. Well, that’s probably not all that accurate, but it’s a faster way to describe it; really quite charming. Adjacent to the Ferris wheel is the Balboa Island Ferry. Thus, you may be wondering if there is in fact a place known as Balboa Island. The answer is yes. The ferry is cheap and lands you on the island, where there’s a quaint but somewhat touristy downtown shopping/dining/gallery district. Mostly the island is residential, with very cute and expensive homes on and around the harbor frontage.

At Christmas the island homes are beautifully decorated. If you’re here around the holidays, take an evening walk around the public sidewalk forming the perimeter of the island, where you can see the festive lights and decorations. Walk around to the ferry landing. Take the ferry over to the peninsula and walk out to the Ruby’s Diner at the end of the Balboa Pier (yes, there are two end-of-pier Ruby’s Diners in O.C.). Then stroll back to your car; you may need warm jackets, but it’s a great way to enjoy the hard work of a bunch of wealthy property and boat owners.) You can also access the island by bridge and off Pacific Coast Highway.

Now, back to our driving tour, which I’m assuming you’re probably taking during the summer. You’ll notice that there are no more of the really wide, flat beaches at this point; the geography and geology have created cliffs. Even so, these south-county beaches have fewer rock obstacles than most of the beaches in Hawaii (remember, we’re fans of the Aloha State but I gotta call ‘em as I see ‘em).

Trivia Note: as you travel south on PCH, you’ll see a street named Jamboree Road. Before the high-priced homes and ritzy stores, this area was ranch land. Specifically, this used to be the Irvine Ranch and it looked like what you would expect a ranch to look like; there was nothing here but bovine, equine, canine and cowboyine critters. The Irvine Family, for a number of years, made this land here available to the Boy Scouts for their annual Boy Scout Jamboree. Hence, the name, Jamboree Road…now go impress your friends with this.

Corona Del Mar

Just south of the entrance to Newport Harbor is a nice little city beach known as Corona del Mar (CDM). It’s a good place for snorkeling but there is also a pretty good stretch of sandy beach as well. It does get busy on weekends, but there are fire rings (get there in the morning on a weekend if you want a fire ring that night—no kidding) and concessions. Check out the cool houses up on the bluff. As you drive south on PCH from Balboa Island you’ll hit the commercial stretch of CDM, where there are lots of destinations for food and shopping. Although somewhat tourist-oriented, CDM is a real residential community within the city of Newport Beach. So you’ll see a lot of regular hometown kinds of businesses also. Watch for signs to get down to the beach mentioned above.

Below CDM is a stretch of PCH that used to be out in the country. You’ll see Crystal Cove beach and campground, a State Park. You can find contact information on our camping page. It is very difficult to obtain reservations for camping in the old beach cabins (shacks) in this campground, and the beach is nice but not essential unless you’re camping there. So for now, we’ll keep on going south. The date shake shack is still there on the right side of the road; get yourself a date shake! You’ll see some pricey residential development on this stretch, known as Newport Coast.

Laguna Beach

Now we’re moving down into Laguna Beach, arguably the most interesting and diverse of all beaches in O.C. Although the terrain is rather rugged overall, there are 7 miles of coastline in the city and some of the several public beaches have nice stretches of sand for sunbathing and waveriding.

Other beaches in the city offer tidepools and snorkeling. Lodging ranges from the nearly impossible-to-reserve cabins at Crystal Cove to budget hotels up to luxury resorts. The city is known worldwide for its art and cultural offerings, notably the Pageant of the Masters and Festival of Arts shows that take place throughout most of the summer. There are other shows and events throughout the year so check the Laguna Beach web site for details.

Back to the Tour

fter we pass Crystal Cove (and the date shake shack!) we drive past Emerald Bay, a very exclusive beachfront residential neighborhood. If you win the lottery, this might be a place to catch some open houses. You’ll see hillside homes on the left ranging from funky little houses to massive estates. The road descends down into the heart of the city, where you’ll find Main Beach with its lifeguard tower that once was at an old gas station across the street.

Route 133 comes in from the left, connecting the city with the rest of Orange County by way of Laguna Canyon (where there have been some very bad wildfires in years past). Here in downtown and up through the canyon you’ll find the heart of the L.B. art and culture scene. Many galleries, shops and attractions. Laguna offers an interesting concoction of touristy stuff and authentic, cool beach environment. You’ll see visitors and locals checking out the art galleries or at the Festival of Arts.

There are several other beaches, mostly smaller, as you continue down PCH from downtown L.B. You’ll continue to see an eclectic mix of commercial development and lodging options along the road.

Here’s a tip we’ll repeat elsewhere:

A lot of locals visit the beaches on summer weekends, so the parking lots are supporting vacationers and locals. If you are visiting for a week, you likely will build in a day here and there for relaxing by the hotel pool, or checking out local museums and secondary attractions. If you can stay away from the beaches, Disneyland Resort and Knott’s Berry Farm on Saturdays and Sundaysyou’ll have a better experience. Try and program in other events (or vegetating by the pool) on those prime days and use weekdays for the premium destinations.

Here’s another tip worth twice the price you paid for it:

Parking is very challenging at most of the O.C. beaches in the summertime, and especially on weekends. Laguna is no exception; because it has a lot of interesting points of interest along with the nice beaches, and because it does not have the large parking lots you’ll find up at Huntington Beach, parking in L.B. can be even worse than its neighbors. Check the Laguna Beach Transit web site for information on the city-operated system, which is free during most of the summer. You can park in one of the larger lots, perhaps up the canyon, and take the trolley around town. You can visit the beaches north and south of Main Beach this way; the trolley runs on 30 minute intervals but we’ve seen it run more regularly at times. You can also take the Orange County Transit bus along PCH between various beach cities.

So here’s the tip: in Laguna Beach you might want to park a mile or two south of downtown, because those streets are likely to be not as jammed as anywhere near downtown and Main Beach. So go south (possibly a couple of miles north is another option) and park near a trolley stop. Then, using the handy maps available at this link, take the trolley bus to your final destination. You might have to wait awhile for a bus but with ocean or canyon views at the trolley stops, it certainly is a nice place to spend 5-30 minutes. You’ll be less stressed. Of course you might be able to avoid this if you come to Laguna on a weekday.

Dana Point

Continuing south on PCH you will pass the Montage and the Ritz Carlton resorts and Aliso Creek beach park. Eventually you hit Dana Point, with Salt Creek Beach Park and its adjacent batch of new beachfront homes (just like up at the Malibu Colony) under construction. Dana Point Harbor supports private and commercial boats, and offers a few nice restaurants along with the marine services. The adjacent Doheny State Beach is a great beach park with surfing, concessions, reasonable parking (most of the time). This is more programmed, like Huntington Beach on a smaller scale. The I-5 freeway hits PCH at Dana Point. Stay on PCH and you’ll run past Capistrano Beach, a County-operated destination with numerous mid-priced hotels directly across the highway from the sand.

San Clemente

Finally we land in San Clemente, where President Richard Nixon had his Western White House. This is another town where you’ll see a mix of tourist attractions along with the amenities of a real beach town.

The Amtrak/Metrolink railroad station is literally on the beach; you can get off the train here and walk to the beach. If you’re staying at a resort near Disneyland, you could catch a shuttle or short cab ride to the Anaheim Metrolink station next to Anaheim Stadium. Take the train down to San Clemente Beach for the day. Some parts of this city are very “hot” with visitor action, especially near the pier (which, unfortunately is not next to the railroad station but is an easy bus ride away).

There are a couple of good beaches here but they tend to be smaller with so-so parking. On a weekday you’ll be fine and it’s worth the drive south for something a little different.

… and Beyond

Next stop is Trestles, a beloved surfing beach that requires a 10-15 minute hike down from the street. The name comes from the railroad trestle that crosses this area. There’s talk of building a toll road that would join with I-5 around here, reportedly messing with the pristine nature of the area. Stay tuned on that issue as it could be years from resolution. Beyond Trestles is San Onofre in San Diego County.