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ENVIRONS

WHERE THE SEA MEETS THE SAND

Explore the best tide pools in Orange County

By Sara Hall | Contributor

SPRING 2023 ISSUE

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Photos courtesy of Sara Hall

Summer in Orange County is synonymous with relaxing beach days. Miles of sandy shorelines and epic waves entice swimmers, surfers, bodyboarders and sun worshippers. For beachgoers wanting a peek at what goes on beneath the water’s surface, tide pooling is a unique way to experience the coast and find an abundance of marine life, from colorful sea slugs to sea anemones. It’s the perfect adventure for families that’s both fun and educational.

 

RESIDENT MARINE LIFE

Where the sea meets the sand is called the intertidal zone. At the water’s edge, rocky formations create shallow, isolated pockets that get filled with seawater at high tide and create unique ecosystems with a variety of sea life. 

Alternating between dry and wet worlds as the tide recedes, the animals that call the salty crevices home adapt to the changing conditions to keep the balance in their sensitive environment. They play an important part in the food chain both on land and in the water. 

Orange County tide pools are home to a diverse ecosystem of marine life. Nestled in the rocks, visitors will find purple sea urchins, sea anemones and a variety of starfish (common discoveries include brittle stars, ochre star and bat stars). Hermit crabs can be spotted scuttling about while black turban snails, periwinkle snails and wavy turban snails will likely be stuck in place. Attached to the rocks, eagle-eyed explorers will see gooseneck barnacles, California mussels, and acorn barnacles. 

If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of a small California two-spot octopus, identified by circular blue eyespots on each side of its head).

Some of the more interesting tide pool residents are California brown sea hares (a large sea slug that looks like a reddish-brown spotted blob with tentacle-like extensions on its head), giant keyhole limpets (an oversized nearly 5-inch aquatic snail with a cone-shaped shell with a hole on the top), or some interesting looking nudibranchs (colorful sea slugs with exposed gills), such as Hopkin’s rose (striking pink color with a spray of soft tentacle-like gills all over its inch-long body) or the Spanish shawl (bright purple with a streak of orange tentacle-like gills on its back).

In terms of plant life, look for giant kelp, rockweed and surfgrass.

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TIDE POOL TIPS

The rocks can be slippery, so sturdy shoes with good grip are suggested. As the rocks and barnacles can be sharp, bare feet are not recommended.

Before heading out, check the tides somewhere like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. If you go at the wrong time, the shallow pools could be completely submerged. And if you stay too long, you might find yourself stuck and in a precarious situation. There are two high and two low tides every 24 hours and 50 minutes, usually in the early morning and the evening, although it varies throughout the year. 

 

Tide pools are best viewed at low tide. Arrive at least an hour before low tide to ensure you have plenty of time to explore while the tide is receding. A word of caution: Orange County Coastkeeper warns visitors that king tides can easily entrap beachgoers who are exploring the tide pools along the coast. 

To learn more about tide pools and the coastal environment, consider a guided tour such as the Ocean Institute’s two-hour low-tide hike in Dana Point. The hike heads into the rocky marine protected area located directly behind the institute. Tickets for this special experience are $15 per person and space is very limited.

At Crystal Cove State Park, naturalists also lead scheduled guided tide pool and beach walks. Local experts will help identify animals and describe their awesome adaptations. There may be some rock scrambling, so wear sturdy shoes. There is a $20 day use fee for the park.

A few general rules for outdoor activities: Don’t forget the sunblock, stay hydrated and watch the weather.

RECREATE RESPONSIBLY

Leave it as you found it. Collecting sea creatures, rocks and shells is prohibited. Respect the marine life by observing them — never touching or taking them. 

Tide pools are sensitive habitats and even seemingly innocent human interaction, such as turning over a rock, can significantly disturb the animals who call the small space home. It could expose delicate sea life to the harsh sun or that rock could roll around when the tide comes in and smash the creatures.

It helps to remember that tide pools are these animals’ homes. You should also watch where you walk, as many rocks are covered with plants and/or animals. One wrong step could crush them.

 

And, of course, pack out any trash you have and dispose of any litter you find cluttering up the coast. The goal should be to clean up the beach and leave it better than you found it.

TOP TIDE POOLS IN ORANGE COUNTY

LITTLE CORONA BEACH

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Located at the corner of Poppy Avenue and Ocean Boulevard, just down the street from the sandy shores of Corona Del Mar State Beach, Little Corona is a rocky cove at the bottom of a hill. Featuring a paved path down to the sand, it’s one of the few beaches in Newport Beach that doesn’t require climbing stairs. There’s easy access to the tide pools that border both sides of the beach, with larger rocks that create partial caves on the north end of the cove. A small, sandy beach allows families to stretch out and enjoy. Flanked by rocky reefs, the beach is well protected from swells and surf, so the waves are usually gentle enough for kids to safely wade. There is free street parking, but it fills up quickly on summer weekends. Public restrooms and showers (open in summer months) are located along the path halfway down the hill. 

CAMEO SHORES

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Situated below the community of Cameo Shores in Corona del Mar is a hidden beach only accessible to the public at low tide. Getting to this stretch of sand requires a trek along a rocky shoreline from Little Corona, since direct access from the cliffs above is only open to Cameo Shores residents. The slightly challenging access requires sturdy shoes, but determined explorers will pass Arch Rock (a great bird watching spot) on the way to the beach and tide pools. Parking and amenities are available at Little Corona.

CRYSTAL COVE STATE PARK

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Conditions vary on a daily basis at this tide-pooling oasis between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. There is no telling what organisms you might discover at the different beaches, including Reef Point, Rocky Bight, Pelican Point and the north end of Treasure Cove. But always be gentle while exploring and don’t pick up, move or place the organisms into buckets. “Tide pools are a magical miniature world brimming with life and all the organisms that call it home really struggle in this fragile ecosystem, so when you visit a tide pool remember that you are exploring somebody else’s home and be respectful steward,” says state park interpreter Winter Bonnin. The park has a $15 day-use fee, with public restrooms at each parking lot or just off the nearby trail.

SHAWS COVE

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Located at intersection of Cliff Drive and Fairview Street in Laguna Beach, this hidden stretch is a local favorite for tide pooling. Rocky formations on both ends of the cove offer lots of opportunities for exploring, although the north end has deeper pools and typically more marine life. Free street parking is available in the residential neighborhood, but it can be hard to find a spot in summer. There is also metered parking along Coast Highway. Head down a staircase directly opposite of Fairview Street to reach the sand and tide pools. It’s a well-protected cove, so it’s a good option for families with small children — but keep in mind there are no public restrooms.

TREASURE ISLAND BEACH 

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Next to Montage Laguna Beach resort, where Wesley Drive meets Coast Highway, a paved path near the south end of a grassy park will take you all the way down to a beach with a few options for tide pools. From the main path, if you turn seaward at the first route down to the sand of Treasure Island Beach, you’ll find large rock outcroppings to your right and a long stretch of sand to your left. Down a steep staircase that takes you to Goff Cove, you’ll see rock formations on both sides (a scramble to the left takes you to the hidden Middle Man Cove). Or just a bit further on the main path you can find a long ramp down to Christmas Cove. The beach is well-maintained with clean facilities, including restrooms at the park up on the bluff. There’s a small paid parking garage by the park, metered street spaces and a small paid public lot off Wesley Drive. 

VICTORIA BEACH

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Victoria Beach is one of Laguna’s most famous locations thanks to the iconic “Pirate Tower” (and the power of social media). There’s also a man-made concrete pool on the beach next to the tower. You can park in the residential neighborhood or nearby streets for free, if you can find a spot, or find metered parking on Coast Highway. Public access is a narrow and steep staircase off Victoria Drive or a paved ramp at the corner of Wards Terrace and Dumond Drive. Once you reach the sand, you’ll see the rock formations with small pockets of tide pools to your right. Climb over the rocks to reach Victoria Beach and the famous tower. The waves can be rough, though; take precautions if you enter the water. There are no public restrooms, so plan accordingly.

CRESCENT BAY

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The shape of this beach clearly explains how the small bay got its name. Bordered by rocky points on both ends and a stretch of sand in between, this is a great spot in Laguna for tide pool lovers who want to make it a beach day. There is powerful surf here, which makes this beach very popular with body boarders. Grab free parking in the neighborhood or metered parking on Coast Highway. You can find the pedestrian entrance — a paved road only accessible by authorized vehicles — at Cliff Drive and Barranca Street that leads down to the sand. You’ll discover the tide pools with deep channels on the south end that are easily accessible at low tide. This is also one of the few beaches with tide pools that has restrooms at sand level.

ROCKPILE BEACH

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True to its name, this beach has an abundance of rock formations — and tide pools — along the water’s edge. To get to Rockpile Beach, head to Heisler Park in Laguna Beach, which stretches along the top of the bluffs overlooking the coast. There is metered street parking (and restrooms) by the park up on the bluff. A staircase in the middle of the park leads down to the beach, where you’ll see a wide expanse of rock and tide pools to explore. The rocks are very slippery here, so wear shoes with good grip and step cautiously. This spot is also popular with experienced surfers, but swimming is not allowed due to the strong surf. From Rockpile, if you head south along the shoreline you’ll run into the city’s famous Main Beach. Head north along rocks and sand to find Picnic Cove and Diver’s Cove, both popular for their namesake activities — they’re also great spots for tide pool lovers. Just be sure to carefully watch the tide, as it can rise quickly over the rocks and block your access back to Rockpile.

THOUSAND STEPS BEACH

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Although there aren’t actually 1,000 steps, this Laguna Beach spot isn’t for the faint of heart with an actual count of 218 steps down to the sand. There’s free and metered street parking, including some limited spaced along Coast Highway. The beach’s namesake staircase is located off Coast Highway directly across from Ninth Avenue. While this large beach has more sand than tide pools, the pockets you’ll find on the south end of the beach are deep and diverse. Farther south, you’ll find a sea cave worth exploring if it’s low tide. 

DANA POINT HEADLANDS BEACH

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The rock-covered beach below the cliffs of the Dana Point Headlands features plenty of tide pools available to discover at low tide. There are several parking areas (and restrooms) around the Ocean Institute, but they fill up quickly on weekends. To get to the tide pools, go down the stairs past the institute through a metal mesh tunnel. You’ll see the rock jetty to your left and the rocky beach to your right. Walking on the rocks is uneven and unsteady, so step cautiously as you explore. “At low tide only, guests can join an expert naturalist for a quick, moderate walk to the rocky marine conservation area, complete with mysterious caves and beautiful views,” shares a representative from Visit Dana Point. Paid admission to the Ocean Institute also offers an up-close-and-personal interaction with local ocean life through its intertidal touch tank, along with other informative exhibits. 

DANA STRAND BEACH

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Dana Strand Beach is great for tide pool exploration. Start at Strand Vista Park, which overlooks the beach from the bluffs above and offers free parking in a lot off Selva Road. Take the stairs through the park and cross the residential streets to another staircase on Strand Beach Drive — it’s a workout with all those steps, but worth the expansive beach view when you reach the sand. For the best Dana Point tide pools at Strand Beach, turn left and head to the South Strand Conservation Park. The beach also features a cable car funicular (open between Memorial Day and Labor Day) that transports both gear and passengers between the north end of the parking lot to the north end of Strand Beach.

SALT CREEK BEACH

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Dana Strand Beach is great for tide pool exploration. Start at Strand Vista Park, which overlooks the beach from the bluffs above and offers free parking in a lot off Selva Road. Take the stairs through the park and cross the residential streets to another staircase on Strand Beach Drive — it’s a workout with all those steps, but worth the expansive beach view when you reach the sand. For the best Dana Point tide pools at Strand Beach, turn left and head to the South Strand Conservation Park. The beach also features a cable car funicular (open between Memorial Day and Labor Day) that transports both gear and passengers between the north end of the parking lot to the north end of Strand Beach.

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