PLAYGROUND / THE COAST
Life and Play along California's Southern Coastline.
33.7 N 116.2 W
Welcome to the California beach towns of south Orange County, where summer is in full swing.
The coastal eddy keeps the beaches cool at night and in the early morning hours due to the hot inland temperatures meeting the cooler ocean breeze. No worries, the morning clouds will burn off by 9:30am and we are in for another beautiful day. There is a new south swell kicking in from Hurricane Jimena in the Eastern Pacific, some 800 miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas.
For you surfers out there, the swell direction is from the south at 195 degrees at 12 seconds. Water temperatures are in the low 70’s and there is a buzz in the air. Go ahead and trunk it, but be sure to bring a vest or spring suit for good measure. Better get up and at em’ though. Parking lots at the best breaks are already filling up, so we’ll see you out in the line-up.
Take in a surf at San Onofre to the south. You will love this part of the coast. Be sure to look around and take in some history. The native-American Acjachemen tribe is indigenous to the area and we pay tribute to them and their ancestral past. To the east is the old Santa Margarita Ranch, which is now part of Camp Pendleton.
Located on the western edge of this region, San Onofre is a short stretch of dirt road down to the beach and is nestled between an 80-foot sandstone cliff and the water’s edge. A few surf huts along the narrow beach are reminders from days gone by when surfing took roots in California in the 30’s…influenced by Hawaiian culture, longboards and Ukulele’s. It was and still is a refuge from the fast-paced life in Los Angeles and surrounding metropolis cities to the north. San Onofre has been home to one of the original surfing clubs in California. Round member-stickers lined the windshields of wood-panell station wagons back in the day.
Wax up your 9’2” longboard. It is quite common to see surfers of all ages out in the water, given the easy, rolling swells that form outside. Tandem surfing has roots here. After a surf, jump in the outside shower at one of the huts, towel off and get ready for some beach games. Bocce ball is the competition of choice down by Dogpatch. Skins versus shirts. Pick a partner and get after it.
A little music around the fire pit, dancing under the moon and hanging with family and friends is in order later this evening. The barbeque gets started just before sunset. Grab your favorite cocktail and straw hat. This is coastal living at its best.
From San Onofre to Newport Beach, this 32-mile stretch of point breaks, sandy beaches, reefs, coves and harbors is home to several iconic beach towns along the way that claim watersports, including surfing, sailing, skimming and the games we play, that make up our local modern-day beach culture.
Just up the beach from San-O is the beach town of San Clemente. This Spanish “village-by-the-sea” was founded by Ole Hanson in 1925 on 2,000 acres and five miles of coastline.
The popular reef breaks of Trestles and Cottons Point have been the site of many famous surf competitions. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, the bluff overlooking the surf was home to the Western Whitehouse when Richard Nixon was President. The beaches were closed to the public and military police patrolled for trespassers.
John Severson lived next door at Cypress Shores and captured it all. He was an accomplished author, filmmaker and artist back in the 60’s who started Surfer Magazine. We pay tribute to his vision and entrepreneurial spirit that helped chronicle surfing and the lifestyle surrounding the sport as we know them today…
The building summer swell will be firing on these reefs later in the day, so pack a lunch, grab your favorite board and bike the trail that leads out to the beach from Hwy 5. Throw out a couple shocka’s along the way. It’s a great way to spend the day..
Keep a watch for the Amtrak trains that rumble by. This is among the most scenic coastal routes in the country by rail, which runs between San Diego and Los Angeles. Crossing the tracks to the surf may be as exhilarating as dropping in on a six-foot bomb out top, so keep your head on a swivel.
From San Clemente…. wind your way up along the coast past Capistrano Beach to the harbor town of Dana Point, the artist community of Laguna Beach, Corona De Mar and the port town of Newport Beach. Locals call this region the “Velcro Valley,” where start-up surf brands designed real boardshorts, the Beach Boys played “Little Deuce Coup” and Hobie Alter designed his famous Hobie Cat.
A local family is busy organizing their stand-up paddle boards on Baby Beach in the Dana Point Harbor. This is also home to the Dana Outrigger Canoe team, who are among the best paddlers in these parts. Paddle sports are popular along our coast, regardless of one’s age, gender or craft.
After spending a couple of hours at the Ocean Institute, learning about marine science and conservation, this young family sweeps their way outside the harbor alongside a megapod of bottlenose dolphins to experience the last of the grey whale migration from Alaska to the Sea of Cortes. Brown pelicans glide by in their customary V-formation. This prehistoric-looking bird was once endangered, but now thrives along our south O.C. coastal regions…
On the south end of the harbor is Doheny State Beach. The parking lot is buzzing with families filled with excitement for this summer day. Real estate on the sand is at a premium so best to roll out your tents and coolers early.
Up the beach, a group of players are bumping and setting balls on the nearby volleyball courts. Much like San Onofre, this is a family beach that offers all types of water and beach activities. There are a dozen surfers at the main peak out front. The waves are 3-4 feet and building.
A young couple is busy rigging a Hobie Cat down the beach. The colorful sail reminds us that summer is upon us and we are lucky to be alive.
Before the Dana Pt. Harbor was built, surfers traveled down the coast to a well-known spot called Killer Dana. This was an amazing right point break with waves that peeled for 100 yards into the cove. Old photos remind us of days gone by and the importance of protecting these sacred spots.
Around the point and up the beach is Salt Creek. Some high school kids from Dana Hills roll out of their SUV in the parking lot above. It’s 6am and the day is young. After checking Surfline the night before, the stoke of a new swell has these gromns fired up and ready to get it early. This stretch of beach that runs for a quarter mile is where some of the best beach breaks exist in south Orange County.
Bordering these coastal towns to the east are the San Joaquin Hills, which run 16 miles up the coast from San Juan Capistrano to Newport Beach. The scent of coastal sage is in the air. Grassy hills, oak trees and riparian canyons make for an adventurer’s paradise. Fields of poppies, mustard and lupine paint the natural terrain with rich golden state colors. Bobcats, redtail hawks and barn owls are abound. This is the coming home to California that Joni Mitchell sings about. These south Orange County hills are known for their rich biodiversity, flora and fauna.…A thousand feet above the roars of the coast highway, teens are trekking down a single track on their mountain bikes with the joy and rebel yell that only come with summer. Freedom is a wonderful feeling. School is out and life is good.
These same Hills are divided by several water gaps cut by rivers over time. Laguna Canyon was formed by San Diego Creek but eventually the creek changed course and left a wind gap through the hills. This iconic California coastal canyon has a rich cultural history much like Laurel Canyon to the north in Los Angeles. Timothy Leary led the counterculture movement here in the 60’s. Musical groups like Honk called Laguna Canyon home back then. Whirling dervish was in the air. California was alive with a new consciousness and youth movement to counter the Vietnam war. Artists and musicians took refuge here and helped define the community we see today. The Sawdust Festival took roots in the canyon and has expanded to the Art Festival and Pageant of the Masters. Local artists unveil their talents in July and August each year. Bring a bottle of wine and an open mind. Glass blowing is on display as well as live human performances depicting famous works of art over the centuries.
Bring an easel and paintbrush. Laguna is also home to some of the finest plein-air artists in the world. From early 20th century painters like Anna Hills, William Wendt and Edgar Payne………to the modern-day artists Ken Auster, Cynthia Britain and John Cosby.
This untouched coastal landscape proved to be an extraordinary setting for these amazing artists over the years, who captured so many iconic scenes via oils on canvas.
North Laguna is home to the “Tree Streets” where Eucalyptus, Jacaranda and Jasmine shade an array of eclectic beach cottages that help set the scene among stunning mountain and coastal backdrops.
Laguna is in the heart of the coastal beach towns known as south Orange County. There are two main roads in and these same two roads out. Much like a Mediterranean port, this village beach town is wonderfully nestled between the blue Pacific and its golden hills. Except, this town has amazing beaches, reefs, and a rich marine ecosystem.
Main Beach is at the center of town at water’s edge where the iconic lifeguard tower sits. The wooden plank boardwalk stretches along the sand and is a perfect viewing spot for pick-up hoop games on the beach courts that attract players from around the county, including occasional sightings of former NBA stars.
Several beach volleyball courts line this same beach and was once home to the famous Jose Cuervo Open where the top pros gathered back in the 70’s and 80’s.
Just up the coast from Main Beach is Heisler Park, home to the famous Laguna Beach Lawn Bowling Club. Be sure to wear your whites. The first matches start at 10:00am between Newport and Laguna.
If ocean diving is your passion, you’ve come to the right coastal town. Be sure to look for calm seas and clear skies. Visibilities are best then. There is an undersea world awaiting you at Diver’s and Shaw’s Coves..
It is an early summer morning in Laguna and the new south swell is filling in. Locals, Blair Conklin and Amber Torrealba, are standing on the sandy bluff above Aliso Beach checking out the swell and tide conditions. There is a little west wind swell mixed in with the building south and rising tide, so conditions are perfect. South Laguna is home to several famous beaches where skimboarding found its roots.
In the 1920’s, skimboarding was the way lifeguards would ride the shore breaks from one tower to the next. This unique region of sandy beaches that curve at the right angles into the pounding shore break became the home break for Laguna locals over the years. In 1976, Tex Haines and Peter Prietto created the Victoria brand of skim boards named after their favorite local break in town. As the years went by, these young entrepreneurs held international competitions called The VIC at Aliso Beach. Laguna quickly became the global epicenter of skimboarding. Grab a towel and your board. It’s on!
A short walk across the coast highway from Aliso Beach is The Ranch at Laguna Beach where the original Thurston homestead is located. Once known as “Ben Browns,” a few locals took over this hidden gem and gave it the love and care it deserved. Home to the annual Waterman’s Ball and the West Coast Film Festival, The Ranch is the place to be for locals and hipsters alike. Take the weekend off. Be sure to bring you’re A-game and party hat. Your tee time for the barefoot, three-club golf event is at 3:00pm. Live music and cold IPA’s will be served on the patio.
Summer also marks the waiting period for the Brooks Street surf contest in town. The new swell will start showing at second reef, so be ready for the call. This is the longest running surf competition on the West Coast and is an open invitation for all ages, genders and skill levels. This is a local’s affair that has become a great tradition.
As we move up the coast, we pay homage to Joan Irvine, who protected the natural wonders around El Moro and Crystal Cove State Park. She and her family are wonderful supporters of our artist community and hold the largest collection of California plein air works in the world. The Irvine family made sure that this 3.2 mile stretch of coast, west of PCH between Laguna and Corona Del Mar, would be protected. Here, you will find beautiful trails and paths for mountain bikes, hikers, beach goers, campers and the like…We are so grateful to have this amazing greenbelt in the heart of our south O.C. coast.
Meanwhile, a group of old friends are boarding a Cal 40 up the coast in Newport Harbor.
All hands-on deck at 0900. There is much work to do to rig this fair maiden. Winds are light and variable with afternoon gusts peaking at 15 knots. Conditions are perfect. This is the same Cal 40 that sailed the Hawai’i Transpac, but this week’s destination is Twin Harbors on Catalina Island. Grab your duffle, sleeping bag and cooler. We’ve got rods and reels for some trolling along the way. Who brought the tunes? We have a fun day ahead!
As the Cal 40 motors its way through the Newport Harbor, it requires an experienced sailor at the helm to navigate the ferries, duffys and stand-ups in the channel. Summer means water-time and harbor life is in full swing!
A young Olympian unloads a Laser from his roof rack. Tokyo is on his mind. He has been training for several years since Rio and has the confidence of an experienced athlete. These one-design sailing dinghies are the most popular sailing vessels in the world. They are “cat rigged” with only a mainsail, a common hull and are light. Physical training and competition are ingredients for success.
After a few months competing with the best in Europe last summer, this local Newport sailor is ready. It’s time to represent the USA. Friends and family from these coastal towns unite to celebrate these moments and our heroes. Here’s to another day and life and play in the beach towns of O.C.
Words by Dan McInerny.
Beautifully written!! We Californians are blessed to live in an area where we can do so many different types of outdoor activities
The buzz and vibe of your piece, Dan, is the next-best to being there. Read it and “be it”! There are so many choices on a South Coast summer’s day. You can’t go wrong. Where to begin? Well, just go for it and take a friend!
San Onofre: Sano is a big place! Your words perfectly describe Old Man’s on the north end, truly a place for entertainment! Parked side by side on the dirt road next to the beach with a 180 degree view of the surf, a range of vehicles from electric bikes rigged with surfboard “racks”, to beat up VW vans and bugs to Tesla’s to fully rigged Sprinters, are all filled with people of equally diverse ages, sizes, shapes and colors who love the ocean and local beach culture. Thanks, Dan, for your fun and interesting essay!