The long days of summer have arrived, and Orange County’s 42 miles of golden coast are beckoning. From family-friendly Seal Beach to bikini-magnet Huntington to eclectic Laguna, with its gridlocked main beach and secluded coves, there’s an ideal destination for every mood--and every sport. So get the car keys. Let’s go.
Got kids?: At Seal Beach, the stretch of sand from the San Gabriel River mouth to the pier typically offers waves too wimpy to knock over even the most unsteady toddlers, making it popular with parents and kids alike.
Another popular family spot is so-called Baby Beach, tucked into an equally calm corner of Dana Point Harbor. Although county health officials closed the spot in August after water tests found a high bacteria count, the beach is expected to reopen this week.
For an off-sand adventure, the Fun Zone, just off Balboa Boulevard between Palm and Main streets in Newport Beach, is a low-tech amusement park featuring a carousel, Ferris wheel, bumper cars and plenty of nearby shops and fast-food options.
Got energy?: Pack a lunch, lots of water and take a nature walk in Crystal Cove State Park, which encompasses 2,200 acres of canyons. Or stroll along the sidewalks surrounding the boat slips at Dana Point Harbor. For those who prefer to aerobicize on wheels, Balboa Pier and Doheny State Beach are just two of the spots offering rentals of bikes and/or skates for about $4 to $6 an hour, or $10 to $15 per day for either.
Want to party?: Fire rings for roasting hot dogs and marshmallows dot the county’s beaches; in the north, Huntington City Beach (on the south side of the pier), Huntington State and Bolsa Chica are particularly well endowed, as is Capistrano Beach County Park in the south. It’s first-come, first-served.
But if you’re planning a big party to celebrate a special occasion or even throwing an informal wedding, pay the fee ($25 and up) to reserve an oceanfront picnic site, equipped with a grill, at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point. (Call  496-3617.)
A free sideshow: At the tip of Balboa Peninsula, next to the breakwater protecting Newport Bay, is the Wedge. Through an accident of physics, the jetty causes waves to double in size during storm-generated south swells, which occur more frequently in summer. On July 24, for example, camera-toting spectators lined the beach to gawk as seemingly suicidal bodysurfers and bodyboarders took on the 20- to 25-foot waves. (Because waves are so steep and short and break so close to shore, few surfers attempt it.) To catch the next Wedge spectacle, check the surf report on The Times’ weather page (B7) for news of a south swell, or call Newport Beach lifeguards at (714) 673-3371.
Anemones anyone?: Tide pools teeming with life attract nature hounds to the stretch fronting the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point, as well as the shores in Little Corona del Mar and Crystal Cove. Look but don’t touch! Tide pool inhabitants and their digs are protected by law. Low tide is the time to explore the pools. Tide information also is available on The Times’ weather page.
Like windsurfing?: When the afternoon winds hit 10 to 15 knots on summer weekends, Seal Beach attracts dozens, sometimes hundreds, of board sailors of all abilities. Park at the city’s north end. Another launching point: Baby Beach in Dana Point.
Diving: Flanked by coastal development in Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove is an urban respite, an oasis reminiscent of early California. Along its rugged three-mile shoreline lies a state undersea preserve and a scuba diver’s dream. Day use of the area costs $5. Spearfishing is allowed here; licenses may be bought in dive shops or sporting goods stores. Minors under 16 do not need one if accompanied by a licensed adult.
Laguna Beach also rewards those divers who are lucky enough to find a parking space. Crescent Bay on the north side of town is a favorite spot, and nearby Seal Rock offers a bonus: elephant seals and California sea lions sunning and swimming.
In the same area, divers and snorkelers frequent Cameo Cove, Santa Ana Cove and Fisherman’s Cove, as well as Divers Cove, just off Cliff Drive near Beverly Street. Underwater hunting and collecting are prohibited.
Bodyboarding: One of the country’s fastest-growing sports is headquartered in Orange County, and with beach breaks like Bolsa Chica State, Huntington State and Newport, it’s no wonder. (If the waves at the Wedge don’t kill you, the hostile vibe from territorial bodysurfers will, so proceed there with caution.)
A favorite is T-Street in San Clemente, which offers a challenging, shifty peak. Named for nearby Trafalgar, it’s about half a mile south of the pier. In summer, go after 10 a.m., when the city boots surfers out of the water. Hint: If the main break is full, paddle north to Cropley’s, in front of the concession stand, which is just as fun.
Salt Creek Beach Park in Dana Point is also a good bodyboarding break, but stay north of the surfers. (Bring plenty of quarters to feed the meters.)
Surfing: Good beginner’s beaches include Seal Beach, Bolsa Chica State, Huntington Beach and San Clemente State. If you’re a soul surfer, head to San Onofre State Beach just over the county line in San Diego County. It’s a great long-board hangout.
More accomplished surfers shred at Huntington pier’s north side, 56th Street in Newport or Salt Creek.
Volleyball: Two places stand out as meccas of beach volleyball. Huntington Beach near the pier is full of nets, and during weekend tournaments, giant speakers pipe in rock music. In South County, Capistrano Beach County Park is the spot for good players. It’s at Palisades Drive and Coast Highway.
Clam digging: Low tide is the time to hunt for clams, and Huntington and Huntington State beaches are popular sites. You’ll need a fishing license and knowledge of regulations regarding sizes that can be taken.
Camping: Think south. San Clemente and San Onofre State beaches offer campgrounds with scenic views of the ocean, but beach access can get tricky. Doheny State Beach has the county’s only sea-level camp sites, making activities in the surf considerably easier. RVs are welcome at Bolsa Chica State.
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The Web meets the surf in The Times’ online beach guide. Call up photos, maps and detailed information on each of O.C.'s 14 beaches at https://www.latimes.com/HOME/DESTLA/BEACHS2/ LISTALL
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Tell us in 30 words or less--which beach in Southern California is your favorite and why it’s so special. Send to Calendar Weekend Favorite Beach, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, e-mail to OCweekend@latimes.com or fax to (714) 966-7790. Include name, address and daytime phone number for verification. The best responses will be published in Calendar Weekend.