4 enchanting things to do in Laguna Beach and Crystal Cove

A photo illustration of a small cottage with a bike in front and the ocean in the background.
A man explores the interior of a historic cottage on the beach at Crystal Cove State Beach in Newport Beach.
(Photograph by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Li Anne Liew)

Good morning, fellow Escapists. Snagging a coveted campsite at a state park can be tricky, especially as we approach summer. But scoring a weekend stay at one of the famous Crystal Cove Beach Cottages — a bucket-list item for many — is the mark of a truly skilled California traveler.

In this edition of Escapes, you’ll find my colleague Cindy Carcamo’s expert advice for making your California cottage-core dreams a reality. You’ll also find a few other ways to soak up the sun — and art scene — farther down the coast in Laguna Beach.

Do you have any tips for bagging difficult-to-get reservations in California? Feel like sharing your favorite spots in Newport Beach and Laguna Beach? As always, my inbox is open for your travel recommendations.

People sit at tables on a wooden deck near a small building that says "Crystal Cove." The beach is in the background.
Patrons dine with an ocean view at the Beachcomber at Crystal Cove.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Stay in one of Crystal Cove’s famous cottages

It’s hard to overstate the rustic magic of Crystal Cove State Beach’s iconic dwellings. “The cottages — some with new or worn paint, others dressed in naked wood shingles, and a few cordoned off with white picket fences — are part of a funky village that’s something of a near 100-year time warp at Crystal Cove State Beach, a slice of untouched coastline,” Carcamo described in her recent story.


“Abject failure is the typical result when I attempt to book a stay at the Crystal Cove Beach Cottages. Still, the challenge hasn’t deterred me from trying.” Her efforts have paid off — in recent years, Carcamo has managed to stay at no less than seven different cottages at the beach.

Her recommendation: If you live relatively close by, check for cancellations the day you want to stay, in person.

“Some weekends, my family will get up early and go for a bike ride or a walk at Crystal Cove. I’ll casually walk into the main office right before 11 a.m. to see if there are any cancellations. If there are, we’ll drive home, pack and return straightaway,” she said. “If we don’t luck out, we still get a fine morning at the beach.”

Find the rest of Carcamo’s reservation tips here.

Photo illustration shows a keyhole opening in a cliff at a rocky beach.
Visitors explore a tide pool at the Treasure Island Beach arch rock in Laguna Beach.
(Photograph by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times; photo illustration by Li Anne Liew)

Take a beach walk to a ‘pirate tower’

The Crystal Cove cottages aren’t the only popular structures along this stretch of Orange County coastline. Just 15 minutes away in Laguna Beach, there’s a “pirate tower” hiding amid the cliffs.

Did it get its name from marauding buccaneers? Well, no. As you might’ve guessed, the name “pirate tower” isn’t quite accurate.

According to Laguna Beach tourism officials, the seemingly ancient tower was actually built in 1926 as an enclosed staircase connecting a senator’s home to the beach below. The senator later sold the tower to a retired naval captain and “pirate aficionado,” who is said to have dressed as a pirate on occasion and hidden coins in the crevices of the tower as a surprise for anyone out searching for treasure.

The 60-foot turret can be accessed from Victoria Beach during low tide, so visitors will need to time their visit carefully. Unsurprisingly, the Instagram-famous spot also attracts crowds, so anyone hoping to get a solo photo with the tower may have their work cut out for them.

Three young people stand on a rocky shoreline as the sun glints off rolling ocean waves.
Another lovely spot in Laguna Beach: the tide pools at Shaw’s Cove.
(Gabriella Angotti-Jones / Los Angeles Times)

Visit rescued seals and sea lions

After soaking in the ocean views, animal lovers may want to budget time to visit the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, which rescues, rehabilitates and releases California sea lions, northern elephant seals and more.

Many of the animals can be seen during the center’s volunteer-led “visitor yard” tours. The 15- to 20-minute tours give visitors the chance to see and learn about the animals in the center’s rehabilitation pools. Those on the tour come away with a deeper understanding of ocean stewardship measures everyone can take to keep marine mammals safe.

Tours are free, though the center will accept donations. Advance reservations must be made for groups of 10 or more; smaller groups do not need to book a time.

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Five men in 18th century clothing and made-up faces stand in a group.
Cast members wait backstage for their tableau at the 2021 Pageant of the Masters show, “Made in America.”
(Don Leach / Daily PIlot)

Explore Laguna Beach’s art scene

The Pageant of the Masters is perhaps the best-known example of Laguna Beach’s thriving creative scene, earning a spot on Times travel writer Christopher Reynolds’ list of the 40 best California outdoor experiences.

“The good people of Laguna Beach don’t do artsy lunacy often, but when they do … it’s this,” Reynolds writes. “On an outdoor stage with orchestral accompaniment, live models pose amid immaculate sets to mimic famous artworks new and old.”

The Pageant of the Masters is scheduled to run July 7 to Sept. 2 this year, but there’s plenty of art in town to enjoy in the meantime. Here are a few ideas:

  • Laguna Art Museum — one of the oldest in the state — houses more than 3,600 works of art.
  • Over 100 pieces of public art are peppered across the city. This brochure is a helpful guide.
  • Laguna Beach’s art galleries open their doors the first Thursday of every month from 6 to 9 p.m., with a free trolley service connecting the community’s gallery locations.
  • LOCA Arts Education organizes classes, workshops and talks for artists and art appreciators alike. The upcoming “Paint Out” in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, scheduled for April 25 from 9 a.m. to noon, caught my eye.

📰 What I’m reading

  • “Fleeing the war in Ukraine, I was reminded of the generosity of strangers,” writes Maria Romanenko in Condé Nast Traveler. She describes her escape from Kyiv to Poland and those she met along the way.
  • Are 1,818 Airbnbs too many in Joshua Tree? Heather Murphy posed this question — and detailed the town’s “short-term rental gold rush” in the New York Times.
  • Sedona, Ariz., is another desert destination experiencing over-tourism. “Am I part of the problem? asks Stephanie Pearson in Outside.
  • If you have a library card, you can now check out a free pass to more than 200 state parks around California, reports Carly Severn. She discusses how to take advantage of the program on KQED’s website.
  • Harmony, Calif., is the “real-life Schitt’s Creek.” Andrew Pridgen covers the tiny town’s colorful recent history in SFGate.

🎸 Road song

Song: “Cuff Your Jeans” by Claud

Favorite line: “Do you ever go west? I’m talking past Texas, like California. I’d love to take you there.”

Where to play it: walking down the staircase to Thousand Steps Beach in South Laguna