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Crystal Cove State Park: Tidepooling at a Natural Playground

Crystal Cove State Park: Tidepooling at a Natural Playground

Crystal Cove State Park’s waters are a designated underwater park–which may be why the tidepooling was so amazing on our visit. 

December and January are notorious for the highest of high and lowest of low tides.  I’m sure you’ll find something different on every visit throughout the year.

There is so much more to Crystal Cove than this one post. If you want to visit more of Crystal Cove State Park, here is a load of information that took me years to research and experience (from north to south):

father and two small children walking along shoreline facing away from camera at empty beach with tidepools ahead at Crystal Cove State Park

How to Get to Crystal Cove State Park for Tidepooling: We’ve been to other parts of the park, but this time we drove up Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) from the south and made the first possible left off Reef Point into the parking lot.  We also turned left at the T-intersection so that we parked in the parking lot furthest to the south near El Moro Beach. MAP to Tidepooling at Crystal Cove State Park

shoreline with obvious tidepools on a cloudy day with a wooden staircase leading down to the beach at Crystal Cove State Park


Go at low tide for the best tidepooling experience.  There are restrooms near the parking lot – but none down the hill at the beach.  (You can find the daily tide table on the weather page of the newspaper, online by typing something like “Newport Beach tide table” into your search engine, or there’s even a number of iPhone apps. I like TideGraph by Brainware or the Surfline app).

Because it is a protected area, there are rules about the tidepools spelled out on a sign on the staircase down to the beach – basically telling you not to pick up or move any of the animals, shells or rocks. And, of course, don’t take anything with you! We took photos of our shell & animal finds as an alternative.

We saw dolphins and sea lions just beyond the waves. Seagulls flew overhead and pelicans skirted the crashing waves.

sea anemone in the tidepools with bits of shell encrusted on the animals

The variety of shells was amazing to me: cowry shells, limpets, mussels, scallops, crustacean exoskeletons, periwinkles and mini-conch.

Unfortunately, we also picked up our share of trash. I think my husband made a half dozen trips to the trash can with fishing line, styrofoam, straws, water bottle caps, and lots of other plastic debris.  If you’d like to join in the beach clean-up effort check out your local Surfrider Foundation chapter, Save Our Beach (Seal Beach & Long Beach) or Coastal Angels (Orange County).

hand holding a handful of beach trash with bare feet and shorts beneath the hand

Be Aware:

  • No picking up or moving rocks, animals or shells. Definitely no collecting allowed in the marine protected areas.  Here is a link to Crystal Cove’s Tidepool Rules.
  • ALWAYS watch the waves. You could be standing in a perfectly dry spot and have a wave sneak up on you.
  • There’s a steep hill on sandy stairs down to the beach.
  • We got in with our State Parks pass (good for use in Orange County at Bolsa Chica, Crystal Cove, Doheny, Huntington, and San Clemente). Read here for details on the annual pass or else pay the $15 for the day.  I think it’s a worthy investment toward our parks and your family time in nature.
what looks like a cup of shells fused onto a rock face at the tidepools


  • Purchase a state parks annual pass before you go (or have $15 ready for parking)
  • Bring a change of clothes so the kids can get wet and sandy
  • You might think about bringing: sand toys, binoculars, camera, water to drink
  • There is a shower at the top of the hill to rinse feet off before getting back in the car – or you could always use the baby powder trick (just sprinkle it on and the sand brushes off).
  • Link to the official CA State Park Crystal Cove State Park website
  • Crystal Cove Tidepool Creatures Identification page
  • CA State Parks PORTS Crystal Cove page with videos, lessons about tidepools and tidepool ecology, and even an MPA Scavenger Hunt for kids that you could bring on your visit!
  • Check my post about Best Tidepooling Beaches for Minus Tides for more tidepooling tips!
lots of mussel and snail shells along the shore

Originally posted in January 2010.


Saturday 2nd of January 2016

I appreciate your comments. I love going with my husband and girls outdoors! We will bring a trash bag when we visit the tide pools.


Wednesday 27th of January 2010

The photo says it all...but now I REALLY want to take the kids there! Hope to go sometime between this whacky weather we are having! Thanks for the tips!


Monday 25th of January 2010

Wow! This looks like a lot of fun! I've been wanting to head to Leo Carrillo near L.A. to take my little ones tidepooling for a while. I'll have to add it to my (growing) list of great winter nature activities!

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