Crystal Cove — The Beaching Will Continue Until Morale Improves

Kidding, morale is just fine.

For the most part at least.  I’ve previously mentioned our higher highs and lower lows brought on by our focused living situation.  There’s much more there to unpack, but the broad lines are that things tend to get amplified when living in a moving fishbowl.  None of that got any better or worse in Crystal Cove, though, it’s just there, and will continue to be I’m sure.

Crystal Cove holds yet another sweet spot in my childhood and adolescence.  It sits right at the southern edge of Newport Beach on the border with Laguna Beach in Orange County (back then it wasn’t “The OC”).  My parents “found” it when searching for a semi-secluded beach to escape to back in the early ‘80s, and would take us on the somewhat longish drive down there when we wanted to have a more special beach day.  Back then it was completely undeveloped, and probably not even a state park.  Newport Beach just sort of ended and there was a stretch of about 5-10 miles of fifty foot cliffs to the ocean on the beach side, and desert-y hills on the land side.  You’d park in a dirt parking lot on top of the cliffs and hike down to scout out your spot, beach stuff in tow.  More often than not you’d only see a few other people there, and the beach has both an extensive complex of tide pools and some sandy, breaking-wave areas.  The only two nods to development were a tiny roadside eatery called the Crystal Cove Shake Shack, which specialized in date shakes – really good ones – and a tiny little area called the Crystal Cove Beach Cottages, which were, and still are, well-preserved beachfront mini-houses from the ‘20s.  They’re still available to rent, but they book out immediately a year in advance.

Today it’s different, of course.  Though it’s not 100% developed, what used to be the desert-y hills is now Newport Coast, with a few posh hotels, lots of upscale view homes, and an equally swanky strip mall with a Trader Joe’s, several restaurants, and boutique shopping.  The Crystal Cove Shake Shack was bought by Ruby’s, which is a ‘50s-style (but ‘80s vintage) diner chain in SoCal known for having their restaurants out at the end of various piers.  Crystal Cove proper is a state park, with several different fee areas filling in the blanks between the developed areas, and fortunately for us, now including a campground.


It was a relatively short drive from Malibu, punctuated by some teeth-gritting brought on by maneuvering Davista-Toad through the busy LA freeways.  The kids and Tacco were busy with homeschooling, so were mercifully unaware of my traffic induced stress level.  An uncharacteristically surly park ranger nearly read me the riot act when I pulled into what was evidently the wrong Crystal Cove State Park parking lot (the signage leaves a bit to be desired).  “Why are you here? This isn’t right.  Oh great, look, now you’re blocking everyone else” aren’t what you normally expect to hear from a uniformed public servant when a “the lot you want is just 2 miles down the road, just turn around right there in the parking lot!” will do just fine.  But everyone managed.  I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and speculate that it’s almost as stressful to see a beast like us pull up to your parking lot booth, filling up the road’s entire width and threatening to ruin your day, as it is to be at the controls of such a beast.

The campground wasn’t Carpinteria close to the beach, nor was it Malibu classy, but it was new, had hookups, plenty of space, and gorgeous sunsets.  We only had two days there (technically only one full day), so we got right to beach ops.


Keeper grabbed the Boogie Board and the girls grabbed the sand toys (Firebolt her Kindle), and off we went.  The surf had been growing steadily since Carpinteria, a function both of the various beach orientations and the offshore conditions.  We were able to get out and catch a few waves, but these were a bit more varsity than what had come before, and more suited to actual surfing.  Playing around in the waves board-free ended up being more the preferred activity.



IMG_9612It feels a little shameful to admit how much of a relief having a Trader Joe’s a mile away was.  We spent the first two months or so of our trip planning meals and associated grocery shopping meticulously, often with few easy options.  Nice to suddenly be able to pop in, grab whatever meals+goodies they had to offer, and then do it again the next day.  On top of that, they had a Settebello nearby, which is an authentic Neapolitan pizza place that I’m a big fan of.  Absolutely nothing wrong with eating pizza out now and then!

Day 2 afforded us the opportunity for a short morning bike ride, though Keeper wasn’t up for hitting the trails in earnest (and to be fair, there was a good bit of vertical – it would not have qualified as leisurely).  I noticed that the surf was now up a bit from the day prior, and wondered how it would affect our day’s post-homeschool activities.  As I write that I suddenly have a moment where I appreciate our good fortune to be able to be in a position to be concerned about how the surf will affect our afternoon on a Tuesday in mid-October.  Higher highs indeed.


We did have an interesting experience in today’s surf however.  Actually two interesting experiences in rapid succession.  At one point before the still growing waves had gotten too crazy, Tacco, Keeper, Woodsprite (with life jacket) and I got in to play a bit.  We were able to stay at a point at which we could still touch the bottom and most of the waves were breaking on the shore side of us, so “playing” consisted for the most part of swim/jumping over the top of the waves just before they broke, which Woodsprite absolutely loved.  I had already taught Keeper to go underneath waves which had already broken or were threatening to break on top of him, so I wasn’t concerned about his abilities in the water.  So far so good, but as often happens, a particularly large set came in, forcing me to go a bit further out so as to keep the wave from breaking on our heads.  Not a huge deal solo, but I was holding onto a lifejacket-supported Woodsprite, and hadn’t fully thought through the consequences of having to go underneath a wave while attempting to hang onto her.  That suddenly seemed like something I REALLY did not want to do, and the alternative (getting pounded by the wave, or worse still, sucked backwards and over the falls, and trying to hang onto her in the associated washing machine) seemed much worse.  As we swam further out, past where I could touch, I had the familiar “we’re not in extremis, but I can see it from here” feeling, accompanied by a surge of fight-or-flight instinct.  We went over the top of the first, and I could see at least two more building.  Sets generally last only about 3-6 waves as a rule, but this is the ocean – rule compliance is sketchy at best.  It could almost as easily just continue to get bigger, with rip currents thrown in for fun.

Woodsprite, of course, had no idea how dodgy things were getting and I didn’t want her to, so I explained to her in my calmest, “isn’t this fun?” voice that we might have to go underneath a wave, and that if we did that I’d ask her to hold her breath and hang onto me tightly while I pulled her down with me for a few seconds.  “Just like in the pool” (?? — We’ve never done anything remotely like that in the pool, and I doubted my ability to pull her too far down with a life vest on)

As luck would have it, the ocean decided to follow rules this time, and the set lasted about 4 waves, all of which we were able to get over the top of before they broke, and seeing a break in the action, I told Woodsprite we were going to swim in as fast as we could, which we did.  Disaster averted!  Sorta…

What happened next is strange.  I compare it to the phenomenon of pilots and UFOs.  There’s that old oft-repeated scene of the pilots in the cockpit seeing a flying saucer complete with green men and antennae darting by, and one looks to the other and asks “did you just see something?”  “Nnnnnope!”  And there’s a touch of truth to it.  Though on occasion we do see things in the night sky whose origins aren’t readily apparent, no pilot in their right mind would get on the radio and report seeing a UFO if they weren’t 100% certain that it was something hinky.  And even then they’d probably hesitate or even just press the “I forgot” button.

Here’s what I saw.  As I was getting out of the water with Woodsprite I looked back to see how Tacco and Keeper were doing.  They hadn’t been as far out as we had and had a bit more difficulty dealing with the breaking waves.  Another set of at least medium sized waves had come in as Woodsprite and I were getting out (ankle-deep or so by now), and as I looked at Keeper dog-paddling in the whitewater, I saw something blackish and triangular emerging from the water about 10’ from him.  Yes.  OK.  There were seals around.  I’d seen several poke their heads above water.  This did not look like a seal head.  There are also porpoises, and porpoises have dorsal fins.  It was likely a porpoise.  But porpoises also swim in a certain way, which causes their fin to sweep up and then down in a sort of circular motion (hence “porpoising”).  That’s not what this blackish, triangular thing did.  It just sort of moved a bit, and appeared to be pointing at him.  Mind you, this all happened within about a second.  I quickly looked to Tacco who was a few yards from him, and saw that she was firmly telling Keeper to get out of the water NOW.  Clearly she had seen it too.

They both got out and Tacco and I quickly debriefed:

“OK, did you see..”

“YES!  That’s why I told him to get out!”

“Does he know?”

“No, I’m pretty sure he didn’t see it and I didn’t want to freak him out.”

“What did it look like to you?”

“A fin.”

“Yeah, me too.  But it could’ve been a seal.”

“Yup, it could’ve.  But it looked like a fin.”

“Yup, it did.  Could’ve been a porpoise fin too.”

“Agreed.  It could’ve.  Maybe.”

We decided not to make a big deal (until it was time to blog about it of course)…  But we put an end to swimming ops for the day.  I say again, it was probably a porpoise.  Or something else we didn’t even think of yet.  But we won’t forget it.  And I suppose we should get around to telling Keeper the story before this goes live…

We switched over to sand castle ops for the remainder of the afternoon, and the waves continued to grow.  By late afternoon they were impressive by any standard, at least overhead and probably 8’ minimum (and to be clear, the pictures below are not of those waves.  Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of them).  What I assumed were local high schoolers kept showing up with their short boards, and by 5 or so there were at least a dozen out there next to the cliffs to our south.  I mention this because it fascinated me – it was the type of thrilling that ventures into and out of terrifying.  These kids were a few years older than Keeper and there was no safe way into or out of the line up – each paddle out required getting pummeled many times over.  My perspective may have made them appear closer to the rocks than they actually were, but it looked like not only were they dealing with the powerful waves trying to drown them, but the jagged rocks which they were feet from being dashed upon like rag dolls.  And then of course when they rode these beasts it was gorgeous to watch.  I’ve always had an appreciation for surfing; it has now deepened to a great respect.


Next up is San Elijo in Encinitas, another bluff-top campground at a surf-centric beach.  I’m not tired of them yet!


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