Crystal Cove State Marine Conservation Area

people strolling on a curved beach


Crystal Cove State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) is located 10 miles south of the city of Huntington Beach along Highway 1 and sits adjacent to Crystal Cove State Park onshore. This SMCA, which covers more than three square miles of marine habitat from shore to depths of nearly 250 feet, is popular with beachgoers, whale watchers, anglers, and scuba and free divers.

Stretching more than four miles along the coast, the coves, sandy beaches, rocky reefs, and kelp forests within this marine protected area (MPA) support a large variety of fishes, invertebrates, marine mammals, and rich tidepool communities. Dolphins and sea lions are commonly seen from shore, and snorkelers and divers who venture beyond the waves can explore the giant kelp forests and swim amongst garibaldi, señorita, opaleye, and a variety of perch species. Onshore, tidepools exposed by a low tide provide curious observers the chance to see marine life like anemones, crabs, and sea stars up close.


It is unlawful to injure, damage, take, or possess any living, geological, or cultural marine resource, EXCEPT:
Recreational take of finfish by hook-and-line or spearfishing and take of spiny lobster and sea urchin is allowed. Commercial take of sea urchin; spiny lobster by trap, and coastal pelagic species (northern anchovy, Pacific sardine, Pacific mackerel, jack mackerel, and market squid) by round-haul net, brail gear, and light boat is allowed. Not more than five percent by weight of any commercial coastal pelagic species catch landed or possessed shall be other incidentally taken species. Take of living marine resources from tidepools is prohibited.

California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(133)(opens in new tab)

Quick Facts

MPA size: 3.53 square miles

Shoreline span: 4.3 miles

Depth range: 0 to 245 feet

Habitat composition*:

  • Rock: 1.19 square miles
  • Sand/mud: 2.99 square miles

*Habitat calculations are based on 3-dimensional area and may exceed the total MPA area listed above.

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About Crystal Cove State Marine Conservation Area

Natural History

striped snail and anemones in a tidepool
Wavy turban snail and anemones in a tidepool at Crystal Cove SMCA. photo © Andy Lazere, CC BY-NC 2.0

The Monterey Formation, common throughout central and Southern California, creates the foundation of Crystal Cove geology. In Crystal Cove SMCA, you can see exposed rocky outcroppings of the Monterey Formation along the shoreline and 120,000-year-old marine terrace formations in the surrounding hills. Corona Del Mar Beach, which lies adjacent to the northern portion of the SMCA, is dotted with coves, natural arches, and rocky outcroppings.

A bit further south, Crystal Cove State Park offers an expansive sandy beach with scattered rocky tidepools framed by sandstone bluffs. The extensive sandy habitat is ideal for bottom-dwelling marine species including sand crabs, halibut, and sole. Tidepools filled with intertidal invertebrates are exposed during low tide at Crystal Cove SMCA. The tidepools hold Kellet’s whelks, top snails, limpets, urchins, and anemones, along with innumerable species of intertidal plants and algae. Beneath the surface, towering giant kelp forests and dense surfgrass beds create prime habitat for creatures such as California spiny lobster, leopard sharks, and surfperch. Brown pelicans, western gulls, and sanderlings are commonly seen within Crystal Cove SMCA, as well as dolphins, seals, and sea lions, which are commonly spotted just beyond the waves.

Cultural History

beach covered with shells
Beach at Crystal Cove SMCA. photo © Waynew Huang, CC BY-NC 2.0

For centuries, Native American Tribes in California have relied on marine and coastal resources. Many Native American Tribes in California continue to regularly harvest marine resources within their ancestral territories and maintain relationships with the coast for ongoing customary uses. The Crystal Cove area is within the traditional territory of the Tongva and Acjachemen peoples. These Tribes developed several specialized crafts and tools, including nets, fishhooks, and tule canoes, which enabled access to deeper water for fishing and travel.

European expeditions in the area first occurred in 1542, although large scale settlement did not begin until the mid-1700s during the era of the San Gabriel and San Juan Capistrano missions. Through the 1970s, the area surrounding Crystal Cove was primarily used for cattle and sheep ranching and agricultural farms.

The natural beauty of Crystal Cove was appreciated by Hollywood filmmakers, who started visiting the area in the 1910s. Many films used the cove to shoot “tropical” scenes, and palm trees were planted in 1917 to create a “paradise of the south seas” set.

In 1926, with the completion of Highway 1 between Laguna Beach and Corona Del Mar, Crystal Cove cemented itself as a beach getaway for tourists and residents of Southern California. Until its sale to the State of California in 1979, Crystal Cove was a privately-owned vacation destination for the growing population of Southern California. Today, the protected areas around Crystal Cove are a rare and cherished natural setting in an otherwise heavily developed area of Southern California.


recreational anglers hook and line fish from shore
Recreational anglers hook-and-line fishing from shore within Crystal Cove SMCA. CDFW photo by A. Van Diggelen

Crystal Cove SMCA can be accessed from Highway 1 and offers an abundance of recreational activities, including tidepooling, whale watching, diving, and fishing. On shore, there are at least four tidepool areas found at Reef Point, Rocky Bight, Pelican Point, and Treasure Cove. Depending on how low the tide is, visitors might see various species of colorful anemones, mussels and barnacles, hermit crabs and shore crabs, and small fish like sculpin or juvenile garibaldi.

Multiple surf breaks, swimming spots, and dive sites facilitate water recreation. Snorkelers, scuba, and free divers can explore multiple kelp forests and rocky reefs. Recreational divers and fishermen can take spiny lobster and sea urchins, as well as finfish by spearfishing or hook-and-line. No other recreational take is allowed here, and take of living marine resources from tidepools is prohibited.

There are numerous public restrooms, parking areas, and facilities for day use at all beaches. Overnight camping is available at the Moro Campground within the State Park and at several primitive, hike-in campsites inland. The Crystal Cove Historic District includes restaurants, cabins for overnight rental, a visitor’s center, and exhibits on the wildlife and cultural history of the State Park and SMCA.


This area is bounded by the mean high tide line and straight lines connecting the following points in the order listed:

33o 35.372 ′ N. lat. 117o 52.645 ′ W. long.;
33o 35.065 ′ N. lat. 117o 52.692 ′ W. long.;
33o 32.400 ′ N. lat. 117o 49.200 ′ W. long.;
33o 33.211 ′ N. lat. 117o 49.200 ′ W. long.; and
33o 32.224 ′ N. lat. 117o 49.184 ′ W. long.

California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 632(b)(133)

Downloads for Crystal Cove State Marine Conservation Area


Map of Crystal Cove State Marine Conservation Area - click to enlarge in new tab

Facts, Map & Regulations

MPA fact sheet - click to enlarge in new tab