Capistrano Beach, Capo Beach
The air conditioner is blasting as I am driving along the iconic Pacific Coast Highway on a super hot summer day in California. The ocean to my right is a vibrant sparkly blue and is producing waves no more than two feet high.
Way out to sea there is a subtle outline of a gray marine layer making its way inland. Will the dark gloom hold off so we can see one of California’s glorious color-splashed sunsets? Only time will tell, as there were still two hours remaining of daylight.
In the meantime, I suddenly noticed that there were no other vehicles on the road. I am the only car heading south and once in a while one passes by traveling north. There is always traffic on PCH. How could this little stretch of road, only about a block from the ocean be so deserted on this warm afternoon?
Still scratching my head in wonderment, a group of palm trees caught my eye as their fronds were swaying from the gentle ocean breeze. Looking west now, I was admiring the rows of multi-million dollar seaside homes lucky enough to have the sand and sea as their front yards.
It almost looked like the more crowded Malibu up north…almost.
However, here, you felt like it was old California, back in a day when Woodies cruised the roads stacked high with surfboards and the beaches weren’t packed as they are today.
So where is this mysterious un-crowded spot on PCH?
This is the small stretch of the coast called Capistrano Beach, otherwise known as Capo Beach.
As mentioned, PCH is THE road in coastal California. On any given Southern California day in summer it is packed with cars filled with beachgoers. PCH or Highway 1 winds and curves all along the coastline from Southern California to Northern. In certain places it runs right along the coast where you are so close, you can almost touch the sand and water with your finger tips.
So why is it so un-crowded in Capo Beach?
Here are my theories:
One, Capo Beach isn’t a large area and actually skirts the very edge of Dana Point and Doheny State Park. In fact, part of Dohenys day parking borders Capo and Dana Point.
Along the stretch at Capo, there is one small pay lot that can be used for accessing the beach and a few parking spaces along the road itself. So it doesn’t have massive parking lots like you will see in cities such as Huntington Beach. That alone keeps the crowds away.
Two, there is a railroad track that divides the road to the beach. You can only get across it in a few select areas. One is at the said parking lot where you just step over the tracks and you are on the sand. The other is a multi level walkway that takes you high over the tracks and brings you back down to the day parking area of the state park.
This pedestrian bridge is a real test of endurance, especially if you have kids, chairs, or surf toys in tow. It’s a treat that I tried once and it felt like I was climbing Mount Everest. I was ready to call out for my Sherpa but realized I was just in an oxygen deprived state.
Catering to visitors along this section of PCH and close to this bridge, there are a few hotels and restaurants with amazing ocean views.
Also, if you don’t feel like taking that trek, north is Dana Point with the popular Doheny Beach and State Park. This is where the crowds congregate. This well known surfing beach is the perfect place for families as it has plenty of sand, parking lots, bathrooms, lifeguards, etc. The waves are great for every type of surf vehicle, including long boards, short boards, and SUP’s.
Dana Point Harbor is nearby and offers up all that you want for a vacation, including restaurants, shops, boat rentals, fishing trips, tours, etc. The same can be said for San Clemente which is situated south of Capo Beach.
Theory three, the shoreline itself has sand but is intermixed with rocks in certain areas. So sometimes walking into the water is a little tough on the feet. It isn’t bad for a family beach except for one dangerous factor…the waves break right on shore!
There is a drop off that slopes down and even on small wave days, the breakers can pull you right up off your feet.
It makes it hard to allow small children to go anywhere close unless you are tightly holding on to their hand.
On this day, I sat briefly to watch the few swimmers braving the waves.
Three grown men were only knee high when a nice roller was making its way to shore. These were not small men yet they were swooped up and slammed to the sand as if a rope was tied to their ankles. I suppressed a small giggle and nonchalantly looked the other way only because the same has happened to me.
I was thinking that if these three got pushed around, what would the waves do to a child? So this is part of my theory on why there are not that many people on Capistrano Beach. You want to be able to go in the water on hot days and not risk life and limp. Slight exaggeration I know but it is one of the reasons I feel the crowds go north to the mellower Doheny State Beach.
Theory four on why the road was so empty on a bright summer day, it’s because most of Capo Beach is filled with the aforementioned million dollar homes. Built steps from the sand, these grandiose abodes are in a gated community, so there is no public access to the shore.
Theories aside, Capistrano is one of a few what I call mellow beaches in Southern California. It has a great bike and pedestrian trail and is an extremely picturesque area.
If you want to get away for the day, weekend or even week, this is a place to relax and enjoy a pure California experience.
I will be making this drive many more times as this is one of my favorite areas. Because of the lack of cars, you can, for a brief instant imagine what it was like to cruise the coast fifty or sixty years ago…but only for a moment. Soon you will be reaching a street light and all will be back to normal.
Thanks to Capo Beach for that few minutes of going back in time.
Story and Photos: Debbie Colwell