A Closer Look at Crystal Cove

Just beyond the ridge marking the southwest boundary of The Resort at Pelican Hill® lies a crescent-shaped coastline known as Crystal Cove. Early 20th century filmmakers, charmed by the primitive setting, shot some of the period’s most memorable movie scenes there, including portions of the 1950 silent film classic Treasure Island, along with Sea Wolf, Stormswept and Sadie Thompson. Listen carefully and you may hear echoes of Gloria Swanson, Lionel Barrymore, Gary Cooper and others who helped shape cinematic history.

“They could create a South Seas movie set without leaving Southern California,” said Laura Davick, founder and acting president of Crystal Cove Alliance (CCA), which is spearheading the area’s restoration. “Even though the coastline was barely known in the early 1900s, by midcentury it had been discovered by pioneering filmmakers and become one of the region’s premier shoot locations.”

Newly completed stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, 1926.

Still photo from the film set “Treasure Island,” 1950.

To complete their island-inspired sets, Hollywood designers trucked palm trees from Los Angeles nurseries to Orange County, and then left them behind. The trees and a smattering of film huts perched along the shoreline would form the cove’s first bathing beach. In 1925, James Irvine, whose family’s Irvine Ranch included Crystal Cove from 1846 to 1979, hired the first manager to oversee campsite rentals and moviemaking. His one-room office still serves as the cove’s visitor center.

The 1926 completion of the stretch of Pacific Coast Highway to Laguna Beach opened Crystal Cove’s door to the privacy-seeking Hollywood elite, including Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Wayne and, most recently, James Franco, who spent time there during the shooting of TNT’s docudrama about James Dean.

The area thrived even during the Great Depression, with the lack of utilities and running water failing to dampen the spirits of campers who resided on the beach. In the 1920s and ’30s, early settlers, then squatters, expanded a small number of the old film huts and constructed new cottages, some from driftwood, teak planks from shipwrecks, and palm fronds (for the thatched roofs.)

Cove dwellers in the early years included a Japanese farming community that settled on the bluffs and in 1935 established a language school and a religious center. Tragically, these enterprising farmers were dispatched to Japanese internment camps during the war years and never returned to Crystal Cove.

A postcard from the 1930s advertising an idealized version of Crystal Cove.

Barbara Hershey and Bette Midler on the set of “Beaches,” 1988.

By 1950, the makeshift campground had grown into a small village complete with a general store and community center. Forty-six cottages dotted the landscape and, by 1988, when Bette Midler’s Beaches was filmed at Cottage #13, Crystal Cove had been designated a state park and added to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2007, the Historic District received the Governor’s Award for historic preservation and, in 2015, added a designation as a California landmark.

Established more than 15 years ago, the nonprofit CCA is dedicated to preserving the Crystal Cove Cottages and protecting the area from development. Together, CCA and California State Parks have raised $25 million to restore 29 of the historic cottages. Crystal Cove offers overnight cottage rentals, education programs, a restaurant and other facilities. The popular cottages are booked seven months in advance, and the Alliance is working on plans for a campaign to restore the remaining ones.

Crystal Cove State Park draws visitors and locals to its 3.2 miles of coastline, 2,400 acres of hiking trails, surfing, skim-boarding and sunbathing beaches and marine education programs. During a morning stroll to breakfast at The Beachcomber restaurant, or a sunset glass of wine at The Bootlegger Bar, be sure to stop by the visitor center to view a photographic montage of California history in the making.

For information and activities visit crystalcovealliance.org.
To find out more about contributing, contact info@crystalcovealliance.org.

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