Get discounts on family fun throughout the state with California Fun Spots.

Home |  Top Ten Places to Tidepool in California's Marine Protected Areas

Top Ten Places to Tidepool in California's Marine Protected Areas

Top Ten Places to Tidepool in California's Marine Protected Areas
    Print      E-mail

Bookmark and Share

 People love to visit California’s coast for good reason. Stunning scenery and bountiful wildlife make for an intoxicating experience at ocean’s edge – and now the state has even more to offer. In 2012, California completed the nation’s very first statewide system of marine protected areas. Known as underwater parks, they protect and showcase the state’s spectacular marine wildlife and provide a refuge for the thousands of intertidal species found in tidepools.

Tidepools are mini-universes all their own, placed at the intersection where ocean and land meet. Creatures like sunflower sea stars, gumboot chitons and turban snails inside must adapt to powerful waves and constant tidal changes that take them from high and dry to underwater. When the weather isn’t right for surfing or sunbathing, it’s perfect for tidepooling, which is best done in the winter months during a zero or negative low tide…and doesn’t require a wetsuit!

Remember: Don’t poke or prod organisms and always wet your hands before touching. It’s illegal to take any living organisms, rocks or shells out of tidepools; leave only footprints, take only photos and memories. Stay safe and dry by checking local weather reports and watching out for sneaker waves!

1. Shaw’s Cove Tidepools: Laguna Beach State Marine Reserve, Laguna Beach, CA
Southern Orange County is dotted with numerous noteworthy beaches, but for tidepooling, none is more spectacular than Shaw’s Cove, located within the Laguna Beach State Marine Reserve. After grabbing tasty fish tacos at Wahoo’s, 1133 So. Pacific Coast Hwy, follow the 58-step staircase to this secluded cove from Fairview Street north of downtown Laguna. You’ll find some of Laguna’s most fascinating tidepooling. Large pools filled with anemones, urchins, sea stars and more awaits visitors and a docent program provides education and tips regarding these fragile and diverse ocean critters.

2. Terranea Tidepools: Point Vicente State Marine Conservation Area, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA
The legacy of ocean stewardship lives on at this historic site on the Palos Verdes peninsula in Los Angeles County. From the Point Vicente State Marine Conservation Area parking lot on Palos Verdes Drive just north of Terranea resort, an improved access path leads directly to Pelican Cove and the area’s dramatic tidepools and rocky shoreline. For the more adventurous explorer, take a short two-mile hike. Start at the parking lot and wind through coastal sage scrub and cactus along the dramatic blufftop trail that offers views of the vast Pacific, Point Vicente Lighthouse and in the distance - Santa Catalina Island.
Halfway also the hike, you’ll come across Nelson’s restaurant, where you can stop for crabcake sliders, fish and chips, or some chunky avocado dip before continuing to the tidepools. Down on the pebble beach, a kaleidoscope of critters await, including sea slugs, anemones, sea stars and crabs. All highly adapted for their ever changing, high-energy environment, these animals and their habitat provide an outdoor marine biology classroom. Learn more by checking out the signs and information that Terranea offers.

3. Coal Oil Point Tidepools: Campus Point State Marine Conservation Area, Goleta, CA
Named for the tar that seasonally seeps from natural fissures offshore, Coal Oil Point is one of only a handful of Santa Barbara County beaches that is not seasonally covered by sand. This makes for outstanding low tide visits to an extensive tidal pool area surrounded by property of the University of California and its Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve.
To the east, a large reef system exposed by low tide creates extensive tidepools teeming with sea hares, anemones, mussels, small fish and sea stars and if you’re lucky - a small leopard shark. For a glimpse of endangered snowy plovers, check out the sandy beach to the west. Access this area from the college community of Isla Vista along Calle Majorca, or enter UCSB’s west campus along Storke Road. The university also offers guided tours – call (805) 893-3703 or email for times.

4. Piedras Blancas Tidepools: Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve, San Simeon, CA
In northern San Luis Obispo County along Highway 1, the beaches near San Simeon are studded with small sand dunes and shallow tidepools bursting with life. Start your day with a cup of coffee or tea at Lily’s Coffee House, 2028 Main St. in Cambria, then search out the two species of kelp – a type of seaweed found in California - that protect shallow water species and feed numerous tidepool dwellers. Sea lions and sea otters are frequently spotted nearby and a giant elephant seal breeding haulout site is not to be missed. Visitors can also explore a variety of natural and historic sites nearby, including Piedras Blancas lighthouse, San Simeon State Beach and Hearst Castle.

5. Asilomar Tidepools: Asilomar State Marine Reserve, Pacific Grove, CA
Asilomar State Beach—located within the boundary of Asilomar State Marine Reserve—rewards visitors with a chance to experience the Monterey Peninsula as it existed long ago. Only about a mile long, Asilomar boasts a range of views and natural features more commonly found in beaches ten times its size. One of the richest tidepool habitats in California is found here and some are exposed even at higher tides. The main, mile-long trail at Asilomar State Beach has side paths that lead to tidepools. It is also dog-friendly, though dogs must remain leashed at all times. Celebrate a successful day by treating yourself to dinner at the renowned Passionfish restraurant, nearby at 701 Lighthouse Road – for dessert, the lemon verbena creme brulee and Meyer lemon panna cotta are divine. Asilomar State Beach is located off Sunset Drive on Asilomar Avenue in Pacific Grove.

6. Natural Bridges Tidepools: Natural Bridges State Marine Reserve, Santa Cruz, CA
The same geological forces that gave Natural Bridges State Beach near Santa Cruz its namesake rock arches also produced an extensive series of intertidal rock pools. These rocks and pools teem with sea stars, sea grasses, kelp, urchins and crabs. Look for Petrocelis seaweed – it looks like tar stuck to the rocks, but is actually a marine plant species. You may also encounter acorn barnacles, colorful nudibranchs and sandcastle worms whose larvae form honeycomb-like structures. If you want to take a break from looking down, look up to nearby Monarch Grove, which provides a temporary home for up to 100,000 Monarchs each winter. From roughly mid-October through mid-February, the Monarchs form a "city in the trees” here, drawn by the area's mild ocean air and eucalyptus grove. Natural Bridges State Beach is open from 8 a.m. to sunset at 2531 West Cliff Drive. As a State Park, Natural Bridges is easily accessible, provides visitor services and has signage and personnel to interpret this site’s outstanding living and geological resources.

7. Fitzgerald Reserve Tidepools: Montara State Marine Reserve, Moss Beach, CA
The world famous tidepools at Moss Beach, about 20 miles south of San Francisco, are symbols of California’s legacy of ocean protection. The beach borders the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and is home to the Montara State Marine Reserve. The reserve is a hotspot of intertidal biodiversity, featuring a remarkable assortment of mussels, barnacles, nudibranchs, sea stars and crabs. Shallow nearshore shale and granite reefs, seagrass prairies, giant kelp stands, rock pinnacles and ridges provide homes for hundreds of species of marine life, such as prickleback eels, sharks and rays, as well as six native species found nowhere else in the world. If you’re really feeling lucky, look for the elusive red octopus! For dinner, pop into the family-friendly Half Moon Bay Brewing Company – adults can try the Maverick’s line of beers and ales, named after the world famous nearby big-wave surf spot. Groups larger than 10 must obtain a visitors permit, to protect the sensitive coastal ecology.

8. Duxbury Reef Tidepools: Duxbury Reef State Marine Conservation Area, Bolinas, CA
Just north of tiny Bolinas at the southern end of Point Reyes, Duxbury Reef takes its name from a sailing ship that sank on the reef—one of the largest shale reefs in America—in 1849. The unique complex of rocks and sand founder here host beds of mussels, green anemones, bat stars, crabs and nudibranchs, along with many shorebirds. If you stand quietly along some of the deeper pools, you may also see several species of small fishes. On clear days, look for the shadowy outlines of the Farallon Islands, 27 miles west of San Francisco, on the horizon. At lower tides, just below the Agate Beach parking lot, a short trail leads to an exposed shale reef and extensive tidepools. Side trips are many in this rural area and include surfing at Stinson Beach, kayaking with leopard sharks in Bolinas Lagoon and visiting the Point Reyes National Seashore, which boasts over 1500 species of plants and animals.

9. Gerstle Cove Tidepools: Gerstle Cove State Marine Reserve, Sonoma County, CA
Rocky promontories, panoramic views, kelp-dotted coves, patches of sea palm and pygmy forests can all be experienced within Salt Point State Park, located just 18 miles south of Jenner. Book a room at the cozy Timber Cove Inn, about five miles south of Gerstle Cove, one of the first underwater parks in California. Designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, Timber Cove Inn is the home of world-renowned artist Beniamino Bufano's 93 foot tall obelisk “The Expanding Universe.” Gerstle Cove State Marine Reserve, and the larger Salt Point State Marine Conservation Area, provide shelter for visitors to explore the marine life that abounds in and around the local tidepool system. An extensive network of nearly 20 miles of trails provides numerous ways to access the mostly rocky shoreline, where marine life like can be viewed when the tide is out. If you look closely at the rocks at Gerstle Cove, you can still see eyebolts where the ships anchored while sandstone slabs were loaded onboard to build the streets of San Francisco in the 1800s. The northern side of Gerstle Cove hosts the most fascinating tidepools, where rocky outcrops produce an energetic and irregular flow of sea water. Keep an eye out and watch your step!

10. MacKerricher Tidepools: MacKerricher State Marine Conservation Area, Fort Bragg, CA
MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg presents visitors with many wildlife-viewing opportunities. An intact gray whale skeleton at the Park entrance sets the stage for a day of hiking, exploring tidepools, birding and visiting an ancient coastal lagoon. At low tide, this area’s outstanding tidepools are often gin-clear, enabling you to spot sea stars, mussels, crabs and the occasional sculpin, a tidepool fish. The park has installed a coastal boardwalk to provide access while protecting sensitive wildlife and plants. Visitors with bikes can enjoy riding along the coast – and make sure to stop in Fort Bragg for some excellent shopping in the downtown area. Pippi Longstockings boutique offers a remarkable selection of socks, hats, scarves, gloves – all the accessories you need for a brisk day at one of the North Coast’s prettiest beaches.

By Jennifer Savage

Photo by Patsee Ober

More info:

Follow us: