No matter where you go in Southern California, you have the opportunity to peel back the layers of time and see multiple points in history all at once. We’ve got plenty of relics of yesteryear on our mountains, in our deserts, and sometimes just off the side of the road.
But some of our coastal communities have a unique ability to hold onto their ruins – and keep them being washed away by the Pacific Ocean, though the waves may crash and the cliffs may crumble.
Here are five of the most fascinating historic sites along our shores, where you can explore the ruins of our recreation, our coastal defense and even a maritime disaster.
1. Crystal Cove Cottages, Newport Beach
Crystal Cove first rose to popularity in 1926 with the opening of the Pacific Coast Highway. Residents and vacationers alike moved into the dozens of bungalows along the beach, each with their own unique color scheme and configuration. The development was operated by The Irvine Company, which halted all new construction in 1939 and closed the Cove to public, non-residential use in 1962. Because of those restrictions, Crystal Cove has retained its original charm and character – a historic landmark of vernacular architecture, rendered "frozen in time" without modern developments, additions or renovations.
In 1979, California State Parks purchased the land from The Irvine Company and, in 2001, denied lease renewals in order to repair and renovate some of the cottages that were in dire need. But it still hasn’t gotten to all of them. So, now that it's a state park, Crystal Cove’s hosts both restored cottages from the 1930s (using salvaged materials whenever possible)…and ones that continue to fall into severe disrepair. The boardwalk, which used to run the length of the entire cluster of cottages, has been devastated. The dunes there are unstable, much to the detriment of these cottages – but the bigger issue is that these historic structures have not been stabilized and instead exposed to the elements, not the least of which is the surf and the salty sea air.
Although that part of the historic district is closed and fenced off to deter trespassers, you can view quite a bit of the ruins right there from the beach. Park across the PCH and walk through the 1932 pedestrian tunnel to get to the cottages and visitor center, which offers historical photos and interpretive displays about the park's history and the cottages.
2. Dana Point Inn, Dana Point
In the 19th century, before the first gold strike, there wasn't much reason for East Coasters to come out West. To them, it was wild, savage and inhospitable. To those from more "civilized" regions, it might've felt downright prehistoric. But in 1835, Harvard student Richard Henry Dana, Jr. caught the measles, was put on leave, and set sail on a brig-type tall ship called the Pilgrim, finding himself ashore at what was then called San Juan Cove. Dana remarked at the area’s grandeur and romance and wrote a memoir of his sea voyage and landfall, "Two Years Before the Mast." Published in 1840, it was a hit – and San Juan Cove was henceforth known better as Dana Point.
The stories of the ragged shoreline and staggering cliffs drew the attention of the likes of Ned Doheny, the oil fortune heir, and Sidney H. Woodruff, of Hollywood Sign fame. As real estate developments were booming in the environs north of San Juan Cove in the 1920s, Woodruff tried to make a go of it with the Dana Point Inn. The Hollywoodland developer envisioned capturing the romance and adventure of "Two Years Behind the Mast" to attract tourists and homebuyers alike to his burgeoning resort community. He planned a grand hotel like what you'd find in the Mediterranean. But although the Great Depression had been slow to reach the West Coast, it was enough to halt construction of the half-completed Inn in 1931.
For decades, its ruins stood atop the bluff, though all that's left now is a bit of the old rock-lined walkways and one set of stone arches, which mark the former hotel site like a tombstone. You can see them – and walk right through them – by following the Dana Point Bluff Top Trail. Down the cliff, you can also find where a 165-foot shaft had been tunneled out of the bluff to make the beach easily accessible to hotel guests by elevator. Its boarded-up entrance serves as a final point of historical interest for the Dana Point Inn, though there's no mechanism or working parts inside.
3. S.S. Dominator Shipwreck, Palos Verdes Estates
The S.S. Dominator was 400-foot Greek freighter that accidentally ran aground on the rocky beach of Palos Verdes Estates in 1961. A lot of mystery surrounds how exactly the Dominator got there – maybe lost on its way to fueling up at Long Beach or perhaps unable to see the approaching cliffside because of low visibility – but once it got there, it never left. The crew waited a few days before they jumped ship, hoping for rescue, but even Coast Guard tugboats couldn't tow the behemoth out. Once fire broke out aboard ship, they just left it, selling large portions of the hull for scrap metal, and hoping the natural elements would take it the rest of the away. However, most of the giant ship is still scattered over a half-mile area, in increasingly smaller pieces as time passes – some underwater in the Pacific Ocean, and lots still on the rocky shore, never washed away by the tide.
Its wheat cargo absorbed the seawater and expanded into a gloppy oatmeal, attracting flies… that attracted lobsters… that attracted fishermen. Among the wreckage are rusty smoke stacks, a crane and remnants of other equipment on the ship used to carry wheat from Portland to Algiers – as well as at least one large piece remaining from when the Dominator broke into two from the expanding wheat.
To get to it, schedule your hike at low tide and give yourself at least three hours. The most civilized way to get there is to take the Bluff Cove Trail to the Rocky Shore Trail, which will get you to Rocky Point… if the rocks don't break your ankles first. On your way, you'll pass stormwater drains, sea lions, wildflowers and the occasional lobster cage. Make sure your tetanus shot is up to date. And if you're looking for a shortcut, try the Drainpipe Trail either on the way down or up, or both.
4. Royal Palms Country Club, San Pedro
Royal Palms State Beach is considered one of the hidden gems of L.A. County – a family-friendly picnic spot "where Western Avenue meets the sea," with an active surf, and pools wriggling with life at low tide. But the real attraction is the beach's namesake, the Royal Palms Country Club. Originally developed as the Royal Palms Recreation Center out of a share of the original Rancho Palos Verdes land grant – in an area occupied by the Tongva indigenous people and "discovered" by Spanish explorers around 1770 – Roman Sepulveda built two fireplaces and benches out of local stone, installed a terrazzo dance floor, and planted a grove of palm trees.
The location – "only 45 minutes from Broadway" – was very popular, especially among the wealthy, who came to these palisades to play golf at the country club (financed by 15 prominent L.A. men, including James Oviatt) and use its various other amenities (fishing, swimming, yachting, dining, dancing). Built in 1927 to be "America's Most Wonderful Social Organization," the Club operated until 1933, when it closed in the wake of the Great Depression. In the advent of World War II, the military took over Royal Palms, as it did with much of L.A. County's shoreline.
Since 1960, Royal Palms has operated as a public beach, first by the State of California and then by the County of Los Angeles. The namesake palms are a bit taller today, but otherwise the recreation center portion of the beach looks very much the same now as it did back then. You can also spot all that remains of any of the structures from the country club or its guesthouse – a few large concrete slabs along the rocky shore. Their steel reinforcements have become rusted, and their Stonehenge-like arrangement has made them a magnet for debris from the sea. It's not obvious what some of the other ruins used to be – but despite their proximity to the crashing waves (and the rubble falling from the bluffs above), they’ve withstood the test of time.
5. Cabrillo Beach Bunkers, San Pedro
Beneath the Sunken City slide area, it's not surprising to find plenty of stuff that has crumbled down to the beach. Even the houses that are still up there look as though they're going to come tumbling down any minute. Walk the Cabrillo Coastal Park trail along Outer Cabrillo Beach towards the tide pools, though, and you’ll come across a pile of broken concrete that doesn't look like it's broken off of a house from up above… or washed ashore from the ocean tide.
These concrete slabs are actually what remains of a military bunker that the U.S. Army Coast Artillery planned to use in its defense during World War II. They comprise one of five bunkers that were built in 1916, from which floating mines placed out into L.A. Harbor would be remotely detonated. The mines never actually went out into the harbor, and so the bunkers were built, but never used. Of course, it's not surprising to find some military relics in this area, given its proximity to Fort MacArthur, Point Vicente, and Point Fermin (which served as a lookout tower for the Navy in WWII).
Although big pieces have clearly toppled over – having taken a beating by the ocean waves that come in at high tide — there are plenty of sections that still stand, embedded in the bottom of the bluff. Arrive at low tide to keep your feet dry, and allow some extra time for tidepool exploration. And save some time to peek through the fence at Sunken City on the bluff above the coast.
Note: This article has been updated June 29, 2021 to reflect the latest available information.