Growing up in Paradise – Photography from Crystal Cove, California

I have been reminiscing a lot lately about my childhood and the nostalgia I feel for what is now Crystal Cove State Park in southern California. I grew up at a time when Crystal Cove was actually a private beach – where our dog roamed freely and horses with riders from the stables on the hills above traveled up and down the beach. We only lived fifteen minutes away from our very small cottage here at the cove, but it was like traveling to a distant paradise where nothing really existed for me, as a child, outside of life at the beach every day. The squeaking of the porch swing on the deck, the scent of geraniums that stays with me to this day and immediately take me back to my childhood, walks on the beach with my family, and my grandma who taught me the name of every sea shell as she helped me with my shell collection. The ice plant everywhere and the walks from the sand over the small bridge to our outdoor shower below the house. It seemed so far away from the ocean’s edge when I was little and had to go home. When I am there now, it is such a short walk, I always feel a bit disoriented as I still can feel what it was like as a child.

It was a magical place and I was the fourth generation of my family to live here.  According to my brother, we are referred to as “Covites” – the ones lucky enough to live here in community all summer. My dad stayed here every summer when he was growing up in the 40s and 50s. His family and others set up semi-permanent tents from Memorial Day through Labor Day each year on the beach. Then my great-grandparents leased a house that they named the Whistle-stop because my great-grandfather worked for Southern Pacific Railroad . The house they had when I was a baby is now where the Beachcomber Cafe sits. My grandma had a cottage here and then we had one as well. You could only lease these houses as the land had been owned for over a century by the Irvine Ranch, later the Irvine Company. In 1979, the company sold the land to the state of California and many years later, the cottages were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The cottages were restored and are now for rent. You can learn more about the history from the Crystal Cove Conservancy. We have been fortunate enough to stay at several cottages over the past twelve years and so my boys have been raised here as well, making them the fifth-generation to experience life here.

In this photo you can see the restaurant that was my great-grandparents house, the brown house in the lower corner was our cottage and the turquoise building on the beach was once the snack shop where my dad worked as a teenager.

So many of my family memories are here. There is no other place in the world where I feel so at home. The photo above shows what the cove looks like currently, surrounded by multi-million dollar homes and 4 and 5-star hotels. When we grew up here, the hills where just open space with no houses. I wanted to share images I have taken in the last couple years since becoming a photographer and also a few from the past that are fun for me as well. Whenever I travel back home from Colorado, I make sure to spend time here, and I love the time that I have in the evenings to photograph and reminisce about such a special place. These are a few of my favorites from the past couple years:

I had to add this one because we called this “the toilet” growing up – the water would rush in and out of this pool as the waves came in and we would get washed in and out with it.

And here are some from my personal story. I am who I am today because of my time growing up here and the love my family poured into me when I was growing up here. I learned to feel God’s presence in nature here. I learned to love all forms of wilderness here. I learned about wildlife here – even though it isn’t the wildlife that I photograph now. I knew the name of every sea creature from the smallest chiton (which produced beautiful “butterfly shells” that washed up on the beach), to the starfish to the gray whale. I collected shells and sea glass and still have these displayed in my home today. Since it was a private beach back then, it was legal to collect these things. Now, we leave everything we see exactly where we find it. We roamed the beach freely as 70s kids and did things then that kids can only dream about today. One of my favorite memories is when the groundskeeper would take the bulldozer out in the mornings to clean up seaweed along the beach. Occasionally, he would give the few of us kids who lived there in summer a ride down the beach in the bucket of the bulldozer. It was incredible! Can you even imagine such a thing now? We also had our own fireworks and bonfires each summer and there was this awesome driftwood creation that Covites named, The Crystal Cove Yacht Club.

my grandma and dad at Crystal Cove during a summer camping at the Cove in the late 1940s.
Photo with my brother in some sweet 70s attire
Cleary 70s with my mom and dad – probably around 1977
I think I was in third grade here?
Family photo for Christmas card, around 1976
My boys during one of stays at the restored cottages
my boys in front of our old cottage – although it wasn’t this nice in the 70s
My dad and his grandkids at his grandparents old cottage, now the Beachcomber Cafe