Doheny State Beach is one of the oldest and most popular state beaches in California. It’s located about thirty miles south of downtown Los Angeles between San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente. It’s primarily known for surfing. Back in the day, Doheny State Beach was a fixture in many Beach Boys songs. However, there are a lot of other activities here as well.
Oil tycoon Edward Doheny, who drilled the first successful well in Los Angeles, donated the land for the beach in 1931. Doheny was implicated in a major land scandal and twice acquitted of bribing a government official. Curiously, Interior Secretary Albert Fall was convicted of accepting the bribes he was supposedly never offered. Go figure.
After years of informal public use status, Doheny State Beach officially opened in 1962. Today, about a million people a year visit this area.
RV Rentals in Doheny State Beach
Transportation in Doheny State Beach
If you can find the San Diego Freeway, you can find Doheny State Beach. From Los Angeles/Irvine, take the San Diego Freeway (Interstate 5) south through Mission Viejo. Since this is SoCal, the San Diego Freeway changes names several times, but just keep going until you reach the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1). Right after you cross the San Juan Creek bridge, take the Park Lantern Road exit off the PCH and into Doheny State Beach.
From San Diego, it’s a straight shot up the coast. Just stay on the San Diego Freeway until you reach the PCH cutoff, which is just a bit north of San Clemente.
Use 25300 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point, CA 92629 as a GPS address.
RV parking is available at both the North and South day use areas. The North Area is the more developed area. The parking lot is basically shaped like a squashed oval. Just trust us on that one. The South Area is basically just beach, and the parking area is essentially a long strip right behind the beach.
At times, driving in Los Angeles is not exactly a day at the beach (cue rimshot). Dana Point Harbor-Park Lantern #1528 is the closest stop to the Beach. Look both ways when you cross Dana Point Harbor Drive, then walk a couple of hundred yards south. The Pacific Coast-Del Obispo station and the Pacific Coast-Dana Point Harbor station are a little closer to the PCH and a little further from the beach. But it’s still an easily walkable distance.
Campgrounds and parking in Doheny State Beach
Campsites in Doheny State Beach
Doheny State Beach Campground
One hundred twenty-two dark and dry RV sites. Sites 37 through 94 are premium sites which are about ten feet from the water’s edge. Each site has a picnic table and a campfire ring. Campground amenities include a dump station, five restroom/shower areas, a hiking/biking area, and an amphitheater.
There are some shrubs between the sites for a little privacy, but mostly, people come here for the views. So don't count on feeling like you have the place all to yourself, especially in the summer. You won't. There is also a train line that runs right past the site. But it's all worth it for the chance to camp right on the beach, with a fire pit and picnic table just on the edge of the sand.
Off-Park RV Campgrounds
A number of nearby parks offer full-hookup sites and other amenities.
Seasonal activities in Doheny State Beach
Of course, we have to include this as well. The North Area is best for swimmers. The main lifeguard tower is right next to Thor’s Hammer. Additionally, the bottom is basically a gentle slope even past the surf areas. The South Area is for experienced swimmers. There are lifeguards there, but not as many. Furthermore, there’s a sudden drop-off just a little ways from the shore. It’s very jagged as well, so you’re never sure where the bottom is. In both the North and South areas, watch for backwash, riptides, and other hazards. If the lifeguards issue a warning, don’t ignore it.
What’s a beach without volleyball, huh? There are two large sand courts in the North Day Use Area. They are all first-come, first-served. But they can be reserved in advance, and these users receive priority. From about mid-June to mid-August, the California Beach Volleyball Association usually holds a number of tournaments. Many of them are quite competitive, and the players are at a very high level.
These areas are among the most diverse and fragile ecosystems in California. They’re only found in places like this, where saltwater and freshwater meet. Doheny State Beach’s tidal pool is near the mouth of San Juan Creek. When the tide goes out, little pockets of life are clearly visible. If you look closely, you’ll see a variety of mollusks, sea stars, anemones, snails, limpets, and crabs. All wildlife is protected, so no touching, please.
These activities are lots of fun. They are a great way to experience the water if surfing is not your thing or conditions are less than ideal. Launch from Thor’s Hammer, which is a jetty not far from the creek’s mouth. To avoid entanglements, paddleboarders who venture north must stay at least 1,000 feet offshore. That eliminates the possibility of collisions with surfers or kayakers and lets paddleboarders do their thing in solitude.
Back in the Beach Boys days in the late 1960s, the waves at Doheny State Beach were big, rough, and only for experts or people-watchers. But then along came Dana Point Harbor and a few breakwaters just off the coast. So, the tidal wave-type experience is gone. But there are still some of the best rides in the state here, especially in the Indicator and the Boneyard. If you have a long board, the experience is even better. To surf the Boneyard, catch a southern swell. You should probably avoid this area during low tide, because it gets pretty rocky. The Indicator is farther out and not as susceptible to the tides, but it is a longer ride. In terms of surf areas, honorable mention goes to Second Spot and Creekmouth.
Surf and Art Festival
This festival normally takes place in the late spring. The 1960s longboard contest is always quite a treat. But it’s not just a welcome-summer surf party. This Festival highlights local artists and local food. There’s usually Polynesian dancing as well, for those who want to become the next YouTube sensation. You may also want to check out the Kona Beer Garden. We don’t know anything about it from personal experience. A friend of a friend said it was a good time.
In 2014, the California Parks and Recreation Department gave Doheny State Beach’s visitors’ center an extreme makeover. Updates include nicer facilities, a world-class aquarium, and various marine life displays. The park store has a new home in the visitors’ center as well. This facility is located right behind the picnic area.
Roughly 250,000 visitors a year enjoy over sixty maritime history and marine biology exhibits. If that sounds dull, just wait until you check out the two historic tall sailing ships or the oceanography research ship. Experience marine life at one of the cutting-edge teaching labs, the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center, or the adjacent Marine Life Conservation Area. In 2016, the Ocean Institute was named the area’s best nonprofit organization, and that’s quite an accomplishment.
Festival of the Whales
One of the longest-running events at Doheny State Beach occurs every year in early March. For two weekends, visitors get up close and personal with whales and dolphins. The tour is family owned and operated, so your guide is knowledgeable and passionate. If the weather is bad or the marine life is uncooperative, your next trip is free.
The North Day Use Area has a vast, five-acre picnic area. As mentioned, there is lots of RV parking in this area as well. Some tables are reservable, but a reservation does not guarantee access. It’s complicated. All the tables have barbecue grills, and two picnic areas are canopy-covered.