Cottages built by squatters are huge hit for as little as $49-a-night

  • The 46 brightly-colored cottages at Crystal Cove are visited by tens of thousands of visitors each year
  • They were built during the Prohibition era, as tent campers constructed more permanent dwellings
  • The charming cottages are available for visitors, amid an ongoing restoration project to conserve their unique history

A charming row of Prohibition-era cottages that have been renovated to remain frozen in time in California are attracting tens of thousands of visitors a a year.

Crystal Cove State Park spans 3.2 miles of open beach and more than 2,000 acres of backcountry, making it one of the last remaining examples of a natural shoreline in Orange County.

The park is also home to 46 candy-colored cottages that are perfect for visitors looking to relax against an idyllic backdrop and share in an interesting piece of Golden State history.

Reservations begin at $49 per night and trend upwards of $300 with eight freshly-restored units expected to be ready to rent this month.

The cottages, located between between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, have proven to be wildly popular, boasting a 98 percent occupancy rate year-round.

The 46 candy-colored cottages in Crystal Cove State Park in California are attracting tens of thousands of visitors a year

The cottages, located between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach, rent for as little as $49 per night and trend upwards of $300

A worker builds stairs at cottage #3 at the Crystal Cove Beach Cottages

The project manager for the Crystal Cove Management Company opens a window on unit #12

Crystal Cove Conservancy, the nonprofit that works to preserve the dwellings, describes them as ‘a historic coastal treasure.’

‘Thus far, twenty-eight cottages and one Japanese language schoolhouse have been fully restored, providing one-of-a-kind getaways for visitors, a place for families to connect, and financial resources to help protect the 4,000 acres of Crystal Cove State Park,’ the group wrote on their website.

The area saw 2.9 million visitors last year alone, and its history stretches back over a century.

In the 1910s, Crystal Cove – then part of the Irvine Ranch – drew early Hollywood filmmakers, who shot Polynesian-set films on site. Its pristine beaches made it ideal for stories about shipwrecks and tropical islands.

Film crews built small thatched huts and brought palms trees down from Los Angeles. After filming wrapped, some of the huts were left behind, becoming the earliest vacation rentals.

The 42 miles of coastline were targeted by rumrunners once prohibition struck. Ships sat outside the country’s maritime borders, waiting to bring cargo into port, where they’d be met by men who would load the goods onto unassuming trucks.

Around this time, families became a returning community of summer visitors who would camp out on the beach. Wanting permanent vacation homes, they later erected cottages on the beach and bluffs.

Crystal Cove State Park spans 3.2 miles of open beach and more than 2,000 acres of backcountry, making it one of the last remaining examples of a natural shoreline in the OC

The area drew early Hollywood filmmakers in the 1910s who built most of the cottages to live in during production

The small thatched huts were abandoned to squatters after filming

The area was transformed into a state park in 1979 at a cost of $32 million, making it at the time the most expensive acquisition of state parkland in California history

The entire Historic District secured National Register of Historic Places status

In 1940, the Irvine Company sent a letter to the families, urging them to move their cottages if they wished. If they didn’t, the abodes would become the company’s property and become part of a leasing system.

Crystal Cove was transformed into a state park in 1979.

‘We spent $32 million, which, if we extrapolated it out, is still probably one of our most expensive purchases,’ said Jim Newland, Program Manager for California State Parks’ Strategic Planning & Recreation Services.

National Register of Historic Places status was also secured for the entire Historic District.

‘Today, the Crystal Cove beach cottages are the last remaining intact example of the vernacular architecture style that was prevalent in California’s early 20th century beach communities, allowing visitors to step back into a bygone era,’ the Conservancy wrote.

In 1997, the state signed a 60-year contract with private developers, who sought to turn the cottages into a luxury resort.

Crystal Cove Conservancy was founded in an attempt to save the Historic District from being bulldozed. They, along with other conservation groups, bought out the contract to prevent it from happening.

The Irvine Company sent a letter to the campers in 1940 ordering them out of the cottages, unless they sought to be entered into the leasing system

The dwellings were to be demolished in 1997 with a developer planning to build a new luxury resort on the land

This prompted with the creation of Crystal Cove Conservancy, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving the site's heritage

In 2001, all of the tenants were evicted by the state.

In place of a resort, the cottages were restored for would-be vacationers. The effort began in 2003, and the first overnight guests in the historic district came in 2006, also when the park’s Beachcomber restaurant opened.

‘It’s just an amazing piece of property and, subsequently, it’s been fully developed around our park, with shops that are high end and a big resort called the Pelican,’ Newland said. 

The restoration has been ongoing. The Heritage Legacy Project for California is in the process of restoring the last 17 cottages at Crystal Cove, delicate work with a roughly $55 million budget.

Today, 33 of the 45 cottages have been fully restored and host 24,000 visitors each year while bringing in revenue to support the Conservancy’s outdoor STEM education programs, which bring more than 10,000 students.

One of the last cottages to be renovated will host overnight programs for underserved high school students from across Southern California.

North Beach Tower (pictured) is the priciest of the bunch at $320 per night

Vacationers on a budget can stay at a room in Cottage 29B for just $49

But for visitors, this is simply a fun and unconventional vacation spot.

The cheapest option is a $49-per-night room in Cottage 29B.

Built in 1938, the dorm-style home is equipped with two ocean-facing decks, an eat-in kitchen, a small shared living area and two full and two half shared bathrooms.

For visitors looking to indulge in a more expensive retreat, there’s North Beach Tower, a $320-per-night getaway that can hold up to six people.

The windows in the living and dining room open to let the sea breeze in, while those along the front of the cottage are reclaimed from retired street cars. At the U-shaped entertainment bar, guests can toast to the sunset.

It seems there is something for everyone, as three of the available cottages are physically accessible to people with disabilities.

Reservations can be made online at or by calling (800) 444-7275.


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