The sea caves of Dana Point may not hold any gold or gems (that we know of), but Pirate’s Cave is a treasure in and of itself. This 1.2-mile (round-trip) out-and-back trail along a rocky coastline is only accessible during low tide and threads between towering cliffs and crashing waves. If you go when the tide is low enough, you’ll be able to explore tide pools that provide habitat for a variety of sea life, including anemones, crabs, and snails that leave behind beautiful shells and aren’t hard to find under the rocks.
The route is part of the Dana Point State Marine Conservation Area next to the Ocean Institute. The trail starts behind the Ocean Institute beside the rock jetty, where a cement staircase leads down to the beach. You’ll walk on sand for a short stint before the trail becomes rocky the rest of the way. The closer you hug the cliffside, the better the footing. Behind a bend at just over half a mile is the subtle entrance to the cave. The slit is just wide enough for one person at a time, and even at low tide you’ll probably have to get your feet wet. The cave itself is a large room offering a rare gateway view to the ocean that’s perfectly in line with the sunset! But don’t stay too long—the tide rises fast!
From CA-1 in Dana Point, turn toward the ocean onto Dana Point Harbor Dr., which ends at the Ocean Institute. Free parking is available at Baby Beach along Dana Point Harbor Dr. No dogs. Taking any shells or objects from the conservation area is prohibited.