Earlier this week we had our first thunderstorm of the season, no rain to speak of, but quite an evening light show. Watching the lightening flashes with my wife we couldn’t help but think about the fact that this was supposed to be an El Niño year. Immediately we started to reminisce about the El Niños of the past, the storms, the floods, the damage – and then in particular – the damage and destruction of certain piers. It seemed that each El Niño at least claimed one, if not more piers along the California coast.
So our quest was born, a desire to visit as many piers as we could before El Niño claimed any. By Thursday, finding ourselves in Orange County we visited our first piers, Balboa and Newport.
It’s perhaps fitting that we start out at the Balboa Pier, this was the destination of many a late night drive during my High School days – fire pits, the Balboa Theater with an ever-changing selection of vintage films as well as midnight showings of the Rocky Horror Picture show.
The best time to visit was an hour after beach closing - the police and lifeguards long completed their sweep of drunks and Christian youth groups that clung to their claimed fire pit. Then, in the still and quiet of the night, you could lay with your sweetheart hidden behind the high-tide berm, listen to the waves against the pilings, and watch the moon sink behind the pier and into the sea.
Our visit was in the morning, and perhaps the most surprising thing we saw driving into the B-Street parking lot, was the huge bulldozed berm that stretched out perpendicular to the pier. Clearly other people had been contemplating the coming of El Niño and its potential to do damage to this beach peninsula.
At 920 feet it ranks about 22nd in length among California’s Piers. Originally built in 1906, this nearly 110-year-old wooden pier would seem at high risk for potential damage. In fact, it took a hit in the 1998 El Niño. Its pilings have since been reinforced with steel.
One of the main features of the Balboa Pier is that at its end it features the very first Ruby’s Dinner – so of course we stopped for breakfast. The pier is also popular for fishing. This creates an interesting juxtaposition of 50’s retro-dinner and oldies Rock and Roll against elderly fisherman reeling in their catch of mackerel while listening to Vietnamese pop music – all while various sea birds nervously look back and forth at you breakfast and the fishermen’s catch.
After Breakfast we headed up the peninsula to check out the Balboa Pier’s younger sister, the Newport Pier. At 1,322 feet, this pier rank 12th in length of California piers. Built in 1940, after it’s predecessor, McFadden Warf was destroyed in a Hurricane in 1939 (no doubt another El Niño event before we knew about El Niños), it also was refurbished in 2002 probably in hopes of preventing the type of damage the Balboa Pier sustained in 1998.
Perhaps one of the things that make the Newport Pier unique is the Dory Fish market located just to the right of the pier’s entrance. A beachside fishing cooperative, it sports an open-air fish market. Aside from the selection of fresh seafood is an abundant collection of seabirds, none of which who are timid among humans.
The Newport pier also sports a restaurant on its tip, but this one has been closed since 2012. The folks at the end of the pier said poor plumbing has kept the place vacant with neither city nor potential leasers wanting to foot the bill for the required repairs. Perhaps that’s some foreshadowing of this pier’s fate for the coming El Niño?
Our visit to the Newport Pier was made special by crystal clear waters that enabled us to watch a seal chase a school of anchovies around the pier’s pilings. A calm beautiful day, augmented with views of Catalina, and the Huntington Beach Pier to be visited sometime in the near future
There are over 30 piers in California that jut out into the Pacific Ocean. I’ve started cataloging them in a Google map, and will use this as a tool to guide my future “Pier Reviews.” My goal is to see as many as I can before El Niño takes any away. I’ve also included piers protected behind breakwaters, or safely tucked away in places like the San Francisco Bay, less likely to be damaged by the pounding surf, but who knows what storms and surges the year might bring.