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Exploring Orange County, California

Orange County, California

Today, I want to welcome Sarah Lawrence from The Family Explorer, a blog dedicated to finding unique family travel experiences and family volunteer vacations. Sarah lives in Orange County, California, and today she’s going to tell you about her home town as part of the Exploring My Hometown guest post series.

Exploring Orange County, California

Tucked between Los Angeles and San Diego on the Southern California coast lies Orange County. Made up of 34 cities and 42 miles of beaches, many people know of Orange County from shows like The Hills, The OC, and The Real Housewives of Orange County that showcase the glitz, glamour, and drama of the millionaire lifestyle. For the majority of us, life is a bit more relaxed!

My husband and I are both transplants to Southern California- he’s from Seattle and I’m from Wisconsin. We met at a local bar and decided to make Orange County our home. I’ve been here for almost 10 years now, and for the past decade, I’ve been able to explore the county and gotten to know many of the spots that attract so many people here each year.

Many people come to Orange County to visit Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm, but there is so much to do beyond the theme parks! An outdoor family could easily spend a week hiking and hitting up our local beaches. Below are a few of my favorite places.

Orange County California
The Beaches of Orange County

There are many beach towns along the coast, each with its own vibe, and it’s fun to discover what each has to offer. From north to south, here are a few of the best beaches to visit in Orange County.

Orange County, California
Check out Surf Culture in Huntington Beach

Known as Surf City USA, Huntington Beach is the epitome of a surf town. To live the laid-back life of a surfer for a day, start off with a surf lesson at a local surf school. You’ll have to get up pretty early as the best waves are in the morning, and usually fizzle out by the afternoon. Near the pier you’ll find surf shops and you can learn more about surf culture at the International Surfing Museum and at the Surfer’s Hall of Fame. Spend the rest of your day biking on the boardwalk or snag a spot for some beach volleyball. Slightly south of the pier you’ll find some bonfire pits where you can relax in the evening and cook up some s’mores!

Events: Each August, top surfers from around the world come to compete in the US Open of Surfing, a 10-day surfing competition. Huntington Beach is also known for being the place to be in Orange County to celebrate the 4th of July. With a giant parade and tons of festivities, you can celebrate from sun-up to sun-down!

Newport Beach

Orange County, California

You’ll find a slew of beachy activities on the Balboa Peninsula of Newport Beach which includes the northern Newport Pier and southern Balboa Pier. On one side of the peninsula you’ll find the ocean and on the other side you’ll find the Back Bay. The Back Bay is great for kayaking or paddle boarding and you’ll find numerous places to rent equipment for both. Water in the Back Bay is calm and great for beginners. My husband and I have spent many afternoons kayaking around the various islands in the Back Bay. You’ll likely come across a few sea lions during your adventure!

At the Newport Pier, you can also rent bikes to ride down the boardwalk to the Balboa Pier (about 1.5 miles). Down by Balboa pier you’ll find the Fun Zone with arcades and a Ferris wheel. You can also hop on a ferry and head over to Balboa Island where you can walk around shops and treat yourself to a famous Balboa bar – a vanilla ice cream bar on a stick dipped in chocolate and candies of your choice! The Fun Zone is also a common departure point for whale watching and sport fishing excursions.

At the very end of the Balboa Peninsula you’ll find a surfing and bodyboarding spot called The Wedge where waves regularly get to 15-20 feet, and sometimes up to 30 feet! Rip currents are pretty strong and the waves break really hard on the shore, so don’t attempt to join in if you’re not experienced. Watching can be just as fun!

Step back into Beach History at Crystal Cove

Orange County, California

Nestled in between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach is this awesome historical beach called Crystal Cove. Crystal Cove was built as a beach colony in the 1930’s and 40’s. There were originally 46 cottages in this little colony, 29 of which have been restored and preserved in 1940’s fashion. Sixteen of those are available to be rented out overnight. These beach cottages are in high demand! If you want to rent a cottage, bookings open seven months in advance on the first of every month (at 8AM sharp!) and fill up within minutes.

Located in one of the restored cottages is the Beachcomber Café, a now-famous spot on this beach. You’ll need to make reservations pretty far in advance or be prepared for a long wait if you try to walk up.

A trip to Crystal Cove wouldn’t be complete without a stop to Ruby’s Shake Shack. Sitting on a cliff overlooking the cove, the Shake Shack has been a staple since 1945 (though their ownership by the popular Ruby’s franchise is relatively new). They’ve got a full menu of diner food, but my favorite is the shake that made them famous- the date shake!

Laguna Beach

Orange County beaches

Laguna Beach is beautiful and artsy, and a favorite beach of both locals and visitors. You’d have no trouble spending a whole day in the downtown area wandering in and out of the art galleries, shops, and restaurants. Downtown Laguna Beach is adjacent to Main Beach, where most visitors head.

My favorite beach in Laguna is a bit further south, called Thousand Steps Beach. This beach is a bit more secluded and named for all of the steps you have to go down (and then back up!) for beach access. You’ll see multi-million dollar homes on the cliffs above you and waves crashing against unique rock formations along the shoreline.

Laguna Beach also has a few great areas to explore tide pools. Best seen at low tide, you’ll get a glimpse of life under the sea. Both Main Beach and Treasure Island Beach (near Montage Resort) are known to have tide pools, and have docents that can teach you all about these fragile marine ecosystems.

To learn more about Southern California’s marine life, stop by Pacific Marine Mammal Center. This center rescues marine animals that are sick or injured, rehabilitates them, and then releases them back into the wild. They regularly rescue seals and sea lions, and have a temporary holding facility for small whales and dolphins. They are open daily for visitors!

Regardless of where you plan to visit in Laguna Beach, make sure you plan to be there early in the day. The main road going into and out of this beach town can get really backed up and parking can be hard to find.

Events: Each summer, Laguna Beach is home to the Pageant of the Masters, where actors recreate famous paintings. Tickets can be a bit pricey, but it’s definitely worth seeing at least once!

Hiking Trails in Orange County

Orange County hiking trails

Orange County also has some great hiking trails. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • El Moro Canyon– Right across the Pacific Coast Highway from Crystal Cove Beach is El Moro Canyon. Along your hike here, you’ll have great views of the canyon and ocean. There are plenty of inclines to get your heart pumping! There are several hiking trails in and around the canyon, and you can hike as little as 3.5 miles or as many as 9. Make sure you get a map at the ranger’s station to help you stay on your intended path.
  • Bommer Canyon– Wander through Irvine’s rustic open lands on this quick and relatively flat trail. You can hike the 1.6 mile loop, or head up into the hills on one of the adjacent trails to extend your adventure!
  • Peters Canyon– Peters Canyon is in the city of Orange (right in the middle of the county), and is one of the most popular places to hike in Orange County. This hike is about 6.5 miles, and although you’re pretty far inland, you’ll get high enough on the hills that you’ll see the coast on a clear day.
  • Holy Jim– You’ll find Holy Jim Trail at the base of the Saddleback Mountains in Cleveland National Forest, and there are two popular trails to hike. For the more ambitious hiker, you can hike to Santiago Peak, a strenuous, 15 mile trek. There is also a much shorter, 3 mile hike out to a waterfall. If you go in the summer, the waterfall might be dried up, but the hike is still worth it! (Side note- in Southern California, we’re pretty fast and loose with the word “waterfall.” You’re not going to see anything resembling Niagara Falls here!) The ride to the trailhead is an adventure in itself, and it’s best to have a high clearance vehicle to get there.

San Juan Capistrano

Orange County, California

San Juan Capistrano is a city in South Orange County that is seeped in local history. Mission San Juan Capistrano has been the center of this historic area for over 200 years. Originally built to expand the territorial boundaries of Spain and convert the Native Americans to Christianity, this mission is the 7th of 21 missions along the California coast. It has been the property of three different countries- Spain, Mexico, and the USA- and is now owned by the Catholic Church. When wandering through here, you’ll find lush gardens, buildings, and monuments that pay homage to the Mission’s Native American, Spanish, and Mexican heritage.

Down the street from the Mission is the Los Rios District. Known as the oldest neighborhood in California, mission ranch workers made their homes here in the late 1700’s. Some of the forty remaining homes have been converted to small restaurants, cafes, and shops.

Events: The biggest event in San Juan Capistrano is the Swallows Day Parade in mid-March. Every winter, swallows head down to Argentina and return to California every March to rebuild their mud nests at the Mission San Juan Capistrano. This event celebrates the return of the swallows with an old western parade!

My Favorite Day Trip in Orange County

Orange County, California

If you’re looking for a quick day trip, my favorite place to go is where “the turf meets the surf” at Del Mar Race Track. Put on your floppy hat, pick your favorite horse, and hopefully cash out a big ticket! You can bring your own chairs to set up along the side of the track or spend a few extra bucks to get a seat in the grandstands.

During the summer, they often have beer festivals in the infield or concerts after the races. Check their website for racing schedules as this track is seasonal. Del Mar is roughly an hour drive south of Orange County. If you plan to drive, make sure to leave early as traffic can get quite heavy by mid-morning. Many people prefer to take the train and not deal with the hassle.

So there you have it- my hometown in a nutshell. My family loves to spend time outdoors, and with so many options here, I don’t think we’ll ever get bored!

Orange County isn't all about Disneyland and movie stars. Check out some of the area's best beaches, coolest hiking trails, and awesome day trips.


Sarah LawrenceSarah is a new mom from Orange County, California who hopes to travel the world with her family. The Family Explorer is her ultimate list of travel experiences to have with her family and a chronicle their adventures along the way! 



  1. This is such a comprehensive guide and really well written. I would be most interested in Laguna Beach and visiting the Thousand Step Beach, sounds like a site with the waves, cliffs and million dollar homes.
    Danielle Des recently posted…Noteworthy Reykjavik HighlightsMy Profile

  2. This looks like a gorgeous place to explore, and you’re right, I’ve only heard of visiting Disney Land in the area. However, renting a cottage at Crystal Cove looks adorable and super cozy! Great hiking tips too! Thanks for sharing!
    Paige Brown recently posted…Hiking in the Ozarks – Petit Jean State Park, ArkansasMy Profile

  3. Oh gosh, I just LOVE Newport beach! Hahah the people watching is pretty, er, fantastic! 😀

  4. I have memories of when i was much much younger watching the O.P Pro at Huntington beach. Back in the days when Tom Curren was world champ and carving up the waves. looks like a great spot to visit

  5. So excited to see hiking recommendations! I always love the beach, but having places to hike are just as important when I travel. Crystal Cove looks amazing too!
    Brooke of Passport Couture recently posted…May 2016 Book ListMy Profile

  6. This makes me miss Cali! When I go back I’ll have to spend some more time down in the OC. Especially San Juan Capistrano!

  7. These are some great shots! I learned long ago to only ask the opinions of those who haven’t been around long–they are the ones who know more about the area!
    bettyl-NZ recently posted…random favoritesMy Profile

  8. Orange County has tons of nice places, so, it is worth exploring beyond the attraction parks. Love many of the places mentioned here (Crystal Cove and San Juan Capistrano).
    Ruth recently posted…Top Things to See in Joshua Tree National ParkMy Profile

  9. What a great list of hiking trails! It certainly makes me want to visit Orange County. My husband loved his trip to California before we met, but I haven’t been yet
    Suze – Luxury Columnist recently posted…Taking an Edible Vacation with Christabel’s and TablMy Profile

  10. Great post! I love the look of Crystal Cove or hiking to one of the canyons. I am also really horse mad so I think I may need to add OC to my list.

  11. Amy

    I won’t lie, the mere mention of OC, Newport and Laguna gets my inner reality show self excited! But the more laid back portion of a REAL Orange County looks equally spectacular!

  12. The beaches look lovely. And so do the hiking trails. Great post

  13. The race track looks like a great place to visit – I love horses! Great tips, thanks Sarah!

  14. Kevan

    Ridden bikes at Newport Beach and gone to Del Mar (and cashed a ticket.) Both were great days, now I need to check out the other ideas given here.

    • Cashing a ticket at Del Mar is the best- especially on a long shot! You should definitely make your way back if for more fun in Orange County if you have the chance!

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