Besides Mickey Mouse, nothing symbolizes Orange County more than its 42 miles of year-round beaches. If you are visiting Disneyland and California Adventure, be sure to plan a beach day to relax, unwind and create your own California adventures and experiences. To make your vacation even more memorable, escape to the coast for one (or more) of these five Orange County family beach adventures.
Learn to Surf
Surf culture rules in Orange County. Learn to shred the waves like a local at surf camp or in a surf lesson. The Frog Family likes JP’s Surf Camp in San Clemente in the summer because owner Jonathan Pierce is so committed to sharing his love of surfing that he takes both adults and kids in his camps and private lessons. Cowabunga!
There are many other surf and beach camps up and down the coast in the summer. You can rent surfboards and body boards at Wheel Fun Rentals at Doheny State Beach, which has small and gentle waves perfect for beginners. Girl in the Curl (a surf shop in Dana Point) also offers lessons, camps and equipment rentals at Doheny. Even though you can rent surfboards in Huntington Beach, beginner groms (young surfers) will be stoked (that’s surf speak for happy) and safer in smaller waves like Doheny. Your tweens like Tad will keep you well-versed in the correct SoCal slang.
Go for a Paddle
Stand-up paddle boarding is easy to learn and fun for the whole family. You can find rentals and even lessons at Westwind Sailing in Dana Point Harbor. They also rent kayaks. Launch off Baby Beach (named for being gentle and protected by the harbor and popular with moms and small children) for a relaxing paddle board ride. Lily sat on the front of Leap’s board, and she excitedly pointed out fish, sea lions, seals, crabs, seagulls and boats. Other calm spots to paddle board are Newport Harbor and Newport Back Bay, which are further north in Newport Beach. You can find several rental locations on the water in Newport.
Go on a Whale or Dolphin Safari
Captain Dave’s Whale Watching Safari, located in the Dana Point Harbor, says that Southern California has more blue whales and dolphins than anywhere else in the world. It can be difficult to get a good view of dolphins and whales from the shore, but your family can get up close to these magnificent aquatic mammals on a boat adventure that is both educational and fun. One of their boats has an underwater viewing pod, so you can meet a dolphin eye to eye and hear the dolphins vocalizing. There are also other whale and dolphin tour operators in both Dana Point Harbor and Newport Harbor.
Explore the Coast on a Bike
You can explore miles of coastline on a bicycle, enjoying the California sunshine and fabulous views of blue water, surfers and maybe even dolphins at play if you are lucky. You can rent bicycles in South Orange Country at Bicycles San Clemente. Ride south to the San Clemente Pier or north to Dana Point Harbor and Doheny State beach. You can also rent bikes, surreys and kid trailers at Doheny State Beach (Wheel Fun Rentals) in Dana Point.
If you travel further north, you can find bike rentals in the Newport Beach/Balboa Island Area (make sure you get a Balboa bar or frozen chocolate banana if you are in the area — these iconic must-eats are part of the experience). In Newport you can explore the coastal areas, plus miles of Newport Back Bay bike trails, which also connect to more bike trails in Irvine. If you are heading to Huntington Beach (deemed Surf City USA by the Beach Boys) you can pick up bikes on the paved Huntington Beach Bike Trail, which takes you either south to Newport Beach or north up through Bolsa Chica, Sunset Beach and Seal Beach areas. There are plenty of restrooms and places to eat — not to mention fun people-watching opportunities and nonstop views — along the way.
Explore a Tide Pool
You can enjoy hours of free entertainment if you hit the tide pools at a low tide. Check a tide calendar (app or online) for the lowest tide of the day (you want as close to zero as possible, and if you can find a negative tide that’s even better) before you head out. Unfortunately the tides vary, and you do not have control over the tides and times, so this adventure only works out of you can get to the beach during a low tide.
If you don’t have frog flippers, be sure to wear water shoes or sneakers. Rocks are sharp and hard to navigate in flip flops. Don’t take anything home with you, and be sure to respect the animal life. Stay still and patient to see crabs, sea stars, fish, sea anemones, and if you are really lucky an octopus or sea hare. Watch out for sea urchins.
There are many great tide pools, but the following locations are some of our favorites:
Dana Point: Park at the north end of Dana Point Harbor near the Ocean Institute (also worth a visit on the weekend) and head toward the beach. You’ll have to walk on a trail along the rocks to the north for about 10 to 20 minutes, so this is a bit of an adventure. If you walk a bit further you can explore a cave that opens to the other side as well. This hike is better for kids over six. On certain weekends the Ocean Institute has a docent on site to help tide poolers identify the sea life.
Tide Pools at Montage Resort: Park in the public parking lot off of Wesley and PCH or in a metered spot on PCH. You will stroll along the public path along the gorgeous Montage Resort and down the hill to get to the beach. This is a beautiful spot to play at the beach, explore tide pools, and just relax.
Main Beach Laguna: Just north of Main Beach are great tide pools, plus there is a lot to do and see (and eat!) in Laguna Beach when you are done exploring the pools. Lily hopped on over to the playground on the south end of the beach after exploring tide pools.
Crystal Cove State Beach: Located between Laguna Beach and Corona Del Mar, this tide pool and beach location has a restaurant right on the beach — put your name in early before you are hungry because there is ALWAYS a wait — or head up the hill to the Shake Shack for quick-service burgers, sandwiches and of course shakes.
Corona Del Mar “Little Corona:” Off Poppy Street and Pacific Coast Highway, you can park on Ocean Avenue and head down a small hill to the beach. These tide pools are some of the best you will find with some of the easiest access.
If you decide to take on any of these Orange County family beach adventures, there are a few things to keep in mind. State beaches have a $15 fee for parking. Other beaches may have meters or hourly pay machines. Others may be free. Do your research before you go. Call ahead or check websites of rental companies for hours of operation. Check the weather and tides for the day. Wear sunscreen and hats to protect your skin from the sun, and be sure to ask questions. You can always ask employees or other customers at the rental shops where the best trails are or ask locals where to go. You just might discover some new adventures on your own. Most of all, have fun and relax. Life’s a beach!
Orange County is home to the Disneyland Resort and a great "home base" for a California family vacation because it's almost equal distance to Los Angeles and San Diego attractions. If you'll find more information in our Los Angeles and San Diego planning guides.