15 Fun Things to Do in Dana Point, California

A Laid Back Beach City Under the Southern California Sun

Dana Point is a seaside community nestled in the heart of Southern California. It’s located in south Orange County just north of the San Diego County border. It’s a city of luxury amenities and a harbor full of yachts. Yet, it still maintains its laid back surfer vibe and is a great place for fun in the sun with practically perfect weather year round. It definitely has something to offer everyone.

Dana Point was named after Richard Henry Dana, Jr., a Harvard-trained lawyer, seaman and author. In 1834, Dana shipped out on the Boston merchant ship Pilgrim, sailed around South America’s Cape Horn and came up the California coast. He wrote about his adventures in the classic sea journal, Two Years Before the Mast, describing the area of what is now Dana Point as “the only romantic spot on the California coast.” A replica of his ship, The Pilgrim, was used as a floating classroom by the local Ocean Institute until it sadly sank in the harbor in 2020. The entire area is designated a California Historic Landmark.

Interestingly, the streets of Dana Point are all named after colored lanterns. Over 200 years ago, colored lanterns were used by ships to advertise their fares while docked in Dana Point’s natural harbor, most of which were traded for California cow hides from nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano.

When the land in Dana Point was being developed in the 1920s, it is said Anna Walters, a realtor who worked with Dana Point developer Sidney H. Woodruff, came up with the famous gimmick to light the lanterns at the end of each street a different color and name them accordingly.

Today the names still add charm to this quaint little seaside town that covers less than 30 square miles. For such a small city, there is surprisingly so much to do here. Here are some of my favorite things to see in Dana Point.

[Note: This article contains affiliate links.]


1. Dana Point Harbor

The Dana Point Harbor was built in the 1960s. Construction began by building two jetties using large chunks of granite from nearby Catalina Island. Over 3 million cubic yards of earth were moved during its construction and over 225 million gallons of seawater had to be pumped out.

The harbor officially opened in the summer of 1971. Many remain nostalgic for the good old days back before its construction put an end to their beloved, legendary surf spot, Killer Dana.

Today, you can find cute little souvenir shops and several restaurants and bars as you stroll through the harbor. You can often spot sealions sunbathing nearby and it’s a bird hotspot with sightings of blue and green heron, gulls, pelicans, aukets, booby birds and more.

The harbor is also a great spot to grab a cup of coffee or an ice cream cone while strolling by the docked boats, the wind wailing through their riggings. There is just something so peaceful about that rhythmic sound.

In the winter, grab your warm coat and a cup of hot cocoa and head to the harbor to see it come to life each night during the annual Festival of Lights from mid-November through January 3rd, and the annual Dana Point Boat Parade of Lights during the two weekends before Christmas. It’s the perfect spot for spreading seasonal cheer!

2. Dolphin and Whale Watching

Dana Point is known for some of the best year-round whale watching of anywhere along the coast and is known to have one of the greatest concentrations of blue whales and dolphins in the Pacific.

Gray whale season runs from November through April as they make their 10,000 to 14,000 mile migration through the Pacific Ocean toward Mexico, one of the longest known mammalian migrations of all time.

Blue whales, the largest mammals on earth, can typically be seen from May through November. Some can reach over 100 feet long and weigh over 100 tons.

Dana Point is also known for spotting fin whales, minke whales, humpbacks and even orcas (killer whales) as well as huge pods of various species of dolphins that love to swim alongside boats. There are several whale watching outfits in the harbor including the Ocean Institute which offers a 2-hour eco-friendly, educational tour on its 65-foot Research Vessel Sea Explorer.

It is important to know that the World Cetacean Alliance has designated Dana Point as the first Whale Heritage Site in the Americas. So, you can feel good about taking a whale watching tour from its shores knowing it treats these magnificent creatures responsibly and respectfully.

3. Harbor Cruises and Charter Boats

Spend the day on the water by booking one of the many harbor cruises Dana Point offers including sunset cruises, champagne cruises, dinner cruises, holiday cruises, catamaran cruises and live music harbor cruises.

You can also charter a boat to take you out sailing, sportfishing or parasailing along the beautiful California coast. There are many to choose from including Dana Wharf, Dana Point Charters, All Water Fishing Charters, and more.

4. Ocean Institute

The Ocean Institute was originally founded as the Orange County Marine Institute in 1977.

It is well known nationally for its efforts in marine science, environmental education and conservation efforts.

The petting tank where you can touch sting rays and sharks as they swim past. You can also catch the staff-led shark feedings which usually take place on Saturday afternoons at 2:40 p.m.

It offers exhibits, aquariums and interactive learning experiences to the general public as well as to students and teachers through its ocean science and maritime history programs. The Institute also offers field trips for immersing students in historical reenactments and hands on learning such as building robots for undersea exploration, as well as whale watches, marine life excursions, special events and other tours. For daily schedules, click here.

When exploring the Institute, be sure to check out the 25-foot gray whale skeleton.

The Institute is also known for having been the inspiration for SpongeBob SquarePants as its creator, Stephen Hillenburg, was a science instructor here.

5. Sea Caves & Tide Pools

Just past the Ocean Institute is a staircase off to the north side of the jetty that leads down to a rocky beach full of tide pools just waiting to be explored.

The staircase just past the Ocean Institute that leads down to the beach where you can find the tide pools.

You will find all kinds of mussels, snails, sea anemones, urchins and crabs. Be sure to go at low tide to make the most of your visit. Note that green algae covers the boulders so they can be quite slippery.

These beautiful green colored anemones can be found all along the shore.

During low tide, you can continue to hike along the rocky bluff to the north for a little over a half mile where you will find the Dana Point Sea Caves. These are some of the easiest caves to access along the Southern California coast. The opening to the first cave is quite small but once you get through it, you will be surprised how large the cave is.

You can see the narrow entrance to the sea cave to the right of the photo.

The second cave will require some rock scrambling to get to and it’s much smaller than the first cave. If the tides are too high, you will have trouble reaching it.

Legend has it this “Pirate’s Cave” was used by seafaring marauders for nefarious activities.

6. Baby Beach

Baby Beach is located in the harbor near the Ocean Institute where the waters are safely protected by the jetty. It’s a great spot for kids to swim because of its shallow, calm waters.

This also makes it a popular spot to launch kayaks, row boats and paddle boards for those who want to explore the harbor by sea.

The area has plenty of grassy picnic areas with tables and BBQs that are first come, first serve so you will often find large family gatherings and birthday parties.

During seasonal events, you will also find things like vendor booths, live music and sand castle contests.

7. Salt Creek Beach

Who hasn’t seen the famous movie poster for the iconic film, The Endless Summer?

That poster began as a photograph taken at Salt Creek Beach in Dana Point. So, it’s no surprise that Salt Creek Beach, thanks to a small off-shore reef that creates some of the best swells along the entire coast, is one of the best surf spots around.

It’s also a great spot for bodyboarding, boogie boarding and body surfing.

A long path leads down from the parking lot to the sand. Along the way, you will pass a 7-acre stretch of grassy bluff that is perfect for picnicking and reading. There are volleyball courts, a half basketball court and even live music concerts and outdoor movie nights on the grass.

8. City Walking Tour

Dana Point is a city with an incredibly rich history. From the days of the cow hide trades between merchants docked in the harbor and nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano, you can follow its history to present day by taking a walking tour of the city with Orange County Walking Tours. You will learn about the construction of the harbor, how the depression halted development plans and more. Tours take about 1-1/2 hours. They are free relying solely on donations and tips.

9. Doheny State Park

In 1887, the part of Dana Point now known as Capo Beach was being developed into a community called San Juan by the Sea. However, the mysterious murder of Ned Doheny at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills brought this dream development to an end. In 1931, his family donated quite a bit of land to the state in his memory, much of which now makes up Doheny State Park.

Additional land was donated by and obtained from the Santa Fe Railroad, UC Regents and the Union Oil Company.

Today, Doheny State Beach is a very popular surf spot for long boarding. The area also has a 121-site campground on the beach, firepits on the sand and picnic areas with tables and BBQs.

Over the years, several music festivals and concerts have been venued here. There is also an outdoor restaurant and seasonal concession stand right on the sand called Cafe Del Sol. You can order hot dogs and ice cream at the counter or enjoy a quick meal at the outdoor patio seating area where they serve wine and beer.

10. Doheny Visitor Center

Doheny State Park also has a cute Visitor Center and pop up store on the boardwalk where you can buy hats, clothes and souvenirs.

The Visitor Center is quite small but they have several tanks that house large fish, eels and sharks.

There are also mounted displays of native animals and birds that call Doheny their home, and a baby whale skeleton. It’s a great spot to stop for kids.

11. Grunion Run

If you grew up in Southern California, you’ve probably heard of the California Grunion and maybe even been on a grunion run. Grunion are tiny, sardine-sized, silvery fish found along the coast of Southern California and northern Baja California.

These shiny little fish emerge on the shores by the thousands under the light of a full moon to spawn. They’re one of only a handful of fish that spawn completely out of water and this phenomenon only occurs in Southern California.

It is quite a spectacle to see – literally thousands of fish lighting up the waves with their glistening, sparkly bodies as they flop up onto the sand everywhere you look as if dancing under the moonlit shores.

The grunion spawn during the highest tide of the month from as early as March until late August, but it’s impossible to predict exactly where and when they will come up. Doheny State Beach has long been a great spot to catch a glimpse and in the past the State Park has offered ranger led fireside chats on the nights when the runs are anticipated which may be resuming soon. You can sometimes even spot a small shark or other predators nearby waiting to prey on the fish.

Because of a depletion in grunion over the years, special regulations are in place for catching them.

  • You cannot catch grunion from the beginning of April through the end of May

  • You must be 16 or older with a California fishing license.

  • You cannot dig holes to trap them.

  • You can ONLY use your hands to capture them so you have to grab the slippery little suckers.

  • You can only capture them after they have spawned and are heading back to the water.

  • You are to only catch what you will use.

12. Wheel Fun Rentals

Next to the concession stand at Doheny State Park is Wheel Fun Rentals. Here you can find by-the-hour bike rentals for the whole family including cruisers, tandems, choppers, quad sports and surreys.

What’s great about Wheel Fun Rentals is that they also rent everything you can possibly need for a perfect beach day including boogie boards, surfboards, wet suits, beach chairs and umbrellas. You can even rent volleyballs and plastic sand toys for the kids.

13. Festivals

Dana Point is home to quite a few festivals each year including the following:

Photo: Courtesy of California Wine Festival

  • California Wine Festival (August) – The California Wine Festival takes place at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott offering wine tasting, culinary delights, exhibitions and live entertainment.

  • Doheny Blues Festival (May) – The Blues Festival used to also take place at Doheny State Beach having started in 1998, but has been moved in recent years to Sea Terrace Park where it features three alternating stages of blues, rock and soul music.

  • Festival of Whales (March) – The Festival of Whales has been held annually in March for 50 years to honor the migrations of the California gray whale.

Although 2020 and 2021 have proven challenging for the festival, with some events held virtually online, the Festival usually includes a large parade through town, a 5k and fun run, giant life-size whale chalk drawings on the walkways of Doheny State Park, vendor booths, live music, scavenger hunts, the Diamond Dig where kids dress like pirates and dig for buried treasure in the sand, and more whale watching tours than usual. There are often lecture series and the Ocean Institute provides whale themed programs for kids.

  • Maritime Festival (September) – Previously known as the Tall Ships Festival, the Ocean Institute’s Maritime Festival has been a Dana Point tradition for almost 40 years. Events include cannon battles, craft beer gardens, live music, mermaid shows, ship tours and more. You can often find people walking around the harbor dressed as pirates or children engaged in plastic sword fights.

  • Ohana Festival (September/October) – The 3-day Ohana Festival takes place at Doheny State Beach each year offering incredible live music with a view of the ocean under the palm trees making it the perfect outdoor concert venue.

14. Dana Point Bluff Top Trail

The Dana Point Bluff Top Trail is a historical 0.2 mile easy hike that runs atop the bluffs overlooking Dana Point Harbor between Amber Lantern and Violet Lantern.

The original dirt trail was built in the 1920s and you can still spot remnants of it as well as the ruins of three vine covered cement arches which are all that is left of what would have been the Dana Point Inn had the Depression not put an end to development of this grandiose hotel.

Along the trail, you will pass The Hide Drogher, a life-sized sculpture at the top of the steep cliffs. This is where the trail from Mission San Juan Capistrano four miles away ends and is the exact spot where 19th century sailors would toss local cowhides off the cliffs to the ships below for trade in order to avoid having to carry them all the way down.

15. Nature Interpretive Center & Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area

The Dana Point Nature Interpretive Center is located at the end of Scenic Drive and serves as a Visitor Center for the Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area. It is small but very informative with interesting exhibits.

It sits adjacent to Dana Point Preserve where you can find a hiking trail atop the cliffs with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean down below. During certain times of year, you can even spot whales and dolphins out in the distant waters.

There are also two other nearby trails that are short but offer great views – the Hilltop Conservation Park Trail and the Harbor Point Conservation Park Trail.

Read more…

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *