Family-Friendly and Free in the Sunny OC
Orange County, CA, is known for its always-sunny skies, beautiful beaches and atmosphere of affluence, but that doesn't mean that a visit to the OC has to bust your vacation budget. It costs nothing to explore the natural splendor of the Southern California coastal landscape, and the ever-pleasant climate means your family can enjoy the great—and free—outdoors at all times of the year. Orange County's numerous beach and inland cities round out your options with a variety of complimentary attractions.
Orange County is always immediately associated with the sunny, sandy beaches that characterize its entire west coast. Wherever you are in the OC, you're never far from a beach, but free beach parking is a little harder to come by. Notable Orange County beaches with free parking nearby include Main Beach; Laguna Beach, which offers a grassy area, playground and boardwalk along with its sandy cove; and Huntington Beach, where you can park for free and take a weekends-only shuttle from the local Civic Center. Other options are Seal Beach, where you can fish off the pier and enjoy a wide stretch of perfect golden sand, and Little Corona del Mar beach where tide pools are rich with marine creatures.
Centennial Farm at the OC Fair and Event Center (88 Fair Dr., Costa Mesa, CA) gives visitors of all ages the chance to learn about agriculture and Orange County's rustic roots. The 3-acre working farm offers self-guided tours of its fruit and vegetable plots, and children love to meet its livestock, including goats, pigs, sheep, cows, rabbits and chickens. At certain times you might see an oxen demonstration or cow milking. The farm also features the Agricultural Workers Memorial, a sculptural homage to the legacy of farmworkers who helped build the county.
Chino Hills State Park Discovery Center
Chino Hills State Park (4500 Carbon Canyon Rd., Brea, CA) has over 90 miles of trails of varying difficulty crisscrossing its landscape of canyons and woodlands. Hike certain sections of trails to enjoy scenic stands of live oaks, willows and sycamores along with unmatched views of the distant San Gabriel Mountains. The state park also features a Discover Center with free admission. It includes exhibits about local flora and fauna and an outdoor nature trail with interpretive panels.
Tall Ships in Dana Point Harbor
In Dana Point Harbor, the Ocean Institute (24200 Dana Point Harbor Dr., Dana Point, CA) has two remarkable tall ships in its docks: the Pilgrim, a full-size replica of a hide brig built in 1825; and the Spirit of Dana Point, a replica of a 1770s privateer used during the American Revolution. Sailing voyages on both ships are available at a cost, but you can stroll around the harbor and admire the docked ships free of charge.
Orange County Great Park
The City of Irvine's Orange County Great Park (6950 Marine Way, Irvine, CA) is a 1,300-acre arts and sports hub. Its free attractions include the Farm + Food Lab, an interactive outdoor classroom featuring fruit trees, raised-bed gardens and a chicken coop. Kids love its Pizza and Spaghetti Garden and the butterfly garden. The Palm Court Arts Complex is a public art installation under a grove of date palms. At the visitor center you can check out sports equipment free of charge, including bocce ball sets, Frisbees and soccer balls. Another fun facility for youngsters is Kid Rock, a conservation ecology-themed playground with climbing rocks and tunnels. Also check for free entertainment throughout the year, such as movies in the park and children's story times.
A writer of diverse interests, Joanne Thomas has penned pieces about road trips for Hyundai, children's craft projects for Disney and wine cocktails for Robert Mondavi. She has lived on three continents and currently resides in Los Angeles, where she is co-owner and editor of a weekly newspaper. Thomas holds a BSc in politics from the University of Bristol, England.