There are many opportunities to add an educational element to your Orange County vacation. Whether you’re traveling to the area to enjoy the sandy beaches, to enjoy a day packed with adventure at one of the theme parks, or to relax and enjoy the luxury hotels, spas, and shopping, Orange County has endless options and exciting destinations. Here’s how to add an educational experience to your next trip to OC.
Check out all the free museum days in Southern California and how to get free and discounted museum admission.
On A Mission
Immerse yourself in California history with a trip to the mission. Mission San Juan Capistrano is the seventh mission established in California. The missions were built to spread Christianity to the native people and be institutions of Spanish Rule. Today, the mission shares stories of the past through interpretive programs, educational presentations, and permanent exhibits that display what life was like when the missions were fully functioning. Mission San Juan Capistrano hosts regular activities and events that appeal to visitors of all ages from art exhibits to brick making.
After spending a day at the mission, stroll through San Juan Capistrano’s historic downtown area. You’ll find adobes and other historic buildings, including the train depot and Orange County’s oldest neighborhood, Los Rios Historic District. Enjoy dinner at El Adobe de Capistrano Mexican Steakhouse, the 1797 Miguel Yorba adobe which was once a home with a jail cell in the basement and was a favorite restaurant of President Richard Nixon.
Round out your California History and Mission education with a trip to Knott’s Berry Farm. Visitors can view replicas of California Missions throughout the park, pan for gold, and experience a variety of shows and displays that emphasize Native American history, the old west, and more. For detailed information about the educational elements throughout the park, visit the information office near the main entrance of the park.
Where To Stay
Dana Point Marina Inn
24800 Dana Point Harbor Dr, Dana Point, CA 92629
After a day exploring the mission and the historic districts of San Juan Capistrano, head to your seaside hotel to relax by the pool, take in views of the harbor, and enjoy the comfort of the well equipped rooms at the Dana Point Marina Inn.
Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel
7675 Crescent Ave, Buena Park, CA 90620
The Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel is the ideal place to stay if you’re planning a day at the amusement park. The hotel features Snoopy-themed rooms, excellent dining, a pool with a kid’s activity area, lighted sports courts, and more.
Explore the Outdoors
Orange County has several regional and state parks that provide opportunities for exploration and education. People looking for outdoor adventures can learn about the flora and fauna of the area, Native Americans that inhabited the lands, unique geological formations, fossils from millions of years ago, and the general history of the area throughout the years.
Combine that with some of the best campgrounds Southern California has to offer and you have an educational outdoor vacation that is fun for the whole family. Here are some of the best places to camp and explore:
Visitors to Crystal Cove can reserve a campsite at the Moro Campground which has 58 family campsites plus an additional 32 back-country hike-in campsites. The family campsites are within walking distance to the beach and many offer full ocean views. Campers at Crystal Cove can explore the many hiking trails and there are field trip resources and informational guides that explain the geology, plants, animals, and history of the area, such as the guide for the Geology Discovery Trail which you can use on a self guided hike to learn about various formations and how the ocean and weather has shaped the area.
The Environmental Loop Trail is an accessible trail with sign boards and displays that teach visitors about the science behind park management and conservation. Each stop addresses a specific element such as birds, animal tracking, wind and weather, and early residents.
For a different kind of history, campers can make their way to Crystal Cove’s Historic District. Here visitors can explore the beach and view the vintage cottages that were built as part of a coastal colony in the 1930s and 40s. One of the cottages was featured in the award winning film Beaches, with Bette Midler. There are exhibits and educational offices in the historic district to inform visitors about the history and development of Crystal Cove.
Caspers Wilderness Park
Caspers Wilderness Park is located in San Juan Capistrano. The 8,000 acre wilderness preserve is one of the best places in OC for camping and hiking, offering campsites that are far away enough from the bustling city to feel like you’re actually camping in the wilderness, but close enough to town that you can head out for a warm meal at a local restaurant.
Family and group campsites are equipped with barbecues and fire rings. There are equestrian facilities for camping with your horses, and restrooms with flush toilets located throughout the park. There are many miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails to explore and a nature center where you can learn about local flora and fauna, participate in junior ranger and naturalist programs, and sign up for a guided hike or astronomy program. Learn about the stars, the early inhabitants of the area, and the geology of the park at the nature center, plus the kids can read from their library of children’s books, choose a coloring page, play a game, look at the taxidermied animals, and feel the pelts of raccoons, coyotes, and mountain lions.
A Land & Sea Getaway
You can’t come to Orange County without paying a visit to the ocean and learning about our marine life. Start at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point where you’ll learn about marine science, maritime history, and conservation. The Ocean Institute features a learning center, oceanographic research vessel, tall ships, and tidepools. They offer multiple family and interpretive programs for visitors to explore and learn through hands on activities.
Next, pay a visit to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center where you can get up close and personal with sea lions and other marine mammals that are rescued and rehabilitated. Admission to the center is free but donations are greatly appreciated and put to good use. The Pacific Marine Mammal Center offers a variety of educational programs and regularly hosts community events and field trips for schools and scout groups. Visitors can view recovering patients and explore interactive displays, marine artifacts, and the gift shop.
Finally, see Orange County’s marine life in action on a whale watching adventure. The Ocean Institute offers a variety of educational cruises, or you can sign up for one of the many daily tours offered by Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching or Davey’s Locker in Newport Beach.
Where To Stay
Blue Lantern Inn
34343 Street of the Blue Lantern, Dana Point, CA 92629
The Nantucket-style boutique hotel sits on a bluff overlooking Dana Point Harbor. Guests will enjoy the Blue Lantern Inn’s relaxing sitting areas and the on-site spa, and guestrooms are equipped with all the amenities that make your coastal getaway warm and welcoming.
The Inn at Laguna Beach
211 N Coast Highway, Laguna Beach, California 92651
Guests will enjoy the location and luxury at the the Inn at Laguna Beach. The beachfront boutique hotel is within walking distance to local art galleries and some of the best dining and entertainment destinations in Laguna. Or choose to stay on-site after a long day and enjoy the luxurious amenities of the comfortable, modern rooms and the panoramic ocean views from the rooftop bar.
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Heidi Deal is the author of the Newcomers Handbook to Living In Los Angeles & Orange County, and a children’s book author specializing in history and human rights.