There’s no shortage of fun things to do in Orange County, but it’s always a bonus if you find something fun to do that’s also free. Here’s your new go-to list of free things to do in Orange County.
Have a Beach Day
Orange County is obviously known for its long stretches of sandy beaches and world famous waves. Bonus that you can often find free parking to make your trip to the beach even more affordable. If you can’t find any available free street parking, many beach parking lots charge a nominal fee. However, some locations, like the lots operated by the State Park system, can charge up to $15 or more for the day. So if you want to keep your parking cost minimal, steer clear of those beaches. Here are a few where you can find free parking on an average day – keep in mind busy weekends will be more difficult.
Corona Del Mar – Little Corona Del Mar Beach and Corona Del Mar State Beach are located along the same stretch of Ocean Boulevard. There is street parking available along Ocean and other streets in the neighborhood and you can follow the trails down to the sand. If street parking isn’t available, you can park in the paid parking lot at Corona Del Mar State Beach for $3 – $5 per hour depending on the day and season.
Huntington Beach – Huntington City and State Beach has tons of paid parking lots along PCH, but there are also plenty of side streets and neighborhoods to scout for a free spot. You may end up with a lengthy walk to the sand so bring a wagon, but if a free spot is your goal, you’ll likely find one here. Another option is to head to Sunset Beach and Bolsa Chica at Warner and PCH. Parking is $15 at Bolsa Chica’s main State Beach parking area, but turn in behind Jack In The Box at Warner and search for a free spot in this long stretch of public parking, then enjoy your time at Sunset or Bolsa Chica, whichever one you decide to walk to.
Laguna Beach – There are several beaches in Laguna that are accessible via free parking. Main Beach is a popular spot with a grassy area, a playground, a boardwalk, and a sandy cove. Free parking can be located in the surrounding neighborhoods. There are many other beaches in Laguna that can be accessed via walkways down to the sand along Coast Highway like 1000 Steps Beach and if you can find a spot, the street parking along PCH is free. During busier times, park your car and walk to the trolley, which offers free rides and stops at most of the beach access points.
Seal Beach – Seal Beach is the Northernmost beach in Orange County and has been named “Mayberry By The Sea” for it’s quaint, hometown feel. Main Street is lined with shops and restaurants, spas, salons, and local favorite spots for sweet treats. There are paid parking lots on either side of the pier and down by the jetty. But there is also street parking available. The spots on and around Main Street are metered parking spots. The lots located near the fire station and City Hall are occasionally free. The Hangout features a great overview of the free and paid parking options around Seal Beach.
Explore a Nature Center
In spite of the fact that Orange County is made up of big, busy cities, there are also several Nature Centers to sneak away from the hustle and enjoy a little quiet time in nature. Here are a few free locations to enjoy.
Environmental Nature Center – 1601 E 16th St, Newport Beach
Located in Newport Beach, this nature center is free to park and free to enter and accepts donations. Check out the live animals inside and the interpretive signboards, and head out to stroll the trails that meander through native plants, coastal redwoods, and other habitats. This is a great spot for families with younger children.
Oak Canyon Nature Center – 6700 E Walnut Canyon Rd, Anaheim
Oak Canyon Nature Center is tucked away in Anaheim and features a great nature center with interpretive displays, animals, books, and hands-on activities. Outside, there are miles of delightful trails to explore ranging from sunny, ridgetop trails to shady, streamside paths.
Peter & Mary Muth Interpretive Center – 2301 University Dr, Newport Beach
Located in the Upper Newport Back Bay, Peter & Mary Muth is a fantastic nature center with lots of informative displays and a back room with animals, books, and hands-on educational activities. Outside, explore the trails and look for animals in their natural habitats around the Back Bay.
Shipley Nature Center – 17851 Goldenwest St, Huntington Beach
Shipley Nature Center is tucked into a corner of Huntington Beach’s Central Park, near the new Senior Center. Shipley has an indoor area with interpretive displays and hand-on opportunities. Outside, stroll the trails to enjoy a redwood forest, a butterfly garden, and views of Blackbird Pond.
Turtle Rock Nature Center – 1 Sunnyhill, Irvine
Turtle Rock Nature Center in Irvine offers an indoor area with hands-on activities for kids, and easy trails to explore that feature a pond, a labyrinth, and a native plant garden. There is also a playground for kids to enjoy, a large grassy area, and additional hiking trails for those who wish to take a longer hike.
Nature Lovers Bonus:
Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve – 18000 CA-1, Huntington Beach
A small bungalow in the parking lot houses a variety of interpretive displays and live animals, then take time to explore the trails through the wetlands that protect many species of migrating birds. Keep an eye out for herons, egrets, pelicans, snakes, rabbits, and coyotes.
Fullerton Arboretum – 1900 Associated Rd, Fullerton
There is a small nature center on site here, but the it’s not the major draw for The Fullerton Arboretum, located on the campus of Cal State Fullerton. Instead, the fact that this beautiful gem offers trails through a variety of terrain and habitats is the reason why you will return to this destination again and again. The flowing stream that starts with a waterfall at the entrance flows through a grassy meadow area and into a lush redwood forest. Also explore the children’s garden, a desert collection, a woodlands collection and more. The Arboretum is larger than expected and a great place to spend time.
See A Movie In The Park
During the Spring and Summer months, Orange County communities offer a variety of movie in the park events. From animated family favorites like Zootopia, Trolls, and Ralph Breaks the Internet, to popular classics like Grease and The Neverending Story, outdoor movie events offer something for everyone. See our complete list of Outdoor Movies In The Park to find one near you.
Attend A Concert In The Park
Just like movies in the park, Orange County has a plethora of concerts in the park (and other areas) all year long, but the majority of the outdoor concerts take place during the spring and summer. These concerts feature a variety of musical genres, and everything from popular mainstream bands like Big Bad Voo Doo Daddy and Lit, to cover bands like Aeromyth and Hard Day’s Night. See our full list of Summer Concert Series’ to find a concert near you.
Explore A Downtown District
Orange County has many downtown areas that are popular spots for shopping, dining, entertainment, and more. Many host regular community events like art walks, farmers markets, and seasonal celebrations. Downtown Huntington Beach is the home of the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing and many other annual events, and Seal Beach hosts many fun community events from car shows and movies and concerts on the green, to the popular Christmas Parade and other seasonal celebrations. Old Town Orange takes visitors a step back in time with some of the oldest buildings in the county, many antique and vintage stores, and a historic fountain. Old Town Orange is also home to the International Street Fair. Other downtown areas in OC like Fullerton and Santa Ana, have undergone or are currently experiencing a revitalization, providing even more opportunities for Orange County residents to enjoy all that a downtown community has to offer. For more information, see our list of some of the best Downtowns in Orange County.
Go Window Shopping
One of the most popular pastimes in Orange County is shopping, and there’s no shortage of places for that. A much more affordable activity is window shopping. You don’t have to spend money to have a good time, and there are many unique destinations that offer a multitude of entertainment, shops to peruse, galleries to browse, and nightlife to enjoy. Some of the unique shopping destinations worth checking out are The LAB Anti-Mall in Costa Mesa, The Irvine Spectrum, Fashion Island in Newport Beach, Anaheim Packing District, Bella Terra in Huntington Beach, and Downtown Disney. See our list of Shopping Centers in Orange County for more.
Spend The Day At A Splash Pad
It’s warm enough for water play most of the year, but the majority of the Orange County Splash Pads are only open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Still there are a few places that are on year round, and others that extend through the hottest months of September and October. Some splash pads are large, accommodating crowds and providing a variety of play features for splashing and spraying, while others are small and limited to minimal features like small ground sprayers or a single fountain. See our full list of Splash Pads in Orange County to find one near you.
There are many great places to go fishing in Orange County, from the Pacific Ocean to local parks. You don’t have to charter a boat to drop in a line. You can fish from most Orange County piers, and from most beaches. However, check with the lifeguards on duty for closures. There are also several parks that are open for fishing including Central Park in Huntington Beach and Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley. Mile Square park is a regional park that requires an entry fee, but there is street parking around the perimeter of the park if you don’t mind a moderate walk to the lake with your gear. Keep in mind that anyone 16 or older will need a fishing license. For more information, see our page Fishing In Orange County.
LA Chargers Training Camp – Jack Hammett Sports Complex, Costa Mesa
Beginning July 25th, the LA Chargers will begin their training camp and preseason practices. It is free to watch, but if you want bleacher seating you’ll have to make a reservation. Visit the LA Chargers website to sign up to receive the full training schedule.
Costa Mesa Westside Market
On the second Sunday of every month from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., The Westside Museum in Costa Mesa hosts the Westside Market. Entry to the event is free and includes artisans, music, food, and more.
Go To A Skatepark
Orange County has a variety of skateparks with rails, ramps, pools, and street courses. Skate for free at the indoor Vans Skatepark at the Outlets in Orange, or the Vans Off The Wall outdoor park in Huntington Beach. There are also many local parks with skate courses ranging in size from a small area with limited room, to huge courses that offer full street courses with pools and vert ramps. See our list of Skateparks In Orange County to find a skatepark to check out.
Take A Walk On The Pier
Orange County has multiple piers for enjoying a stroll. Take in the salty air and the views of Catalina Island. Watch the surfers and keep an eye out for dolphins splashing in the waves. Where can you find the Orange County Piers? Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Balboa, and San Clemente.
Go To An Art Walk Event
Many communities in Orange County have monthly or annual Art Walk events, where local artists can display their work and crafters sell their goods. These events usually include live entertainment, food for purchase, and free entry. See our list of Orange County Art Walks to find one near you.
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