There are miles of trails to explore in Orange County in spite of the traffic and crowds. We’re lucky to have designated open spaces, wildlife preserves, and nature centers with hands-on activities for the kids and exhibits that tell the stories of the plants and animals that inhabit the area. Take time to step away from the daily grind and enjoy the outdoors when you visit one of these Nature Centers in Orange County Nature Centers.
Bolsa Chica Wetlands Interpretive Center
Hours: 9-4 Daily
Parking: North Lot, next to the interpretive center: 3842 Warner Ave, Huntington Beach. South Lot, 18000 Pacific Coast Highway Huntington Beach.
The Bolsa Chica Wetlands is a natural saltwater marsh dedicated to protecting threatened and endangered species, especially local and migrating birds like the snowy plover. There are approximately five miles of trails at the wetlands. Located along PCH in Huntington Beach, visitors can explore the area with panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean.
The Interpretive Center is a small facility with exhibits featuring marine life and informative displays about local species, the humans that inhabited the land before modern times, and wetland ecology. Trekkers here will see lots of birds including California Brown Pelicans, herons, and egrets (keep an eye out for the white pelicans that stop here), rabbits, and even an occasional coyote. Watch out for snakes on the trail as rattlesnakes are known to find a spot here to sunbathe.
History buffs can learn about the cogged stones uncovered here that were left behind by Native Americans. Bolsa Chica was also the site of the Bolsa Chica Gun Club from 1895 through the early 1900s, and was occupied by the military during WWII. The Army established an artillery battery on the mesa.
Caspers Wilderness Park Nature Center
Address: 33401 Ortega Highway, San Juan Capistrano, CA
Hours: 7am-Sunset Daily
Parking: $3-$5 per car – Purchase an annual pass for $80 and get unlimited parking for the year at all Orange County parks and beaches.
Caspers is the biggest park in the OC Parks system at 8,000 acres. The Wilderness Park offers miles of trails for explorers of all skill levels through groves of Coastal Live Oak, California Sycamore, and fields of wildflowers.
First time out? The Bell Canyon Trail is an easy out and back that clocks in at just under four miles round trip if you travel all the way to the end. The Interpretive Center at Caspers is among one the best in Orange County with a lookout platform to take in the view, many educational displays and taxidermy animals, and hands on activities for the kids. The volunteers are informative and can give you a rundown on the best trails for you to explore, the history of the park, and the plants and animals to keep an eye out for. Wanna stay a while? They have a great campground here and it books up fast. Some trails are open to mountain bikes and horses as well. Sorry, pups. No dogs allowed.
Clark Regional Park Interpretive Center
Address: 8800 Rosecrans Avenue, Buena Park
Hours: 7am – 6pm (Fall & Winter) 7am-9pm (Spring & Summer)
The Clark Regional Park interpretive center is open on weekends and features a paleontology museum with fossils from the area including giant sloths, whales, mammoths, camels, ring-tailed cats, and more. This is one of our favorite nature centers because of these prehistoric treasures, but beware that they sometimes have to remain closed if volunteers aren’t available to staff the site.
Beyond the center, there is an unpaved trail around the perimeter of the park that extends up to the top of Camel Hill, and there are paved trails throughout the park. Clark features all the amenities of the regional park system like playgrounds, a fishing lake, tennis courts, and ball fields.
Dana Point Headlands Nature Center
Address: 34558 Scenic Drive, Dana Point
Hours: 10am-4pm Tuesday – Sunday
The Interpretive Center at Dana Point Headlands is small, but houses plentiful information about the history and culture of the surrounding area with rotating natural history exhibits. There is a kids corner with hands-on activities and displays featuring the animals of the area, and a mural of Richard Henry Dana’s 1834-36 visit.
To explore the natural beauty of the Dana Point Headlands, there are three miles of trails that extend from the nature center to the surrounding areas of Hilltop Conservation Park, down to the beach, Strand Vista Park and more. The brochure at the nature center provides a self-guided plant identification walk, and a list with images of birds, plants, and animals that make a home here, including the endangered Pacific Pocket Mouse.
The Dana Point Headlands is the southernmost location on the Whale Trail, recognized as one of the best places on the Pacific Coast to spot migrating whales from the shore. Take in the view at Overlooks 2 and 3 and keep an eye out for whales, dolphins, and sea lions.
Environmental Nature Center
Address: 1601 E. Sixteenth Street Newport Beach, CA 92663
Hours: 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.
Parking: Parking is limited, however there are two bus spots, 21 spots for cars including, an EV charging station with 2 spaces, two carpool vehicles, two alternatively fueled vehicles, and two spaces for people with disabilities. Parking can be accessed from Pacific Coast Highway just to the north of Newport Bay, you may turn inland on Dover Drive to 16th Street. Turn left, and the nature center is on the left side of the road.
Sitting on three and a half acres, the Environmental Nature Center (ENC), features 15 different native plant communities ranging from desert, to freshwater marsh, to redwood forest. The area includes a hands-on Nature Museum, a seasonal butterfly habitat, and active bird life.
ENC offers many different educational experiences. One that is beneficial for the planet is their zero waste policy. This zero waste policy requires no single use plastic water bottles or styrofoam cups, plastic bags, or coffee cups. Zero waste policies create a learning environment where children and adults rethink their single use plastic decisions. Inside the nature center, visitors will find educational resources, informational exhibits, and they often have coloring pages and books for the kids.
ENC also offers an interactive preschool that instills a lifelong love for nature all the while fostering an environmentalist’s mindset. The preschool combines indoor and outdoor learning to give students hands-on yet innovative nature and conservation lessons. The school emphasizes curriculum be play based over structured in the traditional sense because it makes it so that children can investigate the world around them and float freely between indoor and outdoor learning spaces. Environmental Nature Center was awarded Platinum LEED–Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design– certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Learning never stops and a Nature Center like the ENC needs assistance, which is why the ENC also offers positions such as internships, grounds volunteers, museum docents, and butterfly house docents. Events at the ENC that are put on by volunteers, include forest bathing, bird watching, Spring and Fall Faires, and Summer Camps. Be sure to check out this nature-first Nature Center.
Nix Nature Center
Address: 18751 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach CA 92651
Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is closed Wednesdays and Thursdays currently.
Parking: $3 for parking at the entrance points to the wilderness park along Laguna Canyon Road from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the main lot from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. OCParks annual passes are also accepted.
The Nix Nature Center is the perfect place to take in 20,000 acres of the South Coast Regional Wilderness. This area makes up forty miles of trails that intertwine into woodlands and through ridges that depict the state in its unaltered form. During rainy seasons the streams come to life and add to the natural beauty of the nature center while in the summer they become dry creek beds. The park is a part of the Natural Community Conservation Planning program that was developed to protect endangered species that live in the park.
Hikers, bikers, runners, and horseback riders come from all over to enjoy Laguna Coast Wilderness Park where guided tours are also available. The Nix Nature Center gives visitors a location to explore through exhibits, scavenger hunts, American Indian crafts and customs, and wildlife programs. There are no playgrounds here. Restrooms can be found outside of the Nature Center entrance. Be sure to check out this exciting Nature Center and all it has to offer!
Oak Canyon Nature Center
Address: 6700 E Walnut Canyon Road Anaheim, CA 92807
Hours: Oak Nature Center is open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday 10 a. m. – 3 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. The trails are open 7am to sunset daily
Parking: Parking is free however a $2 donation is desired. Parking is also available at the bottom of Walnut Canyon Road as well.
Sitting on 58-acres, Oak Canyon Nature Center features a year-round stream that flows through the park and combines the two canyons in the area. Elevation here can be as low as 525 feet and as high as 825 feet. Trails range in difficulty across four miles and are typically 0.3 miles in distance which allows for flexibility as hikers make their way through the nature center.
There is part of an oakland area trail on the northern side and coastal sage scrub to the southern side as well. Keeping in line with conservation, Oak Canyon Nature Center, has a strong stance to maintain the environment the best way they know, through the philosophy of “take only memories, leave only footprints.”
Amenities include restrooms and picnic tables that are located in the free parking lot area. The interpretive center is only open Saturdays 10am-4pm making Saturdays one of the most active days here. Special events include a wedding venue, Nature Nights, O.A.K.S. Day Camp, and Discover Nature Family Program just to name a few. If you are looking for your next family adventure be sure to check out Oak Canyon Nature Center for an urban hideaway!
O’Neill Regional Park
Address: 30892 Trabuco Canyon Rd, Trabuco Canyon, CA 92679
Hours: 7a.m. to sunset daily while trails are closed following rain for three days. Camping is year-round and campers can check-in at 2 p.m. Check-out is 12 p.m.
Parking: Day use parking is $3 per vehicle entry Monday – Friday; $5 Saturday – Sunday
Sitting on 4,500 acres, O’Neill Regional Park within the Trabuco and Live Oak Canyons features both camping, hiking, and play activities for the entire family. The park is heavily wooded and includes coast live oaks and sycamore trees that offer tremendous shade and an entirely different atmosphere from that of the surrounding area.
The Interpretive Center is open to the public and offers educational resources and activities for kids to explore. There are also plenty of wildlife exhibits that include a bobcat, mountain lion, fox, and rattlesnake. Docents are full of information and can provide information about the trails, the animals, and the plant life found in the park.
With over 23-miles of trails, bikers, hikers, and horseback riders can enjoy the great outdoors under the Southern California sun. O’Neill Regional Park amenities also include horseshoe pits, grassy areas, and playgrounds.
The adjoining Arroyo campground offers 79 campsites that accommodate tent camping, trailers, or RVs that can be reserved online or by phone. Dogs are welcome in the camping areas, picnic areas, and on the trails but have to be leashed up.
Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center
Address: 2301 University Drive, Newport Beach
Hours: 10 a.m to 4 p.m.
Parking: Parking and admission is free, while public programs are listed online on LetsGoOutside.org.
Officially opened in October 2000, this pride of Newport Beach gives locals a way to enjoy the bay. The Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center gives visitors the opportunity to learn about an estuary, on an estuary, making Upper Newport Bay that much more important. The Interpretive Center offers walking and water tours to explore the Bay.
There is an excellent children’s room at Muth featuring tanks with live, small animals and plenty of books and educational resources. Here they hold regular storytimes and youth programs.
This 10,000 square foot Interpretive Center is built into the side of one of the Bluffs within the north side of the bay, offering a million dollar view of the Upper Newport Back Bay. The Newport Bay Conservancy advocates to give visitors the opportunity to enjoy nature in a cost effective way which also means that the center is funded through donations and run with the support of volunteers.
Riley Wilderness Park & Nature Center
Address: 30952 Oso Parkway Coto De Caza, CA 92679
Hours: 7am-Sunset Daily
Parking: $3 daily parking that is paid for at a kiosk.
The 544-acre wilderness park and wildlife sanctuary includes five miles of trails for multi-use and single track trails for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders. The outdoor ‘classroom’ atmosphere grants students an experience in relationships between the wildlife and their habitat.
Amenities include corrals and water fountains for equestrians, picnic tables, and portable bathrooms, while the visitor center is accessible. The Ranger Station features a hands-on classroom which includes displays that highlight wildlife and history. There is also a one-acre native plant butterfly garden, bulletin boards, and a scenic deck. Dogs are not allowed at Riley’s.
San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary
Address: 5 Riparian View Irvine, CA 92612
Hours: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily
Parking: Parking and admission are free.
Sitting on 300-acres of marsh in Irvine, California, The San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary trails weave past ponds and streams gifting hikers with beautiful sights in the heart of bustling Orange County.
This wildlife sanctuary is very minimalistic which allows for a better experience in nature. Come prepared however, bathrooms are few and far between and there are no playgrounds for the little ones. There are 12 miles of trails to take in nearly 200 bird species. San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary also features hands-on learning experiences for all ages. The site is owned by the Irvine Ranch Water District and was used as a duck hunting refuge through the 1960s. The Wildlife Sanctuary is present here in part because of Peer Swan’s life’s work and desire to create a nature focused place in the city and is now nearly two-thirds the size of New York City’s Central Park.
This preserve also works in conjunction with the Discovery Cube Orange County.
Santiago Oaks Regional Park
Address: 2145 N. Windes Drive, Orange CA, 92869
Hours: 7am-Sunset Daily
Parking: $3 Monday through Friday per vehicle and $5 Saturday and Sunday per vehicle
Found along Santiago Creek in Orange, California, the 1,269-acre Santiago Oaks Regional Park is the perfect place to hike through nature in Orange County. This space features mature oak trees and breathtaking views of the city. A favorite spot here is the historic dam that dates back to 1892, and is perfect for skipping rocks with little ones and searching for turtles.
From hikers to bikers to equestrians, everyone can enjoy the peaceful outdoors tucked away from the bustle of the city. The Nature Center, opened in 1981, and was originally a ranch house built in 1938. Here, visitors young and old have the opportunity to take in natural history first hand. Group classes are offered by appointment for a small fee, and public programs are offered on select weekends in the Nature Center when staff is available.
This location offers an amphitheater, barbecues, picnic and special event areas, an Interpretive Programs center, restrooms, and a playground. Dogs are allowed on the trails so long as they are leashed up.
Santiago Oaks Regional Park is a must see next time you are taking in the historical city of Orange.
Shipley Nature Center
Address: 17851 Goldenwest St, Huntington Beach, CA 92647
Hours: Friday 2-6 p.m. and Saturday 9a.m. to 1 p.m.
Parking: Parking is free and located at 17851 Goldenwest Street and Huntington Central Park West, 6741 Central Park Drive.
Situated on 18-acres, the Shipley Nature Center consists of eight habitats including the Oak Woodland, Meadow Habitat, Redwoods, and Coastal Sage Scrub Habitat to name a few. Opened in 1974, the Shipley Nature Center was named after former Huntington Beach mayor, Donald Shipley, was designed to show what California looked like over 100 years ago and gives visitors a place to enjoy the various native habitats such as Blackbird Pond. Through volunteers and donations, and renovations over the years, Shipley Nature Center now features over 4,000 square feet of trails that weave through the various habitats.
Visitors can now take in the trails on their own and enjoy 18-acres at their pace.
Although temporarily closed due to COVID, the interpretive center gives visitors the ability to learn more hands on about the nature around the center. When open, visitors will find informative exhibits, hands-on activities for kids, books, animal pelts, and much more to explore.
The trails are active with wildlife and an easy weekend outing for the whole family!
Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary
Address: 29322 Modjeska Canyon Rd, Silverado, CA 92676
Hours: 9 am to 4 pm Tuesday, Thursday through Sunday
Parking: Free parking in the lot of the primary address
The 12-acre, recently renovated Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary is a true hidden gem in the heart of Orange County. Formerly operated by Cal State Fullerton College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Tucker is now the latest addition to the Environmental Nature Center (ENC) brand and is set to re-open soon. ENC will operate the Wildlife Sanctuary much like they do the ENC Newport Beach with field trip opportunities, camps centered around nature, and community programs, all while preserving natural habitats and the trails that Tucker is known for.
This nature center is nestled into the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains and acts as an animal sanctuary for native species.
Admission is free and visitors are simply asked for a three dollar donation to maintain the grounds. Originally founded in 1929, founders Dorothy and Benjamin Tucker gave visitors an invitation onto their porch to watch hummingbirds, and now the sanctuary regularly sees 85 various bird species.
Turtle Rock Nature Center
Address: 1 Sunnyhill Drive, Irvine CA 92603
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Parking: Street parking is available on Via Novella
This family friendly trail and adjoining Nature Center collectively sits at the base of the San Joaquin hills in Irvine, California. The five acre nature preserve features an outdoor classroom for visitors and participants that want to learn about the native environment that Turtle Rock Nature Center offers. Included in the beautiful preserve is a Native Plant Garden completed by Eagle Scout, Nathaniel Pinckney.
The nature trail located behind the nature center is perfect for younger children complete with paved pathways, a rock labyrinth, and a stream.
Right next door is Turtle Rock Community Center, two play areas, barbecues, tennis courts, restrooms, a Little Free Library and much more to enjoy on the property.
|Best Hiking and Mountain Biking Trails||Best Regional Parks in Orange County|
|Irvine Ranch Open Space Preserve||Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve|
|Laguna Coast Wilderness Park||Crystal Cove|
Rebecca has an undeniable love of writing and recently graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in journalism. She enjoys watching hockey, scuba diving, swimming, and working out.