Dana Point is a small beach town in southern Orange County, California. It has one of the few harbors along the Orange County coast, with easy access via Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).
The city is a popular destination for surfing, watersports, kayaking, swimming, hiking, and whale watching.
The Dana Point harbor is a busy place with many specialty shopping and dining experiences and the launching pad for many seafaring adventures.
The harbor is also home to Baby Beach, with clam waters ideal for small children. While watching the kids play in the sand and the water, enjoy stunning cliffside panoramic views.
Visitors can take to the harbor's waters in several ways, including private yacht and sailboat charters, sailing and diving lessons, parasailing trips, kayaks, Jetskiis, and watercraft rentals.
The famed Catalina Express starts its regular service to the nearby resort area of Catalina Island.
Special events hosted at the harbor throughout the year include a Festival of Whales, a Tall Ships Festival, and a Holiday Boat Parade.
The harbor also hosts the Ocean Institute, an ocean education organization offering ocean science and maritime history programs for K–12 students and their teachers. It is also open to the public and operates ocean discovery cruises.
Near the harbor, the rolling hills of Dana Point rise in all directions, with multimillion-dollar homes interspersed with hiking trails.
The city was named after the headland of Dana Point, which was named after Richard Henry Dana, Jr., author of Two Years Before the Mast, which included a description of the area.
Dana described the locale, including neighboring San Juan Capistrano, as "the only romantic spot on the coast".
The whole area is designated California Historical Landmark.
Dana Point Headlands
The headlands are what gave the city its name. The headlands are prominent hill jutting into the ocean and offering amazing views of the harbor and beaches below.
The area is now a protected preserve with a nature interpretive center and hiking trails.
The Center is small but informative, with historical, cultural, and natural history exhibits.
A visit to the restrooms at the Center is a must because there are no facilities along the trails.
The Interpretive Center is FREE and used to be open to the public between 10 am and 4 pm (every day except Monday).
The main trail starts from the Center and winds through the headlands, with several viewpoints along the way.
The trail is marked clearly with wire cable with warning signs about the protected area. Stay on the trail until it exits through an iron gate into a residential area.
Don't be tricked like me into thinking that the trail ends at that gate. Keep going down the sloping road (Dana Strands Rd) and after you pass the houses, look for the trail to pick up to the left.
The trail then winds down a hill and into Strands Beach. You can turn back at that point or keep going and connect to the trail along Salt Creek Beach.
While walking through the headlands, take advantage of one of the viewpoints and try to spot whales and dolphins.
The only restaurant on the headlands, Charter House, overlooks the harbor and offers excellent views of the ocean and a delicious meal.
The Ocean Institute
It is an ocean education organization offering ocean science and maritime history programs for K–12 students and their teachers.
The Institute hosts many exhibits, aquariums, and hands-on exploration areas for kids of all ages to learn about marine life and the environment.
For me, the highlight was a cruise on the R/V Sea Explorer, a 70-foot marine science research vessel, to visit the dolphins and whales in their natural habitat.
The exploration cruise was planned for 10 am, but early arrivals attended an educational talk about the trip by Captain Mike. Mike is also a biologist who studied Gray whales in Baja, California, and spent most of his life on the water. Read more about the cruise here.
Salt Creek Beach
Salt Creek Park is located in the city of Dana Point, about 40 minutes from Anaheim. This beach is unique for several reasons: It is a long stretch of beaches (around 18 acres); It borders one of the luxury resorts (Ritz Carlton); It has a beautifully landscaped hill overlooking the beach – with picnic areas; It has a very good food stand, and it has an easy hiking trail.
You can enjoy this beach in any season. During colder days, take your breakfast/lunch with you, stake out a picnic area on the grass (or one of the marble tables) and enjoy your meal with amazing views of the Pacific Ocean and surfers. Once you are done with your meal, you can take a leisurely hike on the sand or on the paved trail.
Doheny State Beach
This State Beach is protected in the state park system of California, located in Dana Point.
The beach located at the mouth of San Juan Creek, which flows from the Santa Ana Mountains southwest to the beach, where it forms a fresh-water lagoon.
The beach covers an area of 62 acres (25 ha) and includes a day-use surfing beach at the northern end, as well as campgrounds in its southern area.
The beach has tide pools and a visitor center with several aquariums.
Captain Dave's Dolphin and Whale-Watching Safaris
The waters of Southern California are full of Dolphins and Whales year-round, but springtime is the best time to visit them. The weather is beautiful, and you have the added bonus of spotting a few whales during their migration north to Alaska.
For our latest sea adventure, we went to Captain Dave’s Dolphin Safari off Dana Point. Captain Dave operates a smaller catamaran from Dana Point Harbor with a net bottom up front and two glass underwater observation pods.
The Catalina Express ferries operate from several Southern California locations, including Dana Point harbor.
They offer fast regular trips to Avalon and Two Harbors on Catalina Island.