Top Seven Sights in O.C.’s Southland: What to See and Do in South County

The San Clemente Pier is the hub of activity in Orange County’s southernmost beach town, once the haunt of Hollywood elite and President Richard Nixon. Photo from Pixabay

The San Clemente Pier is the hub of activity in Orange County’s southernmost beach town, once the haunt of Hollywood elite and President Richard Nixon. Photo from Pixabay

Stretching more than 40 miles from the Los Angeles County border to the San Diego County line, Orange County includes the world-famous amusement parks, beaches and shopping centers of the Anaheim and South Coast Metro areas. It also boasts the beauty of South County communities such as Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente. Enjoy your South County day or weekend trip with these seven destinations.

  1. 1,000 Steps Beach

Want to visit a cave and the beach on the same afternoon? You can at 1,000 Steps Beach, where steep staircases lead to a hidden beachfront with a small cave that is accessible at low tide. Parking is free in the nearby neighborhoods, though this is a strenuous hike. To reach the cave, take the southbound Pacific Coast Highway south of Laguna Beach. The beach is accessible at the corner of PCH and 9th Avenue.

  1. Aliso and Wood Canyons Hiking

More caves, deer, an unspoiled coastal chaparral natural environment, and miles of hiking and bike trails beckon the visitor to Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, which encompasses 4,500 acres in one of the largest open spaces in the county. The main trailhead is on Awma Road off Alicia Parkway in Aliso Viejo.

The most popular hike, suitable for outdoor enthusiasts as well as families and weekend warriors, is the Dripping Cave Hiking Trail, a four-mile round-trip route. As shade is scarce, pick a cool day or opt for an early-morning hike. The park is free, though parking is $3. The trails are open daily from 7 a.m. to sunset.

Aliso and Woods Canyons Wilderness Park is a good place to observe the local wildlife. With luck, you might be able to take photos of deer, as I did last summer. Photo by Daniel Coats

Aliso and Woods Canyons Wilderness Park is a good place to observe the local wildlife. With luck, you might be able to take photos of deer, as I did last summer. Photo by Daniel Coats

  1. Dana Point Harbor

Cliffs resembling the rocky granite monoliths of Normandy D-Day fame, a picturesque and pedestrian-friendly harbor, two replica 19th century tall ships, and some of the best photo opportunities in Orange County await you at Dana Point. Parking is free and there is a small sandy harbor beach, as well as rocky shores that resemble the Pacific Northwest or California North Coast.

A good starting point for a day at Dana Point is the Ocean Institute, a marine education facility offering ocean-themed souvenirs, a small aquarium, a replica of the early 1800s tall ship Pilgrim, and the Spirit of Dana Point, a replica of a 1770s ship used during the American Revolutionary War. The institute also offers whale watching cruises during winter. The institute is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends.

For spectacular aerial views of the harbor, take Cove Road up the steep hillside to Habor Point Park. On a clear day, the Channel Islands and the San Diego County coastline are visible.

  1. Doheny State Beach

The white sands of Doheny State Beach have been enjoyed by generations of Californians as a camping and picnic area. To reserve your tent or RV spot, visit the Reserve America site. The afternoon visitor can enjoy the interpretive museum, surfing, kayaking and beach volleyball. Parking is $2 per hour at the meters or a $15 day-use fee. To reach the beach from Pacific Coast Highway, take a right (south) on Dana Point Harbor Drive, followed by a left on Park Lantern.

  1. Mission San Juan Capistrano

Of the 21 Spanish missions dotting the coastline from San Diego to north of San Francisco, Mission San Juan Capistrano is known as the “Jewel of the Missions,” with many considering it the foremost example of the state’s mission architecture. Founded in 1775, the structure was severely damaged in an 1812 quake, the ravages of which are still visible.  Adult general admission is $9 and the mission is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The nearby neighborhood offers shopping and dining, as well as the oldest residential area in the state, with some private homes dating from the 18th century. Each March, the community celebrates the return of the cliff swallows, birds which winter in Argentina but return each spring to the delight of residents and visitors from around the world.

Metrolink’s Orange County Line and Inland Empire/Orange County Line serve the station within walking distance of the mission, enabling visitors to enjoy a day of sightseeing without worrying about driving or parking. If you do decide to bring your car, the mission and historic downtown are accessible by exiting the I-5 on Ortega Highway and taking a right.

Mission San Juan Capistrano is Orange County’s foremost historic attraction. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Mission San Juan Capistrano is Orange County’s foremost historic attraction. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

  1. Ortega Highway

The route from San Juan Capistrano to Riverside County’s Lake Elsinore takes the traveler through the Santa Ana Mountains, the mile-high range that separates the cool beach towns of south and central Orange County from the much hotter Inland Empire. The 33-mile drive features panoramic views and several natural ecosystems, though the curvy road can be a bit treacherous on a rainy day or during high winds. For hiking or picnicking, stop at El Cariso Village, a small community that serves as the hub of outdoor recreation in the area. Once you arrive in Lake Elsinore, shop for bargains at the Lake Elsinore Outlets or head downtown for shopping and dining in the quirky central business district of this city of nearly 60,000.

  1. San Clemente

Richard Nixon, America’s 38th president, chose San Clemente as his Western White House – and for good reason. The lush hillsides, giving way to miles of beaches, exude a Mediterranean air, while the smaller population makes it easier to explore compared with beach towns closer to Los Angeles or San Diego.

The hub of activity is on Avenida del Mar, the main thoroughfare through the downtown shopping and dining district, which descends a steep hillside toward the coast, and includes the San Clemente Pier, a favorite fishing spot.

The nearby Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens, open Tuesday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Fridays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., features an outdoor café, gardens and a historic home, which was the residence of Ole Hanson, a 1920s real estate developer who founded the community. Admission is $5.

To reach the San Clemente coast by car, exit the I-5 on Avenida Palizada and take a right, followed by a left on El Camino Real. Take Avenida del Mar to the coast. The beach, pier and historic home are also accessible through Metrolink’s Orange County and Inland Empire-Orange County lines.

About dcoats

I'm Daniel Coats, a CSU Fullerton Communications graduate student
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