Dana Point is a quaint little seaside community nestled in the heart of Southern California covering less than 30 square miles. It’s located in south Orange County just north of San Diego. It’s a city of both luxury with its yacht filled harbor and ocean view homes, and a laid-back surfer vibe with its reef breaks, reliable waves and year-round California sun. It definitely has something to offer everyone
Dana Point was named after Richard Henry Dana, Jr., a Harvard-trained lawyer, seaman and author. In 1834, Dana shipped out on the Boston merchant ship Pilgrim, sailed around South America’s Cape Horn and came up the California coast. He wrote about his adventures in the classic sea journal, Two Years Before the Mast, describing the area of what is now Dana Point as “the only romantic spot on the California coast.” A replica of his ship, The Pilgrim, was used as a floating classroom by the local Ocean Institute until it sadly sank in the harbor in 2020. The entire area is designated a California Historic Landmark.
When touring through the city streets, you will notice they are all named after lanterns. Over 200 years ago, colored lanterns were used by ships to advertise their fares while docked in Dana Point’s natural harbor, most of which were traded for California cow hides with nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano. In the 1920s when land development was at a peak, it is rumored that Anna Walters, a realtor who worked with Dana Point developer Sidney H. Woodruff, came up with the famous gimmick to light the lanterns at the end of each street in different colors and name them accordingly. Today the names add charm to this colorful town.
The Dana Point Harbor was built in the 1960s. Construction began by building two jetties using large chunks of granite from nearby Catalina Island. Over 3 million cubic yards of earth were moved during its construction and over 225 million gallons of seawater had to be pumped out. The harbor officially opened in the summer of 1971. Many remain nostalgic for the good old days back before its construction put an end to their beloved, legendary surf spot, Killer Dana.
Today, you can find souvenir stores, coffee shops, ice cream, restaurants and bars as you stroll the harbor. You can spot sealions sunbathing as you stroll past the docked boats, the wind wailing through their riggings, or blue and green heron, gulls, pelicans, aukets and boobies in this bird sanctuary.
The harbor lights up for the annual Festival of Lights from mid-November through January 3rd, and the Dana Point Boat Parade during the two weekends before Christmas each year. It’s the perfect spot for spreading seasonal cheer and enjoying a hot cocoa. For rentals and more information about Dana Point Harbor click here.
Dana Point has some of the best year-round whale watching anywhere on the coast and one of the largest concentrations of blue whales and dolphins in the Pacific. The World Cetacean Alliance has designated it as the first Whale Heritage Site in the Americas.
Gray whales can be seen making their 10,000-14,000-mile-long migration to Mexico from November through April. Blue whales typically migrate May through November. Dana Point is also known for sightings of fin whales, minkes, humpbacks and orcas (killer whales). There are several whale watching outfits in the harbor including the Ocean Institute which offers a 2-hour eco-friendly, educational tour on its 65-foot Research Vessel Sea Explorer.
Dana Point offers sunset cruises, champagne cruises, dinner cruises, holiday cruises, catamaran cruises and live music harbor cruises. You can also charter a boat to take you sailing, sportfishing or parasailing along the beautiful California coast. There are many to choose from including Dana Wharf, Dana Point Charters and All Water Fishing Charters.
The Ocean Institute was originally founded as the Orange County Marine Institute in 1977. It is well known nationally for its efforts in marine science, environmental education and conservation. Here you will find exhibits, aquariums and interactive learning experiences open to the general public.
The Institute offers ocean science and maritime history programs to students and teachers. Field trips immerse students in historical reenactments and hands on learning including building robots for undersea exploration, whale watching, marine life excursions, special events and tours.
The Institute also prides itself as the inspiration for SpongeBob SquarePants whose creator Stephen Hillenburg was a former science instructor here.
Past the Ocean Institute, on the north side of the jetty is a staircase leading down to a rocky beach with tide pools that can be explored. Here you will find mussels, snails, colorful sea anemones, urchins and crabs. The best time to visit is at low tide when you can hike along the rocky bluff for quite some distance.
Baby Beach is located at the north end of the harbor near the Ocean Institute where waters are safely protected by the jetty. This makes it a great spot for swimming and launching kayaks, row boats and paddle boards. There is a sandy beach as well as a large grass picnic area with tables and BBQs available on a first come, first serve basis. This area also hosts live music events and sandcastle building contests during the year.
Salt Creek Beach is a popular surf spot due to an offshore reef that creates some of the best swells along the entire coast. It is also a great spot for body surfing, bodyboarding and boogie boarding. From the parking lot, a long path leads down to the sand that passes a 7-acre stretch of grassy bluff with volleyball courts and a half basketball court. This area also hosts live music concerts and outdoor movie nights during the year.
In 1887, the part of Dana Point now known as Capo Beach was being developed into a community called San Juan by the Sea. However, the mysterious murder of Ned Doheny at Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills brought this dream development to an end. In 1931, his family donated quite a bit of that land to the state in his memory, much of which now makes up Doheny State Park. Later, additional land was donated by and obtained from the Santa Fe Railroad, UC Regents and the Union Oil Company.
Today, Doheny State Beach is a popular spot for sunbathing, picnicking, long board surfing and bicycle riding. The area has a 121-site campground on the beach, firepits on the sand and picnic areas with tables and BBQs. There is an outdoor restaurant that serves wine and beer as well as a seasonal concession stand that offers hotdogs, ice cream and snacks and rents bicycles, boogie boards surfboards, wet suits, beach chairs, umbrellas, volleyballs and plastic sand toys.
The Doheny State Beach Visitor Center located near the park entrance houses fish tanks, a shark pool and taxidermy mounts of native animals and birds. It also operates a pop-up store on the boardwalk where you can buy souvenirs.
The Dana Point Bluff Top Trail is a historical 0.2-mile easy hike atop the bluffs overlooking Dana Point Harbor between Amber Lantern and Violet Lantern. The original dirt trail was built in the 1920s and you can still spot remnants of it as well as three vine covered cement arches that are all that remains of what would have been the Dana Point Inn had the Depression not put an end to development of this grandiose hotel.
Along the trail, you will pass The Hide Drogher, a life-sized sculpture memorializing the spot where 19th century sailors tossed the cowhides they obtained at nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano down over the cliff to their ships below to avoid carrying them down the steep bluff.
The Dana Point Nature Interpretive Center is located at the end of Scenic Drive and serves as a Visitor Center for the Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area. It is small but informative with interesting exhibits. It sits adjacent to Dana Point Preserve where you will find a hiking trail atop the cliffs with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean below. During certain times of year, you may be able to spot whales and dolphins migrating along the coastline.
Two other short trials with great views can be found nearby and combined with your visit – Hilltop Conservation Park Trail and Harbor Point Conservation Park Trail.
California Wine Festival (August) – The California Wine Festival takes place at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott offering wine tasting, culinary delights, exhibitions and live entertainment.
Doheny Blues Festival (May) – In 1998, Doheny State Beach began hosting the annual Blues Festival. It still takes place in May but has moved to Sea Terrace Park where it features three alternating stages of blues, rock and soul music. Get your tickets to the Doheny Blues Festival
Festival of Whales (March) – The Festival of Whales has been held annually for 50 years to honor the migrations of the California gray whale. Festival events typically include a parade through town, a 5k and fun run, giant life-size whale chalk drawings on the walkways of Doheny State Park, lecture series, vendor booths, live music, scavenger hunts, the Diamond Dig where kids dress like pirates and dig for buried treasure in the sand, and more whale watching tours than usual. Click here for more information about the Festival of Whales
Maritime Festival (September) – Previously known as the Tall Ships Festival, the Ocean Institute’s Maritime Festival has been a Dana Point tradition for almost 40 years. Events include cannon battles, craft beer gardens, live music, mermaid shows, ship tours and more. You will find people walking around the harbor dressed as pirates and children engaged in plastic sword fights.
Ohana Festival (September/October) – Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam hosts this three-day festival at Doheny State Beach each year offering incredible live music with a view of the ocean under the palm trees. Get your Ohana Fest Tickets here.
Festival of Lights (Mid-November-January 3rd) – During the Festival of Lights, the Harbor comes to life with thousands of holiday lights and decorations. The Dana Point Boat Parade during the two weekends before Christmas adds to the festivities.
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