Family-friendly nature centers are home to my favorite rangers and resource specialists. Our family loves our visits to these hubs of wilderness displays and outdoor enrichment.
We can’t wait to put our hands on the interactive displays and Eagle Scout projects.
We can stamp out animal tracks in the sand, pan for gold, see historical and archaeological artifacts, learn about native peoples, and touch the world around us.
Combine your indoor learning with an outdoor play experience to learn more about the flora and fauna of the parks we visit.
We applaud the enthusiastic volunteers, employees, and rangers who staff these special interpretive centers that add meaning to parks in and around Orange County.
I especially love nature centers, because they can be the perfect place to get comfortable exploring the outdoors with your kids. Even if you feel like you have no experience, volunteers or rangers in the nature center can answer your questions and get you started on a trail that fits your family’s ability level.
Note: Make sure you always call ahead for hours because many are open only on weekends and depend on volunteers for staffing. Thank you VOLUNTEERS!
Nature Centers in Orange County
An important note about Nature Center hours of operation! Save yourself time by calling ahead to make sure the hours listed are actually the hours for the day you are visiting. Some locations have private events in these spaces OR many of these centers listed have hours that are 100% contingent on volunteers to staff the location, so they can change at the last minute!
I always like to have a Plan B before I go and I tried to list what's nearby under the nature centers below so you WILL have that as an alternative.
Please be aware that you should always check official sources before you go!
Bolsa Chica Wetlands (NEW Interpretive Center)
Bolsa Chica Interpretive Center in Huntington Beach brings families inside a wetlands ecosystem. The interpretive center is quite small, but packed with information about the birds you might see along the trails.
Highlights include: a fish tank and live snakes.
Nearby: Bolsa Chica State Beach and the south entrance to the trails where you might spot stingrays in the water underneath the bridge.
HOURS: 9am-4pm Daily (Phone: 714-846-1114)
Buena Vista Nature Center & Audubon
Okay, the Buena Vista Audubon Nature Center in Oceanside isn’t officially in Orange County. But if you are coming from San Clemente, it can be closer than some of the north county nature centers. We visited before their 2014/2015 renovations and improvements. I can’t wait to go back and see how it’s changed.
Highlights: Easy nature trails amongst the reeds and across bridges. Look for turtles in the ponds.
Nearby: Neighboring Carlsbad makes this an easy spot to stop on your way to/from Legoland.
HOURS: Tuesday-Saturday 10am-1pm (Phone: 760-439-2473)
Caspers Wilderness Park Nature Center
Caspers Wilderness Park Nature Center is beautiful even when it’s not officially open. You can still hang out in the amphitheater or check out the view of the surrounding wilderness.
Highlights include: wildflowers in the spring, amazing views, and proximity to trails and the playground surrounded by oaks and sycamores.
Nearby: Tree of Life Nursery is on the way – you’ll be inspired to grow California native plants and their little gift shop is worth a peek.
HOURS: Call ahead to see if it's open. (Phone: 949-923-2210)
Clark Regional Park Interpretive Center in Buena Park
Clark Regional Park Interpretive Center is known for its fossils and expansive park surrounded by lakes.
Highlights include: a nature trail and 3 playgrounds.
HOURS: Wednesday from Noon-4pm, Thursday-Sunday from 10am-2pm. Closed Monday & Tuesday.
Dana Point Headlands Nature Interpretive Center
Dana Point Headlands Nature Interpretive Center is a favorite place to bring out-of-town guests for the views (when it’s not foggy!).
Highlights include: the bluff top trail (stay on the trail!) and the potential for spotting whales and other sea life below. If you’re quiet, you might hear the foghorn from the harbor or the sea lions on the buoy.
Nearby: So many places to explore, like the Ocean Institute or Doheny State Beach & Dana Point Harbor. I have a BIG list of Kid-Friendly Things to Do Near Dana Point Harbor to extend your play.
HOURS: Interpretive Center open Tues-Sun from 10am-4pm, closed Mondays. Trails and restrooms/parking open daily from 7am-Sunset.
El Dorado Nature Center and Park in Long Beach (Guide for Families)
El Dorado Nature Center is another one of those spots that’s not quite in Orange County, but right on the northern border of the county with Long Beach. It’s such an amazing place, that I had to include it in this list.
Highlights include: its island location and feels-like-you-are-getting-lost-in-nature trails, plus we always spot butterflies or dragonflies here.
HOURS: Visitor Center hours are Tues-Sun 8:30am-4pm (CLOSED Mondays). Trails are open Tues-Sun 8am-5pm (also CLOSED Mondays).
Environmental Nature Center in Newport Beach
Environmental Nature Center in Newport Beach is housed in an unassuming LEED-certified building, but once you walk through the doors into the nature area it’s a magical place for kids to explore.
Highlights include: wildflowers in the spring, a redwood grove, and a stream where you can spot hummingbirds taking a sip of water.
Nearby: Castaways Park and Bob Henry Park are within walking distance.
HOURS: Open to the public on Sat/Sun 10am-3pm. ENC Members Only hours M-F 2pm-5pm. (Phone: 949-645-8489)
Irvine Regional Park Nature Center
Irvine Regional Park Nature Center is usually open on the weekends, depending upon volunteer availability.
Highlights include: lots of hands-on activities and a historical timeline of the park, also historic photos and artifacts.
Nearby: All of the amenities of Irvine Regional Park – like the OC Zoo, 4 playgrounds, Irvine Park Railroad train rides, Wheel Fun bicycle/paddle boat rentals, and even pony rides.
HOURS: Generally open on weekends, but subject to volunteer availability. Call ahead to confirm. (Phone: 714-973-6835)
Muth Interpretive Center and Upper Newport Bay
Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center is mostly hidden from street view and blends in with its Back Bay surroundings.
Highlights include: a whole room for kids to explore with their parents with live animals, coloring projects, and science books for cozy reading.
Nearby: Biking and hiking trails that surround Newport Bay and San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary is just up the road if you want to explore the ponds that eventually lead to the bay once you’ve learned about the estuary ecosystem.
HOURS: Tues-Sun 10am-4pm (CLOSED Mondays).
Nix Nature Center at Laguna Coast Wilderness Park
James and Rosemary Nix Nature Center is another location that blends in with its surroundings. From inside, the architecture lends itself to framing spectacular OC views.
Highlights include: Mary’s Trail is especially good for families and some of the friendliest park rangers around! You can also hike to Barbara's Lake from here in the spring when there is water.
HOURS: 9am-4pm daily. Parking lot closes at 5pm.
Oak Canyon Nature Center in Anaheim Hills
Oak Canyon Nature Center is one of my favorites, because the trails surrounding it are perfect for kids.
Highlights include: dinosaur eggs and towering oaks shading the trail.
Nearby: Fred Barrera Park and the Lost Canyon trails of Santiago Oaks Regional Park can extend the fun.
HOURS: Call ahead (Phone: 714-998-8380)
O'Neill Regional Park in Trabuco Canyon
O’Neill Regional Park Nature Center holds a craft area for kids and sits right next to an awesome playground.
Highlights include: woodpeckers store acorns in the side of the building and there is a picnic area under the oaks out back.
HOURS: Generally open weekends. Call ahead (949-923-2260).
Riley Wilderness Park in Coto de Caza
Riley Wilderness Park Nature Center is modest, but it’s fun to see the scout projects and get advice from the ranger.
Highlights include: butterfly garden right outside and big oaks near the parking lot for birdwatching.
HOURS: Generally open weekends. Call ahead (949-923-2265).
Santiago Oaks Regional Park in Orange
Santiago Oaks Regional Park Nature Center is set amongst . . . the oaks! You guessed it. I’ve never visited on the weekend, so I haven’t been inside yet. You’ll have to report back if you make it there.
Highlights include: a real feeling of getting away from it all and some cool easy hikes near water.
HOURS: Generally open weekends. Call ahead (949-973-6620).
San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine
San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary is an amazing place. The name delivers – I always see a variety of wildlife when I’m here.
Highlights include: super-friendly and helpful volunteers, a list of bird sightings, and binoculars you can borrow.
HOURS: Daily, 8am-4pm (except major holidays).
Shipley Nature Center and Blackbird Pond in Huntington Beach
Shipley Nature Center sits at the heart of Huntington Beach Central Park. Your kids might make it there on a field trip before you get a chance to go with them yourself.
Highlights include: a redwood “forest” and sycamore trees and the kids feel like they are in the wilderness through the trails. It's also easy to pair with the awesome playground at Huntington Central Park West and the HB Adventure Playground during the summer.
HOURS: Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 9am-1pm and closed on major holidays.
Turtle Rock Nature Center and Community Park
Turtle Rock Nature Center is a gateway to the grounds behind it which holds a stream, bridges, and even a maze.
Highlights include: a community playground right outside the doors and a great big lawn in front for picnics.
HOURS: Mon-Fri 9am-5pm. Sat 9am-4pm. CLOSED Sundays.
Agua Hedionda Discovery Center in Carlsbad
Agua Hedionda Discovery Center is perfect for pairing with Legoland, The Flower Fields or any other North San Diego County play trip. Like I always say: north San Diego County is closer for some south Orange County residents than north Orange County!
Highlights: We loved the sea breezes and views of the lagoon. There are so many different rooms and exhibits to explore, many with animals including birds of prey outdoors. Look for Fairyland out near the parking lot with its magical fairy doors.
HOURS: Mon-Sat 9am-4pm, Sun Noon-4pm.
Doheny State Beach Visitor Center & Aquarium
Doheny State Beach Visitor Center has a small gift shop and highlights local tidal sea life. Take a video tour on their website
Highlights: Friendly volunteers and local keepsakes available in Gift Shop. I like the moray eels and can stand watching the tidepool display all day long!
HOURS: Thurs-Sun 9am-5pm, Sat/Sun 11am-1pm.
Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park Visitor Center
This is the newest of OCParks.com nature centers which opened in May 2021.
Highlights: Miniature model of Dripping Cave, really fun topographical map of the canyons, interactive interpretive displays.
HOURS: This location is not dependent on volunteers, so it's more likely to be open. M-F 9am-3:30pm, Sat/Sun 9am-2pm.
Chino Hills Discovery Center blog post coming soon! It’s a good one to pair with Carbon Canyon Regional Park.
- All of these amazing places are FREE to the public (except for paying parking for some of the OCParks.com regional and wilderness parks)
- Please, please, please DONATE to these place to keep them open and well-funded. I think they are very worthy of every penny in a child’s piggy bank — especially if that child feels a connection to the land after the visit.
- Please, please, please THANK the volunteers you meet. Shake their hand, give them a hug, praise them for all the work they do to keep these places open and functioning for our children to experience a different kind of outdoors in Orange County.
- Buy gifts from the gift shops where a portion of the proceeds goes to support the resource and often LOCAL artisans sell their products. Also worthy of piggy bank money!
- If you aren’t happy with the limited hours of operation, send a letter to let the parks know these centers are in demand. Donate. Or volunteer your services!
I hold these places dear and I hope you and your family find joy in discovering the many different pockets of nature that Orange County has to offer. Respect these treasures and tread lightly while you are there.
Originally posted in April 2014.
The Contemporary Homeschooler
Thursday 20th of April 2017
This is a wonderful list!!! I've been doing nature activities for years, and some of these were new to me. Thanks!
Thursday 13th of April 2017
Your list is WONDERFUL!!! Thanks for spending so much time on it. You gave us some great hints on places to visit. There is also a small nature center in Dana Point that offers tours and hikes for adults and kids. It is supposed to be one of the most beautiful hikes in the area: Dana Point Nature-Interpretive Center.
Friday 14th of April 2017
Good catch! How could I leave it out? It's added to the list.
Thursday 23rd of April 2015
I love your post and the fact that you are sharing so much with the world. I am currently in Ireland and will be a new resident of Orange County in a week. Learning about the area thru your eyes is refreshing!
Monday 7th of April 2014
Thanks for writing this great post! Such great advice. YES, please do thank our volunteers for helping keep our doors open. We couldn't do it without them, and they REALLY appreciate being thanked for volunteering.