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Dana Point Headlands Nature Interpretive Center

Dana Point Headlands Nature Interpretive Center

Dana Point Headlands trail and the City of Dana Point Nature Interpretive Center are favorites with families. The center opened in April 2010.

I’m one of those who is very sad to see much of the Dana Point headlands disappear to development.

However, the part that is still protected as open space provides a scenic glimpse of the beauty which previously encompassed this whole point of land.

dirt trail in a field of yellow flowers with the ocean visible off the bluff

Directions to Dana Point Headlands: The center is at the dead end of Green Lantern above Dana Point Harbor. It’s reachable from the Harbor by taking Cove Road (near the Ocean Institute) up the hill to where it ends in the parking lot. You need to approach from the north if you are coming on Pacific Coast Highway. Just turn right onto Green Lantern and follow it to its end. (Address: 34588 Scenic Drive, Dana Point) MAP TO THE DANA POINT NATURE INTERPRETIVE CENTER

simple tan building with a sign that says: Nature Interpretive Center

Highlights:

The Center is small, but informative. You’ll find historical, cultural, and natural history exhibits. According to the City’s page on the center, exhibits will rotate.

Friends of the Dana Point Headlands (FODPH) is a 501(c)3 non-profit that formed to: “to inspire and enhance the conservation of the Headlands and to further educate the public to its importance.”

The FODPH volunteers are a joy to talk to and learn from when you are visiting the nature center! They have scavenger hunt checklists and other family-friendly activities if you visit while the center is open.

I consider the restrooms and drinking fountains a definite highlight before setting out on the trail.

The Interpretive Center is FREE and used to be open to the public between 10am and 4pm (every day except Monday).

Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area Trails

I did not realize that the trails running through Dana Point Headlands had separate sections and separate names. Thanks to the city representative who was patient enough to explain it all to me! Here’s what I learned about the FOUR trails . . .

Here is the very helpful TRAIL SYSTEM MAP of the area that will help you figure out where you might want to go.

Dana Point Preserve Trail (what I call Dana Point Headlands Trail)

The Dana Point Preserve trail is the only portion of the Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area that is not owned or managed by the City of Dana Point.

The Center for Natural Lands Management updates their website with current trail access and restrictions. As of Summer 2022, this section is only open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 8am-4pm. There is currently a legal battle going on between CNLM and the City of Dana Point for public access to this area. Before 2020, public access hours were 7am to sunset every day except Monday.

The trail is marked clearly with wire cable — so there is little chance of your little one going off trail.

Depending on the time of year, look out for whales and dolphins. Can you spot any navigational buoys? Flocks of pelicans flying in V-formation? Helicopters? Boats? Surfers? Can you hear sea lions barking from the buoy?

An easy hike to the Nature Interpretive Center in a U-shape to the end of the trail is roughly 10 minutes (20 minutes round trip when you are able to go out and back). Still, I’d recommend bringing water along in case you dally to check out the view.

There are benches for viewing the wildlife and sunsets.

view from the top of the Dana Point Headlands over Dana Point Harbor down to San Clemente

The other trails in the area that are run by the City of Dana Point are:

Hilltop Conservation Park Trail

This trail has even loftier views out over the harbor. It does involve some stairs and a little elevation as compared to some of the other nearby trails. You will hike up on the hill way above the harbor and Strands.

In the photo above you can see an almost aerial view of the next trail . . . at Harbor Point.

Harbor Point Conservation Park Trail (at the corner of Cove Road and Green Lantern below the Interpretive Center)

This trail is at the corner of the Conservation Area as you come up Cove Road from Dana Point Harbor, you’ll see the deck with the surfboard quote and you’ll know you’ve found it.

This used to be a VERY short out & back trail where you had to go out the same way you came in. Not anymore! It’s a very easy loop. It maybe takes 5-10 minutes tops — even with kids.

You will get beautiful views of Dana Point Harbor. You’ll see boats coming/going from the harbor and it would even be a great place to spot whales from shore during December-March.

There is on-street parking on the uphill side that is often crowded because the view is so pretty. You can only park on the uphill side facing the uphill direction.

Parking is off-limits on the downhill side. It’s entirely red curbed.

There are 3 pull-in spots and one accessible parking spot right near the surfboard and you can park parallel on the flat part near the corner of Cove and Green Lantern, but there is only enough room for another 3 cars.

It is such a well-loved area that the rules are really important here so that everyone can enjoy this place.

  • Dogs are not allowed on this trail. Why? It’s a protected natural area and dogs can impact the behavior and well-being of local wildlife. Leave your furry friend at home for this one.
  • Please do not litter. If the trash cans are full, then pack out your trash. Again, having human waste spill out into what could be a pristine area can ruin the “getting out into nature” experience for all.
  • No smoking or vaping. This area is usually quite dry so there is fire danger with smoking. The scents from vaping can also disturb local wildlife. It’s such a short walk that you can 100% wait until you are done hiking.
  • Stay on the trail. I was here recently on a weekend and saw lots of groups climb OVER the fencing to scramble down the hill or pose for a photo. Do not do this! Please, please, please obey all signs and don’t climb over fences. They are there for a reason and I see reports of full-on rescues here that put emergency responders in danger, as well.

Check out this cliff! You can see how unstable the edges are and how people climbing over has already disturbed the habitat making it more likely to erode.

Another item to note is that the trail is narrow and dirt, so it’s not stroller-friendly or really very accessible. However, there is a parking spot right near the surfboard if you have a disabled parking placard and you can enjoy the deck and the view from there.

South Strands Switchback Trail

South Strands Conservation Park encompasses the park above Strands Beach. You can reach the beach from up here by either taking the north stairs, the central stairs and path through the community or the South Strands Switchback Trail.

Most locals know this as a loop and either start from the north and take the stairs down, walk south along the beach sidewalk, and then up the switchback trail on the south end. Or you can do that same walk in reverse: start at the switchback, go along the beach, and up the stairs.

Be Aware

  • The City of Dana Point does run the Interpretive Center, but NOT the immediately adjacent trail.
  • The trail is NOT stroller friendly. It’s more like a groomed hiking trail.
  • Your shoes WILL get dusty. Don’t wear your best.
  • Hilly . . . altitude gains and losses. Not severe, but it’s not at all flat.
  • NO dogs allowed on ANY of the trails because of the sensitive habitat and designated conservation area.
  • Watch for pedestrians! People are walking in the street or driving while distracted from the view.
family hiking on the Dana Point Headlands trail

Suggestions:

  • Bring a camera or a painter’s canvas. You won’t want to forget the incredible views.
  • Read up on Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana.
  • Pair it with a trip to the Ocean Institute.
  • Brush up on your shorebirds, cactus, and coastal sage scrub for nature identification.
  • Pair this with a walk to Strands Beach or Strand Vista Park.
young girl with a pink shirt and purple cap looking at mural of pirates on the beach below the bluff at Dana Point Headlands

Originally posted in July 2010.