What are the best state parks in Orange County for kids and families? You might be wondering if you are coming to California on vacation or if you just purchased a California State Parks Pass which allows you to park your vehicle at these treasures.
Now that you can check out a California State Parks Pass from your local library with your library card, this question is getting asked more and more!
Let’s explore your options . . .
What California State Parks are in Orange County?
Honestly, all of the California State Parks in Orange County are appropriate for kids and families. In fact, they are some of my absolute favorite spots because of their sheer size and the nature you can find in these protected places.
- Bolsa Chica State Beach
- Chino Hills State Park
- Crystal Cove State Park
- Doheny State Beach
- Huntington State Beach
- San Clemente State Beach
- NOTE: Corona Del Mar State Beach (excluded from parking pass)
And I would also add in San Onofre State Beach which is right to the south of Orange County in San Diego County. I still include it because it’s super close to San Clemente and my family likes to go there with our state parks pass.
Now here’s a little more detailed look at what each of these spots has to offer kids and families.
Best California State Parks in Orange County for Kids and Families
Let's say you invested in a California State Parks Annual Pass or you've checked out a California State Parks Pass from the library. What are the best state parks in Orange County where you can use the pass?
Each of these listings has a complete blog post attached with even MORE details and photos. So don't be shy about clicking over to the full blog posts about our state parks in Orange County.
(NOTE: This is NOT an official source of information. I am a park lover and I blog about parks to promote play and empower OC families to prioritize nature time. I believe this is the kind of information caregivers need to undertake these kinds of outings!)
Bolsa Chica State Beach is in Huntington Beach (and near Seal Beach). You'll find a nice bike path along a wide beach with a small visitor center. It's also across the street from the Bolsa Chica wetlands nature preserve. My blog post is about how to ride the bike path.
What to Do with Kids at Bolsa Chica State Beach
- Visit the small Visitor Center
- Take a bike ride
- Walk across the street to the Interpretive Center at Bolsa Chica wetlands
- Beach days with sand toys and ocean play
- Try the restaurants along the beach path
- 50 RV Campsites
- 200 fire pits (first come, first serve with no reservations)
Crystal Cove State Park is on the coast between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. There are four entrances presenting visitors with different experiences including walking trails or beach days.
Pelican Point & Treasure Cove at Crystal Cove State Park are at the northernmost parking lot off Coast Highway closest to Corona del Mar. We like to walk down to the beach from here.
What to Do with Kids at Pelican Point and Treasure Cove
- Watch boats enter and leave Newport Harbor. Bring binoculars!
- Start a bike ride from here south to Reef Point.
- Walk the boardwalk and hike up and down other points on the bluff.
- Hike out to the Little Treasure Cove viewpoint and then go explore the tidepools below. Make sure you follow the tidepool rules!
- Play in the sand and see what you can find on the rocks at this stretch of beach.
- Park at the furthest south lot and walk to the Historic District.
The Historic District at Crystal Cove State Park is reachable by parking in the Los Trancos lot. This is the most populated and popular of the four entrances to Crystal Cove State Park. It also means that there's a lot for families to see and do.
What to Do with Kids near the Historic District
- Buy a gift in the The Park Store.
- See if anything is scheduled at the Education Commons (sea glass jewelry making, beachside chat, family hike, guided tidepool walk).
- Stay overnight at the Crystal Cove Cottages if you are lucky enough to score a reservation.
- Watch the sun set over Catalina Island.
- Go tidepooling at the Rocky Bight tidepools to the south of the Historic District. Make sure you learn about the tidepools before you go and follow all posted rules.
- Walk north towards Pelican Point or further to Treasure Cove for a long beach walk.
- Celebrate a family milestone with a special meal at The Beachcomber restaurant. During the holidays, there’s a Christmas tree on the beach here.
- Enjoy a summer beach day swimming and playing at the beach near a lifeguard station.
- Wander along the beach and scope out the cottages — daydreaming about which one you’d pick for vacation.
- Keep your eye out for sea birds and dolphins playing just beyond the waves.
- Build sandcastles.
- Rent a fire pit and have smores on the beach.
- People watch.
Reef Point at Crystal Cove State Park is maybe my family's favorite spot at Crystal Cove State Park. It seems a little quieter than the rest of the spots and the views are amazing.
What to Do with Kids at Reef Point
- See if you can spot whales from the bluff. Bring binoculars!
- Start a bike ride on the Bluff Top Trail from here to Treasure Cove.
- See wildflowers.
- Watch a rain storm blow in.
- Go tidepooling. Remember to read about them here before you go!
- Catch the sun setting over Catalina Island.
- Play in the sand.
- Take the stair path down to the beach.
- Explore the bluff trail. Do you see any lizards? Any quail (the California state bird)?
Moro Beach is at the south end of Crystal Cove State Park. You will drive in near the campground and then drive down a big hill to access the parking lot which has a tunnel that leads to the beach.
What to Do with Kids at Moro Beach
- Take a beach walk to Abalone Point on the south side of the beach.
- Set up a day spot near a lifeguard and enjoy a beach day boogie boarding and swimming during the summer.
- In winter, hang out on the beach and let the kids get their toes wet and play in the sand.
- Start a long beach hike from the south end of Crystal Cove State Park all the way to the north. Watch the tides! It’s 3.2 miles of beach — so it would be a 6+ mile hike if you do the whole thing out and back.
- If you want to spend the night here, reserve a RV or tent campsite at Moro Campground. This is the only section where camping is allowed (by reservation only).
- Walk the trail to the stations on the Berns Environmental Loop.
- There are inland hikes from this entrance, but I tend to stay away from them because they are usually hot and mostly uphill. I prefer flat hikes with the kids -- but you can check out the hiking trails here if you are a hiking family.
Doheny State Beach in Dana Point is known as a paradise for beginning surfers and iconic SoCal vibe near playgrounds and Dana Point Harbor. You might want to wear booties in the water because there is often a rocky bottom. It's the first designated State Beach in California.
What to Do with Kids at Doheny State Beach
- The "North Day Use Area" nearest to the beach entrance is where most families go for surfing or water activities.
- There's a snack bar for treats and you can watch the boats come in and out of Dana Point Harbor.
- Locals don't really swim in the "South Day-Use Area" past San Juan Creek and the campground, but it's still a nice place to watch the waves or go for a walk on the sand.
- There's a small Interpretive Center with aquarium here and education programs including Junior Rangers (but those have been temporarily put on hold due to the pandemic).
- You can ride your bike along the path and through the area, but it's not necessarily off-street or super kid-friendly. However, you could start from near the train station in San Juan Capistrano and take the San Juan Creek bike trail down to the beach and harbor.
- There used to be fire pits here, but they are hard to come by since the day-use area beach often washes out in the winter months.
Huntington State Beach is a little complicated because the beach extends all along the coast of the City of Huntington Beach -- yet NOT all of it is the state beach. Sections north of Beach Boulevard are run by the city, so your State Parks pass won't work here.
The official wording on location by the State Beach is: "Huntington State Beach extends two miles from Beach Boulevard south to the Santa Ana River on the Newport Beach boundary." There are also entrance kiosks off Newland, Magnolia, and Beach Boulevard. I wrote this particular post about entering off Brookhurst, but you'd get the same kind of experience from any of the entrances.
What to Do with Kids at Huntington State Beach
- This beach is all about going for a classic beach day! It's a long walk from parking lot to the water, but the amazingly wide beach and usually smaller waves in shallow water makes it a good one with kids.
- 200 fire rings that are first come, first serve unless they are reserved with a picnic area.
- No camping at the State Beach portion. Day-use only.
If you go to San Clemente State Beach through the kiosk entrance, you will end up in the campground up on the bluffs. There is also a day-use parking area up there near the Visitor Center which will require you to take a trail downhill to the beach (uphill on the way back).
So we prefer to use our pass for day trips to Calafia Beach which is also part of San Clemente State Beach. Instead of turning left into the State Beach campground area, you take Calafia to where it dead ends into a beach parking lot.
What to Do with Kids at San Clemente State Beach
- We use our parks pass for easy parking at the beach
- Both RV and tent camping at the campground
- There's a Nature Trail and Butterfly Trail that go around the park
- In the summer, there are Junior Ranger programs up at the campground
San Onofre State Beach is the one park in my list that is officially in San Diego County, but so close to San Clemente that a lot of OC families visit this state beach.
We primarily use this park for hiking and visits to nature. You can go to the surf spot, but it is usually very busy and a rocky bottom that's not great for kids.
What to Do with Kids at San Onofre State Beach
- We usually hike around the bluffs or down to the beach
- Trail 1 and Trail 6 are the ones where you can take your dog
- You'll have to explore all the trails (#1 through #6) to find your favorite. There are bluff top views and then gorgeous empty beaches most times we visit. All the trails involve a big downhill first to get to the beach and then a big uphill on the way back up to the bluff.
- I would only swim here if there were a lifeguard present because it's uphill all the way to run and get help.
- It can feel very isolated so make sure you bring a friend. Or, on the flip side, it can also feel very crowded during the summer.
- There are two campgrounds: San Mateo (near the creek and Trestles surf area) and San Onofre Bluffs Campground (up above the ocean, although very few with direct ocean views since the sites are set back on the street).
I don’t have a blog post (yet!) on this one:
Chino Hills State Park in Brea – known for its wildflowers and Discovery Center
How to Get a California State Parks Pass for Parks in Orange County
- Pay for the Day-Use Only. All of the parks in my list cost anywhere from $15/day per vehicle (NOT per person!). So your whole family of 8 can go in your minivan for $15.
- Pay for an ANNUAL California State Parks Pass. I wrote a really detailed blog post about how to buy a California State Parks Annual Pass ($195 for the California Explorer pass) and another post about how spending your $ on the annual pass is an investment + how to make the most out of that investment.
No Cost Options
- Park outside the park and walk. Some parks/beaches are better set up for this than others. I know people do this, but I really don’t recommend because sometimes it’s a really far walk (not ideal for families) and even though you are using the park, the park is not getting your $ for upkeep and maintenance.
- 4th Grader Adventure Pass. Do you have a 4th Grader? Well, you can get into national AND state parks for free with your 4th grade student. Unfortunately, this pass does NOT cover any of the parks in Orange County that I listed except for Chino Hills State Park. Here is a list of parks that this pass covers.
- Check out the California State Library Parks Pass from your local library. This is rolling out in April and May 2022 and you get access to the same 200+ parks as the regular annual state parks pass mentioned above! There is a comprehensive website called CheckOutCAStateParks.com which explains all the details and you can learn more from your local library.
- CalWORKS Golden Bear Pass. Are you a family enrolled in CalWORKS? You can apply for this pass through the California Department of Social Services on a secure form. You can apply any time during 2022 and the pass is good through December 31, 2022. This is also good at the 200+ parks.
A little bit more info on that new Library Parks Pass:
As part of a three-year pilot program starting in April, each library jurisdiction will receive at least three California State Library Parks Pass hangtags per branch for checkout by library patrons, including mobile libraries. Park Passes will enter circulation on a rolling basis throughout April and May for checkout by library patrons; library users can contact their local library for more information. Library-card holders will be able to check out the pass for the allotted number of days allowed by the local library, then return the pass to the library for others to use. The pass is valid for entry of one passenger vehicle with capacity of nine people or less or one highway licensed motorcycle at participating state park units.
Camping Costs Extra!
Just so there is no confusion, all of the discussion above is about day-use parking passes.
Even though I mention camping as an option at some of the parks in my list, camping is NOT included with your day-use pass. You will have to pay a separate fee and make reservations to stay for camping.
To summarize: If you are camping, you do not need a day pass. If you are using the day pass, it does not include camping.
Benefits of Getting a Pass
Whether you pay for the Annual Pass or get it from the Library or CalWORKS, I count about 20+ family-friendly parks and beaches in the LA/OC/SD area to visit. That’s not to mention road trips to the redwoods or central and northern California where there are many more places to go.
Here is why they are worth checking out!
- Get out in nature at some of the most amazing and biologically-diverse spots in the whole country!
- It gives you the freedom to visit these places multiple times during the time you have the pass.
- You can just drive in to park to see the sunset or make a quick visit without feeling like you are wasting money.
- You get access to these parks for your whole carload of people (up to 9).
- I think you are more likely to visit the parks when you have the pass.
Where Else Can You Visit CA State Parks near Orange County?
Los Angeles County
Popular Los Angeles County State Parks (SP) and State Beaches (SB)
- Antelope Valley CA Poppy Reserve (SNR)
- Leo Carrillo SP
- Malibu Creek SP
- Malibu Lagoon SB
- Topanga SP
- Will Rogers SHP
- El Matador Beach (Robert H. Meyer Memorial State Beach)
San Diego County
Popular San Diego County State Parks (SP) and State Beaches (SB)
- Border Field SP
- Cardiff SB
- Carlsbad SB
- Cuyamaca Rancho SP
- Palomar Mountain SP
- San Elijo SB
- San Onofre SB
- Silver Strand SB
- South Carlsbad SB
- Torrey Pines SB & SNR
I hope you get a chance to experience some of our amazing CA State Parks in Orange County and nearby!