Orange County is full of so many beautiful and fascinating places to check out. It is easy to just spend your time in The OC at the stunning beaches or enjoying the thrills of the theme parks. However, if you only experience those select parts of Orange County you are missing out on some spectacular and fun adventures. This blog post & accompanying podcast episode only scratch the surface of hidden gems in Orange County. I share a bunch of fun ideas of places to go in both LA & Orange County on my Instagram if you want suggestions of other places to explore as well.
You can listen to us talk about Hidden Gems in Orange County with Rey, from exploreytion on Instagram, on the newest episode of the LA Dreaming Podcast. You can listen to the podcast through Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Stitcher, or Podbean.
This post contains affiliate links. That means if you click on a link and buy something, I will earn a small commission from the advertiser at no additional cost to you.
Newport Beach is one of my favorite cities in Orange County which makes it the perfect place to start when it comes to sharing about hidden gems in The OC. There are popular destinations like Balboa Island, Fashion Island, the pier & more which I would still highly recommend checking out. But, for this post, we want to share some places that even people who have been to Newport numerous times might not have checked out yet.
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At Newport Dunes you can rent paddleboards, and kayaks, and play in their inflatable water park. For those who want to do stand-up paddleboarding, the radiant rides take place as the sun is setting with glowing boards. It looks really cool. They do have RV hookups and cottages that visitors can stay in but anyone is welcome to come and enjoy a day on the water here. You can find free street parking spaces along Back Bay Drive near the resort entrance.
Location: 1131 Back Bay Dr, Newport Beach, CA 92660
Newport Beach Civic Center
Some of my favorite non-hidden gems near the civic center are Fashion Island & Sprinkles cupcakes. I am so sad that I have been near the Civic Center so many times but until recently was unaware of how cool this spot is. The park at the Civic Center has a 1.23 walking trail that passes by fun sculptures as well as wetland areas.
Location: 100 Civic Center Dr, Newport Beach, CA 92660
Crystal Cove State Beach
There are so many great reasons to visit Crystal Cove State Beach. If you want a good meal on the beach you eat at the Beachcomber or if you want burgers & fries the Shake Shack (Ruby’s not the Shake Shack brand) is located on PCH overlooking the beach. At the south end of the beach, you can visit the cottage from the Garry Marshall movie beaches. You can sit on the porch and get photos. This is really fun for fans of the movie.
Location: Los Trancos Parking Lot. I would park here and take the walking path to get to the beach. If you want to eat at Shake Shack you can take the stairs from the beach up to PCH. Or if you just want to come to eat at Shake Shack you can park there. But, please note that due to limited parking you are not meant to park at Shake Shack & then walk down to the beach.
Sherman Library & Gardens
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This beautiful botanical garden is a hidden oasis that stuns me every time it appears on my Instagram feed. Admission is $5. The hours are 10:30 am to 4 pm. You can download a free audio tour on your phone.
Location: 2647 East Coast Hwy, Corona Del Mar, CA 92625
Old World Huntington Beach
Old World in Huntington Beach is one of those spots that will make you feel like you are in Europe. They even have chocolates & other items from Europe which is a special treat for people who miss the things that they love from overseas. This is one of the coolest spots to experience Oktoberfest in Orange County. They host several fun events throughout the year.
Secret Garden in Huntington Beach
The secret garden is located behind the Huntington Beach Central Library inside Huntington Central Park. The garden was created in 1992 to showcase drought-tolerant plants. A meal at the nearby Park Bench Cafe is highly recommended.
Location: 18002 Goldenwest St Huntington Beach, CA 92648
Great Park Irvine
Great Park Irvine is one of the coolest parks in the OC. They have sports fields, movie nights, a free tethered balloon ride, a carousel and so many more activities that you can enjoy. The tethered balloon ride is one of the coolest free hidden gems in Orange County.
You can find free parking in various lots, but parking by the carousel is the closest option for the balloon ride. Once you park head over to the visitors center where you’ll need to scan a QR code to sign a waiver. Once you sign a waiver and check in with a staff member you will get an eta before it’s your turn to join the line. We waited for about 6 minutes before getting our text that we could pick up our boarding pass. Once we had our paper pass we joined the line and waited 30 minutes. It would have been a 20-minute wait had the people in front of us not added people to their group. The experience itself is about 10 minutes from lift-off to touch down. The best view during our ride was on the east side. This is a fun and free activity. Hours are:
Thursday 10AM–3PM, 7–10PM
Friday 10AM–3PM, 7–10PM
Saturday 9AM–3PM, 7–10PM
Sunday 9AM–3PM, 7–10PM
They are closed Mon-Wed. This is a really great family-friendly activity.
Location: 8000 Great Park Blvd, Irvine, CA 92618
Irvine Regional Park
There is so much to explore in the Irvine Regional Park which is not located in Irvine, it is in Orange. While the holidays are an extra special time this park has so many activities that you can enjoy year-round.
We also recommend a visit to Old Town Orange. This is one of those downtowns that will make you feel like you have stepped back in time. Some of the places we mentioned in the podcast episode were the Filling Station, Rutabegorz, and the Starbucks which was used in the Reese Witherspoon movie Four Christmases.
Location: 1 Irvine Park Rd, Orange, CA 92869
If you want some fun ideas of places to check out in Orange County, Amazon has a book of 100 Things to Do in Orange County before you die.
Modern Times Brewery Anaheim
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Modern Times Brewery looks like such a fun place to check out. This is a brewery, a tasting room, with all vegan food, and a pool.
Location: 549 S Anaheim Blvd, Anaheim, CA 92805
Redwood Grove in Carbon Canyon Regional Park
The redwoods feel like they come out of nowhere when you are walking through the Carbon Canyon Regional Park. The trails in the park are not too strenuous so this makes for a family-friendly walk. The park itself is really large with so much to see.
Location: 4442 Carbon Canyon Rd, Brea, CA 92823
Pirate Tower in Laguna Beach
The pirate tower in Laguna Beach can be found at Victoria Beach. You will want to park on PCH and walk towards the address below. There is a staircase by that address that will take you down to the beach. Once you get to the sand you’ll keep walking to the right-hand side until you reach the tower. The tower truly looks like something out of a fairytale.
Location: 2713 Victoria Dr. Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Secret Waterfall in Dana Point
There is a waterfall in Dana Point that only appears when it is raining or just after it has rained. It is really pretty to see but be mindful that the ground around it is very muddy after the rain. There was a crowd of people but plenty of street parking available. Be warned that it is muddy so wear shoes that can get dirty. Since it was sunny when I went I also added in a short walk at bluff top trail which is directly above this area. You can put “Dana Point seasonal waterfall” directly into your GPS or use the address 24413 Dana Point Harbor Drive.