It’s one of the most sought-out cities to live in, ranking fifth on Businesweek’s list of best cities in the US. Amidst the shopping, art, and culture that permeate this city lies 40,000 acres of open space designated as a Natural Landmark by the State of California. The Irvine Ranch Landmarks feature important natural habitats and unique geological formations and are home to a diverse population of native and rare species of plants and animals. These landmarks offer low-cost or free activities designed to help families learn about and develop an appreciation for the outdoors.
Quail Hill Preserve
If you’re looking for an easy, scenic hike, the Quail Hill Loop Trail offers 2 miles of wilderness trail, which is open to the public from dawn to dusk. Before you visit, download the free audio tour (available in podcast format) to your iPod or MP3 player or bring your cell phone (however you will have to use your own mobile service). Natural resource interpreters and researchers will identify and explain important features along the trail and you can walk/hike at your own pace. This particular trailhead is a great place to connect to Irvine’s trail network and offers spectacular views of the Irvine Valley and the Quail Hill Preserve. Parking is free and dogs (on a leash) are allowed on the trail.
Irvine Ranch Water District San Joaquin Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary
As one of Orange County’s hidden gems, the marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary are a haven for lovers of nature. Visitors can walk or jog along the twelve miles of trails while observing the more than 200 species of birds that reside in within the marsh. The 300 acres of restored coastal freshwater wetlands function to help keep local water clean naturally, thereby protecting Upper Newport Bay. As a living laboratory for students, teachers, and the public, there are a number of educational opportunities offered at the Sanctuary in partnership with Discovery Science Center and the local chapter of the National Audobon Society. Visitors can inquire about wildlife education programs and tours. The Marsh House is also home to an interpretive center where visitors can learn about the Marsh, water conservation and environmental protection.
Peters Canyon Regional Park
A hiker’s haven, this popular park offers scenic trails, freshwater marshes, streamside habitats, and native wildlife. Both easy and more challenging trails are available for hikers, bikers, horseback riders, and walkers. Families can picnic in one of two shaded areas and can at times, see migrating waterfowl and wading birds in the nearby lake.
Irvine Regional Park
This historic landmark and the first regional park in California, is popular amongst locals because of it’s diverse family-friendly activities. The park is home to live oak and California sycamore trees, offering shade and scenic views. The area is quiet and peaceful, particularly during off-peak seasons. The park’s expansive size and large number of shady picnic areas makes it an idea location for a birthday party (tip: book early). Visitors also enjoy hiking and equestrian trails, pony rides, a lagoon with paddleboats for rental, bike trails/rentals, softball fields, volleyball courts, the Orange County Zoo and train rides via the park’s steam-driven train. During select seasons throughout the year, the park transforms into an Easter Eggstravaganza, a Pumpkin Patch, and a Winter Wonderland complete with a Christmas Train.
Located at the base of the Cleveland National Forest, this private, man-made lake spans 700 acres and features steep rocky cliffs, shallow coves, deep creek channels, submerged high spots, and overhanging trees. The lake is popular amongst families for fishing, boating, and camping as well as private events such as birthday parties and special events. Children under 12 can learn to fish with their parents at the Lagoon, which is stocked with trout during the winter and catfish during the summer. Additionally, the Lake is host to a number of concert series throughout the year and a calendar can be found on their website.
Mason Regional Park
At over 345 acres, this park is a wonderful resource for local and visiting families. During the summer months, the park plays host to a summer concert series. This season, concerts will be held on three Wednesday evenings in July. Additionally, families can enjoy endless shaded areas for picnics, a softball back stop, sand volleyball courts, a physical fitness vita course, a 9 acre lake, biking paths, and a wilderness hiking area. Parents will also appreciate the park’s three toddler areas. Note: There is a fee to park
Laguna Coast Wilderness Park
Owned and operated by OC Parks, Laguna Coast Wilderness Park spans across 7,000 acres and offers visitors 40 miles of trails and breathtaking ocean and mountain views. The park plays host to a wide variety of outdoor family-friendly activities including hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. The Nix Nature Center offers visitors a place to learn about the wilderness park through exhibits and families can participate in free scavenger hunts or their quarterly wildlife programs. Monthly guided tours are also available and cover everything from fitness and mountain biking to botany, birding, and geology. Note: There is a fee to park and a suggested donation for all tours.
Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve
Visitors to Upper Newport Bay, one of Southern California’s largest coastal wetlands, are privy to one of the finest bird watching sites in North America. Up to 35,00 birds from 200 species can be seen during winter migration and the area is home to at least six rare/endangered bird species. Additional wildlife native to the area include mammals, fish, and plants. This estuary is one of the few remaining in Southern California and offers visitors engaging nature experiences including birding, hiking, biking, kayaking, horseback riding, and camping (Newport Dunes Resort). Within the park resides Upper Newport Bay’s Muth Interpretive Center which seeks to protect and preserve the wetlands through education. Be sure to check the calendar for kid-focused programs including arts and crafts, story telling, hands-on activities and outdoor nature walks.
Crystal Cove State Park
This California State Park offers the perfect venue for uniting those who favor the outdoors and those who find serenity near the ocean. With 3 1/2 miles of beach and 2,791 acres of wooded canyons, bluffs, and trails, there is truly something for everyone. Visitors can hike, bike, or horseback ride through the undeveloped woodland or dive, snorkel, surf, kayak, fish and swim right offshore. The park also offers 3 campsites, accessible 3 miles inland (note that this is primarily an uphill hike). Families should take note of the park’s monthly calendar for information on activities which include family hikes, tidepool walks, movies on the beach, storytelling, crafts, and more. When visiting the park, be sure to take a walk through the historic district which features 46 cottages. Public tours are offered on the second Saturday of each month. Popular beachfront dining venues include Beachcomber cafe and Crystal Cove Shake Shack.