The Real Natives of Orange County: The Definitive Nature Center Guide (South County)

Question: Is there wildlife in Orange County if we’re not talking about what comes out at night and hits the bars in Newport Beach?

Most of us would be hard pressed to name more than sea gulls and squirrels. Local trees? The palm trees and eucalyptus are imports. Even the wild mustard that turns the hillsides into velvety blankets of yellow is not native.

But Orange County hosts a significant variety of flora and fauna, and there are places in every corner of the county available to teach us all about the plants and animals that roamed here before the first housecats and orange trees were brought in by those colonizing agents of change, European settlers.

Before you dismiss a “nature center” as somewhere you went on a fourth-grade field trip or where to take the kids when there’s nothing else to do, consider that these spots are a living resource in Orange County.

The rangers and docents are treasure troves of local information who will help you:

  • Identify what you see
  • Take you on a nature hike
  • Teach a class about birding, butterflies or wildflowers
  • On a practical level, teach you how to avoid snakes and poisonous plants

Nature center staff (many of whom are volunteers) are also one of the best resources to help you decide which trails match your ability and goals, from simple nature strolls to more strenuous treks. I’ve often searched for a good hiking map online, only to find the best one is already available at the closest nature center. Most of these centers are free and we’ve noted where there is a fee (for admission or parking).

And of course, we don’t want to just send you out to explore nature without a game plan for what to snack on after. Bring a friend on a field trip to one of these nature centers, and after refreshing your soul in nature, we have nearby options to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea.

See below for our guide to every nature center in south Orange County and the coffee and tea house picks to follow your visit.

South Orange County Nature Centers and Nearby Coffee and Tea Destinations

Nix Nature Center

RNT Architects
RNT Architects

18751 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Nix Nature Center is the headquarters  of the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. Look at that building! There are interactive displays, art, fossils, and interpretive information. Relaxed walks around the center offer plenty more details to digest. This is also your base for several steep and challenging treks into wilderness that take you to a hidden world of the OC. You can start a two mile hike from here to Barbara’s Lake, the only natural freshwater lake in all of Orange County.

Coffee or Tea: After a hike, head to the beach and stop at Urth Caffé (in the space of the former The Cottage restaurant). Urth (an LA favorite amongst the healthy set) is in a beautifully restored cottage with plenty of outdoor seating. Their specialty is organic coffee and special blend teas.

Pacific Marine Mammal Center

Pacific Marine Mammal Center
Pacific Marine Mammal Center

20612 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

Farther down Laguna Canyon is the red barn home of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. Seals and sea lions are rescued and then brought here to heal until well enough to return to their natural homes. The center is free to visit (donations welcome) and offers kids classes. You can visit their current patients and see how they care for our marine neighbors. At any one time they may have over 100 sea lions, along with elephant seals, harbor seals, and fur seals.

Coffee or Tea: Laguna Coffee Company is a small independent local hangout right on South Coast Highway with hand-roasted beans and plenty of pastry and sandwich options.

Dana Point Nature Interpretive Center

City of Dana Point
City of Dana Point

34558 Scenic Dr, Dana Point, CA 92629

The City of Dana Point’s Nature Interpretive Center is a small free center with information on the history, nature, and the trails of the headlands. Helpful volunteers are there to tell you about the latest wildlife sightings, (like foxes and weasels) and the coastal plants, some found only here and there is an excellent brochure listing and showing many of the species. But best of all is the short, but incredible walk from the center to the tip of the headlands. This hidden gem is a seriously photogenic spot. Bring binoculars, because this is a prime place to stay on land and see whales and dolphins. You’ll almost always see or at least hear the sea lions who sun themselves on the closest buoy. Watch for flocks of pelicans and sea birds flying by. You can see for miles to the north and south. This is one of the most gorgeous views in the County.

The center is open from 10 AM to 4 PM every day except Monday. The trail is open 7 AM to sunset daily. For a longer trek, walk down the steep path to Strand Beach for an up-close look at the birds. Seals and dolphins are often seen surfing alongside human surfers. On weekends and day time hours in the summer there is a free funicular (single car tram that goes very, very slowly) that will take you back up from the north end of the beach. If it’s open, try it at least once as this is a fun feature of Orange County that most people don’t know about.

Coffee or Tea: Right around the corner is local coffee house JC Beans. This small, hometown coffee house has comfy chairs, a used book library, a fireplace, and biscuits for your canine companion. There’s a drive-thru (they have to compete with a certain big name coffee place less than a block away) but you’ll be missing the relaxing ambiance and a chance to put a pause in the day if you opt to stay in your car.

The Ocean Institute

ocean institute
Wiley Architects

24200 Dana Point Harbor Dr, Dana Point, CA 92629

The Ocean Institute is  right down the hill from the Headlands, in the Dana Point Harbor. This facility is open daily with many exhibits on display ($5 adult admission on weekdays; $10 adult admission on weekends) and the Institute really does offer school field trips and classes for people of all ages. The exhibit the “Headlands and Beyond” shows local wildlife and ocean life. There are tanks with local sea critters, hands-on experiments and on weekends you can help feed live animals at their touch tank or maybe dissect a squid.

Coffee or Tea: From here, head back to the harbor and have a cup of coffee or tea at local favorite The Coffee Importers and The Scoop Deck that have been run by the Miller family for over 35 years. This is where the locals go to sit outside by the harbor boats for a cup of coffee or tea. Lattes and espressos warm you up on a foggy morning. The ice cream and pastries are as good as the personal service.

Doheny State Beach Interpretive Center

doheny state beach nature center

25300 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point, CA 92629

Doheny State Beach Interpretive Center is located at the entrance to Doheny State Beach in Dana Point (parking $2 per hour).  The center was completely refurbished and houses displays of the animals that live in Doheny, five different ocean environment tanks, and a fish tank. There’s a store with Doheny-focused souvenirs. The center is open 10 AM to 4 PM Wednesdays – Sundays and the park aquarist (that’s an aquarium expert) lets the public help feed the fish on Saturdays. Even if the center is closed, Doheny has many interpretive signs about the many birds (egrets, herons, etc), life-sized paintings of whales, and a native butterfly garden. The garden is a good place to find owl pellets to dissect. The park is also a starting point for the local bike paths.

Coffee or Tea: Just south and east in San Juan Capistrano you can shake off the sand and grab a great cup of coffee at Hidden House Coffee on Los Rios Street. Hidden House roasts their own beans and bakes pastries in-house all morning long, but that doesn’t keep the almond croissants from selling out while they are still warm from the oven. You can sit outside this historic yellow house in the oldest neighborhood in California and relax.

Caspers Wilderness Park


33401 Ortega Hwy, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675

Caspers Wilderness Park has miles of trails for all levels, camping, horse trails, bike trails, and its own nature center. The nature center is the best place to start when you visit the park (use your OC parks pass to skip the $3 fee or pay $20 for camping at the gate) . Every weekend they lead hikes of different levels. You will likely see deer in the park and you can learn about the mountain lions that make this park home too. All children need to be with an adult and dogs aren’t allowed to be on the safe side. From the center’s location on a hill you can get great views of the Cleveland National Forest.

Coffee or Tea: The Tea House on Los Rios is another lovely way to end an adventure with wild plants and reptiles in South County. This is another charming old house surrounded by gardens on Los Rios Street in San Juan Capistrano. You can have a regular meal, but the treat here is to have a good old-fashioned high tea service. Sit down with a pot of tea, scones, and platters of mini sandwiches and desserts (gentlemen are always welcome, but this one tends to draw more female customers for some reason.)

San Clemente State Beach

225 Avenida Califia, San Clemente, CA 92672

In the southernmost tip of Orange County you’ll find San Clemente State Beach with a visitor center in a 1934 cottage that matches the Spanish Village homes of Ole Hansen. Open on weekends, the interpretive exhibits and photos here explain the environment, history, and the many native plants and animals in this unique beach area. This center is also a great place to start hikes and bike rides on the local paths and trails, including the San Clemente Beach Trail.

Coffee or Tea: La Galette serves take-away coffee and tea, or you can sit down for their amazing crepes and Kaylani Coffee at North Beach also sells some cool shaved ice flavors.

The Nature Center Guide South Orange County is a post to bookmark so you will have time later to visit all of these free and/or cheap activities.