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4 Little-Known Highlights of Orange County

Balboa Island - Audi Mission Viejo

Image via Flickr by Alex Kehr

Orange County is famous for its theme parks and MTV-chronicled beach destinations. All that media attention leads to long lines and more time in the car than in the ocean. If you’d rather avoid a crowded weekend getaway, here are four little-known highlights of the O.C. that locals love and tourists often miss.

Balboa Island

A two-lane bridge is all that connects Balboa Island to the Newport Beach mainland, but you can also take any one of three ferries that travel there daily, if you’d rather make the trip on foot. Once there, stroll the beaches, visit the harbor, or browse any number of small shops that dot the coastal town. Stop by Sugar ‘N’ Spice, an ice cream shop open since 1945 that’s (supposedly) home to the original frozen banana dessert.

On the Open Water: Book a whale watching trip along Newport Harbor to cap off the day. The standard tour lasts a little less than three hours, but you can also reserve full-day excursions.

Badlands Park

Owned and operated by Orange County, Badlands Park grants hikers access to the Laguna Ridge Trail and its expansive views of the Pacific Ocean. A gated entrance near the Monarch Point development is the reason this area remains hidden and seldom traveled by tourists or even local residents. Some of the best hikes include Notch Trail, Castle Trail, and Cliff Shelf Nature Trail.

Laguna Beach View: Want a picturesque view of Laguna Beach without the crowds? Badlands Park can give it to you without the need of board shorts.

The Fullerton Arboretum

Located on the campus of California State University, Fullerton, this 26-acre botanical garden boasts an international collection of more than 4,000 plant species. Cal State notes that the Arboretum focuses on preserving endangered plants or those close to extinction. Take a quiet stroll through the grounds or take part in a guided tour with one of the Arboretum’s staff members.

Members Only Days: Titan card holders and members can visit the grounds on Monday evenings from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. No one else can get in during this time, so plan your trip with that in mind. Membership costs a minimum of $45 and runs as high as $500.

Thousand Steps Beach

No trip to Orange County is complete without a stop along the coastline. Thousand Steps is the ideal stop for locals or vacationers looking to commune with the Pacific and avoid crowded shores. Named for the lengthy staircase needed to reach the beach, you won’t find many surfers at Thousand Steps due to the prominent sharp rocks in the shallows.

Obey the Rules: Keep the beach looking gorgeous for others who follow after you by leaving your dog at home.

There’s no way to explore all that Orange County has to offer in a single trip. Always take your time. Build in some serenity by making one of these destinations the focal point of your time away from the grind.