Dana Point Conservation Area trail entrance. Courtesy/Stacey Simon
#1 Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area
These coastal bluffs offer an appreciative blend of pristine ocean views and natural Southern California habitat. With interpretive signs dotted throughout the trail, one will find educational, historical, natural and conservational information on the Dana Point Headlands.
“I love this place to come and walk with my friends,” said Dana Point resident Janene Harris. “This is kind of the closest you can get to what Dana Point really looked like before all those houses were built up. Plus, I can’t complain about the stellar views and ocean breeze.”
Located at the entrance of the trail sits a visitor information center, where additional information can be found on the over 150 species of plants and animals that claim the Headlands as home. Upon entrance, you’re welcomed by a mural depicting the history of the Headlands. You may even have the pleasure of speaking with one of the eager volunteers who possess a plethora of knowledge on the historical and natural appeal of the area.
Dee White, a petite retired teacher who volunteers at the visitor center, described her personal interest in Headlands with great enthusiasm. She has a particular connection with the area, as her husband never referred to her as her forename, but rather as “mouse” because of her small stature. Little did she know that her namesake would have been the saving grace of the Headlands habitat.
“In 1993, they found a pocket mouse here, which had been thought to be extinct throughout the world for over 43 years,” White said. “I always want to kiss this pocket mouse because they were going to build on this whole beautiful area here, and this little mouse stopped it. We are all stewards of the earth – you destroy one species, you destroy multiple.”
White has a special interest in the historical aspects behind the area, going back to the local Native American Acjachemen tribe that lived on this land for over 10,000 years. Not only does she feel the need to preserve the land, but to share the purpose of preservation with others.
“It’s wonderful to have everyone learn how important it is for us to protect our planet, and the only reason that we don’t do that is because it’s always about build, build, build,” said White. “What is so important about this is the fact that we have saved so many plants and so many animals.”
#2 Los Rios Street Historic District
Los Rios Historic District at sunset. Stacey Simon/Lariat
Just a stone’s throw away from the Mission San Juan Capistrano, Los Rios Street offers a glimpse into the unique Californian past. Crossing over the train tracks, you’ll find a charming street with historical homes, restaurants, and boutiques. This quaint little road happens to be the oldest neighborhood in California.
“I just feel so enchanted whenever I walk through this little road,” said local resident Maria Rosales Jimenez. “Everything about this takes me back to the old world and gives me this cozy feeling that I can’t get anywhere else in Southern California.”
Many residents boast about the time-travel effect that Los Rios provides. With minimal physical evidence left of Californian history compared to the rest of the United States, this post-colonial neighborhood is treasured by locals and tourists.
“I live in Minnesota, but my grandparents used to take me to San Juan Capistrano as a little girl for the Swallow’s Day Parade, and I’ve just been in love with it ever since,” said tourist Michelle Gregory. “To this day, I’ve made a point to come out to San Juan Capistrano whenever I am in California.”
#3 Mission San Juan Capistrano
Exterior-corridor at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Courtesy/Pixabay
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the Mission San Juan Capistrano was built, and soon became the center of the economy for the Spanish and Acjachemen Native Americans as the two cultures merged. The mission was named after Giovanni da Capistrano, a Franciscan saint from the Abruzzo region of Italy. In 1812, the original structure shattered and collapsed in an earthquake, causing the death of 40 Acjachemen.
The ruins that remain offer a window into the past, giving locals and tourists alike a fascinating atmosphere to take in.
“I grew up here in San Juan,” said San Juan Capistrano resident Sebastian Rivera. “There is something really eye-opening about this place, which is why I walk through here so often. Seeing the product of the Spanish and Native American cultural mixture is so important to the history of California.”
Many enjoy the courtyard gardens, packed with colorful flowers and sparkling fountains between walking paths. The mission boasts a splendor of exhibits, art and conservation, showcasing historic and religious artifacts, 18th-20th century paintings as well as Native American art.
#4 Treasure Island Beach, Laguna Beach
Treasure Island Beach at sunset. Christophe Laurenceau/Courtesy
This crescent shaped beach could make anyone feel like they are their own private island. That is, until you turn around and see the massive Montage hotel just behind it. A leisurely stroll along the top of the cliff offers people a gorgeous view of the coast, while a wooden staircase leads you to the soft sand beach below.
“The tide pools here are so beautiful,” said Laguna Beach resident Marjorie Adams. “I come here just about every day with my husband and we just take in that smell and sound of the ocean. I take my grandkids here so they can learn about the sea life and take in all that it has to offer.”
#5 Dana Point Harbor
Dana Point Harbor. Stacey Simon/Courtesy
The harbor in Dana Point is a local favorite, with whale watching excursions, sailing, parasailing, stand up paddle boarding, diving and fishing. Yet, this harbor also gives locals a sense of community, as it is one of the best places to socialize and interact with the neighborhood.
“I bring my dogs here for a walk a few times a week,” said Dana Point resident Veronica Harrison. “Everyone is just so friendly, and I get to people watch as everyone paddles by on their kayaks or gets ready for a jet-ski adventure.”
A glimpse at the wildlife also draws attention, as seals sunbathe on decks or the jetty. Locals will stop and observe them on their morning walks, snickering about their apparent laziness.
“Those chubby little water dogs are what make me love this place,” said local surfer Jeff Holden. “Sometimes I wish I could be one of them, tanning in the sun and making obnoxious sounds all day long.”