Post Summary: Free Things To Do In Orange County To Have Fun Without Breaking The Bank!
So you’ve decided to spend some time in Orange County – an excellent choice!
Orange County is a fun destination, full of amazing outdoor activities, delicious food, and most of all…sunshine!
However, being such a popular tourist destination, the OC can be a bit, well, pricey. Sometimes you just want to balance out that trip to Disneyland with something that won’t break the bank!
So, where do you begin finding inexpensive ways to still enjoy the area? That’s where we come in!
In this post, we’ve rounded up our favorite free things to do in Orange County, from seasonal events, outdoor locations, and local museums!
Keep reading for your next affordable trip to Orange County!
Walk The Huntington Beach Main St/Pacific City Shopping Center
Huntington Beach is a famous Orange County beach known for 8.5 miles of gorgeous shoreline. With its year-long mild climate and great waves, it’s received the nickname Surf City, USA!
You can wander on the pier and look over the edge to watch the surfers, or bring a board of your own and try out some waves.
Not looking to get in the water? You can wander up and down the pier, people-watching. You are likely to find street performers, actors, fishermen, and lots of interesting characters here!
Bolsa-Chica Ecological Reserve
These southern California Wetlands are a popular place for bird watching. Bolsa-Chica Ecological Reserve is maintained by the California Fish and Wildlife Department and located along the Pacific Coast Highway, this is a great stop if you’re looking to get outside in nature!
Don’t forget to stop by the interpretive center to learn more about the area. The facilities display many interesting exhibits, educational programs, and ways to learn more about how to conserve these precious wetlands in Southern California.
Take A Road Trip!
One of the best free things to do in Orange Country is to take a drive!
The Pacific Coast Highway is an excellent choice, with views ranging from sandy beaches to quaint little coastal towns. If you’re looking for an all-day trip, try driving all the way down to the daring town of Encinitas near San Diego, or northbound to Santa Barbara through West Hollywood and Santa Monica.
Want an adventure a little closer? Try driving Ortega Highway – one of the most dangerous highways in the U.S.! Also called State Route 74, this drive takes you through the San Bernadino Forest through winding roads and narrow, cliffside roads.
Ride The Free Trolley To Laguna Beach
If you’re hoping to see all that Laguna Beach has to offer, take advantage of the Laguna Beach Trolley free transportation to and from the beach!
Every summer, Laguna Beach provides free transportation to reach all the amazing art galleries, restaurants, and beaches in the area.
These nostalgic vehicles drive up and down the shore all summer long taking you north to Shaw’s Cove and all the way south to the Ritz Carlton Laguna Beach. They also weave inland for access to canyon hikes and forest walks.
Take a Picture By The Pacific City Mural
Pacific City is a new shopping destination located in Huntington Beach. Inside are popular brands, as well as local boutique stores to facilitate a good mix of those Southern California vibes.
But we’re not here for shopping – this post is about free things to do in Orange County!
SO, outside of Pacific City located on the corner of 1st St. and Highway 1, there are two colorful murals perfect for an outdoor photoshoot. Come snap a photo or two to remember your trip to the OC!
Crystal Cove State Park
Crystal Cove is located between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. This diverse California state park is one of Orange County’s greatest examples of natural and open seashores!
Here, there are some of the best tide pools to explore on foot, and you may even run into a sea lion! There are endless options to hike, surf, and swim in the sunny waters on this Southern California beach.
Don’t have a California state park pass? Try visiting during their free Community Days to take advantage of the educational events, volunteer opportunities, and more!
Courtesy of California State Parks, 2019.
Orange Country Art Walks
The thriving art community of Laguna Beach has tons of shops to browse and explore as you wander the neighborhood. Stop in to enjoy some unique and local art!
Extra Free Tip: During the Laguna Beach Art Walk, come every first Thursday of every month and sip on some free wine as you enjoy the creativity of the community!
- Laguna Beach – First Thursdays of the month, 6-9 PM
- Santa Ana – First Saturdays of the month
- Fullerton – First Fridays of the month, starting at 6 PM
- Huntington Beach – THIRD Thursdays of the month (March-November), 6-9 PM
Muckenthaler Cultural Center
This free museum is thanks to the generosity of Walter and Adella Muckenthaler. Here, you can find beautifully curated grounds to wander through (which also makes this a popular place for weddings too!).
Throughout the year, there are many free exhibits, educational events, and performances to come and enjoy. Click here to find the latest events on the calendar to plan your many free things to do in Orange County!
Take a Walking Tour of Old Towne Orange
This unique neighborhood sits right in the middle of Orange County. Here, you quickly discover that the community takes great pride in keeping the unique history and original style of the buildings.
You can find craftsman, Victorian, and other preserved styles in this unique and charming neighborhood. Don’t forget to stop by the antique stores to look for some hidden treasures!
Take One of Many Fun Hikes in Irvine, California
You may not find vast forests and wide-open wilderness like in the Pacific Northwest, but Orange County has some incredible parks and beaches ready for you to tackle some fun hiking trails.
Here are some of our favorites to get you started! Bonus points if you come early or late to catch a sunrise or sunset. Just don’t forget your headlamp!
- Quail Hill in Irvine
- Holy Jim
- Black Star
- Peters Canyon Regional Park
- Santiago Oaks Regional Park
- Weir Canyon Wilderness Park
- Carbon Canyon Regional Park
Old Courthouse Museum
This historic Orange County landmark is is Southern California’s oldest building.
Here, you can find almost exclusively exhibits on local history. This is a perfect place to explore if you have ties to the area, or just love a bit of history!
Discover the Many Orange County State Parks
There are several parks around Orange County to get a quick dose of nature among the fun and exciting chaos. Here are some of the most well-known ones to take advantage of on your next trip to Orange County.
- Santiago Park Nature
- Citrus Ranch Park
- Jeffrey Open Space Trail
- Dinosaur Park Laguna Hills
- Balboa Pier Playground
- Top of the World in Laguna
- Have a Picnic at O’Neill Regional Park
Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary
If you love learning about the local flora and fauna of Southern California, don’t miss a trip to Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary! There are several nature trails and exhibits to explore, all with an educational guide to help you learn more about the geography of the area.
This is a kid-friendly activity in Orange County, with hands-on exhibits and interactive features!
What’s a trip to Orange Country without trying a little bit of surfing? If you’ve got your own board, surfing is free for all! Don’t fret if you don’t have one – if you are staying at a nearby hotel, many offer complimentary boards for use during your stay!
You can also opt just for a fun swim in the ocean. Perfect for some free sun in the fun!
Here are some of the best surfing beaches in Orange County:
- Newport Beach. 8.5-miles of coastline and varying degrees of surfing experience can enjoy waves on this beach. Extra experienced? Try The Wedge…if you dare.
- Huntington Beach
- Salt Creek Beach, Dana Point
- T-Street, San Clemente (Known for it’s surfboarding, bodyboarding, and epic pier location!)
- Doheny Beach
- Trestle Beach
- Laguna Beach
Explore Aliso And Wood Canyons Wilderness Park
Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park is one of the best examples of geological formations, diverse landscapes, and preserved sites in Southern California.
Note: There is a $3 fee for parking, making this not a free activity, but rather one of the most affordable things to do in Orange County!
Other Things To Do Around Aliso And Wood Canyons:
- Explore Aliso Beach
- Take The Aliso Summit Hiking Trail
- Badlands Park
- Take a Walk Down 1000 Steps Beach
- La Tour – The Secret Coastal Castle!
- Table Rock Beach
See The World’s Largest Surfboard
On June 20th, 2015 – the world’s largest surfboard was successfully launched at Huntington Beach Pier with 66 people aboard.
The surfboard is true to the regular shape and material of a regular board, but just at a WAY larger scale! Its measurements are 42’ ft 1.5 inches long, 11 ft 1 inch wide and 1 ft 4.4 inches thick.
You can visit the board’s new permanent home in Huntington Beach located at 410-498 Olive Ave, Huntington Beach, CA 92648.
Are These All The Free Things To Do In Orange County!
No, but this list is certainly a good start!
It’s totally possible to take an affordable trip to Orange County, and we hope this list can help make that goal a reality. Have fun!
Originally appeared on The Mandagie's Travel + Adventure