By: Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama


The next time you are planning a trip to Disneyland, schedule an extra day or two to explore the nearby Irvine Regional Park. I fall a little more in love with this park every time I visit this treasure in California's Orange County. You could easily spend a whole weekend just exploring this 477-acre park with its plentiful hiking trails, zoo, horse rentals, miniature train and more- all amid tall, leafy trees and the natural beauty of Southern California.

Peacock at Irvine Regional Park
Freely roaming peacocks add to the magic of Irvine Regional Park

Bicycle and Surrey Rentals
I can't remember the last time I laughed as much as I did during my most recent visit to this park a couple months ago with my family. Nothing made us laugh more than our surrey ride through the park ($25 per hour). Rent cruisers, kids' bikes, tandem bicycles, surreys, and other wheeled items from Wheel Fun Rentals near the boat dock.

I am a bit of a worry wart and my husband, Phil, tends to think no rules apply to him. Although the rental attendant warned us to avoid a couple of specific hills on the park's trails for safety reasons, Phil peddled our surrey straight toward these areas. As we zipped down the hills I commenced yelling, which led to our daughter's nervous screaming, and caused our two-year-old son to turn around from his front basket seat and ring the bicycle bell frantically - apparently as a warning to Daddy to slow down. Once we reached the bottom of the hill safely the whole family would burst out into laughter. Until the next hill.

Family Surrey Ride at Irvine Regional Park
For a giggling good time, rent a surrey!

Paddle Boats
Since the paddle boats only fit three, my husband and I took turns peddling the children around the small, picturesque lake. Our little boy's chubby cheeks squished up by his life preserver busted his big sister and me into more rounds of giggles.

The paddle boats are available to rent by the half hour (for $12), and that's about all you'll need. My legs tired quickly as I followed ducks around the lake, while the kids gazed in awe at the birds' submerged orange feet.

Irvine Regional Park Paddle Boat
The paddle boats are a fun way to explore the lake and get some exercise

Pony Rides and Horse Rentals
Kids can ride ponies at the Country Trails and Riding School ($4 per child - closed Mondays). A parent leads the pony and child around a gated ring a few times. My daughter was delighted by her pony ride on a visit earlier this year.

Horse rentals are also available for adults ($40 for a one-hour trail ride). Rentals are by appointment only, so plan ahead! The trail horses meander slowly along one of the park's many trails. There's no cantering, certainly no galloping, and barely any trotting allowed. As a teenager I rode horses competitively so trail rides are a bit of a yawn for me. But it's always nice to climb aboard a horse and take in the scenery, especially in a setting as lovely as Irvine Regional Park.

Pony Ride at Irvine Regional Park
My daughter, Karissa, sits proudly atop her rental pony

The Orange County Zoo
Contained within Irvine Regional Park is the Orange County Zoo, home exclusively to native inhabitants of Southern California ($2 admission for children and adults aged 2+). During a trip to this zoo, you can expect to see animals such as raccoons, eagles, burros, snakes, mountain lions, black bears, and others.

According to Zookeeper Lauren Howell, the zoo's residents live here because they cannot be rehabilitated and released back into the wild. Many have been injured by cars, gunshot, hunting traps, or by predatory animals. Others are orphans who could not survive in the wild because they were never taught survival skills by their mothers. Some were confiscated from people who illegally kept the animals as pets.

Screech Owl at Orange County Zoo in Irvine Regional Park
Willie the Screech Owl, who is blind in one eye possibly due to being struck by a car

Miniature Train
If visiting the park with young children, be sure to make your way over to the Irvine Park Railroad for a journey on the miniature train ($4 per rider aged 12 months+). Listen to commentary about the park's history as you chug through the foothills of Orange.

Peacock at Irvine Regional Park
Kids love a ride through the park aboard the Irvine Park Railroad

More to Explore
There are several playgrounds equipped with swings, jungle gyms, and such throughout the park. Picnic tables are also plentiful. There are a couple of on-site snack bars with affordably priced items like hamburgers, corn dogs, burritos, and ice cream. I've never ordered anything beyond a bag of chips and a soda because we like to pack a picnic lunch for our Irvine Park adventures.

On my three visits to Irvine Regional Park I've been too busy with all of the other activities to explore the park's several hiking trails. This gives me an excuse to come back!

Playground at Irvine Regional Park
My kids, Karissa and Leo, soaring through the air on swings at Irvine Regional Park

I think spending a day outdoors at Irvine Regional Park was good for my family. I know it was good for my soul. This park is now officially one of my favorite places in the world. It's a place to connect with nature. To play. To laugh. To breathe. To take joy in the little things.