The Magic of Dana Point: Whales, Water, and SoCal Spirit

Here's how to live it up, SoCal style, in Dana Point.
flowers, coastline, harbor, and water in Dana Point, California
Dana Point, California (Photo: @straubmuller via Twenty20)

Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, Dana Point is the famed “dolphin and whale capital of the world” and North America’s only whale heritage site. This beachside city is also the southernmost tip of the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), aka Highway 1 and its 655 miles of breathtaking ocean views and legendary surf heritage. There are plenty of things to do in Dana Point, and it’s worth a stop on any Southern California vacation.

In Dana Point, it’s all about water sports. It’s home to Hobie Surf Shop, the world’s first retail surf shop. And downtown’s Dana Point Harbor is a hub for more than 2,500 boats and yachts, three yacht clubs, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) and kayaking companies, “pirate ship” adventures, whale watching outfitters, deep sea fishing, and sunset cruises. 

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Things to do in Dana Point

Visitors come to this pristine beach town for the ocean and its treasures. From whale watching to sailing and surf lessons (plus some pretty great land activities) there are nearly endless things to do in Dana Point.

1. Ocean Institute

Start your exploration of Dana Point at the Ocean Institute to get a grounding in the history of the area and its front-row seat to whale migrations, plus fun education about other local sea life (you can even touch sting rays in tanks). Don’t miss the chance to check out the tide pool hikes adjacent to the building with one of the Institute’s expert naturalists. 

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2. Dana Point Harbor

Dana Point Harbor at sunset
Dana Point Harbor (Photo: @keithmholland via Twenty20)

Close to the Ocean Institute is Dana Point Harbor, where there are scenic docks, a handful of retail boutiques and restaurants, and thousands of boats. This is the departure point for many whale watching excursions. Whale watching season peaks between November and May, but there are year-round opportunities to spot both whales and dolphins in the waters around Dana Point.

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In March, the Festival of Whales celebrates the annual migration of the California Gray Whale and offers a wide variety of free events that are fun for the whole family. When I visited in December, I hopped aboard a whale watching excursion with Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari, a charter service that offers year-round whale watching excursions. On our three-hour tour, we spotted numerous gray whales and hundreds of dolphins.

3. Doheny State Beach

Doheny State Beach holds the title as California’s first state beach, and is certainly one of the state’s most popular stretches of sand, with nearly a million visitors each year. It’s popularity is due in part to it having so much to offer.

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At its northern end is a surfing beach along with a five-acre lawn studded with picnic facilities and volleyball courts. The southern end, meanwhile, offers several campgrounds (some only steps from the beach), sealife-rich tide pools, and a visitor center with five ocean environment tanks to give you a peek below the surface. 

4. Water Sports

a dolphin swimming through the water, viewed by boat in Dana Point, California
Whale watching in Dana Point (Photo: @heydj via Twenty20)

The water activities are limitless in Dana Point. There are dozens of outfitters offering everything from whale- and dolphin-watching cruises to lessons that will have you surfing, sailing, and paddling like a pro. Among the many options, Westwind Sailing provides families with educational sailing lessons and equipment, stand-up paddling, and kayaking for adults, kids, and families. Dana Point Charters allows passengers to act as captain of their sailboat with the comfort of having experienced captains by their side.

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Girl in the Curl offers surf lessons and surf camps with instructors who provide patient professional instruction and excellent equipment. Specializing in youth classes, Girl in the Curl also teaches clinics and private lessons. Pure Watersports rents personal watercraft, kayaks, stand up paddleboards, surfboards, as well as dive supplies for spearfishing enthusiasts. 

5. Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park

The Pacific isn’t the only natural wonder that dazzles in Dana Point. Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park is a 4,000-acre wilderness and natural open space that’s a favorite for hiking, mountain biking, picnicking, and horseback riding. Tucked into the south end of the Laguna Greenbelt, these canyons feature rare and endangered plants and animals, petroglyphs etched by native people, and more than 30 miles of trails.  

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The Bluff Top Trail is an easy 0.2-mile family-friendly path with stunning views of the Dana Point Bluffs, Dana Point Harbor, and the Pacific Ocean. For a picnic spot, try Lantern Bay Park, a large, grassy park with views of Dana Point and the Harbor and plenty of pine trees for shade. There’s also a playground and a bocce ball court. 

Where to Stay in Dana Point

Dana Point is home to 11 oceanfront, family-friendly properties that are all located along the Pacific Coast Highway. These include Beachfront Inn and Suites, Best Western Plus – Dana Point Inn by the Sea, Best Western Plus Marina Shores Hotel, Capistrano Surfside Inn, DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Doheny Beach, and Riviera Beach and Shores Resort.

There’s also the historic Blue Lantern Inn and the charming Dana Point Marina Inn. More upscale accommodations can be found at Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort and Spa, Waldorf Astoria Monarch Beach Resort, and The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel.

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Julie Bielenberg
Julie Bielenberg is an award-winning journalist and photographer based in Colorado. She is a national leader in agritourism and publishes more than 50 editorial assignments annually for over a dozen outlets.