Hidden Gems in Orange County

by Kira Weiner

World famous theme parks such as Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm and iconic beaches like Laguna and Huntington continuously draw tourists to Orange County every year. However, for college students looking to sightsee on a budget, these wildly popular destinations can become expensive and overwhelming.

“Everyone knows about the big attractions already, and places like Disneyland are really expensive,” said freshman film production major Sebastian Nuta. “I think it’d be cool to learn about other places and explore the smaller spots here in Orange County.”

Beyond its famous theme parks and sandy beaches, Orange County is also home to many unique and affordable attractions. From hot air balloon rides over the city of Irvine to a mysterious castle on the cliffs of Victoria Beach, there is a myriad of different options that tourists and residents may be unaware of. Here are five of the hidden attractions that Orange County has to offer.  

1. Great Park Balloon, Irvine

When junior sociology major Chanelle Astrof first moved to Chapman University from Seattle, Washington, she was excited to explore her new surroundings. A trip with her residence hall to the Great Park Balloon, a hot air balloon located in Preview Park in Irvine, proved to be the perfect scenic introduction to her new home.

“As we pulled off the freeway, you could see the huge, orange hot air balloon,” said Astrof. “We boarded the balloon just by lining up and walking into the circular metal structure. It felt extremely safe.”

The Great Park Balloon can hold 25 to 30 passengers at once and soars up to 400 feet above the surrounding landscape. Instead of free floating like helium balloons, it is attached to a long rope the entire time that brings the balloon 400 feet up and then back down after 25 minutes in the air.

“You can see for miles and miles and can see the city of Irvine,” Astrof said. “I went at night time, so I could see the city lights.”

Tickets cost $10 for adults ages 17 and older, $5 for children ages 6 to sixteen, and free for children under 6.

2. Pirate Castle, Victoria Beach

While scrolling through her Pinterest feed, sophomore environmental science major Lauren Smith came across a picture of an ancient castle on a cliff by the sea. Intrigued, Smith researched the castle only to find that it was located in Victoria Beach, only a thirty minute drive from Chapman. Victoria Beach is one of Laguna’s most quiet and secluded public areas. To access the beach, visitors must walk down a narrow, concrete stairwell leading from the cliffs of a residential neighborhood.

“When we first arrived at the beach, it was really quiet and there seemed to be a lot of locals around,” said Smith. “Once the sun started setting, we climbed over these rocks around the cliff area to find the castle.”

The 60-foot tall tower, commonly referred to as the “Pirate Castle” by locals, stands at the north end of the beach. Built in 1926 as a spiral staircase for the owners of the cliff-top residence, the whimsical Victorian looking turret has had owners such as California state senator William E. Brown, Naval officer Harold Kendrick and actress Bette Midler. Other than visiting the castle, popular activities at Victoria Beach include skim-boarding, body boarding, fishing and beach volleyball. On a clear day, visitors can watch the sun set over the faint hills of Catalina Island in the distance.

“The sunset was the prettiest sunset that I’ve ever seen, and the whole atmosphere was very laid back and quiet,” Smith said. “It was probably one of the nicest, most secluded beaches that I’ve been to in southern California.”

Parking at Victoria Beach is very limited. For best results finding a parking space, visit early in the morning or later in the day.

3. Holy Jim Falls, Trabuco Canyon

Megan Mehta, an Orange County native and engineering major at Chapman University, brushes aside her dislike of hiking when she heads towards a waterfall tucked away in the foothills of the Sana Ana Mountains. After a steep one mile trek through the Trabuco Canyon trail, visitors of Holy Jim Falls reach a clearing that boasts one of Orange County’s only natural waterfalls.

“A lot of the time I don’t think hikes are worth it, but the waterfall definitely made this one worth it,” said Mehta. “Even though it’s small, it doesn’t lack beauty.”

The waterfall flows year round, but it is at its strongest in early spring. Wildlife seen in the area includes deer, salamander, and crawfish. Many people visit Holy Jim Falls to go fishing for trout, and both hikers and mountain bikers can enjoy the multi-use trail.

Parking at the falls requires a National Forest Adventure Pass, which can be purchased at ranger stations and Big 5 stores. Day passes cost $5.  

4. Anti-Mall, Costa Mesa

From the outside, a passerby would not recognize the LAB Anti Mall in Costa Mesa.

“You wouldn’t notice it if you were just driving by,” said junior creative writing major Daniella Islas. “It’s very industrial looking from the outside.”

However, take a short walk through a shaded pathway covered by looming trees, and the scenery opens up to something else entirely. The LAB (standing for “Little American Business”) offers a large marketplace with boutique shops, unique restaurants and artistic happenings like live music, art showings, poetry readings and seasonal festivals.

“There are a lot of mismatched stores, and it’s very artistic and colorful,” Islas said. “It’s definitely not a traditional mall.”

The LAB has a few large commercial stores such as Urban Outfitters, but the smaller, more artistic shops and restaurants give the LAB its unique feel. Islas’s favorite place to visit is the Gypsy Den, a neighborhood coffeehouse, bistro and wine bar. Other unique eateries include Zipangu, a popular Japanese restaurant, and Habana, known for its authentic Cuban dining. The LAB also has an 8 foot-by-40 foot shipping container used as a community art gallery called the ARTery.

The ARTery opens from 11:30 a.m to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily, and the LAB opens from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

5. Carbon Canyon Regional Park, Yorba Linda

Most people consider the Redwood Trees a Northern California attraction, but Orange County boasts a few of these world-famous, skyrocketing trees itself. Located in Yorba Linda, Carbon Canyon Regional Park contains 10-acres of majestic Coastal Redwoods. Visitors can view the 100-foot trees in the scenic Redwood Grove, accessible by a 1.1-mile nature trail.

The park office also offers naturalist guided tours and group talks by appointment all year long.

Other amenities of Carbon Canyon Regional Park include an open grassy area for picnicking, lighted tennis courts, backstops for baseball and a lake with two piers for fishing. The park is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the fall and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the spring and summer. Entrance costs $3 for weekdays and $5 for the weekend.

+ posts