Location: Orange: 1 Irvine Park Road
Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 1 through March 31; 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. April 1 through Oct. 31
Cost: The county parking lot is $3 per vehicle during the week, $5 on weekends and $7 to $10 on holidays. Picnicking in the park is free, but the train, pony rides, zoo, paddleboats, bike rentals, etc. are all an additional fee, usually ranging from $2 per person (zoo) to $5 or more per person, per hour (bike rentals).
For ages: All
One of the most fascinating aspects of this park, to me, is that fact that it has been here in existence, in some form, since the 1800s. It is the oldest park in the county. In its original days, women would stroll this park with parasols, and float with their honeys on redwood boats in the still-existing “boat pond.” Back then, big bands played regularly on the large town green, which is now the park amphitheater.
My kids, of course, love other aspects of this park. They absolutely adore the miniature train, which is a fun thing for the whole family to do. (In fact, if you’ve never been there, I recommend starting with the train ride, as it gives you a narrated overview of the 477-acre grounds.) Located right at the entrance, the train provides a 10-minute ride on the rails, chug-a-lugging past two lakes and circling through the oak woodland. A conductor calls out info as you roll by (sit toward the back to hear best). The train runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily and costs $3 per person.
Across from the train depot is the other thing my kids love: the pony rides. They are offered from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and holidays, and are open daily when school is out in the summer (except Mondays, when ponies are “napping”). Pony rides also cost $3 per person.
I used to haul in a big bag filled with picnic and play supplies for the kids, and hold it on the train and during pony rides. We would then continue down the path where we would find that last little “extra” that we sometimes enjoyed — the charming little Orange County Zoo, which has been housed in the park in some form since about 1905. This hidden treasure is open from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily and only costs $2 per person (children under 2 enter free). Tours are sometimes offered, focusing on natural history and conservation, and there are numerous animal-learning programs for children. The zoo also hosts “storytimes under the oak trees” a couple of times a week for kids of all ages. See the Web site below for exact dates and times.
After we would tour the zoo, we would come back onto the main path and decide where we wanted to picnic. This park is 477 acres – meaning you can wander for hours – so sometimes we would just find any beautiful shady spot (there are at least a zillion to choose from) and sit down and have a picnic near the zoo. Other times, we chose not to picnic, but to just walk throughout the park. There are winding concrete paths throughout that take you past stone waterfalls, by historical plaques and under weeping willows and arching sycamores. You will also go by several restrooms, six playgrounds, four softball fields, two horseshoe pits and volleyball courts.
If you have older kids, they’ll enjoy renting aqua cycles on the weekend at the boathouse (built in 1914 to launch redwood rowboats), or bicycles at the bicycle stand (where, in the 1930s, guests used to rent burros!). You can even rent surries-with-the-fringe-on-top if your family of four wants to cycle together. In the summer months, there are summer band concerts one evening a month, and at Christmastime, the train gussies up in holiday lights and takes kids on a tour to see “Santa.”
You can easily spend a whole day here, from open ‘til close.
Where to park: Parking is plentiful in the park, but you can also park on Santiago Canyon Road and walk up a hill to the park (it’s a pretty hefty walk, though).
What to bring: Parking fee, plus cash if you want to try the miniature train, zoo, paddleboats, etc. (I’ve listed their costs below.) Also bring sunscreen, a picnic if you wish, bottled water, picnic blanket, Frisbee, football, etc. Fishing pole if you have a license. There is a snack stand in the park with drinks and food.
Best time to go: If you like the idea of having the park, train and the zoo almost to yourself, go during the week (although some things – like the paddleboats, pony rides fall through spring, and the second concession stand – will be closed). Weekends have a lot more activity going on and therefore have their own festive feel. Avoid holidays, though, which can get uncomfortably crowded.
For more information: 714-973-6835 or Orange County Parks website
Do you like to go to Irvine Regional Park? What are your favorite activities to do there?