Dana Point Harbor Walk
Image by WPPilot under Creative Commons License.

Dana Point Harbor Walk, Dana Point, California (A)

Come explore the magic that is Dana Point Harbor. We'll visit the sport fishing fleet, restaurants, shops, monuments, tall ships, the Ocean Institute and some tide pools. Along the way, you'll learn about the harbor's history, Richard Henry Dana, and the impact the Ocean Institute has on over 100,000 students each year. This leisurely walk is a mile each way and is suitable for all ages.
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Walk Route

Guide Name: Dana Point Harbor Walk
Guide Location: USA » Dana Point
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 14
Tour Duration: 2.0 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 5.2 Km or 3.2 Miles
Author: Scott Weber
Author Bio: Scott is a longtime resident of California. He loves to explore the Southwest and write about his adventures.
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Dana Wharf
  • Mariners Village
  • Renaissance Cafe and Music Store
  • Heritage Park and Compass Plaza
  • The Blue Heron Nesting Tree
  • The Hide “Drogher,” Statue
  • The Arches and the Doheny Legacy
  • Summit Trail
  • The Chart House, Cove Road & Nature Trail
  • The Ocean Institute
  • The Pilgrim and the Spirit of Dana Point
  • The Fishing Pier
  • Sailing Center and Baby Beach
  • Richard Henry Dana Statue
Dana Wharf

1) Dana Wharf

The Dana Wharf is the working center of the harbor. Built in 1971, shortly after the harbor was completed, it provides a home to six restaurants, two clothing stores, and three gift shops. It is also the terminal for the Catalina Express, the only daily boat service from south Orange County to Catalina Island. Our first stop is the Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching center. Opened in 1971, the owner, Don Hanson, moved his sport fishing boat up from the San Clemente pier to the safety of the harbor. In the forty years that have followed, his fleet has grown to 5 excursion vessels and services thousands of anglers and whale watchers each year. The first fishing boats leave early each day and Proud Mary’s restaurant serves up a variety of breakfast specials. For more upscale dining, try the Wind ‘n Sea and Jolly Roger. But the anchor that holds down the wharf is Turk’s restaurant and bar. Opened by a retired Hollywood stuntman, the place is plastered with movie memorabilia, and is known for the stiffest drinks in town. From the Wharf, please enjoy the boardwalk next to the marina to the next site.
Mariners Village

2) Mariners Village

Mariner’s Village is the largest of the harbor’s two commercial centers and the first one you see when you arrive. Harpoon Henry’s and El Torito are the two main restaurants and each one has fabulous views of the marina. The shopping mall adjacent to the restaurants is home to gift shops, art galleries, cafes, boat brokerages, and marine supply retailers. Walking from the Dana Wharf along the main harbor promenade, the first spot you’ll hit is the Coffee Importers. They’ve been a favorite since the harbor was built and have a loyal legion of regulars. Besides great coffee, muffins, and sandwiches this is by far the best spot to people watch. Mariner’s Village is the hub for most of the harbor’s annual events. These include a Festival of the Whales, a Blues festival, a boat show, wine festival, and a Sunday Summer Concert series. On most weekends, it’s not uncommon to see art shows and other exhibits down here too.
Renaissance Cafe and Music Store

3) Renaissance Cafe and Music Store

Built in 1925, this is one of the first commercial structures in what was soon to become Dana Point. Sydney Woodruff, the man who developed Hollywood and one of the major players in Dana Point’s early days, built the core of the building where the Renaissance Café is now, and used it as a garage to service his earthmoving equipment. The section that houses the music store was built shortly thereafter and was called an auditorium, but it was really a sales office and an all-purpose facility. Sitting at the corner of Golden Lantern and Del Prado, this building has always been a central fixture in town. In 1994, the Renaissance Café took over “Ye Old Dana Point Café and Wine Bar” and to this day is one of the few establishments that has live music. The Sunday afternoon jazz program is very popular and brings fans from all over Orange County. If you go in, check out the old trussed roof and the wall of corks started by the wine bar. Obviously, there have been more than a few drunken sailors in this establishment. The food’s not bad either. The music store was established in 2002 and is the premier music school in the area with more than 30 instructors teaching everything pertaining to music, performance, and theory. The owner and his band play at the Renaissance on most Sundays.
Heritage Park and Compass Plaza

4) Heritage Park and Compass Plaza

This park was established in the early 1980’s as part of the Dana Point Harbor development plan. In a deal struck with the newly formed California Coastal Commission, the still unincorporated city of Dana Point sought to develop the areas around the harbor. This park, as well as several neighborhoods that would be dedicated for low-income housing, were the concessions made by the city to allow for the construction of a resort hotel and some high-end developments. The park rises 120 feet from the harbor, is built in tiers, and can be scaled by stairs or a long winding sidewalk. At the end of the street is a plaza with a compass etched into the concrete. This is a great place to get your bearings and observe the harbor and the promontory point. The park is used by the city for a summer concert series, and is a popular place for weddings, stair climbers, and dogs with boundless energy.

Before you go to the next site let me add a quick note about the streets in Dana Point. The early developers had big plans for Dana Point and with a huge resort hotel planned on the block you just walked down, what are now quiet neighborhoods were expected to be part of a thriving tourist community; restaurants, theaters, speakeasy’s and shopping districts, not to mention bluff top homes. The main streets were built extra-wide and the smaller residential streets were designated as Lanterns.
The Blue Heron Nesting Tree

5) The Blue Heron Nesting Tree

If you’re a bird watcher or even have a casual interest in our feathered friends, the huge flat-topped black pine tree in the backyard is home to a colony of mating Blue Herons. There’s a half dozen of these nesting trees in the harbor area. The Blue Heron grows to forty-six inches tall and has a six-foot wingspan. The birds arrive in late winter and build nests on the very top of the tree canopy. Remarkably, more than forty parents share this one tree. After the chicks are hatched, the parents bring back food from the San Juan Creek estuary to the newborn. It’s quite a sight to see these long-necked birds poking their heads up above the treetop. Doheny State Park at the south end of the harbor has a bird sanctuary and there you’ll find a wide assortment of migratory birds training their young.
The Hide “Drogher,” Statue

6) The Hide “Drogher,” Statue

This beautiful, bronze statue called, “the Drogher,” was designed by the artist, F. Benedict Coleman and was installed in 1990 as one of many historical landmarks in the harbor honoring the city’s namesake, Richard Henry Dana. In 1835, Dana arrived in this harbor on a merchant vessel from Boston to trade iron-wares, foodstuffs, and finished leather goods for cowhides with the ranchers of Capistrano Valley to be taken back to Boston and turned into leather goods. Hundreds of these hides would be hauled to the bluffs where the droghers would fling them off the cliff like Frisbees to the merchant sailors waiting below. These hides were known as California Bank Notes and were one of the few forms of accepted currency until gold was discovered in 1849.
The Arches and the Doheny Legacy

7) The Arches and the Doheny Legacy

These Arches are all that’s left from the Dana Point Inn. In the late 1920’s, Ned Doheny, the son of the oil baron Edward Doheny, and his partner Sydney Woodruff sought to develop the area. They bought 1,000 acres and proceeded to start a town. After Doheny and Woodruff mapped out the city, foundations were poured for the new Dana Point Inn. Several homes and some commercial building were completed in the immediate area, but the Inn was slow to rise. The 1929 stock market crash left the town desolate and Woodruff, who was only in it for the money, quickly moved on, but Doheny stayed on in the house he built in Capistrano Beach. Doheny died shortly thereafter in what was called a gunshot accident. His male secretary shot him and then himself, but it’s widely rumored a love triangle between Doheny, his wife, and the secretary went awry and Doheny’s wife shot and killed both of her lovers. Ah, the stuff movies are made from. In 1935, Doheny’s father, still grieving the loss of his son, donated the land that eventually became Doheny State Park just south of the harbor.
Summit Trail

8) Summit Trail

Around the corner from Cannon’s Restaurant are the steps that lead up to the headlands summit. It’s a short climb and you don’t want to miss this 360-degree view. At the top: to the west, the coastline leads up to Monarch and Laguna Beach. On clear days you’ll see Palos Verdes Peninsula. Turning toward the sea, the big island is Santa Catalina Island, 26 miles away. Turning further south you might glimpse the top of San Clemente Island, 60 miles away. And looking down the southern coastline is San Clemente, the hills of Camp Pendleton, then Point Loma and San Diego beyond that. Turning to the north is the Saddleback range with Santiago Peak the highest point. On clear days you can see the San Gabriel Mountains behind that. On winter days after a good storm you’ll see snow on Saddleback and Mt. Baldy in the distance. You’ll also notice home lots to the west. This land has been a battleground for some time. A compromise was finally made between developers, the environmentalists, and the California Coastal Commission. What you see that’s now tiered for construction will be built upon and the rest of the land will remain under conservation.
The Chart House, Cove Road & Nature Trail

9) The Chart House, Cove Road & Nature Trail

This intersection illustrates three of the ongoing issues every coastal community struggles with: how to integrate progress, conservation, and recreation. If you’re going to build a harbor, you have to provide opportunities for food and retail establishments. How you do that without destroying the bluffs and the natural sightlines is the challenge. The Chart House Restaurant was built in 1976. The developers carved this modern architectural beauty into the edge of the bluff leaving as much of the natural habitat intact. Their location is a popular spot for weddings and receptions and with a view like this; it’s no wonder why. If you have a chance, go in and have take a look around. It’s really a unique experience. Next to the Chart House is Cove Road. This ultra steep roadway was built soon after Doheny mapped out the city and was used to get down to the harbor and the pier. In 1965, when the harbor was being built, the road was beefed up to support the more than 27,000 trucks that delivered the massive rocks used to build the jetty. On your descent, be very careful. And to the right of Cove Road is another short trail that leads to a lookout over the Ocean Institute. This area of the headlands and the one you just left are owned and maintained by the City of Dana Point and are protected as wildlife sanctuaries.
The Ocean Institute

10) The Ocean Institute

The Ocean Institute has become nationally known for its marine science and maritime history programs. More than 100,000 students and 6,000 teachers participate each year in the Institute's 61 award-winning, immersion style programs. The Institute started in 1980 and has grown in size and reputation ever since. In 2002, this new 16 million dollar facility opened its doors and they’ve never looked back. Inside the Institute, you’ll be treated to a variety of oceanic exhibits, aquariums, and scientific experiments. The Ocean Institute also operates the Sea Explorer, a fully equipped scientific vessel that takes kids out to sea to run scientific experiments. It’s not uncommon that they get to see California Gray Whales on their annual migration from chilly waters of the Arctic Sea to the warm waters of Baja California. Directly behind the Institute is a conservation area where indigenous plants are nurtured and protected. If you walk to the jetty you’ll be treated to the Dana Point Marine Protected Area. This wonderland of natural reefs is a perfect spot to scamper over the rocks and peer into tide pools where you’ll find sea urchins, starfish, hermit crabs, muscles, and sea anemones. Low tide is the best time to explore, but if sand and stubbed toes isn’t for you, take a break and watch the crashing waves and the swirling eddies as the ocean ebbs in and out of the rock reefs. The Ocean Institute is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays. The gift shop is open daily.
The Pilgrim and the Spirit of Dana Point

11) The Pilgrim and the Spirit of Dana Point

The Pilgrim is the larger of the two ships and is named after the ship Richard Henry Dana sailed on. The real Pilgrim was built in 1825 and sailed for 31 years before catching fire at sea. This Pilgrim was built in 1935 as a three-masted schooner and earned her strips in the Baltic coastal trade. Today, the Pilgrim serves as a classroom for over 16,000 students a year. Although the public is prohibited from sailing on her, the Pilgrim does make a goodwill tour and participates in Dana Point's "Tall Ships Festival" each September. The Pilgrim is only open to the public on Sunday and for special events. Moored around the corner from the Pilgrim is The Spirit of Dana Point. This ship is a replica of a 1770’s privateer. It’s 118 feet long and has a rig height of one hundred feet. This style of ship was known for its speed and was often used for smuggling and the slave trade. This ship is now used to take kids out to sea to gain a first hand sailing experience.
The Fishing Pier

12) The Fishing Pier

This pier and Cove Road are the only elements left from the original harbor. Although the pier is still used for fishing, construction of the harbor wiped out hundreds of rock reefs that supported colonies of abalone, lobster, and halibut. The pier was rebuilt during the harbor construction and it is still in the original location. On a historic note, during prohibition this pier and harbor as well as many of the coves up through Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar were dropping off points for liquor traders. Police patrolled the coast looking for rumrunners who would stock up at large vessels moored outside the legal maritime border, then race to shore to make their drop.
Sailing Center and Baby Beach

13) Sailing Center and Baby Beach

Dana Point Harbor is divided into two marinas and over 2,500 yachts and small craft are moored here. The County of Orange oversees all harbor operations and they wanted to promote educational services for kids, so the Youth Sailing Center was built. It offers year-round classes in sailing, stand up paddling, boat safety, and navigation. They also use the facilities for the yearly boat show, fitness programs, and wedding receptions. Next to the center is what’s known as Baby Beach, aptly named because there are no waves and the water is very shallow. This is the only place you can launch a kayak or stand-up paddleboard for free. Come early in the day and you’ll see local watermen racing through the harbor. You’ll also notice the hand painted tiles adorning the retaining walls around the beach. In 1999, for fifty dollars, you could hand paint your own tile and have it mounted here at Baby Beach. The Dana Point Historical Society raised over $25,000 in this venture to support local restoration projects.
Richard Henry Dana Statue

14) Richard Henry Dana Statue

This harbor and city is named after Richard Henry Dana. This statue is 9 feet tall and weighs just over 1,700 pounds. It was placed on its island pedestal in 1972 and from here we see the view Dana must have seen as he gazed at the cliffs that inspired him to write in his journal, “This is the most romantic place on earth.” Dana was a crewmember on a ship called the Pilgrim when it moored in this harbor in 1835. In the early 1800’s, many ships sailed from Boston to California with ironwares, foodstuffs, and leather goods to be sold or traded in what was then called Alta California. The leather hides they bought were taken back to Boston where they were turned into leather goods. Dana wrote about his travels in a book named “Two Years Before the Mast,” which chronicled the adventures and hardships of being a seaman in those times.