Before having a toddler myself, I didn’t realize how vital parks are to parenting success. As one of my friends put it, “Kids are like dogs. You have to run them or they’ll tear up the house.”
So, so true.
South Orange County has an embarrassing number of phenomenal parks. From playgrounds to sports parks to adventure-themed spaces, within a few weeks of moving here our son wasn’t asking, “Can we go to the park?” but rather, “Which park are we going to?”
After nearly two years of park exploration, these are our favorites.
10. Adventure Playground
Location: 1 Beech Tree Lane, Irvine
My friend Amber put this park on my radar.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “And it’s great, because your kids can get messy!” Amber and I have very similar parenting philosophies. Getting messy is a childhood right!
Bring an extra set of play clothes, because your kiddos will get muddy here. This park features water pumps, a river, a huge climbing structure, and changeable exhibits like foot-long Legos, standing Jenga, and sand diggers. There is even an area behind the bathrooms where you can hose off the mud at the end of playtime.
On Saturdays you’ll find the Legos monopolized by a hilarious gaggle of dads, all trying to determine the “structural integrity” of the playhouses their kids are erecting.
On weekdays it’s much less crowded, but the playground staff still does a great job of setting up various movable exhibits, from beanbag tosses to trampolines.
The park opens at 10am and closes at dusk, and it’s surrounded by (GLORY, HALLELUJAH!) a wall so your kids can’t, you know, escape and run into the freeway.
It has great bathrooms and a picnic area as well.
9. Courtney’s Sandcastle Park
Location: 987 Avenida Vista Hermosa, San Clemente
First of all, this park is clearly named after me, so that’s cool.
Secondly, it has great bathrooms, it’s surrounded by a fence, and it includes multiple play areas like a giant pirate ship and a walking path with musical instruments. There are great picnic areas.
This place can get hot in the sun, so bring a hat and sunscreen. It gets really crowded on the weekends when the adjacent sports park is in full swing, but it’s a ghost town on weekdays.
8. Florence Griffith Joyner Park
Location: 22760 Olympiad Rd., Mission Viejo
This park has great toddler stations and a long paved trail that’s perfect for strollers. The toddler-friendly portion of the park is great for 1-5 year olds, and the bigger structure is perfect for those over 5.
[Of course, my 3-year old insists on going down the 3-story slide on the older kids’ side of the park, which gives me a heart attack every time, but you can’t win ’em all!]
There’s a large picnic area, some good shade trees, and a decent bathroom as well.
7. Pavion Park
Location: 24051 Pavion, Mission Viejo
This park just opened last year, to great fanfare. And with good reason! This park is fun. It features spinning mushrooms, an alphabet trail game, animal noises, and a video-game-like apparatus that our son adores.
It has family-sized swings and is very handicapped accessible, from its ramps to its wheelchair-friendly trails.
The only downsides are that there is no shade and there aren’t any bathrooms. Which means this is a potty training parents’ nightmare.
It can also be hard to see a kid shorter than four feet tall through all of the ramps. I’ve had a few panicked moments where I couldn’t find my son, only to discover him happily sitting with a new preschool-aged friend in one of the ramp’s blind spots.
At least those few terrifying, heart-pounding moments of searching for him were good cardio, right?
6. Exploration Park
Location: Citrus St., Ladera Ranch
This park features a bouldering wall for older kids, along with a very tall but surprisingly safe play structure for the younger ones. Preschoolers love the two Western-themed play stations (our son usually uses one as his In n’ Out Burger and serves us sand patties from the window – a sure sign that our family’s nutritional values are sinking in!) and the rocking horses.
The paved path around the park is great for a little bike or scooter action, too.
Parking is tricky (it’s a small cul-de-sac, so there isn’t room for more than 5-6 cars), but this hidden gem is usually not crowded. No bathrooms, though.
I wish I could tell you I was above letting my preschooler pee in the bushes but… I’m so not.
5. Bluebird Park
Location: 798 Bluebird Canyon Dr. or Cress St. (easier to find on Google Maps), Laguna Beach
This park is so fun. It’s different from a lot of the newer plastic-based parks and has a unique Laguna-artsy character all its own. From its three story climbing tower (yeah, that’s my husband’s job… I’m way too ginormous to fit up those ladders with my pregnant belly!) to its unique rope-and-chain climbing structures to its merry go round, this park is great for adventures.
It also features a walkway with a bridge and small river (when it’s been raining), a picnic area, and some really nice bathrooms. Would Laguna Beach have it any other way?
Be on guard for wicked hot slides in the summer sun, though. Most parks have moved away from using metal for their slides for a reason!
4. Norman Murray Park
Location: 24932 Veteran’s Way, Mission Viejo
This park’s three-story red slides are awesome, if your kiddos are old enough to handle them. They are fast, and they will shoot your littles out like gumballs down the chute. So be ready to catch them, or prep them to be ready to catch themselves. Our son loves them now, but his first trip down shocked him quite a bit!
There’s great digging sand, and lots of benches for tired parents and grandparents. The park also features a paved trail all around the park – a trail that also links up with the Oso Creek Trail, a longer stretch that’s great for strollering a sleepy infant or enjoying some nature.
Norman Murray has two separate play structures, great picnic tables, and decent bathrooms. Parking is ample, unless you come on a day when the adjoining Community Center is having a craft fair, then do yourself a favor and find another park!
3. Tewinkle Park
Location: 970 Arlington Dr., Costa Mesa
I only stumbled upon this park because I wanted to visit the Royal Tea & Treatery a mile away, and I thought I’d have a better lunch if I ran my preschooler first. Turns out my parenting selfishness led us to a real gem of a playground!
A few minutes into our playdate, my son looked at me with shining eyes and said, “Hey Mom? I’m WEALLY happy.” That from a kid who’s a real park critic meant that we had to go back to this one again within the week.
From its colorful play structures to its creative use of space (fields! trails! open space to run!), this park is a treasure. It’s especially good for kids under 5, as there aren’t any huge high things they can jump/fall off of.
The parking lot is large and close by, and the bathrooms aren’t fancy but worked just fine. There isn’t always soap, so throw an antibacterial gel into your bag just in case.
2. Cox Sports Park
Location: 27623 Crown Valley Parkway, Ladera Ranch
This park has two great play structures, but our son usually loves just running around the fields, watching baseball practice, or pretending to be David Beckham. On weekends this park is abuzz with sports games aplenty, but there’s usually still enough parking for all.
The bathrooms are quite nice, but they are a bit of a walk from the playground (between the two baseball fields), making this a difficult spot for potty training.
The playground features sand diggers, two play structures, and a tire swing, along with a grassy hill for running, and a picnic shelter.
- Irvine Regional Park
Location: 1 Irvine Park Rd., Orange
There are great playgrounds here, but that’s just the beginning. There are duck ponds, snack stands, a train, seasonal activities, and a $2 zoo. $2! In Orange County! There’s a parking fee – usually $5 – but there’s enough to do that it’s well worth the price.
The zoo is perfect for young kids. It’s built in a circle, so if they get ahead of you they can’t get very far. There’s an interactive petting zoo portion where kids can brush goats (my son’s personal favorite) and get up close with chickens, bunnies, and sheep.
The main zoo houses the bigger and more exotic animals, from snakes to cougars. No bathrooms in the zoo, however, so make sure you go in the main park before you head in to the zoo for some animal fun.
Do you have a favorite park? I’d love to learn about it!