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Day Tripping Down to Dana Point Harbor

Dana Point Harbor features tall ships, a marine institute, whale watching and tide pools. – Photo by Greg Aragon / Beacon Media News

By Greg Aragon

For Richard Henry Dana, it was the culmination of an epic and grueling two-year voyage from Boston to California. For me it was a day trip in a rental car. Either way you slice it, Dana Point Harbor makes a great getaway. 

Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, the man-made harbor provides slips and mooring for 2,500 boats within two marinas inside a one-and-a-half mile jetty. Activities include fishing, whale watching, windsurfing, jet skiing, kayaking, boat charters, sailing, shopping, dining, picnicking, swimming, and paddle boarding. 

The harbor also boasts an ocean institute, tide pools, and a beautiful full-sized replica of the Pilgrim, the two-masted “Tall Ship” that Dana sailed aboard in the 1830s. 

Immortalized by Dana in his classic 1840 American seafaring novel “Two Years Before the Mast,” the Pilgrim sailed from Boston in 1834 loaded with shoes, foodstuffs and ironware. When she arrived in San Juan Bay (Dana Point), the crew sold or traded her wares, then procured hides from the missions and rancheros to be transported back to Boston. 

His novel gives readers a shocking and memorable look inside the rough world of 18th century American sea life. “The vessel I am going on is small, but strong and a remarkably fast sailor having been built for the smuggling trade,” wrote Dana about the ship. 

The original Pilgrim burned at sea in 1856, but a new one sailed into Dana Point Harbor in September 1981. This one was built in Denmark in 1945. Each September, the Pilgrim and maritime history are celebrated in the annual Tall Ships Festival.

On most Sunday’s the ship is open for public tours. Admission is free with purchase of an Ocean Institute ticket. Once aboard visitors are greeted by volunteers in period costumes with pirate accents. As I toured the boat I wondered how a crew could live aboard something so small and cramped for two years as Richard Henry Dana did.

After touring the Pilgrim, I visited the Ocean Institute (, an ocean education center that offers in-depth marine science, maritime history and outdoor education programs. The institute includes state-of-the-art teaching labs, the spectacular Maddie James Seaside Learning Center, two historic tallships, and an oceanographic research vessel. The facility is open to the public seven days a week and offers exhibits such as the “Headlands and Beyond,” which features an intertidal touch tank, artifact displays, pop-up experiments, and children’s playscape. 

Throughout the year the institute offers family programs, summer camps, whale-watching cruises, tallship sails, and various events including the annual Toshiba Tall Ships Festival and Festival of Whales.

After the institute we walked about 25 yards to the beach and explored Dana Point’s famous tide pools. Here, with the tide receding we saw a multitude of sea creatures exposed in tiny coral pools. I saw hermit crabs, limpets, periwinkles, mussels, sea stars, sea urchins, and a bunch of other slimy creatures. 

From the tide pools, we drove up the steep end of Golden Lantern Street and discovered the Dana Point Headlands Nature Interpretive Center and Trail. The Center is small, but informative, with lots of historical, cultural, and natural history exhibits. The highlight is the beautiful nature trail, located beside the museum. It is marked clearly with wire rope and follows the rugged cliffs of Dana Point. 

Lined with soft sand, the trail offers incredible ocean and landscape views. Hikers can see dolphins, flocks of pelicans flying in V-formation, passing boats, gorgeous sunsets, a couple hillside mansions, and whales if they are in season. After the 20-minute hike, we had a picnic lunch on the sand next to Doheny State Beach. 

January through April is a great time to visit Dana Point, as it is peak season for whale watching, which begins the day after Thanksgiving. Blue Whale season runs from May until November. Whatever the season, Dana Point also typically sees pods of dolphin, sea lions, squadrons of pelican and other sea faring birds.

The Ocean Institute is located at 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point, CA 92629. For more information on admission and tours, call (949) 496-2274 or visit For more info on visiting Dana Point Harbor, visit  

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