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7 Ways to Explore Dana Point's Rich History and Marine Life

A paved walkway stretches along a coastal cliff lined with white residential homes.
One of the views along Bluff Top Trail, a short, historical walk where Hollywoodland developer Sidney Woodruff's failed Dana Point Inn would have stood. | Sandi Hemmerlein
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In the 19th century — before the first gold strike that led to an influx of would-be prospectors — there wasn't much reason for East Coasters to come out West, which was considered wild, savage and inhospitable.

To those from more "civilized" regions, it might've felt downright prehistoric.

But in 1835, the namesake of the city of Dana Point — then-Harvard student Richard Henry Dana, Jr. — was the exception that became the rule when he set sail on a brig-type tall ship called the "Pilgrim."

Since this was 80 years before the Panama Canal opened, the "Pilgrim" rounded the tip of South America and landed at San Juan Cove — today's Dana Point Harbor, the only safe anchorage between Santa Barbara and San Diego at the time.

Dana deemed the area "romantic" and remarked at its grandeur, publishing a memoir of his sea voyage and time spent at San Juan Cove in 1840 as "Two Years Before the Mast."

The book was a hit — and people arrived in droves to see Dana Point (as it's been officially known since 1989) with their own eyes.

It's far less rugged and far more refined now, but the rich history is there — if you know where to look.

Here are the seven best ways to get to know the historic, literary and watery sides of Orange County's premier surfing and sailing destination — with plenty of breathtaking ocean views, to boot.

1. Del Prado-Lantern District

An arch with Spanish-style inspired architecture reads "Dana Point Lantern District" over a black asphalt road. Beyond the arch are palm trees dotted to the side of the street with stores and restaurants lining the road.
An archway marks the entrance into the Lantern District, located on Del Prado Avenue, where it splits off from the Pacific Coast Highway. | Sandi Hemmerlein

The area known as The Lantern District is where entrepreneurial types once advertised wares for trade to the ships that came rolling in — by lighting up color-coded lanterns. The most famous of those were the sailors who chucked cowhides (which had been tanned at Mission San Juan Capistrano) off the cliffs, to be retrieved by the Yankee merchant seamen standing below — a.k.a. "hide-droghing."

The lantern motif persists today, through the street names and even lawn ornamentation of the homes in the Lantern District — though the trade does not. You can enter the Lantern District through the arch on Del Prado Avenue, where it splits off from the Pacific Coast Highway.

A Spanish Colonial Revival-style structure features a red terra cotta tile roof and tiled doorways. The face of the building is white and stands behind a short palm tree. The walls are lightly weathered and caution tape is seen blocking a portion of the building.
A Spanish Colonial Revival-style structure features a red terra cotta tile roof and tiled doorways. The face of the building is white and stands behind a short palm tree. The walls are lightly weathered and caution tape is seen blocking a portion of the building.
1/2 The oldest building in Dana Point — under restoration since 2020 — is located on 34105 Pacific Coast Highway in The Lantern District. | Sandi Hemmerlein
A Spanish Colonial Revival-style structure features a red terra cotta tile roof and blue tiled doorways. The doors and walls of the building show signs of weathering with faded colors, chipped tiles and scuffed walls. One of the building's windows are boarded up.
A Spanish Colonial Revival-style structure features a red terra cotta tile roof and blue tiled doorways. The doors and walls of the building show signs of weathering with faded colors, chipped tiles and scuffed walls. One of the building's windows are boarded up.
2/2 Dana Point's oldest building was built as the real estate office for the development efforts of Sidney Woodruff. | Sandi Hemmerlein

Just beyond the gateway arch, at 34105 Pacific Coast Highway, you'll find the oldest building in Dana Point — currently vacant, but built as the real estate office for the development efforts of Sidney Woodruff (of Hollywood Sign fame). The Spanish Colonial Revival-style structure features a red terra cotta tile roof and tiled doorways and fountains — under restoration since 2020.

Next, head south to where the Street of the Blue Lantern dead-ends, and you'll find the blufftop pavilion built in the mid-1920s to showcase ocean views for that same planned development. Today, the "Blue Lantern Gazebo" is located at Ken Sampson Overlook Park — named after the former Director of the Orange County Harbors, Beaches and Parks District whose administration spearheaded the construction of Dana Point Harbor. Unfortunately the gazebo has been fenced-off since 2018 — but although you can't enter it, you can get a good look at it.

A metal sign fixed on a cobble-stoned pillar reads, "Dana Point: Named for Richard Henry Dana, author of "Two Years Before the Mast," who was here in 1835. El Embarcadero, the cove below, was used by hide vessels trading with mission San Juan Capistrano. This trade reached its peak in 1830-1840. Here in 1818, Hipolito Bouchard, flying an Argentine flag, anchored his fleet while raiding the mission. Historical landmark no. 189. California State Park Commission." Behind the sign is an overlook of the ocean where several boats are docked. To the right of the image is a black asphalt road curving along the coastal cliff.
A metal sign fixed on a cobble-stoned pillar reads, "Dana Point: Named for Richard Henry Dana, author of "Two Years Before the Mast," who was here in 1835. El Embarcadero, the cove below, was used by hide vessels trading with mission San Juan Capistrano. This trade reached its peak in 1830-1840. Here in 1818, Hipolito Bouchard, flying an Argentine flag, anchored his fleet while raiding the mission. Historical landmark no. 189. California State Park Commission." Behind the sign is an overlook of the ocean where several boats are docked. To the right of the image is a black asphalt road curving along the coastal cliff.
1/4 Signage from the California State Park Commission marks Ken Sampson Overlook Park as a historical landmark and provides more context about the landmark's history. | Sandi Hemmerlein
A red-tiled gazebo with navy blue posts overlooks a view of Dana Point's harbor filled with docked boats. Fencing blocks off the entrance to the gazebo.
A red-tiled gazebo with navy blue posts overlooks a view of Dana Point's harbor filled with docked boats. Fencing blocks off the entrance to the gazebo.
2/4 The "Blue Lantern Gazebo" located at Ken Sampson Overlook Park. | Sandi Hemmerlein
A view of the ocean with a cluster of docked white boats. At the foreground are various foliage, trees and red tile-roofed buildings.
A view of the ocean with a cluster of docked white boats. At the foreground are various foliage, trees and red tile-roofed buildings.
3/4 One of the views from Compass Point, just above Heritage Park. | Sandi Hemmerlein
A bronze sculpture of an open book carved with various features of Dana Point like ships, horse-pulled carriages, steamboats, a surfer, a pelican and notable figures. Below the sculpture is a placard that reads, "Doris Walker Tribute, 'Home Port for Romance.'"
A bronze sculpture of an open book carved with various features of Dana Point like ships, horse-pulled carriages, steamboats, a surfer, a pelican and notable figures. Below the sculpture is a placard that reads, "Doris Walker Tribute, 'Home Port for Romance.'"
4/4 A bronze sculpture by artist Christopher Pecharka located at Heritage Park. | Sandi Hemmerlein

At the southern terminus of Old Golden Lantern, you'll find another overlook at Compass Point, just above Heritage Park — this one dedicated to Doris Walker, a local historian and founder of the Dana Point Historical Society. Look for a bronze sculpture representing the many features of the area by artist Christopher Pecharka. For more historic sites throughout the Lantern District, see the Dana Point Historical Society's virtual historic walking map.

2. Bluff Top Trail, Lantern District

A paved walkway leads to a set of three stone arches covered in vining plants. The plants have bright green leaves and vibrant pink-red flowers.