Irvine Park has provided a safe, fun place for locals to spend a sunny SoCal weekend for over 120 years. It was established as the first public park in California in 1897, when James Irvine Jr. donated the original 160 acres of oak-dotted land to the county under the simple condition that the area remain as natural as possible. Listed since 1983 on the National Registry of Historic Places, Irvine Park still offers the natural beauty and historic oak trees of its past, as well as some more modern additions. Within its 491 well-maintained acres, you can find an unmatched variety of amenities to keep the entire family happy.
Sports & Recreation
No matter what sport you prefer, chances are Irvine Park has a place for you to play it. Four first-come, first-served softball fields are among the most popular offerings, as well as horseshoe pits. Volleyball poles in several areas are available for players who come prepared with their own net. Visitors are welcome to fish in the stocked lake, provided they have a California fishing license, and paddleboats can be rented from the Wheel Fun Rentals shack for a leisurely cruise.
The shack also offers bike rentals including cruisers, tandems, single surreys, and more for exploring paved and dirt biking trails throughout the park. Several mostly novice-friendly hiking trails provide beautiful views of the natural environment, which is home to some of the oldest live Oaks in Orange County. Shaded overlooks on the Horseshoe Trail offer serene vistas. To top it all off, a three mile equestrian trail lines the park for scenic, relaxed horseback riding, and guided tours and riding lessons from Country Trails, Inc. are available for less experienced riders.
The wild ducks and peacocks roaming around the grounds aren’t the only animals you’ll find in Irvine Park. Tucked into a quiet corner of Irvine Park, the Orange County Zoo is small but full of activity. For the small admission price of $2 per person over the age of three, visitors can find a host of animals native to the Southwest roaming their clean, spacious enclosures. Residents include fan favorites such as a bald eagle, two mountain lions, and a black bear. And when the kids are tired of simply looking at the animals, take them over to the petting zoo, where they can feed sheep, pot-bellied pigs, goats, chickens, and more.
During the summer months, Irvine Park participates in the OC Parks Sunset Cinema Series. Now in its second year, the popular program offers free movies over fourteen weekends in various parks across the county. Irvine Park also plays frequent host to the OC Parks Summer Concert Series, a ten-week lineup featuring live music from local bands. Both events offer free parking, a food truck gathering, and a beer and wine garden for adults.
Irvine Park is also a popular location for birthday parties and other gatherings. Open-use barbeques and picnic tables are scattered throughout the park, and party pavilions and semi-private meadow areas can be reserved online or by phone for larger groups. If you forget charcoal, lighter fluid, or ice, never fear; they can be purchased from the snack bars at the train station and the boathouse.
Four playgrounds will keep kids busy, while the aforementioned snack bars offer a variety of standard fare such as hamburgers, nachos, chicken nuggets, and burritos for when they get hungry. When it’s time to escape the heat for a while, the Interpretive Center in the historic exhibit hall educates visitors on the heritage of the park.
First-time visitors to Irvine Park will be delighted by the discovery of Irvine Park Railroad, a 1/3 scale sized train located just past the park’s entrance. Rides are $5 per person during non-holiday seasons and provide a breezy, scenic ride through the park for children and adults alike.
For certain holidays, the railroad is transformed into a truly immersive experience. As spring approaches, the park hops into life with the arrival of the Easter Bunny, hayrides, and a hugely popular Easter egg hunt. In the fall, the surrounding area becomes a full-fledged pumpkin patch, complete with a giant hay bale maze, gold panning, bounce houses, cookie decorating, a kid-friendly haunted house, and more. Winter is even more magical, as beautiful lights and festive decorations transform the area and visitors are given a chance to visit the North Pole. Train passengers can meet both Santa and Mrs. Claus, as well as compete in “ice fishing” and carnival games back in Santa’s Village.
Annual Events At Irvine Park
Special events at Irvine Park include:
- Easter Eggstravaganza
- Anniversary Celebration
- Fourth Grade California History Education Program
- Pumpkin Patch
- Christmas Train
Irvine Park also offers party pavilions, moon bounce rentals, a full-service snack bar, and more.
While the fees for certain activities are small and help to maintain the beauty of the park and the health of its animal residents, the prices do add up. Be ready to pay at least for parking, which costs $3 during the week and $5 on the weekends. A credit card will easily cover all of your other food and entertainment expenses except the pony rides, which take cash only; an ATM is available at the train station if needed.
The farmers market here is one of the best-kept local secrets. Open from 9 AM to 1 PM on Tuesdays, there are not as many vendors as some other Orange County locations, but the variety of fresh, locally harvested foods available is above par. In addition, parking is free during the event. Just make sure to bring cash!
Irvine Park is certainly popular with families, but even more popular with another demographic: photographers. The natural landscapes make gorgeous backdrops for engagement photos, senior portraits, family reunion pictures, or simple selfies! Make sure you obtain a permit for any professional photography, which is permitted everywhere except the train station’s special event areas.
The park is dog friendly, but requires them to be on a 6-foot leash, and they are not allowed within special event areas at the train station.
Irvine Park History
Originally known as the Picnic Grounds and then Orange County Park, in 1929 it was officially renamed Irvine Park. Prior to James Irvine donating the land in 1897 the area was a popular vacation spot for local residents.
The lake and the boathouse was added between 1912 and 1914. The first train opened in the park in 1935.
Visit Enjoy OC for more regional parks in Orange County.
Shea Costales is an old-soul hippie with a passion for outdoor exploring. You can usually find her doing yoga in a local park, grubbing at the newest burger shack, or petting your dog.