This Coastal County is SoCal's Best-Kept Secret
Allow us to let you in on a little secret called Ventura County Coast. Maybe you’ve heard the name whispered by a friend (followed by “don’t tell anyone or they’ll all want to go”) or perhaps you've driven past the exit while en route to another headline-grabbing destination on California’s Central Coast. But if you haven’t personally spent days exploring the stunning shores, hidden islands, indulgent eateries and charming downtowns, you’re missing out on SoCal’s most precious hidden gem.
Read on to learn about Ventura County Coast's can’t-miss experiences, and then tell no one (lest you spill the secret).
An island group and a national park all in one
Considering the scores of ballads that have been written about mainland California’s coastal beauty, it might be hard to imagine another place within state lines that could rival the beaches’ aesthetics. But we’ll help you try.
Picture a chain of windswept, wild islands with jutting, craggy coastal cliffs, winding sea caves and sun-kissed meadow paths. Now visualize hordes of sea lions, curious little foxes, spotted gopher snakes, slick-skinned leaping dolphins and massive blue whales, just for starters — an overflow of wildlife so intriguing, you’d be likely to max out your camera phone’s cloud storage in a matter of hours.
These images are just the beginning of the natural wonders on display in Channel Islands National Park off the coast. Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara and San Miguel are the five islands that comprise the preserve, which is accessible only by boat or plane. On the cruise or ferry ride from Ventura Harbor, be on the lookout for flying fish, orcas or even humpback whales.
Once you disembark on Santa Cruz, explore the archipelago by kayak. Book a tour ahead of time through Channel Islands Adventure Company (the sole kayak guide and outfitter for the park) located at Santa Cruz Island's Scorpion Anchorage. But if paddling into Painted Cave, one of the largest littoral caves in the world, sounds more scary than scintillating, there’s also plenty to see on foot. On Santa Rosa, for instance, you can hike through Lobo Canyon, home to towering, otherworldly sandstone formations — and also the site of numerous endemic pygmy mammoth fossil discoveries.
A trail of tacos
Tacos are not just for Tuesday, at least not in the seaside city of Oxnard. Taquerias, taco trucks and Mexican restaurants are spread out across the town, so to help hungry visitors out, Oxnard put together an official Taco Trail.
Bring your appetite as you take in a taco or two from the likes of Tacos La Bonita (four taco trucks around Oxnard; try the quesabirria tacos), La Huerta (al pastor is the order here, try to pick out some of the 30 spices in the adobo), Carnitas El Rey (the Michoacán style carnitas won Santa Monica's Taco Wars in a blind taste test) or El 30 Mariscos (as the name suggests, seafood is the focus here). Finish the trail with a margarita alfresco by the marina at Yolanda’s.
If shopping is your cardio
Whether you’re looking for some local souvenirs to bring back home or just in need of some big-name retail therapy, Ventura County Coast has you covered. Within walking distance of the beach, downtown Ventura has a mix of locally owned shops that include clothing boutiques, art galleries, one-of-a-kind jewelry, swimwear, thrift stores and home and garden shops.
For an outdoor shopping center, head to The Collection at RiverPark in Oxnard for retailers like Target, Ulta Beauty and H&M. There are restaurants on-site as well as kid-friendly entertainment spots like Bowlero for bowling and arcade games. Just off Highway 101, Camarillo Premium Outlets gives you a choice of 160 retailers like Kate Spade New York, Michael Kors and the Nike Factory Store.
A beach for every kind of sun worshiper
Whichever town you’ve chosen for your shopping spree, there’s a gorgeous stretch of sand close by where you can rest your weary tote-carrying arms thereafter. Ventura’s San Buenaventura State Beach is a favorite, encompassing two miles of pristine sands. It also boasts a historic pier and a picturesque promenade for those craving a long walk on the beach. Surfers flock to Rincon Beach just north of Ventura, home to some of the best waves on the central coast.
Oxnard’s Silver Strand Beach is the locals’ choice for its wide, quiet sands and kayak-ready waters. Don’t miss the eye-popping murals at the beach’s south end, or a peek at the remains of La Jenelle, a luxury ocean liner that shipwrecked here in 1970. You’ll see many of her rust-worn fixtures trapped among the shoreline’s large rocks.
If a serene beach picnic is on your vacation to-do list, Hollywood Beach is your go-to. With its stellar white sands and views of the Channel Islands just offshore, it’s little wonder that 1930s movie star Clark Gable once owned real estate here.
Between winery tasting rooms, craft breweries and creative cocktail bars, the vacation vibes are flowing in this coastal enclave.
Craft beer lovers will be spoilt for choice, as the area is "hopping" with microbreweries. Ventura is a great place to start, with more than a dozen breweries in the town limits, many clustered around an area known as the Off Market Street Tasting Trail, including the unique pours at the Topa Topa Brewing Company (named for the nearby mountains) and the big flavors on tap at the veteran-owned Poseidon Brewing Company. Stop by the pet-friendly tasting room at Casa Agria Specialty Ales in Oxnard, where they use fruit from local farms and barrels from local wineries to help craft their farmhouse saisons and wild ales.
With more than 20 wineries and tasting rooms in and around Ventura, Oxnard and Camarillo, you can have a particularly fruitful day or two of tasting. The ever-present California sunshine, cool ocean breezes and rich soil make the region a strong spot for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabaret Sauvignon. Options range from Herzog Wine Cellars in Oxnard, the nation's largest producer of kosher wines, to smaller operations like Plan B Winery in Ventura and Cantara Cellars in Camarillo, where you might just meet the winemakers as you try a glass.
When it's time for cocktails, go as the spirits move you — whether that's sipping classic cocktails to sundowners by the water to a full-on tiki bar experience.
A 1924 Beaux-Arts style building in downtown Ventura is the home of the Bank of Italy Cocktail Trust, where you'll be checking out their inventive twists on the Negroni and other Italian-influenced apertifs. Views of the Channel Islands Harbor are part of the appeal of the aptly named Waterside Restaurant and Wine Bar in Oxnard, although the Chambord Raspberry Margarita pairs well with a scenic setting sun. Then there's the VenTiki Lounge and Lanai in Ventura, where the requisite Mai Tais are joined on the menu by creations such as the Lagoon of Forbidden Desire and Vicious Hibiscus.
Museums worth going indoors for
If you’re into quirky museums, Ventura County Coast is home to a myriad of them. Bird-lovers might flock (had to do it, sorry) to the WFVZ, which stands for the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology Museum. With thousands of items from over 4,000 bird species, it’s one of the largest ornithology collections in the world and even includes the elephant bird egg (which is about the size of 180 chicken eggs).
Car aficionados have two museums in Oxnard to get their engines revving. The Murphy Auto Museum has nearly 50 classic, vintage and antique American cars. Kids under 13 get free admission. The Mullin Automotive Museum has an international flair, focusing on historic French automobiles from Bugatti to Voisin, as well as famous French race cars.
At the Channel Islands Maritime Museum, permanent exhibitions include Dutch, English and French seascape masterpiece paintings from 1600 to 1850, as well as paintings and ship models from the American Revolution. There are even multiple model ships that French prisoners of war carved from the bones of their meat rations during the Napoleonic Wars. The museum is free for children under 6 every day, but free for everyone every third Thursday of each month.
Where to stay along the way
As you've learned by now, each city in Ventura County Coast would be a worthy place to base your getaway.
In Ventura, you could stay in a vintage Airstream by the beach (or if you have your own RV, BYO) at Waypoint Ventura. A traditional hotel option near the water is Holiday Inn Express & Suites Ventura Harbor.
For an Oxnard home base, we like Residence Inn Oxnard River Ridge and Hampton Inn Channel Islands Harbor. In summer 2022, Hilton will premiere the newly renovated Zachari Dunes on Mandalay Beach, Curio Collection as the only all-suite, beachfront resort in Southern California).