Hurrying to remove themselves from the megalopolis known as L.A., RVers race northward on U.S.101, seldom slowing down until they are more than 90 miles away in Santa Barbara or beyond. And when they return south, exhausted from their time on the road, they are once again motoring nonstop, anxious to get home.
Pity, because these road warriors are missing one of California’s true hidden joys. Campers seeking sun, fun and small town vacation pleasures should stop and take a look around Ventura. About 60 miles north of Los Angeles, and 35 miles south of Santa Barbara, Ventura is a classic RV hideaway.
This is where Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra, that renowned early oxcart RVer, arrived on his mule mobile in 1782, and founded San Buenaventura, his last mission on the California coast. Where missions flourish, so do pueblos, which become larger settlements, and grow into townships. Such is the case of this laidback coastal community. Today, the population exceeds 100,000, but Ventura retains its small town character.
A short drive north of the city’s original downtown district, and just off Pacific Coast Highway, are state-owned beachfront camping facilities. At Emma Wood State Park, those who like to be near the water and don’t mind boondocking, are within walking distance of a splashing good time. As with many coastal campgrounds, sometimes it’s sunny and sometimes it’s not, but volcano-sized fire pits cut the chill of a fog-bound day and keep the S’mores tantalizing.
Not the sand-crusted beachcombing type? No problem, situated a short distance south of the state park is Ventura Beach RV Resort, with all the normal hookups and plush amenities, and it’s just a short rental bike or surrey ride from the water. Both coastal campgrounds are close to the old mission, easily within walking or pedal-pushing distance. During the off-season, weekdays offer plenty of available campsites; that changes dramatically on weekends and during the vacation season.
Quiet during the week, Old Downtown awakens on Friday night, and parking sites are at a premium. The street scene is crowded with shoppers, sightseers and street entertainers. Cafés, coffee houses, fashionable pubs and restaurants line Main Street; there are also knickknack shops, thrift stores, and many clothing and jewelry outlets. Motorcyclists and car enthusiasts cruise the main drag, and at times it resembles a rolling car show.
The city beachfront cement walk meanders from Main Street to the Ventura Pier, and beyond. At the walk’s north end is Surfer’s Point, where the locals hit the waves to display their skills. With the appropriate monetary offering, a novice can take instruction, and within a short time actually stand up and ride a wave. If the wind develops and the surf is “blown out,” the scene changes. Wind surfers appear, riding their boards behind colorful nylon kites, bouncing over the waves, going airborne, and producing exciting views for the shore-hugging spectators.
Between the point and the pier are beaches that everyone is welcome to enjoy. A walk, or ride, along the beachfront is a delightful exercise in people watching. The pier is home to two favorite local eating establishments: Beach House Tacos and Ericsson’s Seafood. Enjoy the ambiance of the ocean and a fish taco or two, washed down with a Ventura Surf Brew, or delight in any manner of freshly prepared seafood entrees accompanied by your favorite elixir.
A few miles offshore is Channel Islands National Park, a five-island preserve that is home to a varied population of marine life. Report to the harbor and board a tour boat for a ride out to the isles and, depending on the time of year, you might see seals, sea lions, dolphins, even California gray whales in migration. On the islands, eagles soar, sea birds flourish, and rare island foxes, no bigger than the average house cat, call the atoll home.
Want to get away from the city? Pack a lunch and head 30 minutes south on Highway 101 to Malibu Creek State Park. Trails lined with oak trees, a rippling creek and swimming hole are among the attractions. This is where Hawkeye Pierce was stationed during the Korean War in the M*A*S*H television series. Though only the infamous directional road sign and a few rusting vehicle props remain from the set where the series was filmed, it’s worth the two-and-a–half-mile walk. It brings back a flood of memories to stand on the landing pad where the Bell 47 bubble-canopied helicopter sat down to unload casualties for the field hospital. The film site is appropriately vacant, since in the final episode in 1983 the Korean truce was signed and the hospital site was abandoned. The voices carrying Hawkeye’s sarcasm, Trapper John’s wisecracks, B.J.’s joking, Frank’s paranoia, Charles’ pompous ego, Father Mulcahy’s conscience, Lt. Col. Blake’s confusion, Colonel Potter’s maturity, Hot Lips’ discipline, Klinger’s scheming, and Radar’s innocence may still be heard, even if only in our mind.
Go farther north on 101, and then cut toward the foothills on Highway 33. Travel up the road and you’ll wind up in the little town of Ojai, (pronounced O-HI, not O-Jay) and another excellent hideaway, out of the fog of the coast, Lake Casitas Recreational Area. The lake is a manmade aqua reserve so there’s no swimming, but there’s a water park, boating, fishing, and about four hundred RV and camping sites.
Within easy biking distance down the road is the center of Ojai, a municipality of small shops, eateries, locally owned businesses, and very friendly folk. Still looking for more to do? Ask the local park rangers for a map and they’ll point you in the direction of some excellent hiking and biking trails
These are but a few of the pleasurable coastal hideaways just beyond the gridlock of L.A. Next time you need a short weekend away, or are looking for a respite from the long and winding road, take a minute. That someplace just might be right in front of your windshield; maybe a stop to smell the sea breeze is just what the M*A*S*H doctor ordered!
John R. Swaim is a retired computer systems analyst and RVer who lives in Ventura, California. He has chronicled his travels in two comedic travel books that can be found at 5thwheelturns.com.