Between the hectic traffic on Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles and scenic Highway 101 along the coast is a popular east-west asphalt artery that connects the two. Highway 126 links Ventura with Santa Clarita, and along this stretch of highway, RVers can enjoy some fine, hidden offerings.
The roadway cuts between two mountain ranges and passes through some of the best farmland in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Known as Heritage Valley, the fields here produce a potpourri of seasonal crops, dominated by the big three: springtime strawberries, summer avocados, and citrus, primarily oranges of both the navel and Valencia varieties.
Depending on the season, travelers can not only enjoy the beauty of a scenic drive, but also partake in something of a novelty from the past in Southern California: old-fashioned roadside produce stands offering freshly picked and packed fruit and vegetables.
Highway 126 travels through the small, quiet town of Santa Paula. The town and its residents are as important to the region’s agricultural production as beehives and bees are to the pollination process. Santa Paula is home to many of the industrious and hard laboring field hands of Hispanic descent that make the valley thrive and make life in the municipality so unique.
If you take the Highway 150 exit and travel north through Santa Paula and go a short distance beyond town, you will come to two rustic hidden-away campgrounds. Privately owned Ventura Ranch KOA and county-owned Steckle Park provide good base camps and jumping off points for exploring Santa Paula. Steckle Park has campsites under California oak and pine trees, but be aware that RV sites are limited, and reservations are taken with a minimum of 14 days advance notice; otherwise camping is on a first-come, first-served basis.
At the campgrounds, you may see peacocks showing off their elegant plumage and hear their high-pitched “yelp, yelp.” You might also hear the call of the blue jays, cooing of doves and see wings of ravens whipping in the air. There are trails to hike, or you can ride a bike from the campgrounds to the surrounding hills. And at Steckle Park, giant old oak trees await energetic, tree-scaling youths.
If you continue north on Highway 150 beyond the campgrounds, you will soon reach Ojai and within 45 miles you can enter Santa Barbara through the back door.
If the Santa Paula campgrounds are booked, don’t let a lack of facilities stop your Heritage Valley holiday; to the east, a short 30-minute drive, is Valencia Travel Village, or, about twenty minutes west, is Ventura Beach RV Resort.
One of the first things that impresses the short-term visitor to Santa Paula is the number of cafés. These are not corporate-owned restaurants or sleazy burger joints, but family-owned cantinas that have excellent Mexican food. Having lived in California for 60 years, I consider my taste buds to be something of an authority on foods from South of the Border, and I can say, this is some of the best. There are so many from which to choose that you can easily dine in a different eatery every day for a week and never visit the same one twice.
While searching out a fine restaurant, take time to meander through the historic streets of the small town. Nestled among the tiny shops and stores is a national landmark and piece of California history, the old Union Oil building, better known as Union 76. Built in 1890, the building with its unique structural design is the birthplace of one of the major players in the development of California’s oil industry. It now serves as the California Oil Museum and provides a historical record of the region’s entrance into the search for and development of lubricants and fuel. Inside is the history of “roughnecks” and their quest for the black gold. Antique gas pumps—the type requiring that the glass cylinder be filled before dispensing—are on display. The cost of fuel during the heyday of these pumps was somewhere between 13 and 17 cents a gallon. Oh, for the days when there was no pain at the pump.
About once a month from April through October, Main Street turns into a car show extravaganza. Local auto buffs and out-of-town guests proudly break out their sweet rides; some restored, some modified and customized, some raised or lowered. Walk through the maze of Main Street muscle and enjoy a car hobbyist’s dream come true.
Another piece of history resides just a few miles to the east, and this one also sits on wheels. In nearby Fillmore, you can board the Fillmore and Western Railway and take a train excursion through the agricultural landscape. The railroad has been featured in more than 300 movies and television shows. Special excursions include a Murder Mystery dinner train, Pumpkinliner, Christmas Tree Train and North Pole Express.
Santa Paula may seem peaceful and calm, but it is quietly exciting. Whether you join the locals at a Friday evening car show or Saturday morning shopping spree, or come to check out the food outlets, hop on a scenic train or bike in the hills, you’ll share in the great historic heritage of this valley.
John R. Swaim is a retired computer systems analyst and RVer. He has chronicled his travels in two comedic travel books that can be found at 5thwheelturns.com. His fictional account of the U.S. Presidency, U.S. Miss-tory A Presidential Missed History, is an e-book available at amazon.com.