California travel: Things to do on a road trip to Ventura

By Rachel Schnalzer

Good morning, fellow Escapists. Last week, we ventured up the winding mountain roads of California 33 to Ojai in pursuit of pixies. This week, we’re heading down to sea level.

Many travelers know Ventura as a beach city between L.A. and the posh streets of Santa Barbara. But perhaps they haven’t walked along Ventura’s picturesque Main Street, browsed the shelves of cozy independent bookshops such as the Calico Cat, Bank of Books and Timbre or basked in kitsch at Busy Bee Cafe over a root beer float. In other words, they haven’t felt the pulse of the town.

In this edition of Escapes, you’ll find a few different ways to explore Ventura; as always, if you have a favorite spot you’d like to share, let me know and I may feature it in a future newsletter.

Wander Ventura’s gardens and trails

When L.A. travelers first roll into Ventura on U.S. 101, with just a few hundred feet of sand separating the freeway from the Pacific Ocean, it might be hard to see beyond the city’s beachy vibes.

But the surf is only part of the story; last year, my colleague Jeannette Marantos wrote two stories about the city’s gardens and trails. Each is a tale of persistence.

In 2015, volunteers and a small staff broke ground on the Ventura Botanical Gardens, steps from downtown Ventura, after almost 10 years of public meetings, fundraising and planning. Two years later, their hard work was destroyed by the Thomas fire. “The fire burned everything,” Barbara Brown, board member and past president, told Marantos.

So began the laborious process of rebuilding.

Today, the young gardens — with more than 30,000 plants in the ground — spotlight flora from Mediterranean climates around the world, from Chile to the cape of South Africa to southern Australia. The gardens are open Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance costs $7 per person, except on Fridays, when admission is free.

Those looking to break a sweat while in Ventura might consider a visit to the Harmon Canyon Preserve, a 2,100-acre network of backcountry trails that opened in 2020 after years of work by the Ventura Land Trust. If you visit in the spring, you may get lucky and spot some wildflowers along the trails.

“Everybody was so starved for outdoor recreation, we found the preserve to be instantly popular and very appreciated,” Derek Poultney, former executive director of the trust, told Marantos. “Before Harmon Canyon opened, Ventura people had to drive 30 to 45 miles to Ojai or the Santa Monica Mountains to get this kind of experience.”

People stroll along the pier at San Buenaventura State Beach in Ventura in December.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Kick back at the beach

Those hoping to relax and enjoy some ocean views while in town might consider an afternoon at Surfers Point, a convenient strip of beach off Ventura’s promenade with picnic tables and grills. If the wind and waves cooperate, picnickers may see surfers and windsurfers cutting through the water.

To get an even better sense of the surf town, walk the promenade from Surfers Point to the Ventura Pier. If you’re so inclined, stop in MadeWest Brewing Company’s pier location for a sweeping view of the sea as you sample a flight of its beers.

The stunning location is an ideal jumping-off point for anyone interested in exploring Ventura’s booming craft-beer scene. (Topa Topa is a particular favorite of mine.) Just make sure to have a designated driver.

A person sits on a rocky beach in a cove.

Santa Cruz Island, the largest island in Channel Islands National Park, is an easy day trip from Ventura.

(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Pop over to the Channel Islands

One of the least-visited national parks in the U.S. is a mere hourlong boat ride from Ventura. Channel Islands National Park is enjoyed by snorkelers, hikers and others. Each island offers varying degrees of solitude, ruggedness and ease of accessibility.

Though I could easily write an Escapes edition (or three) about the park itself — and some travelers camp for a week or longer on the islands — weekend visitors to Ventura can get a taste of the experience by booking a day trip to Santa Cruz Island with Island Packers, the official boat concessionaire of the park.

Day trippers to the park’s largest island can choose between hopping off at Scorpion Anchorage or Prisoners Harbor. Don’t let their inauspicious names fool you; travelers to either docking point can look forward to a day of hiking and incredible views of mainland California and the Pacific.

Most day trips include an optional hike led by a naturalist and time to snorkel and explore on your own. Keep an eye out for the island fox, which is found only on six of the eight Channel Islands, and the island scrub jay, found only on Santa Cruz Island.

One more day-trip option worth considering, especially for those who love exploring caves on their travels: a voyage to Prisoners Harbor with a stop inside Painted Cave along the north side of Santa Cruz Island. Although passengers must stay on the boat while in the cave, it’s an opportunity to get a glimpse of one of the largest and deepest sea caves on Earth.

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Celebrate ‘Mermaid Month’

Heads up, parents of kid travelers. Speaking of sea caves, and all the magical creatures that may call them home, it’s “Mermaid Month” in Ventura.

An inviting stop for families traveling up the coast, the event includes scavenger hunts, a mermaid-themed craft fair, island tunes, face painting and the chance to meet a “mermaid” IRL at the harbor.

Check the schedule for specific timing. The event is free.

📰 What I’m reading

  • Spring break travel is back, and so are high prices, writes L.A. Times business reporter Hugo Martín. He offers a look at what travelers can expect to pay this season.
  • Santa Cruz “is getting a new national monument, and it’s all thanks to former President Obama’s love for an old dairy farm,” reports Stacey Leasca in Travel + Leisure.
  • Sure, Modesto’s almond blossoms look great on Instagram. But there’s much more to know about the popular blooms, writes Alan Chazaro in SFGate.
  • “Skijoring” is part rodeo, part ski racing. Colin Clancy explains the ins and outs of what may be “the wildest snow sport out there in Condé Nast Traveler.
  • Women make up the majority of travelers and the lion’s share of the tourism workforce. Katherine LaGrave covers the power of traveling women in Afar.

📸 Photo of the week

A person in a hat, a tree with trailing leaves and a hillside are silhouetted against a setting sun.

A hiker descends a trail lined with California pepper trees at the Ventura Botanical Garden.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

🎸 Road song

Song: “Kokomo, IN” by Japanese Breakfast

Favorite line: “I’ll wait, passing time just popping wheelies and kicking round this flyover state.”

Where to play it: watching the sun set at Surfers Point in Ventura