When it comes to places in California that feel like one big outdoor playground, Ventura County, on the south end of the Central Coast, stands out as a sun- and wave-splashed surprise. The oceanfront region doesn’t get the same attention as Santa Barbara County to the north or Los Angeles County to the south, but that might only add to its charm.
“I love that I can surf, I can hike, I can do whatever I want outdoors,” says professional surfer and Ventura native Mary Osborne. “I love that I can walk into a restaurant and say hello to the owner. I love that it’s such a beautiful place. I love that it’s different from anywhere I’ve ever traveled.” Osborne stops, shakes her head, and laughs. “It’s my favorite place to come home to. So much fun.”
A simple truth, often overlooked: Life is short, and you can never have enough fun. San Francisco has fine dining. Los Angeles has glitz. Ventura County—with mountains basking beneath blue skies, waves licked by ocean breezes—has, well, fun.
But don’t listen to us—find out for yourself. Here’s a hit list of great ways to plan a visit to this under-the-radar charmer.
Filled with some 2,000 gleaming boats of every shape and size, Ventura County’s largest harbour is also filled with opportunity. There’s year-round sport fishing and, from December through April, almost-daily gray whale-watching excursions. Rent a kayak at Channel Islands Kayak Center and explore the calm harbour; alternatively, grab an oar and a stand-up paddleboard, or putt around in an electric boat, from Hopper Boat Rentals. Or use the harbour as a gateway, and climb aboard an Island Packers regularly scheduled cruise to Channel Islands National Park. This chain of unspoiled islands, some less than an hour’s boat ride away, is home to plants and animals so unique that their protected habitat has earned the nickname “Galapagos of North America.”
Land-based activities abound. On Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., a farmers’ market pops up adjacent to the harbour’s Marine Emporium Landing—a great place to mingle with locals and check out fresh seafood and produce. Head to the harbour mouth and watch the boats come and go, or spread a towel out in the sun at Silver Strand Beach or Hollywood Beach. Don’t miss the Ventura County Maritime Museum: the collection of ship models and maritime art (some from 1622) is exceptional.
Hungry? If it’s morning, have breakfast at Mrs. Olson’s, a local institution. Enjoy waterfront views at Sea Fresh Channel Islands and The Waterside Restaurant and Wine Bar, or for a twist, enjoy clay-pot cooking, Brazilian style, at Moqueca.
Oxnard is where strawberries meet the sea. In this city 40 minutes south of Santa Barbara, you’ll find 7 miles/11.3 km of unspoiled beaches, plus farmstands overflowing with picked-that-morning produce from nearby farms and fields. The town also has a rich heritage, and a strong preservation ethic to protect historic buildings and sites.
Start your visit with a stop at Heritage Square, which hosts a summer concert series and where 15 Victorian homes open for weekend tours. View California art, from impressionism to contemporary Latino works, at the Carnegie Art Museum, housed in the original Carnegie Library building dating back to 1906. Next, visit Oxnard’s two outstanding automotive museums. At Mullin Automotive Museum see exquisitely designed French cars from the Art Deco era. At the Murphy Auto Museum for American classics, see vintage classics including a 1903 Oldsmobile, and the legendary Avanti, the early Sixties sports car that was a last-ditch effort to save the Studebaker Corporation. (It didn’t work.)
For Oxnard’s wilder side, board a catamaran with outfitter Island Packers on trips to craggy Anacapa Island, part of Channel Islands National Park, for hiking and a visit to the island’s historic lighthouse. From late December into April, set sail on naturalist-led cruises to see migrating gray whales. Also at the Oxnard harbor, check out nautical art and meticulously crafted ship models at Channel Islands Maritime Museum.
Bike riding is undeniably fun, but add the chance to see dolphins leaping in the Pacific Ocean as you follow a coast-hugging path—well, it can’t get more California than that. Find this slice of pedaling perfection, plus rides and hikes ranging from leisurely to downright epic, all over Ventura County.
If you don’t have a bike with you, it’s easy to rent one—try Wheel Fun at the foot of Ventura Pier, or get bikes and great tips on local routes at Open Air Bicycles Ventura, in town. For an easy ride, pedal along Ventura’s beachfront, with views of Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands. Or follow the new Rincon Bike Trail, a three-and-a-half-mile, pan-flat paved route that heads north to Carpinteria’s Rincon Point—a great place to watch ace surfers tackle this legendary break.
Ventura County has plenty of options for fat-tire fans, too. Local mountain bikers know Ojai and Simi Valley offer both rolling hills and lung-searing climbs: Ojai’s Sisar Canyon trail goes up and up and up, but rewards with horizon-wide views. One ride that’s almost all downhill is the Ojai Valley Trail, linking Ojai to the coast, with epic views along the way. The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area also ranks as a mountain biker’s dream, with options ranging from easy fire roads following oak-dappled streams to single-track trails that climb to eye-popping ocean views. Cheeseboro and Palo Comado Canyons, in the gently rolling Simi Hills, are favorites among local hikers and bikers too. Keep your eyes peeled for deer, and when evening comes, maybe owls and bobcats too.
Hikers can also find their happy place in Ventura County. For quick and easily accessed hiking jaunts, there are park-and-go opportunities at every turn: from Camarillo Regional Park (the hike to the top of Rhombus Rock offers panoramic checkerboard valley views) to Ventura’s Mcgrath State Beach, one of the best bird-watching spots in Southern California. Another local favorite is the hike along the rugged, vista-laden Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Relish solitude? Lose yourself in the serene emptiness of Los Padres National Forest (stop in at the ranger station in Ojai for route maps; you can mountain bike here too). Or catch the Island Packers boat in Oxnard or Ventura to hike in Channel Islands National Park.
If you’re a smart dog, Ventura County is where you’ll try to get your master to head for vacation. In this oceanfront county, dogs aren’t just welcome, they’re celebrated. Ventura has its own “Ambassadogs”—four-legged city reps—including Haole, who may surf better than you.
But dogs care little for recognition, and lots for amenities. First, there are beaches. Ventura County has tons of them, and dogs, on leash or off (check local regulations), are welcome to romp at most of them. You and your best furry friend can stroll the promenade at Surfers’ Point in Ventura, watching surfers catch some of California’s best waves (and perhaps even spot Haole, perched on the end of his human pal’s longboard), or trot out to the end of the Ventura Pier, snuffling recent catches and old wood. In Oxnard, Oxnard Shores Beach and Silver Strand Beach offer fine snuffling, too. Water-loving dogs (and their owners) are also welcome at both the county’s harbors (Channel Islands and Ventura); both have extensive romping greens and many of the restaurants are dog-friendly. In Ventura Harbor, check out The Parlor’s dog-friendly Paw-lor Menu.
Dog-friendly parks abound. Camarillo Grove Park and Mission Oaks Park in Camarillo, Conejo Creek Dog Park in Thousand Oaks, Cemetery Memorial Park in Ventura (the place to cavort for furry fellows, and nice ocean views for owners), and Lake Casitas Recreation Area near Ojai (no swimming in the lake, sorry) are some of the green-grass highlights. Leashed dogs are also welcome on the infinite trails crisscrossing the vast and lovely Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (check with the National Park Service for specifics).
Dogs aren’t much for shopping, but they are big on being with you. All the county’s downtowns welcome dogs, and many shopping outlets (such as Camarillo Premium Outlets) do too. As an added plus, many downtowns are also close to green grass: In Ojai, a quaint collection of shops is located just across the street from dog-friendly Libbey Park. And when it’s time to put up your collective feet, plenty of local restaurants are dog-friendly. It might happen that your dog leads you to just the right spot for both of you: say, a star-filled night on the patio listening to live, local music and dining on farm-to-table freshness at the Deer Lodge tavern in Ojai. After all, what’s a best friend for?
Sip your way along the Ventura County Wine Trail, where you’ll find nearly 20 wineries and tasting rooms in settings ranging from urban neighborhoods to the bucolic Ojai Valley.
Sample exquisite reds in a 1902 Victorian building at Rancho Ventavo Cellars on downtown Oxnard’s historic Heritage Square. In the Ventura County city of Camarillo, visit the tasting room of Cantara Cellars, which offers barrel tastings of its vintages (pair them with cheeses and other snacks served in a low-key lounge area). Or get a taste of Ojai Valley’s terroir at Boccali Vineyards & Winery, where you can sample estate-grown Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel in a tasting room housed in the vineyard’s family-run Italian restaurant. Another outstanding wine-centric dining destination is Tierra Sur; it serves locally sourced New American fare at Herzog Wine Celllars, known for award-winning Kosher wines.
For an in-depth look at the Ventura County wine scene, take a tour led by wine experts at Explore Wines, or head out on a custom trip with Ventura County Wine Tours.
Insider’s Tip: If you’re short on time, stop in at the California Welcome Center Oxnard, which has a tasting room serving Ventura County wines.