Solitary sands

Near Ventura, McGrath State Beach is blissfully uncrowded

Ken McAlpine

Ventura has beaches, but they lack the T-shirt shops, look-at-me roller-skaters, and all the other hullabaloo of their southern neighbors. Ventura's beaches remain, well, beaches: salt-sprayed, windswept on most afternoons, fog-shrouded in summer, and sun-graced in fall, winter, and spring. And, best of all, they're often empty. A coast lover's untarnished dream.

Take McGrath State Beach. Tucked 1 mile south of Ventura Harbor, McGrath is 2 1/2 miles of sand, dunes, and thundering waves. The Santa Clara River finds the sea here―the break known as the River Mouth is a surfing favorite. And just behind the beach, a nature trail winds through dappled tree tunnels and along the river. More often than not, sand buildup dams the river, creating a placid estuary that, though not well known, is on many birds'―and bird-watchers'―radar.

"One of the best birding spots in Southern California," local birder Walter Wehtje says of McGrath. "During spring and fall migrations, you can easily see 60 to 70 species of birds in a single day."

In May, you should see ample numbers of shorebirds, including sandpipers and snowy plovers. Swallows and swifts should be migrating through. And least terns should be breeding; McGrath's back dunes, just north of the river, are home to a breeding colony of these federally endangered birds, as well as mating snowy plovers and American avocets.

For that reason, signs close off the breeding areas to foot traffic each spring. The birds do their own patrolling as well: Walk too close to a snowy plover's young, and the adults will flap their wings wildly and flop about in the sand. More direct, avocets―large birds with a beak that curves up―may take a dive at you.

All this poking about and bird-gazing requires sustenance. Ventura Harbor offers excellent food options. Start your day by popping into Le Petit Cafe & Bakery I {(1591 Spinnaker Dr.; 805/642-1191)}] for delicious fresh pastries; the bakery opens at 8 on weekends and at 11 on weekdays (closed Mondays).

Wrap up your afternoon at Andria's Seafood (1449 Spinnaker; 805/654-8228), which serves lunch and dinner daily―including, most locals agree, the best, most reasonably priced fishburger around, plus plenty of other fresh-off-the-boat bounty. Local fishermen unload their catch on the docks right behind the restaurant.

Hit the beach

WHERE: From U.S. 101 in Ventura, take the Seaward Ave. exit. Turn left on Harbor Blvd. and drive south 4 1/2 miles. The state beach will be on your right. Ventura Harbor lies 1 mile to the north (off Harbor Blvd.).

COST: $4 day-use fee. $16 to camp at one of the 174 campsites.

FYI: No dogs except in campgrounds.

CONTACT: California State Parks, (805) 648-4127.