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 theirsouthern 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. TheSanta Clara River finds the sea here―the break known as theRiver Mouth is a surfing favorite. And just behind the beach, anature trail winds through dappled tree tunnels and along theriver. More often than not, sand buildup dams the river, creating aplacid estuary that, though not well known, is on manybirds'―and bird-watchers'―radar.

"One of the best birding spots in Southern California," localbirder Walter Wehtje says of McGrath. "During spring and fallmigrations, you can easily see 60 to 70 species of birds in asingle day."

In May, you should see ample numbers of shorebirds, includingsandpipers and snowy plovers. Swallows and swifts should bemigrating through. And least terns should be breeding; McGrath'sback dunes, just north of the river, are home to a breeding colonyof these federally endangered birds, as well as mating snowyplovers and American avocets.

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

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

Wrap up your afternoon at Andria's Seafood (1449 Spinnaker; 805/654-8228), which serves lunch anddinner daily―including, most locals agree, the best, mostreasonably priced fishburger around, plus plenty of otherfresh-off-the-boat bounty. Local fishermen unload their catch onthe 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 statebeach will be on your right. Ventura Harbor lies 1 mile to thenorth (off Harbor Blvd.).

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

FYI: No dogs except in campgrounds.

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

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