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Sand, Surf and Solitude

Ventura's 43 miles of oceanfront, from County Line Beach to the Rincon, promise clean, uncrowded sites for fulfilling the rites of summer.


If you're packing the cooler, grabbing the sunscreen, and heading for the beach this Memorial Day weekend, you can expect some company--but probably not a throng.

Luckily for us, Ventura County's beaches don't get the summer stampede that spots closer to Los Angeles command. The sand here is generally untrampled--even secluded in places.

On a blazing hot Mother's Day last week, only a few people dotted the vast stretch of smooth white sand at Hollywood Beach near Oxnard. Even fewer splashed in the water.

But down the coast at Santa Monica Beach, it was a mob scene. More than 160,000 people sweated bumper-to-bumper traffic and bumper-to-bumper bodies to grab a patch of sand.

On a typical summer weekend day, Zuma Beach near Malibu packs in about 50,000 sun soakers. San Buenaventura State Beach in Ventura, with its huge parking lot and its beckoning exposure just off the freeway, gets only one-tenth of that. Hollywood Beach, a romping ground for the film stars of the 1920s, draws even fewer.

"You can get an empty beach there," marveled Susan O'Brien at the Channel Islands Harbor Visitor's Center. "The sand is clean, the water is clean," and it's the same relatively pristine story at Oxnard State Beach and Mandalay Beach: "It amazes me how beautiful those places are."

All this should be welcome news if you're searching for sand and surf this weekend, the unofficial start of summer. More good news: Wetsuits are optional. The ocean water is warmer than usual, thanks to the exceptionally steamy weather we had earlier this month.

But if you plan on taking a swim, always go to a beach with lifeguards. San Buenaventura State Beach and those at Point Mugu State Park have them, as well as Port Hueneme Beach Park and Harbor Cove Beach at Ventura Harbor.

Lifeguards start gearing up for their summer watch this weekend, with coverage mainly on weekends. By mid-June, when school is out, they'll be out in full force, scanning the water daily.

About then, Silver Strand and Hollywood beaches, and the swimming beach at Channel Islands Harbor will have them too.

"The beach" in Ventura County spans 43 miles, considerable territory both geographically and legally. Have you got beer tucked away in your cooler? Some beaches, such as Port Hueneme Beach and Harbor Cove, don't allow alcohol. And before you bend over to snatch up that perfect sand dollar or starfish, be aware that state beaches and others frown on shell collecting.

For those in wheelchairs, the beach isn't off limits. You can borrow beach wheelchairs with big wheels for cruising the sand at Sycamore Cove Beach, Harbor Cove and Buenaventura beaches. At least two--Oxnard State Beach and Harbor Cove--offer wheelchair access right to the beach.

To help you decide which beaches to explore, we took a leisurely trip up the county's coast. Here's what's out there:

Surfin' USA

What else would you call a beach at the Los Angeles County line, but, well, County Line Beach? It was a hot surfing spot when the Beach Boys slipped it into their 1960s hit, "Surfin' USA," and it still draws surfers by the vanload. Across the Pacific Coast Highway is another landmark of sorts--Neptune's Net, a rambling eatery where you can sit at picnic tables, drink beer and wolf down fish and chips. On Sundays, the motorcycle crowd makes a stop here, as well as fishermen, tourists, mountain bikers and Uncle Joe out for an eyeful of spectacular coastline.

Life's a PCH

Following the Pacific Coast Highway up the coast, you'll come to Sycamore Cove Beach, at the south end of Point Mugu State Park. On weekends you'll know it by the crowds that descend on this little sandy pocket, wedged between two rocky points. The key is to arrive early; during the summer the small parking lot is full by 9 a.m. After that, beachgoers park on the highway, avoiding the $6 fee but sometimes risking their lives to dash across this busy stretch of road.

This cove, with its tree-shaded picnic areas, is a good swimming spot for kids. Rangers say it doesn't get as much summer fog as other beaches. Expect to share the sand with campers from Sycamore Canyon Campground across the highway.

As you continue up PCH, you can't miss the towering mass of boulders known as Mugu Rock. Beside it is Mugu Beach, still part of Point Mugu State Park. The parking lot doesn't fill up as fast here as at Sycamore Cove, and the fee is only $2. It's not a good swim beach for children, but it draws skim boarders and those curious about this monumental chunk of rock. Years ago the road curved around it, but later washed away, leaving a rocky promontory.

Don't climb the rock or venture out on the promontory to fish or experience the ocean spray. Almost every year, powerful waves sweep away someone who steps out too far, emboldened by the salt air and the world-class view.

Off the Track

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