It's a lazy summer afternoon--a perfect day to take the kids to the park. But which one?
After all, Ventura County is endowed with hundreds of public parks, which run the gamut from the combination pistol range and Father Serra cross high above the mission in Ventura to the sprawling Wildwood Regional Park near Thousand Oaks, where dozens of deer roam free.
And that doesn't include the madre of all parks, Los Padres National Forest, which acts as sort of a 2-million-acre roof over the northern half of the county, or Channel Islands National Park, which can be reached by any watercraft larger than a surfboard.
Most people have a favorite park, even if it's just the one closest to home. But a successful park must provide more than a plot of public grass.
"For a park to work, it needs an intrinsic natural feature that calls people to it," said county parks Supt. Pam Gallo. Thousand Oaks parks Administrator Tom Sorensen agreed, adding that to him, water is the most popular attraction.
"People love water--to watch it, to listen to it," Sorensen said. Sorensen's favorite park, Conejo Creek in Thousand Oaks, fills that bill with its two ponds, fountain and a meandering creek. Sycamores, tables, barbecues, playgrounds and cute little footbridges also dot the parcel, which lies a stone's throw from the Moorpark Freeway.
On the opposite side of the spectrum--and county--is tiny Seaside Wilderness Park (once known as Hobo Jungle), which lies next to the Ventura River mouth and takes some doing to reach.
And it's a sizable jump from Hobo Jungle to Ojai's renowned Libbey Park and bowl. At Libbey, a park goer can sit on a bench by the fountain and people-watch the day away--perhaps sneak peeks at a tai chi workout or a group chant, tune in to some improvisational music or watch a Sunday artist at work at an easel.
Then there is always the comfortable-old-shoe type of park. Pack up the cooler, the kids, the in-laws, the wieners and the marshmallows and make tracks for, say, Port Hueneme Beach Park, with its picnic tables, grills, sandy beach and its bonus of a pier on which to stroll or off which to drop a fishing line. Do the same at Oxnard State Beach (really a city park) or Ventura's Marina Park, minus the pier.
Whether the park is free depends on who runs it. Generally, city parks have free admission (if you don't count that little thing called taxes). Most of Ventura County's parks have resorted to leasing to private vendors, which charge admission; state parks seem to love parking fees. Then there are those darn national forest fees that have popped up lately.
But back to the question of which park to head for. In an effort to answer that, The Times contacted each city's mayor and a few parks officials. The query: "If you were showing out-of-state relatives your town, what park would you take them to?
Oxnard Mayor Manny Lopez didn't hesitate.
"Oxnard State Beach," he said. "It was deeded over to the city of Oxnard. It is so peaceful there, with the palms and dunes. People in wheelchairs can wheel out on a ramp to see the water."
Jack Tingstrom of Ventura is a mayor who also knows his mind--and his parks.
"If I were going to take a visitor to a single place in Ventura, it would be Grant Park," Tingstrom said. "It's the answer when someone asks you to 'take me to a place that shows why you live in Ventura.' It says 'Here's our city.' You can see the islands, the ocean, the surf line, the west and east sides."
Ojai Mayor Steve Olsen said, "If I had visiting relatives, I'd walk them from my house to Libbey Park. It has to be Libbey. We'd go to the Wednesday night concert in the Libbey Park bandstand."
Ojai City Manager Andy Belknap agrees. "There was a Libbey Park before there was an Ojai," he said. "Edward Drummond Libbey gave the park to the civic association in 1917."
Libbey Park stages the nation's longest-running amateur tennis tournament in April and the world-renowned Ojai Festival in June.
And, Belknap points out, "We still have the first Ojai jail there."
The honorable Mayor Don Gunderson of Fillmore gives all his votes to his city's postage-stamp-size Central Park. "You can come to that park at night with the lights on and you can imagine yourself any place you want to be."
The city's recreation department supervisor, Tom Ristau, couldn't agree more: "I have to say Shiells Park is our most popular because it's the only large one. It has a ball diamond, snack bar and picnic shelters. But our most beloved park is Central Park, in front of City Hall. It's the cutest park there is."
Sporting a fountain and brick plaza designed with an early 1900s feel, the pocket park offers seating on the ledge of the fountain as well as on its benches.
"Some weekends, it's SRO waiting for a piece of ledge to sit on," Ristau said.
Speaking of history, Laurie Beltran of the Oxnard Parks Department is high on her city's old-fashioned block-square Plaza Park on C Street.