When visitors (and many locals) plan a family beach day or vacation at one of California’s beautiful beach cities, they usually head to San Diego, Santa Barbara or Malibu. But one of southern California’s best kept secrets is that there are miles of uncrowded, stunning beaches and a plethora of family attractions in Ventura County, just a few miles north of Los Angeles.

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Photo Courtesy: Janis Flippen Public Relations. Hollywood Beach, Oxnard.

From the time my three kids were tots, our favorite beach hangouts have been in Ventura County, situated halfway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara in California. Although it takes less time (barring traffic) from our home to reach the golden sands in Santa Monica, we like the quiet beaches and laid-back ambiance of Oxnard and Ventura. Both seaside cities have beautiful beaches, a ton of family activities and unique attractions. Although we tend to visit Ventura more often (closer to our home), there are things my family loves about both Oxnard and Ventura. Here are just some of them:

Ventura

 Our Favorite Ventura Beaches

When our three kids were little, Marina Park Beach was our go-to ocean and sandy playground. We would pack a picnic and arrive early to find a table at the grassy park at the edge of the beach where Christina, Michael and Megan could swing and play on a pirate ship.

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Photo Credit: Mimi Slawoff, Los Angeles TravelingMom.

Now we sink our toes into sand just a stone’s throw away and mingle with the locals lucky enough to live or own a vacation home near San Buenaventura State Beach. We park on a side street near an elementary school where the beach is dog-friendly so we can bring Trooper, our friendly 13-year-old retriever lab.

Ventura Beach Bike Path

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Photo Courtesy: Visit Ventura

Unlike the bustling and funky (albeit entertaining) Venice Boardwalk, this coastal bike path is clean and serene. We usually walk, but you can ride a bike along the scenic paved path that leads to a picturesque estuary where the Ventura River meets the Pacific.

Channel Islands National Park

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Photo Credit: Mimi Slawoff, Los Angeles TravelingMom.

It is amazing to me that most of my friends have never visited this pristine, natural park encompassing five of the eight California Channel Islands (Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara).  Island Packers, the park’s official concessionaire for boat trips departing from Ventura and Channel Islands Harbors, provide several thrilling excursions from whale watching to kayaking through sea caves.

Wake up to Family Fun in Ventura, CA

Photo Credit; Mimi Slawoff, Los Angeles TravelingMom.

We arrived at the crack of the dawn to check in for our snorkeling and kayaking tour at Santa Cruz Island. As our kayak guide expertly led us through several sea caves, I couldn’t believe how clear the water was. We could see plants and colorful fish, including Garibaldi (California’s state fish) just below the surface from our kayaks. And while paddling near a blowhole, I was (pleasantly) startled by two sea lions bopping alongside my kayak. So cute!

Downtown Ventura

Getting around is easy via the free Downtown-Harbor Trolley, which travels between downtown and Ventura Harbor Village, a waterfront fun zone with a carousel and launch pad for water sports. While in the village, it’s worth a stop at the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center to learn more about the the islands and their unique features. There’s a tidal pool with daily ranger talks, a viewing tower and park exhibits.

After a day at the beach,  it’s fun to stroll through Ventura’s historic downtown, which has evolved into a charming arts and cultural center with a range of dining options from flip-flop eateries to elegant restaurants. If you’re in town in August, check out the annual Ventura County Fair (Aug. 3 – 14, 2016) in Seaside Park at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

Oxnard

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Photo Courtesy: Oxnard Downtowners

The annual Strawberry Festival may be Oxnard’s most celebrated event (and not one to be missed!), but the coastal city has an interesting history. Steeped in agricultural roots, Oxnard is home to a diverse ethnic population that translates to an array of culinary options and farmers markets. And at one point it was a retreat for Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne and other actors who flocked to the secluded beaches.

Oxnard’s Hidden Beaches

oxnard.Hollywoodbeach (2)Not visible from the freeway, the beaches are usually not crowded and are a great place to enjoy a swim and a sunset. Located on the south end of the peninsula that separates Channel Islands Harbor from the ocean, Hollywood Beach (guess how it got its name?) is wide and about a mile long. Amenities include free street parking, volleyball courts, lifeguards (in summer) and restrooms.

Channel Islands Harbor

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Photo Credit: Channel Islands Kayak Center

Kids too young to paddle through Channel Island National Park’s authentic sea caves can still get out on the water.  The History & Wildlife Tour through the Channel Islands Harbor is fun for both kids and adults. A group of friends and I enjoyed the laid-back kayak tour through an artificial cave decked out with a mural, pirate skulls and brightly-colored starfish.  Then we paddled through the calm waters of the harbor by boats, sea lions and seagulls. This leisurely-paced kayak tour is ideal for all ages.

Channel Islands Harbor is also the site for year-round events, including free summer concerts, fall festivals, holiday festivities and fireworks.

Downtown Oxnard

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Photo Credit: Oxnard Convention & Visitors Bureau.

For a low-key seaside city, Oxnard has an impressive range of dining options (more than 40 eateries), including Italian, Thai, Mexican, Mediterranean and Brazilian. You’ll find fresh seafood and waterfront dining at the Channel Islands Harbor.