Photos by Marlene Greer, Correspondent
McGrath State Beach, Ventura County: 80 miles
By Marlene Greer
McGrath State Beach, an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles, is a quiet stretch of sand and nature tucked amid the farm fields of Oxnard. Its beauty is in its flower-dotted dunes, long natural sandbar and many campsites tucked amid the native shrubs and trees.
The state beach is two miles long, with the Santa Clara River forming the northern boundary. The mouth of the river forms the Santa Clara Estuary, a 133-acre preserve for many species of birds, including the western snowy plover, burrowing owl and California least tern. It’s also a stopover spot for migratory birds, making this area a great spot for bird-watchers.
Visitors can enjoy hiking, beachcombing and fishing, providing hours of peaceful solitude. A morning walk is the ideal time to enjoy the dunes and study the preserve’s birds before the campground springs to life. At this hour, the dunes are nearly deserted.
Later in the day, when the sun begins to warm the air, families make their way from the campground with blankets, towels, fishing poles and coolers in tow, across the dunes to the windswept beaches.
Walking to the beach, however, is a bit of a trek. It is about 300 yards to the estuary and another 100 to the beach. When the estuary water rises, it becomes too deep to walk across. Visitors then have to walk south down the beach a half-mile before coming to a spot in the estuary shallow enough to walk across.
For shorter walks, two interpretive trails lead from McGrath’s day-use parking area into the Santa Clara Estuary Natural Preserve. A short path winds through the preserve’s woodlands, thick with willows and cottonwoods.
There are several benches along the trail to relax and enjoy the quiet – and perhaps spot a bird or two. But the trees and tall reeds surrounding the trail block any view of the estuary.
Step off the trail and take the path leading to the left to make your way to the riverbank for a view of the estuary. It can be a bit buggy here, but it’s worth a stop.
The second trail follows the estuary’s boundary with McGrath State Beach. It ends at the riverbank for a grand view of the estuary, river mouth and sandbar.
A sign along the estuary trail explained the sandbar sometimes blocks the flow of the river into the ocean. As the river rises, its trapped water spreads into the marsh, raising the level of the water in the estuary and flooding some areas of the park and campground.
The rising water level forces visitors to walk a long way south along the dunes before finding a shallow spot to cross to the beach. Eventually, the river breaks through and the cycle starts all over.
The shifting sand had blocked the river mouth all spring and summer, raising the level of the estuary. But, according to park officials, last week the river broke through the sand bar.
The main trail also starts from the day-use parking. It winds along the campground’s edge and over the dunes.
Visitors probably won’t do much swimming at McGrath because of the dangerous currents and riptides. Many visitors wade and swim in the estuary, but, frankly, the water is not all that pleasant to look at.
McGrath State Beach has 174 campsites, each with a table and fire pit. Most are nestled among the trees, offering privacy.
The park’s large, open grassy area is great for families. We saw groups of kids playing soccer and badminton, as well as riding their bikes.
Whether you choose a grassy site or one in the trees, it’s best to park as far away from Harbor Boulevard as you can get. The busy highway can get very noisy.
And who wants noise when you’re there to enjoy the birds and the beach?
MCGRATH STATE BEACH
2211 Harbor Blvd., Oxnard
5 miles south of Ventura off Highway 101
Entrance fee: $8
Camping fee: $25, firewood available from camp host for $6
Amenities: 174 campsites, flush toilets, hot showers, dump station, no hookups
Reservations: (800) 444-7275; www.parks.ca.gov
Information: (805) 654-4744