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By Anthony Tolliver

It’s only a two hour drive north along the scenic Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to the “American Riviera.” So called because the climate and geography resemble its namesake in Southern Europe, Santa Barbara is one of California’s world-class destinations for visitors and home of numerous show business celebrities, including the newly-crowned Academy Award winner for Best Actor, Jeff Bridges.

A half hour south of the famed locale, West Coast travelers can dig up a prized nugget of the Golden State that even most natives have never heard of: San Buenaventura, named after 13th century Saint Bonaventure in 1782. Residents and visitors commonly refer to it today as Ventura. The area is framed by the Pacific Ocean to the west and Los Padres National Forest to the east. Now easily accessible by Amtrak train service and car — US 101 and State Routes 33 and 126 — Ventura was still an isolated section of California until the early 20th century, when oil deposits were discovered. The city’s location between the Ventura and Santa Clara rivers features the most fertile citrus growing soil in the state. (You no doubt have heard of Sunkist?)

In a state full of amazing aquatic and terrestrial beauty, the Ventura area just south of the more famous Santa Barbara boasts a full menu of surf and turf activities. It’s easy to be drawn to one in particular: finding a solitary section of beach to experience the simultaneously violent and peaceful Pacific Ocean waves breaking on the coastline. The spectacular swells are a sonic and visual delight. Central California coast wave-watching is an unending spectacle that never ceases to amaze and amuse.

That’s especially true if you’re also lucky enough to encounter that hardy breed of human known as a surfer. They seek out those over-head-high breakers that are intimidating even when viewed from a safe perch on terra firma. Watching one person in a wet suit on a board challenging two-thirds of the planet Earth is fascinating, frightening and fun.

It’s not uncommon to see someone park just off the highway, don a wetsuit, grab his (or her) board, hop over a wall and catch a few waves before heading back to the less liquid aspects of his existence. Clearly, to some surfing is more than a sport — hanging ten in the Pacific is an obsession. To many it’s a way of life.

Those seeking more land-based activity can put their boots on the ground in a variety of equally attractive locations in the Ventura area. One of the more noteworthy is the half-mile-long hike to the Rose Valley Waterfall in Los Padres National Forest. The trail is rated easy, though there are a few spots that require a bit of extra attention — including a small stream crossing that might get your shoes wet. One highly shaded section causes such a big drop in temperature that it feels as if you’ve walked into a refrigerator. 

Rose Valley is actually a 300-foot, two-tier waterfall. The trail ends at the base of the 50- to 60-foot-tall lower portion. Depending on water volume and time of year, you might catch a glimpse of the upper falls while hiking in to the lower section. Even a less-than-spectacular cascade is still a sight to behold flowing down the mossy sandstone cliff, especially since that makes it easier to walk right into the lower falls. It’s possible to reach the upper falls from that point, but the trail becomes quite steep and is not as well travelled.

When you factor in proximity to Santa Barbara, ease of access, accommodating atmospheric conditions, stellar scenic beauty and abundance of activities, it’s hard not to enjoy the slice of heaven known formerly as San Buenaventura. It’s just as easy to like when known by the more earthly moniker of Ventura. However and whenever you get there, you won’t be disappointed that you made the trip to California’s central coast.

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