Tightly wedged beside the 101 Freeway and downtown Ventura, and divided by the Southern Pacific Railroad, Emma Wood State Beach is mostly known for RV camping. Meh. But wait … beyond the motor homes and rail tracks lies a little gem! The sandy Ocean’s Edge Trail has a cobblestone beach, sand dunes, riparian wetlands, and remnants of history. The 1.5-mile out-and-back hike starts from the group campground at Emma Wood’s south end. Head southwest under a railroad bridge on a paved path that reverts to sand and curves left, down coast. Continue along a wide cobblestone beach and the verdant Ventura River plain. At a marshy pond, the trail forks. Stay right to hug the rocky shore, entering deeper sand on a stone-lined path beside low, windswept dunes patched with sand verbena and ice plant.
Cobblestones give way to sand as you reach the mouth of the Ventura River. Near the surf line, two weathered concrete cylinders are partially submerged under a wide beach berm, remnants of “Panama mount” gun batteries installed in 1942 to protect the coast after a Japanese submarine reportedly shelled Ellwood oil field near Santa Barbara, the first attack on the continental U.S. during WWII. Before heading back, explore the fringe of Seaside Wilderness Park, a wildly overgrown riparian wetland, where a lagoon skirted by giant reeds is perfect for sighting wading birds like the snowy egret and great blue heron. Palms and Monterey pines visible here were planted long ago, vestiges of an idealistic planned park that never panned out.
BEER BONUS: Post hike, head to the tasting room at Topa Topa Brewing, named for the local mountain range. Open since June 2015 in downtown Ventura, this watering hole should fit like a glove, with the brewer’s nature-loving philosophy and outdoors-themed beers, including Chief Peak IPA (brimming with “piney hops”); Flatlands, an effervescent saison; and Weekender, a delicious session IPA. The brewery also hosts food trucks in its parking lot every week.
Heading north on the 101 Freeway, exit California St. in downtown Ventura, turning right onto California St., then left onto Main St. After passing over a river bridge, park for free along W. Main Street near its intersection with Park Access Rd. From here, walk south under the freeway to reach Emma Wood’s south-end entrance for the Ventura River Group Camp. Trailhead is just past a picnic area. No dogs on trails. Day-use vehicle fee is $10. No car? No problem! Take Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner from Los Angeles to Ventura Station, just a block and a half from Topa Topa and under a mile from Emma Wood State Beach (entered in this scenario via Surfers Point on the beach or by walking west on Main Street). No dogs on trails at Emma Wood State Beach. Topa Topa Brewing is dog-friendly!