Camp, glamp, fly

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FINDING BALANCE: Abe Lemmon (left) and David Goyette test their skills on the Soar Over Ventura Adventure Course, which includes a ropes course and ziplines.

Ventura Ranch KOA Holiday promises fine living and adventure in the great outdoors.

By Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer | Photos by Viktor Budnik

Kampgrounds of America, better known by the acronym KOA, has been a staple of family camping since it was founded in Montana in 1962. It started out as a camping area on private land, with tent sites that offered picnic tables and fire rings and, for added convenience, hot showers and restrooms. It was still rustic, outdoorsy and deliberately inexpensive, but with just enough amenities to make it easier and more appealing to those who wanted to rough it without getting too rough. 

The concept proved to be a popular one, and soon the company began adding KOA campgrounds across the United States and Canada. In 1972, the company transitioned to a franchise model, which allowed for greater diversity in setup and design while still holding owners to KOA’s strict standards — a point of pride for the KOA brand, which even today scrutinizes campgrounds with a rigorous 600-point inspection.

The typical picture of a KOA campground was once pretty basic: RV hookups and campsites, with some communal bathrooms and perhaps a general store. But in the hands of innovative individuals with an eye for elevating the camping experience, many locations are so much more than just a place to park your camper or pitch a tent.

Ventura Ranch KOA Holiday, owned and operated by Scott Cory, perfectly exemplifies this marriage of creature comforts and the great outdoors.

CREATE FAMILY MEMORIES

Ventura Ranch is the only KOA in Ventura County. Sprawling across 76 creekside acres at the foot of the Topatopa Mountains, it feels worlds away from nearby Santa Paula. 

If a more traditional camping experience is what you’re looking for, Ventura Ranch can certainly accommodate you: There are plenty of tent and RV hookup sites, each with picnic tables, grills and fire rings, and communal bathrooms with showers are readily accessible. With the beauty of the oaks and natural vegetation all around, rustic relaxation is easy to achieve.

If you care to leave the tents and mats behind, consider taking up temporary residence in one of the colorful teepees — which are surprisingly roomy. They don’t have bathrooms or electricity, and you’ll need to bring your own bedding, but thick, cushy sleeping pads, a variety of bed configurations (including bunk beds) and indoor chairs and tables make for cozy nesting. Or, go Oregon Trail-style in a covered wagon. The charm and novelty of wagons and teepees are particularly delightful for children.

And speaking of kids — they’re going to have a blast enjoying the many activities onsite. Tie-dying, gem mining and cornhole allow for hours of entertainment. Or have them work off excess energy leaping on the enormous jumping pillow or scaling the rock climbing wall. Two-wheeled adventures can be had on a bike track that zigzags through the brush. 

One of the newest and most original attractions at Ventura Ranch is a large stone labyrinth. Winding in circular fashion, it takes walkers nearly a mile to the center and back.

“I’ve been told it’s one of the largest boulder labyrinths in the world,” owner Cory relates. 

Keep an eye out for stops along the Selfie Trail. New for Summer 2023, Ventura Ranch has found fun and scenic spots that are perfect for taking photos. For example, Junior the giant bear is hanging out at Registration while a jumbo KOA Adirondack chair sits waiting for its closeup. Creating memories is just a click and a few short steps away.

CREATIVE CAMPING

Cory is personally responsible for this versatile and all-inclusive experience. A native of San Diego, Cory spent some years working for the corporate branch of KOA before coming to Ventura County.

“I learned what did and didn’t work,” he says of that time.

Cory purchased the Ventura Ranch KOA 12 years ago, when it was a bit rundown and bare bones. While he has maintained much of the natural beauty of the area, he used his experience (tempered by no small amount of creativity) to redesign the camping concept and offer customers more than just a place to hook up their motorhomes.

“Every year we added more,” Cory explains, noting that over time, the site was embellished with a variety of attractions and accommodations to bring in customers that didn’t own RVs but wanted to get back to nature. It’s become a favorite with locals, Los Angelenos and travelers alike: Cory estimates that about half of his customers are from Ventura County or nearby, while the other half hail from locations further away. He has had guests from 23 countries around the world.

One major enhancement was the pool, which went from a standard rectangle to a serene oasis. It boasts a large, roomy pool deck with lots of space for lounging. The U-shaped pool “allows for a children’s area and one more for adults,” Cory explains. The shallower arm has a very gradual climb from one to three feet, while the deeper section maxes out at 5.5 feet. For both visual appeal and shade, overhead trees and other native vegetation have been maintained. 

Sleep in luxury amidst the trees and the sounds of nearby Santa Paula Creek in the stylish, fully equipped and very comfortable cabins.

UPSCALE OUTDOORS

Sleeping on the ground isn’t possible or desirable for everyone. But Cory did not want this to be a deterrent for those who might otherwise enjoy an outdoor escape. So he made sure Ventura Ranch’s accommodations offered something for everyone.

“We get a lot of people who have never camped before,” he says.

The first major step up from basic is the safari-style tent, which Cory refers to as a “Glamour Tent.” The walls are canvas, not solid, but that’s about all these stylish options have in common with your typical tent. They are roomy and luxurious, with quality sheets on comfortable beds, fluffy blankets and pillows, lighting, and even a microwave, mini-fridge, heater and fan. In essence: A nice hotel room with everything but a bathroom (which is a short walk away). 

Need even more indulgence? Try one of the well-appointed cabins. All have kitchens, private bathrooms and sitting areas; many have lofts (ideal for families). And several have rooftop patios where you can enjoy a glass of wine during that famous “pink moment” sunset or do some stargazing in a night sky free of light pollution. And yes…all bedding and towels are included.

“All the creature comforts of home,” Cory says proudly. “All you need is your toothbrush.”

The finest accommodations Ventura Ranch has to offer are called the penthouses. These are four buildings with an interesting history: They had been designed as part of a competition for an episode of American Dream Builders, a reality television show that aired on NBC in 2014. Teams of designers were presented with identical buildings containing nothing but four walls and a roof, and given free rein to create a masterpiece. Originally built on a movie set, the studio wanted to remove the glammed-up structures after the show was over — and Cory decided to purchase them for his campground.

“They each have a different look,” he points out, noting the modernist wood-and-metal scheme of one while another has a chic Asian design scheme. Upscale in the woods: That’s the very essence of glamping.

As are the soon-to-be-revealed Glamp Tents, of which Cory is particularly excited. These marry the novelty and rustic elegance of a safari tent with the modern amenities of a cabin: fully electrified, bathrooms with double sinks, covered decks, sumptuous beds with a second, separate sleeping area off to the side. Best of all, “you can hear the creek,” Cory notes.

Three are currently under construction and should be ready in July.

HIGH-FLYING THRILLS

Next to the wide variety of accommodations, Ventura Ranch KOA Holiday’s greatest claim to fame is the sheer amount of outdoor activities available. The pool and organized activities have already been mention. But onsite, there’s the Santa Paula Creek (full year round), abundant wildlife (keep an eye out for colorful peacocks), the majesty of the Topatopa Mountains, and the unspoiled natural oak woodlands. Cory lost a number of trees and campsites during the December 2017 Thomas Fire, but you wouldn’t know it, so well cared for is this lovely 76-acre space.

Best of all might be the opportunity to soar above and through the trees. Ventura Ranch’s zipline and ropes course is extensive, and the only one currently operating in Ventura County. In 2017, it was a simple affair of two lines. After Thomas turned it to ash, Cory took the opportunity to update, expand and redesign it. Now, it’s an extensive network of cables, nets and bridges suspended among the trees. Some sections are easy, others will definitely challenge your balance, but all are a lot of fun — and completely safe, thanks to Cory’s state-of-the-technology cable and harness system. 

After the capable staff get you harnessed, gloved and helmeted up, you’ll receive a thorough briefing and practice run (on a low-to-the-ground segment that’s not too challenging). When you’re ready, you’ll be connected to the network proper — and once your safety hook is on the cable, it won’t come off, meaning it’s virtually impossible to fall or hurt yourself. Rest assured, staff members will be in easy reach if at any time you need help or want to cut the experience short. 

The course is divided into two experiences: Soar Over Ventura Adventure Course (suitable for ages 8 and up) and the high-flying Eagles Nest (10+).

The Adventure Course is the longer and more varied of the two. It starts off with some easy, short zips and lively, but not too wild, bridges and nets. Things get a little more wobbly, to challenge your balance, and the zips get a bit longer. But there are cables to grab to help you keep your equilibrium, and stops between sections, where you can catch your breath and mentally prepare for the next stage. You’re safely harnessed in at all times, so there’s no danger — making it easy to overcome your nerves and give it a go. That first step off the platform into thin air is the hardest. After that, it’s a breeze — and an exhilarating thrill, taking you through the tree canopy and above the campground. The whole course takes about 45 minutes to complete (depending on the size of your group and how quickly you maneuver through the segments), but it passes quickly — and you’ll probably be eager to do it again.

But you’ll want to save some energy for the Eagles Nest. Strictly ziplines, this course has you higher up off the ground (the tallest platform is at 50 feet) soaring for farther and longer “for that bigger thrill factor,” Cory says. Perfectly safe, they do require a bit more finesse than the Adventure Course zips. But you’re rewarded with a bird’s-eye view of most of the campground, and that special sensation that only comes from a satisfying zip.

SENSATIONAL STAYCATION

Ventura County is famous for its miles of coastline, sandy beaches and surfer-approved waves. But the hillsides hold their own allure, and Ventura Ranch KOA Holiday makes it easy and exceptionally pleasant to enjoy them.

Whether you relish gliding through the treetops (safely and securely), exploring the creek or chilling around the campfire under a star-studded sky that feels a million miles away from civilization, Ventura Ranch is the perfect staycation destination. Close enough for an easy holiday, unique enough to feel like you’ve gotten out of your routine, and special enough to make for lasting memories.

Ventura Ranch KOA Holiday

7400 Pine Grove Road, Santa Paula

805.933.3200

www.VenturaRanchKOA.com.

Tents and RV sites: $62-$126.50

Teepees and wagons: $141-$229

Glamour tents, cabins and penthouses: $189-$389