For 95 years, Grant Park loomed over downtown Ventura without drawing much notice.
Now, with the help of a city government willing to lease the park's 107 acres for $1 a year and a group of residents willing to raise millions for a botanical garden, it's sprung to life.
On Saturday, hundreds of residents, their dogs and their kids trooped up a new mile-long trail with seed-filled Dixie cups, dumping them in spots where California bluebells, golden lupine, white yarrow, mission red monkey flowers and a host of other plants might bloom in the spring.
For many, it was the first time they'd visited the park in years.
"The reality is there wasn't much reason to go," said Doug Halter, a landscape contractor and president of the nonprofit Ventura Botanical Gardens. "Now you can have breakfast downtown and walk it off on the trail."
Opened last October, the serpentine trail winds through slopes and canyons of sage and cactus, commanding stunning ocean views at every turn. Gently rising from Ventura's ornate 101-year-old City Hall to a spot some 600 feet up, it has drawn a legion of locals — an unexpected amenity in a town more oriented to the beach at its feet than the mountains at its back.
Until recently, the park's main draw was the Serra Cross, a tribute to Junipero Serra, the Franciscan monk who in 1782 founded the mission at Ventura's heart. It remains a spot where couples wed and residents drive out-of-town guests to gaze out at the coastline, the crashing surf and, on the horizon, Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands.
To defuse a 2003 lawsuit challenging public ownership of the cross, the city sold the acre around it to a conservancy, which has maintained it ever since.
"Other than the cross, the park was almost unknown," said Matt South, an engineer who on Saturday morning was raking out a trail-side dirt patch to prepare it for an onslaught of seeds. "We'd sometimes take relatives up there to show them the view, but after a few minutes we'd be on our way."
Turning the brush-heavy park into a full-fledged botanical garden will take decades, say even its most optimistic boosters. The plan — described by Halter as potentially "transformative" for Ventura in the way Golden Gate Park was for San Francisco — calls for five zones planted with flora typical of coastal areas in Chile, Australia, South Africa, the Mediterranean and, naturally, California.
Whether funds can be raised for all of that — as well as the heritage center, the education building, the amphitheater and the funicular — is an open question.
Over seven years, the volunteer group behind the garden has received more than $400,000 from individuals and foundations, according to Halter, and the fundraising continues: The trail, officially the Ventura Botanical Gardens Demonstration Trail, can bear your name for $200,000. Adopting less of it runs $50 a foot.
Initially, planners figured they could use sturdy volunteers to hack out the 6-foot-wide path.
"It turned out to be impossible," said Martha Picciotti, an architect who sits on the group's board. "We realized that trails have to be built to meet certain standards, like roads or anything else. Those little twists and turns are built not just for beauty but to prevent erosion and runoff."
The $106,000 job went to Hans Keifer of Bellfree Contractors, one of perhaps a half-dozen professional trail builders in California.
Cobblestones hidden under a century's growth of brush would pop the tracks off his mini-excavators, making the work challenging, he said.
"You can't see what's under all that brush," he said. "It was very difficult."
Another long-buried feature also emerged. A century or more ago, portions of the hillside were terraced for farming, perhaps by Chinese immigrants who were not allowed to rent more usable parcels. Keifer incorporated about 200 feet of their stone walls into the trail.
That might have been one of the last moneymaking uses for the land that became Grant Park. Kenneth Grant, an entrepreneur, planned to build an observatory "where men of science might study the heavens," according to E.M. Sheridan, an early Ventura newspaperman.
That never got off the ground, nor did any of the city's efforts to figure out just what to do with the massive hill Grant deeded to it in 1918.
Although some staff time has been donated to the current project, Ventura doesn't have cash to spare, said Mayor Mike Tracy.
"The potential is incredible," said Tracy, the city's former police chief. "This group of citizens has come forward with energy and vision and, hopefully, the means. They've got the plan and the dream, and they're running with it."