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El Capitan State Beach in Santa Barbara County isn’t just another pretty beach. It’s also an inexpensive coastal vacation where a family can enjoy the sound of crashing waves as they drift off to sleep inside their tent or recreational vehicle, RV. There, nature can untangle the busy mess between their ears blocking a family from connecting. Life is simplified when possessions are reduced to the capacity available in a tent or motorhome. Call it a minimalist spiritual makeover.
When a family trip is to El Capitan State Beach, a 2,600-acre California State Park with a large campground and hiking trails, located about 20 miles north of Santa Barbara and 115 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, a family’s biggest decision will be what time they should head down to the water.
Having camped here many times over the years, here is all your family needs to know to have a great camping trip with kids at El Capitan State Beach.
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But first! A video of our last trip to El Capitan State Beach where we dry camped. Watch for a great breakfast camping hack and ideas of fun activities when you go:
I interviewed two campground park rangers, Tony Annia and Rick Humphrey from “El Cap” as locals refer to it, for an article I wrote for L.A. Parent and they gave us ideas on how to make the most of your family camping trip to El Capitan. Coincidentally, that was the last time we camped at El Capitan State Beach Campground and we also camped with the same family as that previous time, so I could recreate this cute photo:
Bring a Surfboard or Boogie Board
In the fall and winter, locals keep watch for a West swell that calls forth a set of waves coveted by surfers in the know. Unless you’re a seasoned surfer, don’t bother attending this beach party. However, most of the time the ocean waves on the Santa Barbara Coast are calm, and my boys love to ride whatever swells happen to catch their boards long enough to take them to shore.
Visit the Elephant Seals
There is an elephant seal rookery easily accessible to visitors just off the beach. The elephant seals come throughout the year to mate and breed and during the fall, the juveniles come on land at low tide to grow new fur and skin.
Low tides expose an underwater world of marine life, revealing sea snails, starfish and sunburst anemone in tidepools where kids can spend many hours of discovery until the tide covers them. Check the tide report to find the perfect time to explore El Capitan’s tide pools.
Walk the Nature Trails
This is where we would have gotten married if we knew it existed. A wooden bridge takes walkers through groves of Sycamore and through trees that must be home to fairies and sprites when the moon rises to shine on their flight path through crooked branches. It’s a short hike, only 0.35 miles long so you’ll be able to convince the kids to go and see if they can spot any of the small forest’s enchanted inhabitants. The trail ends at the sandy beach alongside El Capitan Creek, which gives you the choice to climb over a rock path placed across the creek or follow the trail that starts up again, if you walk to your right, to loop back up again.
There’s also the Bill Wallace Trail for families with older kids who are eager for a bigger adventure. It’s longer than El Cap’s main Nature Trail but fairly well maintained and winds through coastal foothills and high elevation chaparral terrain in a 12-mile loop. The hike starts near the coast and follows one side of El Capitan Canyon 1,000 feet up into the hills before descending on its other side.
See the Butterflies
Monarch butterflies migrate from up north from early September through mid-December providing some incredible opportunities for wildlife viewing. “I’ve seen them from the Chicago area and up from Canada as well,” Humphrey says. “They come during Indian summers for food, weather and to breed.”
El Capitán Creek is a popular viewing spot for the precious pollinators due to an abundance of Eucalyptus trees.
From El Capitan State Beach Campground, follow the path from the ranger shack to the park entrance to find a grove of 15 small eucalyptus trees. Bring a camera to catch the beauties resting, reproducing and enjoying the California sunshine in this perfect setting.
El Capitan State Beach Campsites
And now, the details. There are 132 campsites at El Capitan State Beach, 128 single sites and five group-sized sites, each with its own picnic table and fire ring. Visitors can choose to set up a tent in any of them or stay in an RV. You can make online reservations for single and group sites through Reserve America.
Each of the single sites can accommodate up to three vehicles (they say but I don’t honestly know where you’d put them….there are a few parking spots, though, on the periphery of the main campground clusters and in the day-use area). However, the payment for your reservation only covers one car or truck and one RV (or tent). They will allow up to 8 people to sleep at the campsite and that includes children.
Three of the group camping sites overlook the Pacific Ocean (Ortega, Cabrillo and Drake). They can accommodate between 40-100 people (tent camping) and have magnificent ocean views.
All the campsites include picnic tables and fire pits and some areas have a charcoal grill. The campground bathrooms are clean. *Bring quarters for showers if you plan to use them. The water pressure is solid and hot. Although we’ve never tent camped here, plenty of people choose this option for their first time and the temperatures at El Capitan State Beach are moderate. Just in case, check a weather app before you go.
Accessibility At El Capitan State Beach
Beach wheelchairs are available for use by the public at no cost. With this specially designed chair, wheelchair users may access the beach at several locations on El Capitan State Beach and nearby Refugio State Beach. Contact a ranger or lifeguard for additional information. (805) 968-1033.
El Capitan State Beach isn’t just another pretty beach. It’s also an inexpensive coastal vacation where a family can enjoy the sound of crashing waves as they drift off to sleep inside their tent or recreational vehicle. Here’s what you need to know before you go.
Bring ’em! But you gotta leash ’em! However, they have a no dogs on the beach policy which IMO sucks. Why not let them come if they’re on a leash?
Families and friends can bring their motorhome or trailer to any of the campsites but some are paved making it easier to get your unit level. A few of the group campsites accommodate RVs that are larger than 40 feet. The maximum allowable length is 45 feet.
There aren’t any as of this current date.
I know. That sucks, but it shouldn’t be the reason you don’t camp here. However, you probably don’t want to spend more than a few days here because of that. Unless you’re really good at rationing the water that flows into the grey water tank, you’ll spend some of your time using the public bathroom, flush toilets and shower. (This is why I know the shower pressure in the bathrooms is good). If you do opt to use the bathroom, know they were clean the last time we went.
Another way to make longer use of your greywater storage is to get what we bought, a portable wastewater tank and attach it to the back of your RV. It’s super handy for longer stays and allows you to dump your grey water tank then wheel it to a nice thirsty tree.
El Capitán State Beach was our third campground. We got spoiled after taking our travel trailer on a three-week tour up the California Coast and enjoying full hook-ups and resort-style amenities at Pismo Coast Village RV Resort and Santa Cruz Redwoods RV Resort campgrounds. Full hook-ups and a dump station meant we could freely use the water in the sink and shower and not worry about overflowing the tanks and also pee with abandon. We got to plug our trailer into their electrical grid so were able to use the things that make our RV feel like home, our blender, air conditioner and phone chargers. Yes. You could buy a small inverter to convert a bit of juice to do this.
Filling Up and Dumping Your RV
When first you arrive, the ranger at the guard shack will show you where to fill up the fresh water tank in your RV with potable water. The hose is toward the top of the campground near the entrance road. When you leave, you can use the State Park parking pass they give you when you first arrive as a pass to dump your gray and black water tanks at the hookup station located at any State Park campground. The closest one heading back to Los Angeles is Carpinteria State Beach, another glorious beach campground.
There is none so make sure you have everything you need before you get here otherwise you’re driving 15 minutes to Goleta to the closest general store or supermarket (we went to Sprouts).
For those who love nature but also the convenience of room service, El Capitan Canyon is across the road. It’s one of the best places to enjoy luxury camping and offers cabins, yurts and heavy canvas tents in a beautiful location right by the Santa Ynez Mountains.
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