The Ultimate Guide to El Capitan Camping

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El Capitan beach's rocky shoreline shines in the sun.

California is truly a paradise for camping along the coast, and El Capitan State Beach is one of the very best spots. What makes El Capitan camping so great? The gorgeous beaches and accommodating campgrounds are just two reasons to put this magical place on your shortlist.

Read on to find out more before you make the trip!

About El Capitan State Beach

Santa Barbara is one of California’s most beautiful communities, and this fantastic beach area is a half-hour’s drive away. Head outside the city on Highway 101 for a surfside escape, and you’ll find an incredible range of natural attractions. It’s one of three different state parks in the rural area called the Gaviota Coast.

El Capitan means “the captain” in Spanish, of course. The term also describes cliffs such as the one here that offers a commanding view of the Pacific Ocean.

There are more than 100 campsites right there on the bluff. They’re highly coveted because of the shady hardwood trees and proximity to the beach. If the sound of crashing surf helps you relax at night, you could easily fall into a deep slumber here.

Part of the appeal of camping at El Capitan is that it doesn’t feel overcrowded or overdeveloped. There are businesses nearby, but it still feels primarily wild rather than commercial. If we had to sum it up with just one word, we’d describe El Capitan State Beach as peaceful. 

But for those with a more active lifestyle, there’s no shortage of things to do. After all, the California coast is minutes from a mountain forest adventure too.

Family enjoying the beach at El Capitan.

RV Campgrounds Near El Capitan

With so much adventuring to do in the area, you’ll need a comfortable place to stay. These two places are our favorites, and here are some details about them.

El Capitan Campground

About: Hiking trails in and around the El Capitan campground are a big calling card, and so are the oaks and sycamores overhead. They create a comfortable canopy for the 119 campsites that can handle rigs up to 42 feet. 

Keep an eye on the ocean for those big waves that lure lots of surfers. You might see whales in the distance, too. Closer to shore, you can explore the rocky tide pools and enjoy swimming, fishing, picnicking, and more. You can make reservations online up to six months in advance.

Cost: $45/night

Amenities: There are no hookups or a dump station. There are showers and bathrooms with flush toilets, and each site has a picnic table and fire ring with a grill.

Ocean Mesa RV Park

About: For a more pampered experience, Ocean Mesa awaits with a few more amenities and a welcoming staff. It’s not a resort, but it’s nice. There are ocean views and shady grounds here, as well. There are also concrete pads for RVs up to 50 feet, and tent sites can handle six people. The grounds are well-maintained, and the sites are large and level.

Cost: $95-$125/night, depending on the season.

Amenities: Full hookups, Wi-Fi, clean bathrooms/showers, and a general store on-premises. Extras include a swimming pool, hot tubs, laundry, and a dog run.  

What Is There to Do Near El Capitan State Beach?

When you’re in such a prime spot overlooking the sea, it might be tempting to do nothing else. There are plenty of other attractions to create some motivation, however. You can expand your horizons a bit more with some of these fun activities.

Visit a Winery

Like those from Napa and Sonoma to the north, wines from the Central Coast region are acclaimed worldwide. Sample freshly-made wine for yourself, just steps from the orchards where the grapes grew. 

Many wineries in the area offer individual tours. You can also book a reservation on shuttle tours that make multiple winery stops.

Enjoy the Surf

Those tide pools are fascinating, but sometimes you want a little more wave action. And at El Capitan, you’ve got it. Keep your eye on the weather conditions and take advantage of monster swells when they come. If you’re not feeling quite that adventurous, sit back and watch semi-pro surfers in action.

Visit the Butterfly Grove 

Butterflies love the area, too – so much so that they stay all winter. From November to February, you can see tens of thousands of Monarch butterflies all in one place. That place is Goleta Butterfly Grove, just nine miles away from El Capitan State Beach. It’s a rare and mesmerizing experience if you’re at the right place at the right time.

Play a Round of Golf

If golf’s your bag, you’re in luck. The fairly mild weather that makes camping year-round possible at El Capitan also attracts lots of golfers. There are six public golf courses in Santa Barbara alone. 

Avid golfers call the seaside Sandpiper Golf Club one of the best public golf courses in the country. It’s quite memorable to have a leisurely game on the links with those ocean waves crashing in the distance.

Woman in her camper at the beach.

Is El Capitan State Park Closing?

If you want El Capitan camping within the state park, note that it’s scheduled to close temporarily. Starting Aug. 1, 2022, they’ll be making some improvements to the park entrance and trail with a nine-month re-open date. So put it on your shortlist of places to visit soon if you want to see the freshly renovated state park. 

Is El Capitan Camping Worth It? 

California has around 840 miles of coastline, and there are countless places worth an extended visit, including El Capitan. Our advice is to, sooner than later, head toward the southern end of the Central California coast. For camping on the California coast, El Capitan is hard to beat. 

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