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Camping, but Not Really

Not exactly roughing it: A safari tent (nearby bathrooms, showers and heated pool not pictured) (PHOTO BY STEVEN LAM)

Not exactly roughing it: A safari tent (nearby bathrooms, showers and heated pool not pictured) (PHOTO BY STEVEN LAM)

The first thing you notice entering the El Capitan Canyon campground is that there is no actual camping. There used to be, until the family-owned operation got new owners who turned the facilities into a “vacation resort.” Over one winter a few years back, the traditional fire pits, dirt patches and RV hookups were replaced with custom-designed cedar cabins and safari tents. “Luxury camping,” they called it, putting El Capitan out in front of a recreational trend across the country that satisfies travelers who want to rough it with ease. “It’s minimalism without deprivation,” they advertised. “The glories of nature without the overbearing manufactured hand of man.” The thing is, this bit of enthusiastic promotional copy is kind of true. El Capitan forms part of the last publicly accessible stretch of pristine Southern California coastline. And for all the irony behind the “luxury camping” concept, a stay at El Capitan reminds us why we call ours the Golden State.

El Capitan begins at the beach and heads into the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains, the transverse range that creates the many valleys and microclimates for all that quaint wine country in Santa Barbara County’s oenologically fertile interior. El Capitan is a deep canyon, shaded by a cover of California oak and sturdy sycamore, and dotted with lavender bushes. From the parking lot at the mouth, the campground’s accommodations stretch along the canyon’s seasonal creek for nearly a mile — a good walk, and you do have to walk, since cars are forbidden at the cabins. “People had a hard time letting go of their cars,” said Tina, the employee who took me on a tour when I visited the campground recently. “But once they do, they love it. And besides, we’ll drive you to your cabin if you ask.” The idea, Tina said, was to “make El Capitan as comfortable and natural as possible.”

That seems like an adequate description of a campground that sells Fig N Peach body wash, a “s’more kit” and branded wine glasses at its “general store.” The store also sells basics like bug spray, and charcoal briquettes for the fire pits that seem a bit vestigial out in front of the handsome, kitchenette-equipped cabins. These and other amenities explain the cabins’ price of $225 per night. They have hotel-style bathrooms, full to queen beds, tasteful decorations, minifridges for storing your Chardonnay and a nice porch on which to sip it. There are several different configurations, including some cabins with lofts for families. Cheaper, but still not inexpensive, are the safari tents. Initially intended to save tent lovers the trouble of pole assembly, the number of tents has fallen as the demand for cabins has grown. “In general,” Tina said, “the whole turnkey outdoors thing has caught on. We have full booking through the entire summer, and weekends in winter selling out months in advance too.” Groups are also popular; the weekend Tina showed me around, Wildwood first-graders were all over the place, a family reunion was underway, and a knitting group had just booked the yurt.

El Capitan might be the first campground you’ll visit where you can make appointments for Barefoot Deeperwork massage (as the name implies, massage done with feet, not hands) and hot-stone treatments, but Tina is also an experienced outdoorswoman, and she kept reminding me about El Capitan’s unique access to a wild hinterland. “Those beaches down there,” she said, “are the base of a coastal watershed that joins the Los Padres National Forest up there” — she pointed to the ridge line about 10 miles inland — “making the area the last intact Mediterranean ecosystem in the United States.” El Capitan Canyon, she said, is one of the main connectors, along with Refugio Canyon farther west. “Those two beaches and canyon systems,” she added, “are right at the heart of the Gaviota Coast.”

The Gaviota Coast begins where 200 miles of solid Southern California beachfront development ends, just north of tony Santa Barbara, between the dunes of Coal Oil Point and the lonely lighthouse at Point Conception. You may not realize it while speeding past on the 101, but the Gaviota Coast still looks like what all of California looked like when the Spanish government granted the entire area to José Francisco Ortega as a token of appreciation for discovering San Francisco Bay. Ortega’s Nuestra Señora del Refugio was conceived as a ranch, and much of it remains agricultural. On many of the hills, you can see avocado and macadamia trees, or pasture for grazing. Unlike the ranches, or Vandenberg Air Force Base farther north, where the wild coast is well preserved but off limits, the 10 miles of beach between Refugio and El Capitan state parks is public.

Strangely enough, we have Texaco to thank for El Capitan’s preservation. The oil giant owned the 2,500-acre ranch for years, during which the property sat unused once the exploratory drilling came up empty. The original campground was leased from Texaco, on a sliver of land at the bottom of the canyon, and when Texaco decided to sell the entire property in 1999, preservation advocates were worried about the site’s future. “Developers have been licking their chops to get in this area,” Tina explained. “Like the guy who owns the Naples property two doors down, who’s from Orange County, and is dying to put in large lots and golf courses.”

Luckily, the developers who did buy El Capitan, Chuck Blitz and Roger Himovitz, were preservation advocates themselves. After building the new facilities, Himovitz and Blitz sold the rest of the acreage in 2002 to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), donating $2.5 million in land value by selling it at a loss, so that it could be added to El Capitan State Park. Later, Himovitz joined forces with TPL again to turn Texaco’s old oil access road into the Bill Wallace Trail, a 12-mile loop through El Capitan’s backcountry. Tina is one of the docents who leads guided tours along the trail. “It’s an unusual hike, easily accessible from the 101, but taking you deep into a vast native habitat,” she said. “We see bobcats and deer all the time. This is where the reintroduced condors live. There are mountain lions and black bear too. Sometimes we even find bear prints on the beach. That’s how connected everything is.”

Tina is also a surfer, and swears by the local beaches (although, true to surfing form, she will not divulge where the breaks are exactly). In addition to seasonal surf, she points out that most of the area falls into the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary. There’s great whale watching there during the humpback migrations in winter and spring, but Tina said that blue whales have started gathering in summer as well, sometimes as close as in coves just off El Capitan Beach.

For purists, Tina said, El Capitan is putting in a traditional campground on an old avocado orchard above the canyon. “It’s not quite the Eden that the canyon is,” Tina said as we toured that site. “But it has fire pits and RV hookups right on the coast, with a sweeping view, which is rare.” The only other ones in California are state beaches, where you sometimes have to book a year in advance. “Come to think of it, these will get booked pretty soon too. Better sign up soon!”?

El Capitan Canyon Campground, 11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara, (805) 685-3887. Safari tents $145 per night, cabins range from $225 to $345 per night.

Not sold on the whole luxury-camping thing? Check out El Capitan Canyon’s sister property, Ocean Mesa Campground, next door for the more traditional pitch-it-yourself tent camping ($45) and RV sites ($85). 100 El Capitan Terrace Lane, Santa Barbara, (805) 879-5751.