El Capitan Canyon: California Winter Camping Simplified

Winter Camping in California…

What’s the easiest way to get your family camping fix during the cooler months in California? Glamping!

Living on the California coast I really can’t complain about winter weather but even with our relatively mild winters it’s still not the best for camping. Unfortunately for my family I have a yearly hankering to go camping during the winter and I will impulsively book a campsite, forgetting that most of  our winter camping attempts end with a chilly, windy or wet night spent in a tent and a resolution to save camping for summer months. This year I safeguarded our sanity and our family trip against winter weather by booking a few nights of glamping in a yurt at El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara.  Best decision ever.

California glamping
Even the sunsets feel extra decadent when glamping in Santa Barbara

What is Glamping?

Glamping is “glam camping.” In other words, spending time in nature, having a campfire, getting to wear some chic looking outdoorsy clothing but with sleeping arrangements considerably more comfortable than a sleeping bag on the hard ground.

Glamping at El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara, CA

El Capitan Canyon is a privately owned campground that is on the east side of Highway 101. It’s a quick bike ride away from the beach and has plenty of family friendly outdoor activity options. Combined with the temperate climate of Santa Barbara it’s the perfect no hassle, laid back escape for people whose idea of a “white Christmas” is a barefoot stroll down a white sand beach

Tent Cabin, Yurt, or Cabin? There are several different accommodation options at El Capitan Canyon. For people who want a more campy feel there are tent cabins which are canvas structures with beds and heaters inside. We went with the more spacious yurt option which is perfect for families. The kids get the feeling of being in a tent and you get a good nights rest because your kids will be warm and comfy. Our yurt had a queen size bed for us and a twin size bed with a trundle for the kiddos. The space heater, fridge, and microwave made glamping even easier.

Inside the yurt at El Capitan Canyon
After roasting marshmallows climb into a comfy bed in a yurt at El Capitan Canyon

Bathrooms:  If you’re staying in the yurt or tent cabins you will be sharing a bathroom/shower facility with other campers. However, it was the cleanest campground bathroom I have ever encountered. Shampoo/soap is provided and even with an indulgent twenty-minute shower the hot water never ran out.  Unless you’re staying in one of the cabins with a kitchen this is also where you wash your dishes.

Food: All the accommodation options have their own fire ring with a cooking grate on top and a picnic table. You can bring a camp stove and cookware/dishes and cook as though you were actually camping and not staying in a glampground. Or if you want to make things really easy for yourself there is a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The prices aren’t bad, expect to spend an average of $40-50 a meal for a family of four. The Canyon Market also has some meal options where you can purchase a BBQ kit to cook back at your site.

The Camp Store: If you do forget something the Canyon Market which is connected to the restaurant sells everything from local wine to ketchup. The grocery section isn’t huge but it does have condiments, beans, pancake mix, cold drinks and those type of things.. This is also where you can buy firewood.

the canyon market at el capitan canyon in santa barbara
You know you’re glamping in California when the camp store sells local wines

Things to Do at El Capitan Canyon

There’s plenty of things to do in and around that campground that you could easily not need to drive anywhere for a few days. A good itinerary for a day might be a hike in the morning and some beach or pool time in the afternoon.

Borrow a beach cruiser: Head to the kiosk and fill out a waiver, give them an ID and you can be cruising to the beach on a bike in five minutes. They don’t have children bikes so bring kid bikes/ helmets from home. It’s a short bike ride to El Capitan State Beach where there is an absolutely stunning paved bike path that goes through the campground and along the coast . When we were there a portion of the bike path was “closed” but you can easily get around the closed section and continue along the four mile bike path all the way to Refugio State Beach.

riding along the road to el capitan state beach
Riding along the road to El Capitan State Beach
bike path at el capitan state beach
Take a bike ride along the coast and enjoy the breathtaking ocean views

Driftwood Houses and Sand Play: El Capitan State beach is a long  mostly sandy beach where kids will enjoy building driftwood houses and grown ups can watch the sunset.  There are bathrooms and picnic tables which makes it an easy spot to relax for an afternoon. During the right conditions it’s possible to surf but you’ll have to bring your own gear because there aren’t any surf shops nearby.

driftwood fort at El Capitan State Beach
Find a driftwood fort and make it your home for the afternoon at El Capitan State Beach

Hikes: The campground has twelve miles of trails around the surrounding grassy environs. Some offer views of the ocean in the distance and many are a little overgrown so wear pants to protect your shins from scratchy bushes. Despite being a little overgrown the trails are well marked. Pick up a trail map from the kiosk.

trail above El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara
Explore the many trails surrounding El Capitan Canyon
the cabins of el capitan canyon
Looking down at a few of the cabins in El Capitan Canyon

Llama Farm: Hiking up to the llama farm is a must do for families with younger children. The one mile trail starts near the camp store and goes up the hill. Once you reach the top it’s a mostly flat walk along a dirt road to the farm. There’s usually a worker present to answer questions about the animals and let you into the enclosure where friendly sheep and goats will rub themselves against your legs. Watch our for the grumpy llama, we experienced first hand that llamas do spit!

llama farm at el capitan canyon overlooking the santa barbara coastline
Pet the goats and sheep but watch out for the spitting llama

Swimming Pool/Playground: The pool is heated to 80 degrees year-round and is adjacent to a playground. Children congregate to this area and your kiddos are bound to make some new vacation buddies.

the pool at el capitan canyon is nestled against the grassy hills and has plenty of lounge chairs for relaxing in the afternoon
Kids and parents will love afternoons at the pool

The Advantages of Glamping

I’ve always been a tent camper and prior to vacationing at El Capitan Canyon it seemed silly to pay the high price tag associated with glamping.  Yes, you will be spending anywhere between $150- $300 a night but your vacation will actually feel like a vacation. After comparing the ease of packing up for a few days of glamping versus a camping trip, it felt worth every penny.

What to Pack

  • Bedding is provided but we brought the kids sleeping bags to keep extra warm and provide a slightly more authentic camping experience
  • Camp chairs
  • Beach/pool towels
  • Sand toys/ beach stuff
  • Extra flashlights/lanterns (only one is provided)
  • Kid bikes (the roads are a bit bumpy for scooters so bikes are definitely better)
  • Daypack
  • Dishes/cookware/utensils
  • Snacks/food for meals
  • Firewood or purchase at the store
  • Matches/lighter
  • Layered clothing including a warm jacket for chilly evenings.
  • Swimsuit
  • Hiking sneakers
  • Shower flip-flops
  • Sunscreen/hats

 

Tips/Advice

  • Stay near the pool/playground if you have kids.
  • If you plan on eating at the restaurant you may want to stay closer the park entrance although you can hear the highway noise in this section of the campground. Further up near the playground/pool area is quieter and more peaceful, it’s just a longer walk to the store/kiosk area.
  • Bring some flip-flops for the shower since they are shared
  • It gets dark early in the winter so plan on making dinner early or bringing plenty of lanterns for nighttime grilling
  • This is a great stopover option for families traveling between the Bay Area and Los Angeles or San Diego. If you’re heading to San Diego check out my article on Encinitas, a fun beach community thirty minutes north of San Diego. Going north on highway 1 to San Francisco? Be sure to explore the picturesque beaches near Pescadero.

Bottom Line: Glamping at El Capitan Canyon is an easy way take a camping trip in the winter. I’ll still go tent camping but glamping is great option when you need a few days of no hassle outdoor fun.

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