This guide is part of KCET's California Coastal Trail project, which looks at the state's massive undertaking to build a trail over 1,000 miles in length along its whole coastline.
Santa Barbara's stunning coast was made for recreation. It has rocky coves, bluffs, coastal meadows, sandy beaches close to urban centers and far from anything, and mountains that sometimes reach nearly into the water. The highway is close to some of the campgrounds, but never to the point of being an irritant. The only flaw with this county's coast might be that the private Hollister Ranch eats up a significant chunk of it. Luckily, plentiful state and county parks let the public enjoy much of the rest.
Note: We've tried to feature only campgrounds with the best coastal sights, sounds, and smells. Many of those places are state-owned because the parks system boasts so much of California's best seaside real estate.
Not surprisingly, the beaches are among the busiest parks in the state. Reservations can be made up to seven months in advance through ReserveAmerica.com. Book as soon as possible because many sites get snagged the day they become available. Cancellations can also free up previously booked sites, so watch for that. Thanks to CampsitePhotos.com, images of just about every individual site are available online, letting you choose a spot in the shade of a sycamore with just the right view. Unless otherwise stated, sites permit both tents and RVs or trailers. Some companies deliver RVs directly to campgrounds, making it possible to enjoy a road hotel without the need to pilot one on the highway; rental information can be found on most state park websites.
Carpinteria State Beach
Here, 12 miles south of Santa Barbara, Chumash carpenters once built the tribe's great tomol boats. From this pleasant spot, you can look out at the Channel Islands and wonder what it was like to cross the channel in one, as the Chumash did. Nearly 250 campsites are nestled in the spacious park, where grass lawns, trees, and the quaint city of Carpinteria give campers plenty of space from the freeway.
El Capitan State Beach
If heading north, this region seems to be where trees other than palms like to grow on the coast without too much coercion. The stately sycamores and oaks make the park and campground's 137 sites all the more gorgeous. The beach here, 17 miles west of Santa Barbara, at the foot of Los Padres National Forest, has more cobblestones than other spots, but there's still plenty of sand for sandcastle building or lounging.
Refugio State Beach
This spot is a wee bit closer to the freeway than its neighbor three miles to the east, El Capitan. However, it's every bit as pretty and with 68 sites, half as many as its neighbor, it could offer more solitude. Here and at El Capitan, the campsites aren't quite on the sand, but they're situated nicely among the trees.
Gaviota State Beach
Located 33 miles west of Santa Barbara, this is the last stop before the highway cuts inland south of Point Conception. To many people, this is where the gentle coast of Southern California begins giving way to the more rugged Central Coast, and Gaviota shares elements of both. Though it can get whipped with strong winds, Gaviota is still protected by Point Conception. A sandy cove, railroad trestle, and boat launch give the beach its own character. Nearby Gaviota Peak is among the hiking objectives for day trippers or campers who stay in any of the 39 available sites.
Jalama County Beach Park
Even for this stunning region, there's something magical about Jalama. For starters, it lies 15 miles from Pacific Coast Highway, down a breathtaking road that winds past only a few small buildings, agricultural fields, and grazing cows. Yes, cows. Sounds more like the Central Coast than Southern California, doesn't it? Just a couple miles north of Point Conception, Jalama can get lashed with powerful seas and merciless winds, occasionally causing everyone to retreat to whatever shelter is available. Despite the wide open spaces and the long stretch of untouched coastline, the county campground is home to just 109 campsites with 31 electrical hookups, and a handful of cabins for small groups, so take a number. The day use parking lot is tiny, too, so campers mostly have the place to themselves. The campground grill serves a famous hamburger and stocks all manner of camp essentials from beer to sunscreen.