El Capitan State Beach is one of three California State Parks located along the Gaviota Coast, the picturesque stretch of undeveloped coastline lying between Goleta and Point Conception. El Capitan, or “El Cap," is the first of the three state park/campgrounds when driving from Santa Barbara. The state park is open for both day use and overnight camping. The day use fee is good for the other two state park beaches just a few miles down the coast.
A highlight of the area, El Cap visitors are treated to beautiful views of the ocean, the Santa Ynez mountains and the surrounding coastline. Recreational opportunities include hiking trails, a coastal bike trail, beach and ocean access, and for the patient surfer, the potential to surf one of the premier right hand point breaks of the area.
The wave at El Cap is fickle; the Gaviota coastline is directly south facing and blocked from northwest winter swells by Point Conception. But when the conditions do align - watch for west swell and low tides during the fall and early winter months - El Cap can become a gem of the coast. Surfing can get crowded as local Santa Barbara surfers are eager for the few times per year when their beloved El Cap wakes up. The wave breaks close to shore onto rocks near the top of the point. This is not a beginner spot.
There is a nice trail that runs along the beach, beginning at El Cap and continuing west to Gaviota State Beach (approximately 3 miles). Fall is a great time for this walk as Monarch butterflies migrate to the area to breed in the coastal trees. Wildlife viewing can also be good here; look for intertidal critters, seabirds, dolphins, harbor seals and spouting grey whales during their annual migration. Keep an eye out for poison oak and rattlesnakes when exploring the area.
El Capitan Canyon and access to the Santa Ynez mountains is just across Highway 101. At the entrance to the canyon is a resort simply named El Capitan Canyon. It is a high-end rustic cabin and nature camp, fully equipped with a market, café, and espresso bar open to the public. There is also hiking in the canyon on the Bill Wallace Nature Trail.