by Amanda Orr
El Capitan Canyon Resort: It’s not exactly camping although it’s absolutely nothing like staying in a hotel either. It’s somewhere in between, in a place that some have nicknamed “glamping,” or glamour camping, and others have nicknamed “nature lodging — with benefits.” Regardless of the terminology, we think that El Capitan Canyon Resort is exactly where families should plant themselves for a California central coast vacation.
El Capitan Canyon resort has mastered the art of mixing rustic with luxurious, do-it-yourself with all-inclusive, and pampered comforts with natural ruggedness. Confused? Read on. At El Capitan Canyon, guests stay in private cabins arranged into a series of villages named for their location at the resort (Poolside Village, Creekside Village, etc.). The cabins, and a selection of mounted safari tents, are scattered throughout the scenic property just north of Santa Barbara. The cabins and tents all back into common fields where guests play football, sunbathe and even partake in the occasional slip-n-slide. The cabins face your own private fire pit and picnic tables, where guests cook out, sing campfire songs, read and cook S’mores. If that sounds a little hokey, it’s not. Plenty of visitors just enjoy the natural beauty and have some great, uninterrupted family time amidst total peace and privacy. The cabins all have kitchenettes and bathrooms with soaking tubs, and for those who don’t want to do any cooking, there’s a cafe and store at the base of the resort that has whatever you may need, from lattes to lounge chairs.
El Cap, as it’s called by the many repeat visitors it attracts each year, is nothing like your average campground, although it does have an adjoining property for hardcore campers and RV fans. El Cap itself is a full-service resort with daily maid service and even room service if you don’t want to take the short walk down to the market. It also has an outdoor heated pool and an onsite spa for complete luxury. The unique ambiance of the place gives guests the best of both worlds — full-service hotel and private getaway. The extras may provide a sense of comfort and convenience, but the undeniable result of staying at El Cap is a sense of appreciating the wonderful undisturbed beauty of the Santa Barbara coast. Did we mention the resort is located right off California’s 101 freeway and just a half mile walk to the Pacific Ocean?
Our Editor Loves
- Saturday night concert and BBQ
- Soaking bathtubs and kitchenettes
- El Cap Market and Cafe
- Horse Back Riding
- Water Sports
- Family Room 5+
- Onsite Dining
Find the Best Price for Your Stay
Catering to glamping enthusiasts, El Cap offers an assortment of cedar cabins and safari tents to suit any combination of people. All accommodations are furnished with willow beds and down-style duvets and blankets. The cabins all have kitchenettes, bathrooms with soaking tubs, and a front porch with two chairs.
Canyon Loft and Suite
The Canyon Loft is a large cabin with a separate living room with gas fireplace, a king-size bed and a sleeping loft. The Canyon Suite is spacious and private, offering a king-size bed in a bedroom with its own separate entrance to the outdoors. The living room also has a sofa bed that converts to a double bed.
The Creekside king has a king-size bed, and a fold-out sofa chair suitable for one child. The Creekside Double has two double beds, and is ideal for couples with one or two children. The Creekside queen has a queen-size bed and a sleeping loft that comfortably sleeps two to three children.
The Canyon Queen has a queen-size bed, a sleeping loft and can accommodate one couple and two to three children.
The Canyon Bunk is the ultimate "sleep-over" with two sets of bunk beds and a sleeping loft that can add two more children. The bunks come with bedding but the loft-sleepers must bring their own sheets and blankets and sleeping bags.
For those who want to be slightly more in tune with nature, the canvas safari tents for two are available, although they are not appropriate for families with young children as they only sleep two comfortably. And for those who don't need a kitchenette, nor a private bath, there is a sister property down the street for RV/car camping.
Potential clampers should know that the fire came right to the edge of this property so if your unit faces to the left of the property (from the angle of entering) you will be looking at a few nice trees in the foreground and a charred hillside in the background. A little depressing. Cabin was nice and staff was very friendly and helpful and we were here on a Tuesday in October so it was quiet and had no neighbors....but I was surprised how close together the cabins were and think it would be really unpleasant during a different time. Units are starting to show their wear, and it doesn't look like the place I read about in a travel magazine years ago (Sunset?) Overall, it would be a decent place to stay for MUCH less money---at the current rates, you could do much better elsewhere.
Pretty setting, decent resources, friendly staff, distinctly overpriced. $350 a night for an off-season, mid-week stay was simply too much. El Capitan is a fun place, but it's "glamping" and the funkiness of this place, while somewhat charming, at this nightly rate, is unwelcome.
Perhaps the greatest gift that El Cap gives to its visitors is the gift of togetherness-truly. At El Cap you won't be distracted by television, the need to drive anywhere (unless you choose to) or anything else. The setting -- tucked into a canyon off the Pacific Ocean between two coastal mountains -- makes it clear that outdoor activities are the priority here. Be sure to save at least one night at El Cap for roasting S'mores around a campfire and telling campfire stories, or just sitting back and watching the sunset before retiring. We're sure you'll fall fast asleep after a day of healthy outdoor activities, and there's always some nice quiet guitar strumming somewhere in the campground to lull you to sleep.
In warmer weather we recommend starting off your day by splitting your time between the outdoor pool or the ocean, which is a short 10-minute walk.
Once you've taken a dip and sunbathed to your heart's content, be sure to take a guided tour of the hiking trails that snake around the resort. El Cap offers docent-led hikes along the historic Bill Wallace Trail at the canyon. The program is a partnership between the California State Parks, El Capitan Canyon and other local conservation groups to provide public access to the 2,500 acre El Capitan backcountry. To partake in a guided tour, hikers meet at the El Cap Market on Saturdays at 9 a.m. Come prepared, as the hikes last three to four hours. You can also schedule a private docent-led hike by contacting the front desk. El Cap also offers shorter, less rugged hikes designed for younger guests looking for local wildlife like goats and frogs. Be sure to ask about special hikes at check-in.
Segway and Jeep tours are also available. The Cloud Climbers Jeep Tours is a treat for all that they offer. From off-road trails to challenging hikes to gorgeous sunsets, these tours incorporate it all and will then drop you off cabin side.
Canyon Concert Series
Not to be missed is the Saturday evening concert series that El Cap offers May through September. Guests gather at the Creekside Village Green for a night of BBQ and song, and hopefully some dancing. Concert admission is free to registered guests and the BBQ is $20 per adult and $14 per child. Artists range from blues, jazz, bluegrass to rock cover bands. Visit the El Capitan Canyon website for a schedule of performers.
Most families who come to El Cap pack all in, meaning that they pull up to their cabin, unload a bunch of coolers full of treats, cooking suppliers and toys and games for their stay, and then drive away to the parking lot. (Cars are not allowed cabin-side but only in lots off the villages). The fire pit is the only cooking area in the cabin area but there is a nice-sized refrigerator to keep things cool. For those who aren't quite so familiar with the camping routine, El Cap can provide everything, literally, that you may need to cookout at your cabin.
The market has El Cap BBQ kits that include tools, charcoal, matches, silverware and, of course, your choice of meats and seafood. Advance notice is required for the BBQ kits -- notice upon arrival will suffice.
If cooking out every night is not your thing, you can stick to just making homemade S'mores every night while you enjoy the breakfast, lunch and dinner treats from the market. We recommend trying a breakfast burrito (eggs to order, cereal, yogurt), the Rincon or El Cap sandwiches for lunch, and the Hawaiian pizza for dinner. Whatever your culinary pleasure, you will not be disappointed with the El Cap Market.
Of course, for parents, there's also a full selection of wines for purchase from the plethora of local Santa Barbara County Vineyards.
Planning & Tips
All About the Extras
If you are looking for something a little more athletic, El Cap can arrange for ocean kayaking, horseback riding or even surfing lessons. Be sure to take advantage of the complimentary adult-sized beach cruiser bikes available for guests on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The Art of Smart Timing
Thanks to Santa Barbara's moderate weather, El Capitan is open year round, and each season presents its own unique highlights.
For those who are just interested in a serene getaway and don't care much about beach time, off season (November through March) presents opportunities for steep discounts and themed packages that can include things like complimentary hot cocoa and mugs to keep upon arrival, a bottle of wine with a side trip to wine country, or a massage package. While traveling to El Cap from December through March presents opportunities for discounts, we highly recommend a May through September stay because of the weather and the summer concert series.
In peak season (late spring through early fall) rates go up and the extras will cost you extra. Summer weekends require a three-night minimum, although last-minute reservations can sometimes sneak through with just two, based on availability. But, of course, the clear sky and warm weather all come included.
El Cap is easily accessible to the Santa Barbara airport (max 30 minutes) and LAX (max two hour drive). If you want to combine El Cap with a coastal California tour, El Capitan is right off the 101 Freeway on Calle Real just north of Santa Barbara.
Cars are not allowed to stay parked cabin-side, but the parking lot is free. Guests can unload at their cabin and then park nearby.
For Mom and Dad
The El Capitan Spa cabin is not to be missed. A range of massage and skin services can be booked by calling the front office. Don't forget to book a hot stone massage and combine it with a foot scrub at the Spa tent, or enjoy a private massage right in your cabin. It will be sure to relax and revive you after a tour of the local wineries.
Of course it's hard to come to Santa Barbara without taking a side tour of a vineyard or two. There are many operators that work with El Capitan to arrange private or group tours. Or if you just want to drive through wine country on your own, the staff at El Capitan is happy to provide directions and tips. There's also a full selection of wines for purchase at the Market.