The Best of Santa Barbara: Beaches, Camping, Parks & Trails

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Nestled between the steep, scrubby San Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara is a welcome, mountainous reprieve from the concrete proliferation of Los Angeles. Though Santa Barbara is by no means unknown or under-utilized as a tourist destination, its roomy beaches and steep hikes can offer a peek at the more relaxed side of southern California.

Whether you're a sea-going adventurer, a hiker, a history buff, or someone who simply wants to wake up to a view of the Pacific Ocean, these adventures below are sure to incite the spirit of exploration.



Beaches


Jalama Beach

Hidden away at the end of a narrow, winding road and tucked against the huge military enclave of Vandenburg Air Force Base, Jalama Beach is a world apart from the multitude of Southern California beach parks that stretch from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Probably best known for the signature Jalama Burgers the beachside grill cranks out, this Santa Barbara County Park is a relatively undiscovered gem.

  • PROS: Gorgeous beach. Miles of beach walking. Dog friendly. The famous Jalama Burger. Excellent campground.
  • CONS: Popular and busy all year. Can be quite windy.
  • REGION: Santa Barbara + Sierra Madre/San Rafael Mountains, CA
  • CONGESTION: Moderate
  • DAY-USE/PARKING PASS REQUIRED:General Day Use Fee ($10.00)
  • BEACH:Open, sandy beach, Rocky Shore
  • TIDE POOLS: No
  • WILDLIFE: Seabirds


Mesa Lane

Mesa Lane is located just below the mesa neighborhood in Santa Barbra. Because it is located below the tall bluffs of the mesa, this beach is very special in two ways: 241 stairs lead to the beach, and the beach is also a fairly narrow band between the ocean and the mesa cliffs that jut onto the beach. Be sure you don't go during an an abnormally high tide, or there will be no beach at all! If you come at low tide there is plenty of exploring and walking to do at low tide, however, just plan to do it when the tide is going out.

  • PROS: Surfing. Secluded. Great for dogs.
  • CONS: Parking can be an issue.
  • REGION: Santa Barbara + Sierra Madre/San Rafael Mountains, CA
  • CONGESTION: Low
  • DAY-USE/PARKING PASS REQUIRED:Not Required
  • BEACH:Open, sandy beach, Rocky Shore
  • TIDE POOLS: No
  • WILDLIFE: Seabirds



El Capitan State Beach

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.

  • PROS: Beautiful coastline. Surf Potential. Camping available.
  • CONS: Often crowded. Some Poison Oak.
  • REGION: Santa Barbara + Sierra Madre/San Rafael Mountains, CA
  • CONGESTION: High
  • DAY-USE/PARKING PASS REQUIRED:State Park Fee ($10.00)
  • BEACH:Open, sandy beach, Rocky Shore
  • TIDE POOLS: Yes
  • WILDLIFE: Seabirds, Harbor Seals


Camping


El Capitan State Beach Campground

El Capitan State Beach Campground is nestled along the the picturesque stretch of coastline lying between Goleta and Point Conception known as the Gaviota Coast. The state park is open for both day use and overnight camping. With 132 campsites available year-round, a camp store, and restroom and shower facilities, El Cap is a popular destination. Online reservations for weekends and holidays are recommended at least two weeks before you plan to stay.

  • PROS: Adjacent to ocean. Surf potential. Shaded campsites. Beautiful coastline
  • CONS: Often crowded. Near Highway 101. Foggy during summer months. Some poison oak.
  • REGION: Santa Barbara + Sierra Madre/San Rafael Mountains, CA
  • CONGESTION: High
  • PREFERABLE SEASON(S):Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
  • CAMPING FEE: $35.00
  • DAY-USE/PARKING PASS REQUIRED:State Park Fee
  • RV SITES: 9TENT/CAR SITES: 123
  • TENT/WALK-IN SITES: 10
  • GROUP SITES: 5
  • PICNIC TABLES: Yes
  • DOGS ALLOWED: Yes


History

Flowers in front of Old Mission Santa BarbaraPhoto by Aron Bosworth

Old Mission Santa Barbara

The Old Mission Santa Barbara sits majestically atop a rise between the Pacific Ocean and the Saint Ynez Mountains, a locale that doesn't just offer incredible views, but also a varied and fascinating history. Established by Padre Fermín Lasuén on December 4, 1786, this site became an integral hub for missionaries seeking to convert the Native American peoples that occupied the surrounding land. In 1812, a massive quake leveled the existing buildings, but just a short eight years later the entire mission was rebuilt, in what historians theorize to be quite a comparable manner to the original design and layout.

  • PROS: Historic mission. Great views. Rose Garden.
  • CONS: None.REGION: Santa Barbara + Sierra Madre/San Rafael Mountains, CA
  • CONGESTION: High
  • PREFERABLE SEASON(S):Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
  • DAY-USE/PARKING PASS REQUIRED:Not Required
  • POINTS OF INTEREST:Historical landmark, Viewpoint, Other
  • OTHER POINT OF INTEREST: Rose gardens
  • DOGS ALLOWED: Yes, with restrictions


Trails


Anacapa Island

Anacapa, the smallest of the Channel Islands National Park islands, is actually three separate islands known as West, Middle and East Anacapa. Though several buildings and other signs of past human activity are visible on East Anacapa (the only of the three parts with a boat landing), the island definitely has a primitive feel to it.

  • PROS: Beautiful snorkeling and kayaking opportunities. Can see the whole island in one day.
  • CONS: No shade. No water. Sea gulls EVERYWHERE.
  • REGION: Channel Islands + Santa Catalina, CA
  • CONGESTION: Low
  • PREFERABLE SEASON(S):Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
  • DAY-USE/PARKING PASS REQUIRED:Transportation to island
  • PICNIC TABLES: Yes
  • DOGS ALLOWED: No



Inspiration Point

For a usually warm, usually busy, always beautiful half-day hike in Santa Barbara, Inspiration Point by way of the Tunnel Trail, is a great bet. Not to be confused with the Inspiration Point offshore on Anacapa Island or the hike to Inspiration Point in the San Gabriel Mountains by way of Echo Mountain, this Inspiration Point rewards hikers with stunning views of the greater Santa Barbara area, including the northern Channel Islands. It's typically buzzing with hikers, joggers, mountain bikers, and dog walkers on a sunny day and for good reason. This 3.5-mile hike climbs an attainable 800 feet, the trail is well maintained, and it offers some of the best sightseeing in the area.

  • PROS: Nice hike close to town. Views.
  • CONS: Weekend crowds. Limited parking.
  • REGION: Santa Barbara + Sierra Madre/San Rafael Mountains, CA
  • CONGESTION: High
  • PREFERABLE SEASON(S):Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall
  • DAY-USE/PARKING PASS REQUIRED:Not Required
  • TOTAL DISTANCE: 3.50 mi (5.63 km)
  • TRAILHEAD ELEV.: 1,000 ft (305 m)
  • NET ELEV. GAIN: 800 ft (244 m)
  • TRAIL USES:Hiking
  • TRAIL TYPE: There-and-back
  • DOGS ALLOWED: Yes, with restrictions


Red Rock Pool

Red Rock Pool is a popular swimming hole in a crescent bend along the Santa Ynez River in the forest about an hour's drive from Santa Barbara. Very popular during the warm season when the river is flowing, the area can see large crowds and also all the litter and graffiti on rocks from being a popular spot. During periods of river flow, the pool is deep enough to jump off of the rocks of varying heights, and some even jump off the rocks about 35 feet above the water.

  • PROS: Rock jumps. Scenic area.
  • CONS: Seasonal flow. Heavily littered. Poison oak.
  • REGION: Santa Barbara + Sierra Madre/San Rafael Mountains, CA
  • CONGESTION: Moderate
  • DAY-USE/PARKING PASS REQUIRED:California Adventure Pass
  • LOCATION TYPE: River (moving slowly)
  • CLIFF JUMPING: Yes
  • GREATEST HEIGHT: 40 ft (12 m)

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