Posted by: James Wapotich | September 30, 2014

Trail Quest: El Capitán to Refugio

With all the hot weather we’ve been getting, sometimes the best place for a hike is along the coast. One of the more scenic beach walks in our area is between El Capitán and Refugio State Beaches.

The hike between the two state beaches is about five miles round trip, and can be started from either end. In addition to coastal access, both sites also offer camping. El Capitán has over 130 campsites, including 5 groups sites, and Refugio has around 70 campsites, including 3 groups sites. Reservations can be made online. Both state beaches also feature a small convenience store where one can find a cold drink or snack. For more information about either State Beach go to

The best time for the hike is during a low or minus tide. You’ll want to try to time the hike so that you’re at your halfway point when the tide is at its lowest as this will give you the best sense of what conditions to expect on the return hike.

El Capitan Refugio beach walk Santa Barbara hike

Coastal scenery near Cañada del Venadito

If you’re wanting to hike exclusively along the beach you will want to time your hike to a minus tide. However, one of the unique advantages of the hike from El Capitán to Refugio is Aniso Trail. The trail parallels the coast and provides access at several points along the way, offering a pretty reliable fallback route if the tides are against you.

The paved trail and bike path at one time connected El Capitán and Refugio State Beaches. Storm damage and erosion has closed the trail just west of El Capitán to Cañada del Corral, but the section from Cañada del Corral to Refugio remains open. Hopefully the damaged section of the trail will be repaired and again allow easy access between the two state beaches.

Because of their unique geologic history, our local Transverse Mountains, which include the Santa Ynez Mountains, actually run east-west. As a result, our coastline from Ventura to Point Conception also runs generally east-west. This can take some getting used to, especially if you’re used to thinking that the coastline ought to be to the west of everything, instead of to the south. Adding to the confusion is how Highway 101 is designated. For example, from Santa Barbara, northbound Highway 101 actually travels west, before turning north at Gaviota, and then ultimately connecting with destinations that are north of Santa Barbara.

map El Capitan Refugio State Beach walk hike Santa Barbara

Map courtesy

To get to El Capitán State Beach from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 North, past Goleta to the El Capitán State Beach exit and continue down into the park. If you’re wanting to start at Refugio State Beach instead, stay on the freeway, and continue to the Refugio State Beach exit. The drive to El Capitán from Santa Barbara is about 30 minutes.

Day use parking can be found at either State Beach, and, in both cases, is located near the beach access and convenience store. Day use parking is $10 per vehicle and the permit is valid at both parks.

For the hike from El Capitán, continue from the day use parking area down to the beach. If the tides are too high to hike along the beach, you can instead continue west from the parking area by following the paved trail along the bluff. The paved trail continues to the western end of the camping area and arrives at the beginning of Aniso Trail. And although this section of Aniso Trail is closed, just to your left is a set of stairs that lead down to the beach.

The beach stairs are about a half mile west of the beach access at El Capitán and are one of the first landmarks you’ll see when hiking along the beach.

El Capitan Refugio State Beach walk hike Santa Barbara

Monterey shale is seen along the beach between El Capitán and Refugio State Beaches

Wildlife along the coast can include a variety of shorebirds, as well as birds visiting from the coastal sage scrub habit on the bluffs above. Adding to the scenery are the exposed outcroppings of Monterey formation shale that the elements have weathered and sculpted.

Continuing west past the stairs, it’s roughly another half mile to what’s sometimes called Corral Beach, which is located where Cañada del Corral meets the ocean.

El Capitán takes its name from José Francisco Ortega, who served as the first commander or capitán at Santa Barbara Presido. Earlier in his career Ortega served as chief scout during Gaspar de Portolà’s second overland expedition through what was then Alta California. It was during that expedition that San Francisco Bay was discovered, and in his role as chief scout, Ortega was probably the first westerner to lay eyes on the bay.

In 1795, after 40 years of military service, Ortega retired and the Spanish Crown granted him a two-mile wide strip of land along the Gaviota Coast from just east of Point Conception to Refugio Canyon, roughly 26,500 acres. Ortega named the land “Nuestra Señora del Refugio” or Our Lady of Refuge. Three years after his retirement Ortega died in a fall from his horse near Refugio Beach.

In 1841, Ortega’s grandson, José Dolores Ortega, added an additional 8,800 acres to the family’s holdings with the acquisition of Rancho Cañada del Corral, which lay just to the east the land granted to his grandfather. This additional land included the area where El Capitán State Beach is now located.

Following several years of drought, Rancho Cañada del Corral was sold in 1866, and over the years the land was divided into smaller tracts and passed through a number of different owners.

Cañada del Corral beach El Capitan Refugio walk Santa Barbara

Secluded beach near Cañada del Corral

In 1953, the state of California purchased 111 acres of the former rancho to create El Capitán State Beach. In 1967, an additional 21 acres were added to the park. And in 2002, an opportunity arose to purchase El Capitán Ranch, which had also been part of the original Rancho Cañada del Corral. The purchase added to the park an additional 2,500 acres north of Highway 101. This northern section of the park offers additional hiking opportunities along the 12-mile long Bill Wallace Trail. The trail was named for former Santa Barbara County Supervisor and coastal protection advocate Bill Wallace.

Continuing west, past Corral Beach, the coast narrows to a small point which is only passable during a minus tide. Fortunately at Corral Beach one can access Aniso Trail as the trail is open from here all the way to Refugio State Beach.

Aniso is the Chumash word for seagull, and the trail is said to follow a trade route that existed along the coast connecting the Chumash villages of Qasil, located where Refugio State Beach is now, and Mikiw and Kuya’mu, which were located at Dos Pueblos Canyon. Also along this route was the village of Ajuahuilashmu, where El Capitan State Beach is now located. From the village of Qasil, another route led over the Santa Ynez Mountains to villages in the Santa Ynez Valley. In fact, Refugio Road more or less follows that same route.

Cañada del Venadito Refugio El Capitan beach walk Santa Barbara hike

Secluded beach near Cañada del Venadito

About a half mile west of Corral Beach, Aniso Trail arrives at Cañada del Venadito, where one can find another small beach to enjoy. Just west of this beach is another point that requires a minus tide to get around, and so depending on conditions you may find it easier to just continue along Aniso Trail to Refugio State Beach.

At Refugio State Beach it’s easy to see why the Chumash chose it as a village site, particularly if you make a short walk under the freeway to where you can see the full expanse of Refugio Canyon. Both the cove-like coast and access to the canyon make it an ideal location for settlement.

Regardless of how far you hike you’ll get to see some of the scenic beauty found along our local coastline.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 23rd, 2014 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.

long-billed curlews

A pair of long-billed curlews pause along the beach

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