Camp California

Where guests stay in tents but play at the spa

By: Judy Gruen

As a city wo-
man whose family is unaccustomed to “roughing it,” I planned our family vacation to involve a lot of nature but not a lot of sleeping on hard ground. That’s what made El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara, Calif., the perfect place for us: it’s pseudo-camping for yuppies. A two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, El Capitan Canyon is a former private campground that was transformed into a plush nature resort. It allows guests to savor a rustic environment, but with down duvets and gourmet coffee.

There are several different styles of cabins, ranging from those with king-size beds and Jacuzzis to others with bunk beds and a sleeping loft. All cabins have bathrooms with showers. For a group of seven, we booked two cabins.

There are also canvas safari tents on raised wooden decks, with screened windows and zip-down flaps. Bathroom facilities and showers for the tents are located in nearby buildings. Though our boys were at first disappointed at the absence of TVs, the beauty and calm of the campground environment assuaged them.

Visitors can be as relaxed or as busy as they want. Our family borrowed complimentary bikes from the front office and rode along El Capitan and Refugio beaches, just five minutes from the campsite. Water-lovers can kayak or surf, though rentals are not available directly on the premises. My husband and I hiked along the paths in the canyon while our kids preferred to swim at the pool or play catch on the large grassy area adjacent to the cabins. Our favorite time was after dinner, when nearly everyone dined at picnic tables outside their cabins or tents. We met our neighbors, our kids met other kids, and we had fun roasting s’mores in our fire pit.

We also had great fun picking apples from one of the many orchards in nearby San Luis Obispo and visiting Ostrich Land in Buellton. The campground management can help guests arrange for other tours including a Santa Barbara trip or whale watching. Recently, the campground management expanded its group activities to include a Ropes Challenge Course, wagon and carriage rides, guided hikes and equestrian events, such as guided trail rides. Throughout the summer, El Capitan Canyon features weekend live concerts.

After a busy day, the campground offers spa services, including massage, facials, mud treatments and reflexology. If you didn’t bring your own food, the deli offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, including pizzas, soups, salads and sandwiches.

“I love introducing people from the city to El Capitan Canyon,” said manager Terri Bowman. “People are completely different when they arrive here. Because there’s no TV, parents are outside playing catch with their kids, or riding bikes through the canyon. I appreciate being part of an operation that can offer that to people.”


Other activities are available such as a winery tour or visitors can drive another hour north to Vandenberg Air Force Base. Reservations are required in advance.


Cars are not allowed in the canyon, a shuttle brings guests from their cabin or tent to the entrance of the facility, where the El Capitan Canyon store and deli are located. We preferred walking the half-mile or so from our cabin to the store.


El Capitan Canyon
866-352-2729, fax: 805-968-6772
For group information,
contact Paul Miller
Rates: $135-$305
Commission: 10 percent