El Capitan Canyon: Santa Barbara’s green ‘nature lodging’

11 March 13

| Comfort Amid Critters |

Cedar cabin, El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara, Calif., USA
The bobcat was the first indication that El Capitan Canyon isn’t just another green glamping “resort.” Just across California Highway 101 from historic El Capitan State Beach, fewer than 20 miles north of Santa Barbara, this eco-friendly “nature lodging” lures city slickers and locals alike to its luxury safari tents and cabins.

Less than an hour after my arrival, I was touring a bit of the 360-acre property when I spotted a bobcat the size of a cocker spaniel. To put the sighting into perspective, I’m a Golden State native, and I’d only seen one bobcat before. That was more than 30 years ago. This particular feline creature was far more concerned with soaking up the late February sun and lazily observing gopher holes for activity than paying me any mind.

Llama, El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara, Calif., USA

Llama: eye-candy for El Capitan visitors

Wildlife sightings are by no means unusual at El Capitan; the resort’s Kendra Summers tells me of the resident herd of deer that browse under the oak trees at dusk, and the foxes, skunks (which are gently and carefully relocated), raccoons, owls, red-tailed hawks, and bats that also call this semi-wilderness home. There are also El Capitan’s own llamas, goats and donkey, which serve as domesticated eye-candy for visitors.

‘Discovered’ in 1542

El Capitan, the canyon, was “discovered” by explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, and claimed as a part of Spain; its original inhabitants were the Chumash Indians, who lived in the region more than 8,000 years. El Capitan, the nature lodging, was founded in 1970 as a primitive campground used as overflow for the state parks system.

Hiking, El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara, Calif., USA

El Capitan Creek: part of the ‘outdoor experience”

In 2001, the current owners (a husband-and-wife team) purchased the property from the state, and transformed it into this back-to-nature retreat: what Kendra describes as an “outdoor experience”; they also built the neighboring Ocean Mesa Campground. The emphasis at El Capitan is on providing a sense of community while still maintaining the feel and integrity of the natural environment. Not surprisingly, it’s popular with school and other youth groups, as well as for corporate retreats, weddings and family reunions.

The resort works closely with the California Coastal Commission, Santa Barbara County and the federal government, because the property borders the Los Padres National Forest. The property is also involved with the Dream Foundation, which works to grant wishes for terminally ill adults. These relationships, coincidentally, are exactly what the owners envisioned when they first purchased the land.

Minimizing the footprint

And to ensure that visitors and the property itself leave as small a footprint as possible, a number of green initiatives are also in place at El Capitan.

Organic garden, El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara, Calif., USA

Green initiatives: organic produce for guests

A native vegetation enhancement project uses an on-site nursery, and prohibits chemical fertilizers or other industrial products. In addition to saved seeds and cuttings, transplanted propagates of indigenous plant stock are used to enhance the property. The aim is to create an environment that attracts beneficial insects and birdlife to control pests.

The property encourages guests to conserve water, and has its own water-saving initiatives—especially critical given the dry Mediterranean climate. Shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and dish soap amenities are made from natural and eco-sensitive ingredients.

Tents, yurts, cabins

Luxury tent, El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara, Calif., USA

Luxury safari tent: not exactly roughing it

New for 2013 will be three luxury yurts (maximum occupancy: four persons each), slated to open by Memorial Day. They’ll join the three existing yurts, which have proven exceptionally popular with families and small groups, and feature insulated siding, skylights, trundle beds and dressers. Like the 26 safari tents, which have a similar interior, the yurts have electricity but no running water. Three bathhouses throughout the property accommodate campers.

As much as I love camping and genuinely roughing it, I opted to go a little more luxe and stay in a Creekside King cabin, one of six models available (there are 109 cabins, nestled in groves of oak and sycamore trees). In addition to bunkhouses, there are options with doubles, suites, and the aforementioned kings, some with lofts and kitchenette. There’s also the new Safari Cabin, a two-bedroom house perched atop a hill overlooking the Pacific—popular for weddings and extended getaways.

Creekside Queen cabin, El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara, Calif., USA

Creekside Queen cabin:
genius green touch

The cabins are one of the more genius green touches here. All are made of cedar (which naturally repels insects) and pre-fabricated, and the décor, trim and picnic tables are made of reclaimed wood, which is usually supplied by local farmers. Each cabin features a gas stove and running water; my bathroom had gleaming, white tile walls and a deep soaking tub with a picture window. All of the cabins are on wheels and surrounded by wood skirting, should it be necessary to move them. Their mobility also eliminates the need to lay down concrete foundations.

The tents and cabins all have their own fire pits, and are located in “village” clusters that follow bike and footpaths along El Capitan Creek down the canyon. Tip: a winter stay will likely mean a chilly night if you opt for a tent. Even if you’re in a cabin, if you get cold easily, bring an extra layer or two (plus socks or slippers).

Easy passing the time

Hot rock spa treatment, El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara, Calif., USA

Aah, the spa cabin: hot rock treatment

While there are designated parking lots, the canyon is car-free (a shuttle is available) to minimize environmental stress. Grassy open areas join the clusters to form communal spaces; a playground and solar-heated pool (alas, not enough sunlight penetrates the canyon to power the entire resort) are located in the middle of the property, close to the yurts. Adults in need of relaxation should pay a visit to the adorable spa cabin, which is surrounded by a lovely native plant garden. Massages are offered on-site, outdoors, or in-accommodation.

The on-site Canyon Market sells everything one could possibly need for a night (or a week) of this camping lite, from wood bundles and eco-friendly bug repellent to S’more’s, tri-tip, and grilled chicken “kits.” There’s a gift shop featuring local crafts, and a restaurant serving three meals a day. The menus feature produce from the property’s own organic farm—they lease the land to a local farmer—and there are addictive chocolate chip-macadamia nut-coconut cookies (seriously, stockpile these baboes for your stay). A summer concert and BBQ series, on the market lawn, is held May through September, and open to the public; attendance for guests is free.

Dining, El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara, Calif., USA

The ‘dining room': the nature experience continues

Strolls to serious adventure

When it comes to activities, El Capitan is the kind of place that doesn’t make you try too hard to pass the time. A fleet of free cruiser bikes is first-come, first-served, and four hiking trails, from beginner to strenuous, snake through the property, providing views of the ocean and Channel Islands.

Less than five minutes’ walk away, the smooth swath of El Capitan State Beach makes for ideal strolling, swimming, running or tidepooling. A bike path leads from El Capitan to gorgeous Refugio Beach, three miles north, but it’s fallen into disrepair, so you’ll have to hoof it. I highly recommend this coastal walk, but be aware you’re at the whim of the tides. Use caution if you decide to go for it.

Adventure, El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara, Calif., USA

And if you crave thrills with your nature…

If you’re interested in delving into the region’s adventure activities, El Capitan has partnered with Santa Barbara Adventure Company for surfing, climbing, horseback riding, sea kayaking, paragliding, stand-up-paddling and guided hikes. The resort can also help you arrange whale-watching or wine country tours by local outfitters.

But even if you hang close to your tent, yurt or cabin, adventure may well come to you. In fact, light sleepers and nervous types may not appreciate the pitter-patter, scuffle, scrabble and thump of outdoor nocturnal critters such as raccoons. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a gateway to experience Santa Barbara’s glorious nature, want to expose your children to it, or are already a devout lover of the outdoors, you’ll be right at home at naturally green and eco-friendly El Capitan Canyon. “Peace and Quiet” may be a subjective concept, but if it’s wind, waves, and wildlife you’re seeking, nothing else would sound as sweet.–Laurel Miller, Contributing Editor

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