Summer’s around the corner. Turn off the mental noise pollution from televisions, the Internet and cell phones for a while and renew your love affair with the Central Coast.

Take advantage of the area’s many campgrounds and start planning with friends and family for complete relaxation in your own backyard.

View the Milky Way in the night sky. Name the stars, wildflowers, plants and birds, and find delight in hearing the babble of brooks. Poke around tide pools and rediscover the secret world of starfish, sea anemones, crabs, snails, octopi and sea urchins making their homes there. Sing around the campfire and have a s’mores-making contest.

The following is a guideline to some of the area’s most popular camping spots. Many of the parks also offer group campgrounds and environmental campsites in secluded areas. Be sure to check for pet restrictions and fees in advance, and follow all safety and open fire regulations. Always leave the area in better shape than you found it.


Before you go

If you are planning your trip to a California state park, you may make reservations by calling (800) 444-PARK or going online at Confirm that your vehicle can be accommodated, and don’t hang up until you have been given your reservation number. A nonrefundable reservation fee of $7.50 will be charged for each campsite.

The parks Web site also provides a camping reservation guide with a complete list of rules and guidelines, and a complete list of all state park campgrounds.

Be sure to bring flashlights and batteries; firewood, shovel and matches; hats and sunscreen, insect repellent and a well-stocked first aid kit. Don’t forget to tell friends or family where you are going and when you plan to return, in the event of an emergency.


Jalama Beach

Jalama is a favorite spot and has 117 campsites. Legend has it that the land near Jalama Creek was once a Chumash Indian settlement named Halama.

It’s a known spot for rock cod and perch fishing, and Jalama Point is cherished by surfers. Campers come to relax while others come to windsurf, fly kites and enjoy the long expanse of sand.

The Jalama store is well known for its breakfast burritos, chili and hamburgers, and the beach store leaves no beach lover without. It sells fishing licenses and gear, too.

There are 29 RV sites with electrical hookups, and dump stations are available. Campsites, assigned on a first-come, first-served basis (one site per vehicle) fill up fast. Group areas may be reserved in advance. Campers under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.

From Buellton, take Highway 101 south for approximately 14 miles. Then take exit 132 to Highway 1 toward Lompoc and drive about 14 more miles to the Jalama Beach turn-off. The road to the beach campground is scenic, long and winding, and one-lane in spots. Camping is $20 per day. Dogs are allowed for $3 per dog. For more information, phone (805) 736-6316.


Gaviota Beach

Gaviota State Park is about 16 miles south of Buellton off Highway 101. Gaviota means “seagull” in Spanish and is the only beach on the coast between Goleta and Pismo with a pier, making it a popular fishing spot.

It can be fun to walk the pier to see what everyone is catching, even if you don’t fish yourself. Gaviota is also the trailhead to the Beach-to-Backcountry Trail (see map), with Gaviota Pass Overlook a five-mile, round-trip hike with a 700-foot elevation gain. The loop via Overlook and Hollister trails is 8.5 miles round-trip, with an 800-foot elevation gain.

The trail to the Gaviota Wind Caves is 2.5 miles long and is semi-strenuous. The trail to Gaviota Peak leads hikers to the Gaviota Hot Springs (sulfur spring pools), and up to the peak, giving a view inland as far as the Santa Ynez Mountains and out to sea all the way to the Channel Islands.

If planned around low tide, hikers can walk the shoreline from Gaviota Beach to Refugio, and from Refugio to El Capitán or along the bike path that runs on the bluff along the coast. Gaviota has 39 campsites and a general store.

For camping reservations, phone (805) 968-1033. Campsites are $25 per night.


Refugio Beach

Refugio State Beach is known for the thick beach grass that surrounds the picnic area and stately palms that give it that classic California look. It’s a great fishing spot and has a nice sandy beach for playing, and great waves for swimming and bodysurfing. You can walk from Refugio to El Capitán at low tide, and head up the bluff to get around the rocks. There is a small store and a bike trail along the beach bluff. Campsites are $25 per night. Phone (805) 968-1033 for camping and other information.


El Capitan Beach

El Capitán State Beach has a popular sandy beach great for body surfing and swimming, and tide pools for exploring. Its many trees and a seasonal creek give it a spacious feeling, with more than 100 campsites on several levels.

There is a self-guided nature trail through the old sycamores adjacent the beach. Legend is that El Capitán is named after Captain José Francisco de Ortega. He was a Spanish Army officer who served as trail scout for the Portolá expedition. He was granted a strip of land two miles wide and 25 miles long from Point Conception to Refugio Canyon on which to raise cattle to repay a debt.

You can walk the beach from El Capitán to Refugio and vice-versa, depending on the tide. There is a small store. A bike trail along the bluff leads to Refugio, also. Sites are $25 per night. Phone (805) 968-1033 for more information.


Carpinteria State Beach

Twelve miles south of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria State Beach boasts a mile of sand, gentle waves and lots of tide pools. It also has a visitor center with displays of marine life and Chumash history. The beach can be walked all the way into the quaint town, to the City Bluffs Park, or to the Chevron Oil Pier. Carpinteria has a harbor seal preserve and rookery, with pups through May, so bring your binoculars. Seal Watch docents will be onsite to answer questions.

To get there, take Highway 101, exit at Casitas Pass and take Casitas Pass Road into Carpinteria Avenue. Make a right at the signal and a left on Palm, and go to the end of Palm Avenue. For information, phone (805) 968-1033. No dogs are allowed.


Pismo Beach

Now officially known as the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area, Pismo Beach is famous for clams and dune buggies. Legend is in the 1930s and ’40s, the dunes were filled with free souls, artists and others, who believed the dunes had a creative energy vortex and called themselves "Dunites.”

The dunes today are home to fragile plants and wildlife. Recreational vehicles are allowed in a limited area. Some clamming is still allowed with a fishing license. Camping is allowed south of post 2 on the beach and in the open dune area.

Vault toilets and chemical toilets are provided, but water-delivery and holding-tank pump-out services are available on the beach. Beach camping is recommended for 4-wheel drive vehicles only.

Post 2 is one mile south on the beach from Pier Avenue and marks the beginning of the Off Highway Vehicle area. All OHVs must be transported to this point before off-loading and must have a green sticker. Fenced and signed areas are closed to vehicular use, either because the property beyond is private or because the area contains sensitive plant and animal life.

For camping information, phone Reserve America at (800) 444-7275. Campsites are available by reservation year-round and can be made from 10 days to six months in advance. To get there, from Buellton take Highway 101 north to Grover Beach and take the Grand Avenue exit to Oceano Dunes.


Big Sur

In the Big Sur area off Highway 1 are several campgrounds available only on a first-come, first-served basis. About an hour north of Cambria, Pfeiffer Big Sur and Limekiln are closed this year due to a horrific fire last season.

This year, campers can only use the Andrew Molera campground, which has 24 camping spots. The Big Sur River flows through the park. There are no showers and no dogs are allowed. It’s about a one mile walk to the beach.

Phone (831) 667-2315 for campsite availability and other information. To get there, take Highway 101 north to San Luis Obispo, take the Highway 1 exit, and head north up Highway 1 past Cambria.


Cachuma Lake

Cachuma Lake Reservoir is right off of Highway 154, just east of Santa Ynez. It has many RV sites, as well as tent sites in a wooded oak-land setting. Cachuma Lake is a very popular fishing spot for trout, bass


and catfish. It also has a very extensive nature center with interactive displays and contests for kids, campground roads good for bike riding, and a fishing dock especially designed for those with disabilities. No swimming is allowed as it is a public water source.

Nature cruises around the lake are offered and require reservations. A Cachuma Lake boating permit (annual or day-use) and current state registration (decal and number) must be displayed, and canoes, kayaks and rafts are not allowed. Boats are also available for rent. Quagga mussel regulations are in effect. Phone (805) 686-5054 for more information and reservations.


Santa Margarita Lake

With thousands of acres of unspoiled open space, Santa Margarita is home to countless species of plants and wildlife. Fishing is reportedly very good, and a swimming pool is open from Memorial Day through summer (similar to Cachuma, swimming in the lake is not allowed because it is a public water source). In addition to 60 primitive campsites (meaning no RV hook-ups), there are group sites and an overflow site. There are also five backcountry and lakeside campsites which are only accessible by foot, horseback or boat, one with horse set-up.

To get there, take Highway 101 north to the Highway 58 exit into Santa Margarita. At the end of town, turn right onto Santa Margarita Lake Road (Pozo Road) and drive approximately six miles to Santa Margarita Lake Road (do not turn left onto Highway 58). Camping is $23 per night and the ranger reports there is availability Memorial Day weekend through summer as of press time. Phone (805) 788-2401 for camping information.


Lake Lopez

Lake Lopez is located 10 miles east of Arroyo Grande, with 1,000 acres of lake for fishing and boating. Lopez has secluded coves with warm water and good wind ideal for windsurfing, and tranquil waters for canoeing at its upper arm. There are 354 campsites, a marina with a launch ramp, store and tackle shop, and boat rentals.

The lake was created in 1969 to provide domestic water for the Five Cities area of the Central Coast. Lake Lopez has free activities for the family every weekend, including a full moon nature hike May 8.

Tent site fees are $23 per night and sites with RV hook-up are $26. Pets are allowed at $3 each per day. Mustang Water Slides is located at Lopez with two, 600-feet-long curving waterslides, a 38-foot drop inner tube ride and a tot pool with mini-slides.

To get there, take 101 to Arroyo Grande and exit at Grand Avenue. Head eight miles east and follow the signs. You can view the campgrounds and make reservations online at or call (805) 788-2381.

Lake Lopez’s 8th annual trout derby is May 2 and 3, with a grand prize of $3,000. Entry fee is $45 (pre-registration encouraged).


Zaca Lake

Zaca Lake is a privately owned, 20-acre mineral spring lake surrounded by 450 acres of wooded, mountainous land adjoining the Los Padres National Forest. There are 14 small cabins available to rent for $168 on weekends ($148 during the week). A few larger cabins are available that sleep from four to 16 persons, and range in price from $200-$450. There is availability through summer at this point.

Zaca Lake is approximately 20 miles north from Santa Ynez, off Highway 101. To make reservations, phone (805) 688-5699 or send an e-mail message to


Figueroa Mountain

Figueroa, Davy Brown, Nira, Cachuma, Ballard Camp and Sage Hill campgrounds are in the Los Padres National Forest in the Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area. Hiking, fishing and wildflowers are the main attractions. Spring flowers include blue lupines, chocolate lilies, golden poppies and the scarlet Indian paintbrush. Fishing is reportedly good through May in Davy Brown and Manzana creeks.

A U.S. Forest Service Adventure Pass is required, which is $5 per day or $30 annually, and are available at the USFS office in Goleta or Big 5 sporting goods stores.

To get there, take Highway 154 to Los Olivos, turn onto on Figueroa Mountain Road, and travel about 12 miles to Davy Brown Campground.

Davy Brown is a no-charge camp with 13 sites and is open all year. It is close to a number of hiking trails and an adjacent creek flows throughout the summer. To learn more about the natural history of the area, take the Aliso Canyon Trail. It follows Aliso Creek, and then climbs to the top of the ridge.

You can continue 1.5 miles to Upper Oslo Campground or follow the three mile loop and return to Sage Hill. The trail is steep in places, but the climb offers wonderful views. Self-guided brochures are available at the trailhead or at the ranger station.

The Figueroa campground has 32 sites and water available. This is a no-charge campground set in a stand of pine and large manzanita. You can see the night sky contrasted against the lights of Santa Ynez and the glow of Santa Barbara in the distance. The campground is close to a number of hiking trails.

The Nira campground is also free, and has 12 sites, but drinking water must be brought in or obtained at Davy Brown Campground. Manzana Creek flows beside the campground and is a popular attraction (low flow in the summer).

Nira is at the end of the road and the starting point for backpackers and equestrians visiting the San Rafael Wilderness, where the only ways to travel are by foot or horseback.

The Cachuma campground on Happy Canyon Road is also free and has six units. Cachuma is set among large oaks in a narrow, shaded, canyon.

Ballard trail camp is accessible only by foot or horseback and contains two units.

Reach Wendy Thompson at



Author’s note: This is by no stretch of the imagination a full list of all camping options available in the area. It is meant to be an inspiration and guide.


Do you have a local favorite hiking or vacation spot you are willing to share with others? Contact the Santa Ynez Valley Journal with your story suggestion for the Our Own Backyard section, (805) 688-1694.