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Weekend Escape

A Hop Above Santa Barbara, Camp Cushy

At El Capitan Canyon, guests get close to nature without really having to rough it


GOLETA, Calif. — It's always a little sad when the great coast road strays inland. There you are, blasting north on the 101, passing Ventura, passing Santa Barbara, then, sigh, waving goodbye to the shoreline when the freeway veers inland at Gaviota Pass. This landscape is gorgeous too, but the beach is the beach.

So it felt a little like cheating one Friday last month when, with Santa Barbara fading in the rearview mirror and the great veer inland just a few miles off, up jumped our destination.

We were bound for the cabins of El Capitan Canyon, which sit by a creek, pool and upscale country store about 20 miles north of Santa Barbara, 115 miles north of Los Angeles. The canyon has no neighbors in the city sense of the word--just the vast acreage of Los Padres National Forest.

Once we pulled off the 101, parked, checked in and stepped into that country store, the cheating sensation only deepened. El Capitan Canyon, for years a rustic campground, has gone fancy.

These days the mile-deep canyon is devoted not to campsites, but mostly to 100 cedar cabins with electricity, beds and linens, kitchens, bathrooms and upstairs sleeping lofts for kids. (A few have fireplaces and spa tubs.) El Capitan State Beach, reachable via a freeway underpass, is a five-minute walk from the canyon entrance and is usually staffed by a lifeguard. Although the canyon's lodging offerings include 25 "deluxe safari tents" here and there on permanent platforms, this is camping in the same sense that Universal CityWalk is Los Angeles.

Not that I'm complaining. I'm a fan of wimp camping from way back. When a San Francisco hotelier opened the ritzy Costanoa campground near Half Moon Bay in 1999, I headed to Northern California within two months and was won over almost immediately. The new El Capitan is the same sort of largely domesticated animal.

Although I do have a few niggles (which will follow) about prices and logistics at the place, the big picture is a pleasant one: Since new owner Chuck Blitz took over in 2001 and reoutfitted the campground with all these comforts (and reduced its capacity from about 3,000 to about 300), this is a good place to bring your spouse or your children, sidle up to the Central Coast, sit around a campfire and creep up a ridgeline trail without getting, you know, dirty.

By the time my wife, Mary Frances, and I arrived, it was midafternoon on Friday, and we had been preceded by our friends Lois and Michael and their daughters, 15-year-old Rachel and 13-year-old Deborah. The first step was to drop off our bags and leave our car at the lot near the entrance; parking is forbidden farther up the canyon, and that contributes immensely to the countrified, kid-friendly feel of the place.

Though an employee told us the place was about 80% occupied, the area seemed largely empty. The sun filtered down through the leaves of old oaks and tall sycamores, a pair of hawks hung high overhead, and the canyon walls were upholstered with thick brush.

Our creek-side cabin cost more than others, but we figured we would pay for a little better atmosphere. On arrival we were assigned to No. 203. I immediately envied 204 and 205, where bushes and a bend in the creek provided more privacy.

Still, we had it pretty good: a clever cabin design that offered a view of trees and sky from the bed, a porch with a pair of chairs, a picnic table and fire ring out front, a microwave and coffee maker in the kitchen, fancy shampoo and conditioner in the bathroom, and a location not far from the cache of 25 one-speed beach-cruiser bicycles that are loaned free to guests on a first-come, first-served basis.

The price for the cabin will give true campers sticker shock: $172 per night (marked down from $215 because of our auto-club discount). That seemed a bit high to me, and I got crankier when we caught up with Lois, Michael and the girls. They had settled into a plain old "canyon cabin" that was virtually identical to ours but farther up the canyon and farther from the (nearly dry) creek, amid a slightly greater density of units. Their rate: $132.

Next time, we probably will go for a canyon cabin, and we may wait until fall, when the seasonal rates change. Nov. 1 to April 30, weekend rates are 15% to 20% lower than in summer. The cheapest option is a safari tent--no private bathroom and no sleeping loft--on a weekday in winter. Or, if you really want to camp and don't mind tussling for space through the state-park reservation system, (800) 444-7275, you can put up a tent at El Capitan State Beach for $12 nightly.

With birds in the trees and the sun in the sky, it is possible to put finances out of mind, and that's what we did Friday night. We made dinner, sat at a picnic table and gnawed on hunks of cheese while a blue jay flew tabletop sorties in search of bread crumbs. After dinner, we pulled out the guitars and sang around the campfire.

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