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HIKING

Despite park budget crunch, El Capitan Beach still beckons

June 22, 2003|John McKinney | Special to The Times

There's trouble in hikers' paradise.

Last year the nonprofit Trust for Public Land bought 2,500-acre El Capitan Ranch, just inland from El Capitan State Beach about 20 miles north of Santa Barbara. The beautiful property, purchased for $9.5 million with the help of private donors, was transferred to California for use as a state park. It contains about 15 miles of ranch roads, an instant trail system that runs along El Capitan Creek and ascends the ridges above El Capitan Canyon. Coastal views are stunning.

The problem: Parks officials recently announced that the state budget crisis is preventing the parkland from opening. They said $1 million in improvements are needed to make the former ranch ready for public use.

That estimate surprised conservationists and hikers, who had envisioned modest improvements such as a few portable toilets and a small dirt parking lot. They got even more irate when parks officials leased El Capitan Ranch back to the former owner until 2007, when the state presumably will have money to operate it as a park.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 25, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
El Capitan hiking -- The Hiking column in Sunday's Travel section incorrectly reported that state park officials said the California budget crisis had delayed the opening of proposed parkland near El Capitan State Beach in Santa Barbara County. Park officials said that the existing budget needed to be augmented to provide the funds; they did not refer to budget cuts.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 29, 2003 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 3 inches; 106 words Type of Material: Correction
El Capitan hiking -- The Hiking column in the June 22 Travel section ("Despite Park Budget Crunch, El Capitan Beach Still Beckons") incorrectly reported that state park officials said the California budget crisis had delayed the opening of proposed parkland near El Capitan State Beach in Santa Barbara County. Park officials said the existing budget needed to be augmented to provide the funds; they did not refer to budget cuts.

Now that the splendid backcountry remains closed to the public, where does that leave hikers? With three options: a beach walk, a bluff-top ramble and, if you're willing to splurge for a deluxe private campground, a walk in the woods.

The starting point for all three options is El Capitan State Beach, an exit off U.S. 101. Park in one of the day-use areas. The $4-per-car fee also covers your entrance to nearby Refugio and Gaviota state beaches.

Coastal trail

Beach, bluff and bike trails link El Capitan and Refugio state beaches. Tide permitting, you usually can travel north along El Capitan's beach as far as Corral Canyon Beach. Then you join the bluff trails or the bike path (open to hikers) for the rest of the trip.

El Capitan and Refugio are popular on weekends. Each has a camp store, so refreshments are available on both ends of your walk, three miles each way.

Walk in the woods

Another option is to leave the parking lot and follow a paved path a quarter-mile south, down the coast, to a grassy picnic area, then a bit farther to the mouth of El Capitan Creek. Walk inland on the signed nature trail and meander along the creek among lovely oaks and wonderfully contorted sycamores.

Eventually you'll reach the entrance station at the beach. Here you'll cross the road and join a footpath on the other side, a woodsy creek-side trail that ends at a railroad bridge. Total distance: 1 1/2 miles.

El Capitan Canyon

When El Capitan Ranch becomes part of the state park system, hikers will have access to the dramatic coastal slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Nine miles of the old ranch road loop to a ridgeline and connect to hiking routes in Los Padres National Forest.

Until then, El Capitan Canyon is accessible only to guests at a private campground of the same name. Trails run by the creek and rise to ridge tops for steep two- to three-mile workouts. Ocean views are fabulous.

El Capitan Canyon of decades past was a drive-in camp with scores of RVs parking door to door. A constant chorus of barking dogs added to the frenetic ambience of a campground crammed with as many as 3,000 people on busy weekends.

Enter a new owner and new management philosophy in 2001. Replacing the crowded camp are deluxe safari tents (summer rates starting at $135 a night) and cozy cabins ($185 and up) with beds and bathrooms. An upscale camp store is stocked with healthful foods and snacks.

The campground is car-free. Guests must park at the entrance and ride a shuttle to their accommodations. The no-pet policy means the canyon is quieter, and native wildlife is returning.

John McKinney offers more tips at www.thetrailmaster.com.

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