A Long Walk on the Beach — El Capitan to Refugio in Santa Barbara


El Capitan State Beach to Refugio State Beach

Date Hiked: September 6, 2011
Best Season: Autumn Spring Summer Winter
Check Trail Conditions: El Capitan State Beach (805) 968-1033
Notes: *We only made 4.4 miles due to an injury.
  • Distance: 6 miles round-trip*
  • Elevation Gain: 50 feet or so
  • Route Type: Out-and-Back
  • Trail Type: Sandy beach and paved bike trail
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Labor Day week (also my birthday week), we headed up to Santa Barbara for some hiking and relaxation at the Old Yacht Club Inn, where we had gotten a really nice discount through Spreebird.com (which used to be Screamin’ Daily Deals).  On our first day, we hiked up to Seven Falls, above the city.  It was a great hike, but the exposed portions of the trail were very hot, and the temperatures the next day were supposed to be even hotter–reaching 110 degrees inland, where most of our other potential hikes were located.

We decided to tour the La Purisima Mission State Historical Park up by Lompoc in the morning, and hit Solvang for lunch and possibly some shopping, before deciding whether we had time to do a coastal hike/walk somewhere on the way back.  It was every bit as hot as we feared it would be, and Solvang was downright miserable, so we left quickly after lunch, and headed back down the coast.

I had identified a popular trail between El Capitan and Refugio State Beaches, which was right on the beach, so we wouldn’t have issues with the heat.  To do the complete round trip is between 5 or 6 miles, depending on where you start and finish, but we figured if we got tired or sore (still feeling the hike from the day before a bit), we could stop anywhere along the way and turn around.

Parking lot at El Capitan State Beach.

We turned into El Capitan State Beach, about 20 miles north of the City of Santa Barbara, and paid the fee ($5 per car, I recall) to park.  There is a nice sized, well-regarded campground here, and a day use parking lot, though the state park website today warns that you should call (805) 968-1033 to check on the current status of the park.  Not sure why that is, at is isn’t listed on the official state park closure list, but it never hurts to do your research.  In the parking lot there was also a camp store, which was well-stocked with camping necessities and various beverages, snacks, and other beach staples.

Trailhead to beach from parking lot.

In the western corner of the parking lot, just to the left of the store, you’ll find an interpretive sign and the trailhead/pathway/stairs to the beach.  Head on down to the sand and go west (right).

The trail down to the beach, as seen from the parking lot.

Trail to the beach.

There is really not official trail for the first half of this walk/hike.  You merely head up the sandy beach towards Refugio.  During lower tide periods, there is plenty of dry sand to walk on, if you so choose.  You may also choose to walk amongst the waves and on the wet sand, but see the note on footwear below for a note of caution before you do.

On this particular day, the beach wasn’t crowded at all (but we didn’t expect it to be, on a mid-week day after Labor Day), but the few people that were on the beach were almost all clumped near the parking lot and lifeguard towers, and as we headed west, there were hardly any people to be seen.  It was a beautiful day, with nice views of the Channel Islands offshore, blue waters to our left, and steep bluffs to our right.  And while it was over 100 degrees inland, it was incredibly pleasant walking on the beach.

View of the "crowded" part of the beach to the left.

View of the "trail" portion of the beach to the right.

Wide, sandy stretch of beach trail with cool bluffs alongside.

More sandy trail, this time with birds!

One of the potential stairways/paths up the bluffs to the campground area.

It wasn't always easy to stay dry, but we didn't really care (see footwear note below).

Didn't notice when we first took the picture of this sand castle, but doesn't it look like a happy monster with his hands in the air?

And this side looks like an evil sand monster! Don't know if this was intentional, or simply a result of wave and wind erosion...

Approaching the final passable point.

Continue along the beach for roughly a mile and a half.  In an area called Coral Beach (or Canada de Corral on my Delorme GPS Maps), we saw a family on the beach near a trail up the bluffs, but walked on by them to see how far we could get on the beach, rather than the bluffs.  Unfortunately, we only made it around the next corner before we realized that the water was too high on the bluffs to continue.

Oh hey! A perfectly decent path up the bluffs! We ignored this. You shouldn't.

Cool rocks around the last point.

More rocks, less beach!

Yeah, I think we'll turn around now...

Rather than double back, we decided to scale the bluffs on a make-shift path in the final little cove we were in, and managed it without too much difficulty, but it would have been a difficult descent, and we really recommend you take the established path up the bluffs at the end of Coral Beach (but perhaps after exploring around the point as far as you can go, because it was cool back there).

Scaling the bluffs on our unimproved, unadvised, improvised path.

Kinda steep. And very unimproved.

A look back down into the cove we climbed out of.

The not very improved path from the bluffs to the bike trail.

Whether you take the established path or the improvised path, you will soon come to the paved, striped Pacific Coast Bike Path that runs along the coast from Canada to Mexico, though only certain stretches of this are separated from vehicle traffic like this piece is.

Now THAT'S a trail! The Pacific Coast Bike Trail, to be precise.

Random view from the trail to the beach and bluffs.

The brush along the trail is often over head height, preventing any views in some areas, but at other times, there are great views of the coast and the beach.  There were a couple of dirt side trails that led out to nice promontory points that had particularly good views.  This trail is also almost immediately adjacent to the train tracks, which you might not even notice until a train passes by 10 or 20 feet away!

High brush alongside the trail.

Cool dude fishing on the cool bluffs overlooking the cool ocean.

Train! It's quite close to the bike trail through here...

Colleen’s feet were hurting too much from the grinding of the sand in the wet sandals (see note on footwear below) for us to make it all the way to Refugio, so we had to stop short of our goal after about 2.2 miles.  We had only gone about a half mile on the paved trail, and were only about a half mile from Refugio Beach, but that meant an extra mile round trip, and we knew from experience that if her feet were torn up already, adding another mile to the distance was not a good idea.

We discussed whether to take the paved path all the way back to El Capitan, or whether to return to the sand, and decided that if we went back on the sand, she could take her sandals back off and walk barefoot the rest of the way, which was not an option on the paved trail. The correct path (as opposed to the bogus one we took up) down the bluffs back down to the beach was just past where we’d come up and was well-marked and easy to find.

Heading back towards the trail down to the beach--you can see the white sign at the entrance in the distance.

Sign and trail entrance up close.

Sign up really close. REMAIN CALM!!!!

Relatively steep, but relatively improved, trail back to the beach (the one we skipped earlier).

As we returned back down the beach, we noticed the tide had gotten visibly higher, and was coming much closer to the bluffs, and in quite a few places, was coming all the way up to the cliff faces.  We regularly had to time quick dashes between waves on the narrower portions of the beach, but it wasn’t quite high enough to be a serious danger.  If you think about it, you might check on the tides ahead of time, and try to hit it before low tide, or at least avoid an extra high tide or storm surges that might make the beach disappear entirely.

Back on the beach. Note that I am carrying both pairs of sandals on my backpack, because that's the kind of chivalrous guy I am...

Look back east towards where we started--water is a bit higher!

Yeah, definitely higher water. But still some sand.

And now it is gone. Time your movement down the beach between waves, if you care.

Another shot of the intermittent trail.

By now the sun was getting much lower on the horizon at our backs (this is one of those weird California beaches that runs east-west, even though it seems like all beaches should run north-south), giving us some different colors and shadows than we had on the trip out.

Pretty sunset-ish light and colors behind us.

Look back from the trail up to the parking lot.

While we wished we could have made it all the way to Refugio, it was a relatively arbitrary stopping point, and one could easily go further or turn around sooner, like we did, and still have a good time.  We really enjoyed the walk (despite the sandy sandal issue) and would recommend it to others looking for something that doesn’t require any special equipment and can be done on even the hottest days.

A note on footwear:  We wore our hiking sandals initially, and made the mistake of letting the waves wash over our feet.  This resulted in wet, sandy sandals that started to grind the skin off our feet.  We decided fairly quickly thereafter to ditch the sandals and just walk barefoot across the sandy portion of the trail, which was great!  You always have to worry a bit about oil balls on your bare feet in Santa Barbara, but we didn’t have any issues.  When we left the beach for the paved bluff path later, we put our sandals back on, but they were so wet and sandy that they kept rubbing our ankles and toes to the point that even with moleskins, Colleen finally couldn’t take it any more and we had to turn around before reaching our goal.  My recommendation is to start in bare feet, carrying your sandals.  Put on dry sandals when you climb the bluffs, and then take them back off when you return to the sand later.  You could also wear hiking boots and socks the whole time and just do everything in your power to stay dry, but what would be the fun in that?

Boring and probably inaccurate (most of the hike was literally AT sea level) elevation profile of the walk, but you can click through to read it better if you want.

View Beach Hike El Capitan to Refugio State Beach in a larger map


  1. Shayna says

    I have always wanted to go here during the summer and camp out on the beach after lots of hiking in the area. I’ll have to plan this sometime soon, I feel it would be a ton of fun. I go to Santa Barbara a lot for family time and hiking is always on the agenda. Inspiration Point and Cold Springs trail are some of my personal favorites. Everyone should check them out! I also love staying at the South Coast Inn (www.goleta-hotel.com) in town as well. Great hiking hotel and beyond luxurious!

  2. says

    Thanks for the suggestion on Cold Springs and the Inn.  We’ll definitely go back again.  We were originally heading for Inspiration Point on the day that we did the Seven Falls, but it was so hot, and the trail was so barren after the fires, we decided to stay on the stream instead.  http://www.greeneadventures.com/2011/12/20/hiking-the-seven-falls-trail-in-santa-barbara/ 

  3. Trevor says

    I’ve had some excellent times camping on this beach with friends when I was in college at UCSB. Stumbling across this has just made me miss all those great times I had. I’ll have to go back soon and do it again or just visit Santa Barbara in general! Fun place an a ton of things to do so it’s always a fun time. You’re blog is good too by the way, I’m an avid hiker so I enjoyed reading your countless articles. I have to say if you are looking for a good place to stay that isn’t too expensive (other than camping of course!) the Sandman Inn (www.thesandmaninn.com) is a great choice. Modern and in a good location. Can’t beat the pricing! 

    • Greene Adventures says

      Thank you for the kind words, and thanks for the tip!  Several of my favorite people are Gauchos, and we’ll definitely be back as well.

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