Review: El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara, CA

Glamping at El Capitan Canyon, Santa Barbara
••• El Capitan Canyon

For families who like camping but don't love roughing it, glamping is the best of both worlds, delivering the sounds of nature, the smell of campfires and plenty of free-form fun—but in a hassle-free setting with comfy beds, running water, and easy access to meals.

Set about 20 minutes north of downtown Santa Barbara, El Capitan Canyon is a “glampground” offering no-fuss camping with rustic style and plenty of fun for the whole family.

Located on an ancient celebration site for California’s Chumash tribe, El Capitan first opened as a campground in 1970 and later reopened as an upscale glamping destination in 2002. Today the 350-acre property—with 161 cabins or tent cabins, a general store, café, and mellow resort-like activities—exudes what people love about the Central Coast region of California: mild weather and a countryside that rolls right up to the beach.

Outside your cabin or tent, you’ll hear blue jays tweeting and woodpeckers pecking, and see chipmunks, squirrels and even deer wandering the grounds.  As a bonus you get a beach vacation, as El Capitan State Beach is right across the street. And while this is not budget lodging, it still feels like a solid value.

El Capitan attracts a lot of families—and even family reunions and multi-family groups—where each family can each get its own tent cabin or cabin, play at the beach or pool by day, then gather together by the fire pits at night.

(The prime ages for kids here is grade school and up.)

Moreover, the place delivers comfort in all the right ways. Cabins come equipped with pretty much all the amenities you otherwise might stress over rounding up for a roughing-it-style trip: linens, paper towels, dishwashing liquid, and toiletries.

Our cabin—the Corral Loft, with a  separate bedroom and sleeping loft—featured a living room with love seat and armchair, a kitchen table that can fold out to seat four,  and a little Franklin stove. The bedroom had a duvet-topped king bed with two end tables and a small closet, while the upstairs loft had three twin mattresses set on the floor, with bundles of linens for dressing them. Both the bedroom and living area had ceiling fans, so you can make the most of the cross currents if you open the windows. The kitchen has a good-sized fridge (bigger than a dorm fridge, but not quite full-size), a microwave, coffeemaker, phone and clock radio (the towels and toilet paper were even folded with hotel-style flourishes). As a nod to roughing it, there is no TV,  and only some wifi—a little spotty, so everyone can feel just a little off the grid.

Outside, you have a picnic table and fire pit, and a front porch with folding chairs that you could bring down to the campfire. Indeed, while you can certainly cook over your fire pit, you can easily also dine on excellent take-out next to your fire pit. The Market Café serves three delicious meals, which you can either eat in the café, outside on the picnic tables, or back at your own cabin.

They’ll even put together a dinner kit for you to cook yourself and, as this is wine country, the market also carries a nice selection of local wines.

The main community area, a short walk from the market, has a pool (ranging in depth from 3.5 to 8 feet), a playground and a volleyball net. You can borrow beach-cruiser bikes to take to the beach or just pedal around the property.

During the whole year, El Capitan Canyon offers a range of complimentary activities, such as the guided Saturday walks to the neighboring llama farm as well as morning yoga classes, movie nights, and stargazing talks. There’s even an on-site spa cabin where you can get treatments such as hot-stone massages.

While El Capitan Canyon embraces its glamping label, the vibe is still happily mellow. Your cabin neighbors will likely be friendly, offering to share marshmallows or asking to borrow a corkscrew.

  And while the Santa Barbara area has been known to attract movie stars, the local celebrity at El Capitan Canyon is “Scarface,” the mellow black cat who lounges by the café happily accepting head scratches from strangers.

Best rooms: There are three basic lodging options: tent cabins, yurts, and cabins. The tent cabins, with screen windows and zipper flaps, come with either a queen or two double beds, a lantern and access to shared bathroom and shower buildings, while nearby yurts have electricity and feature a double bed plus a twin bed and an additional twin-with-trundle bed.

The cabins come in several categories, but they all offer the most perks, whether you choose the all-bunk-style cabins that sleeps 6 or the larger Corral and Safari cabins with separate bedrooms and sleeping lofts (a good middle ground are the moderately-priced Canyon Loft and Canyon Suite cabins, which have a separate bedroom and either a small sleeping loft or a pull-out couch, and start at $350 a night in the summer). All cabins come with kitchenettes with fridge, microwave and coffee maker.  The Corral Loft cabins are newest, and tucked away at the back of the property. They feel nicely away from it all, but are about a one-mile walk to the café and store, a factor if you have small kids.

Best season: While El Capitan Canyon is open year round (the Santa Barbara area stays temperate in all seasons), the high season is summer—especially weekends, which can book up months ahead of time and feature the most activities, like outdoor concerts and movie nights.

The tent cabins cost $170 a night in the summer  and $145 during the winter. Yurts cost $225 in summer and $175 in winter. Cabins cost a bit more, ranging from $245 to $795 a night for the deluxe, two-bedroom Safari Cabin. During the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, rates fall by about $20 a night, while “quiet season”  (December through February) brings the cabin rates to a starting point of $175 a night. 

Visited: July 2016

Check rates at El Capitan Canyon

Disclaimer: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.