If you're thinking about going beach camping around Santa Barbara, this is the first thing you need to know: You won't find a single place where you can pitch your tent on the sand and walk to town.
There are some excellent places around Santa Barbara for beach camping. In fact, some of them are so close to the ocean that you can go to sleep listening to the waves — but they are miles away from the pier, marina, restaurants and shopping areas.
You also need to know about the Santa Barbara coast's unique geography: The normally north-south Pacific coast turns east-west as it passes the town. That creates a "banana belt" climate that makes it a pleasant place to camp at the beach all year — except during winter rains. It can also be confusing when you're sitting on the beach at sunset looking over the ocean and notice that the sun is on your left and not straight ahead.
If you're planning a Santa Barbara beach getaway that includes spending time in town, you can find out more about what you can do while you're there.
Reservations Are Essential
California's state parks reservations process can be confusing, and it's set up in a way that practically forces you to plan months ahead.
If you're planning a big trip in mid-summer, you need to be on the phone — or online — six months or more before you want to go.
All of the Santa Barbara area beaches below (except Jalama Beach) are California state parks. Technically, you can reserve at any state park as little as two days ahead. You might even manage to find a spot still open if you're flexible about dates.
But believe it or not, if you want to get a spot in the most popular beach campgrounds around Santa Barbara, you may have to reserve as much as seven months ahead. The process is tricky and requires some preparation but never fear. You'll find everything you need to know in the guide to making California State Parks reservations.
12 miles south of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria State Beach has a mile of sandy shore for camping. They have RV and tent sites (which can be hard to find in other places). At the park, you can go swimming, surf fishing, and tide pooling. This beach is also close to downtown Carpinteria, which makes it easy to get food and provisions and go out for a meal if you want to.
Gaviota offers beach camping and is 33 miles west of Santa Barbara, although it may feel to you like it's north of town. The campground is right next to the beach but located below a towering railroad trestle. It can sometimes be annoyingly windy at Gaviota, and the trains can be noisy. But it's good for fishing off the pier. You can rent an RV and have it delivered to your campsite.
You can bring your camper for beach camping at Jalama Beach, or rent a fully-equipped trailer. This is a scenic spot that many people love, and definitely a good place to get away from it all. Sunset magazine says it's one of the most beautiful campgrounds in California. On the downside, it's far from town and at the end of a 14-mile-long, curving road that takes 25 minutes to drive.
Jalama is the kind of place to go to and stay put. It's suitable for tent, trailer or RV camping. Unlike the other beaches in this guide, Jalama Beach is a county park.
Refugio State Beach is 20 miles west of Santa Barbara. The tree-shaded campground is just across a small road from the beach. It's so pleasant that Sunset magazine named it one of the best campgrounds in California. If you take your bicycle, you can enjoy the 3-mile-long blufftop bike path between Refugio campground and campground. You can rent an RV from 101 RV Rentals and have it delivered to the park.
El Capitan State Beach has the word "beach" in its name, and it's beautiful. Although it's a nice place, it doesn't meet the strict definition of beach camping because the campsites are above the beach on a bluff. It's on this list so you'll know what to expect and won't get fooled. And it might be just what you're looking for if you want to camp above the sand instead of on it.
Santa Barbara isn't the only place in California where you can go camping on the beach. You can also try Ventura County beaches and check out more places to go Southern California Beach Camping. If you're going north of Santa Barbara, check out Central Coast beach campgrounds.