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El Capitan State Beach

El Capitan Beach Trail
From El Capitan to Refugio State Beach is 6 miles round trip

Monarch butterflies and mellow beaches are the highlights of this coast walk north of Santa Barbara. Autumn, when the crowds have thinned and the butterflies have arrived, is a particularly fine time to roam the coast from El Capitan State Beach to Refugio State Beach.

El Capitan is a narrow beach at the mouth of El Capitan Creek. Shading the creek is a woodland of coast live oak and sycamore. During autumn, monarch butterflies congregate and breed in the trees here. (Ask park rangers where the monarchs cluster.)

The butterflies have a distinctive coloring—brownish-red wings with black veins. The outer edges of their wings are dark brown with white and yellow spots. In October and November, the woodland of El Capitan Creek offers the twin delights of falling autumn leaves and fluttering butterflies.

“El Capitan” refers to Captain José Francisco de Ortega, a rotund Spanish Army officer who served as trail scout for the Portolá expedition. When he retired from service to the crown in 1795, he owed the army money and offered to square things by raising cattle. The government granted him his chosen land: a coastal strip, two miles wide and twenty-five miles long extending from just east of Pt. Conception to Refugio Canyon. He called his land Nuestra Señora del Refugio, “Our Lady of Refuge.” Alas, Captain Ortega’s retirement was short-lived; he died three years later and was buried at the Santa Barbara Mission.

After the death of El Capitán, the Ortega family continued living in Refugio Canyon for many years. The mouth of
the canyon at the Pacific was the major contraband-loading point for Southern California during the early years of the 19th century when Spanish settlers were forbidden to trade with Americans. From the Ortega Ranch, hides, tallow, leather goods and wine were loaded onto Boston-bound sailing ships.

Smuggling activity came to an end in 1818 when French captain (some would say pirate) Hippoloyte de Bouchard sailed by. Bouchard, a mercenary hired by the Argentines, then struggling for independence against Spain, put ashore and burned Ortega’s ranch buildings to the ground.

Beach, bluff and bike trails link El Capitan and Refugio state beaches. Depending on the tide, you can usually travel up-coast along El Capitan Beach as far as Coral Canyon Beach. Then you can join the bluff trails or the bike path, which is also open to hikers, for the balance of the trip to Refugio Beach.

El Capitan and Refugio are popular beach campgrounds and nice places to spend a weekend.

Directions to trailhead: From Highway 101, 19 miles up-coast from Santa Barbara, take the El Capitan State Beach exit. Park in one of the day use areas; the park day use fee is also honored at Refugio and Gaviota state beaches.

The hike: Descend one of the paths or staircases to the shore, then head up-coast along the mixed sandy and rocky beach. Sea cliffs are steep here because they are constantly being cut back by wave erosion. You’ll pass wide Coral Canyon, its walls covered with beds of highly deformed light-colored shales.

At Coral Beach, the tides often discourage beach-walking, so head up to the bluffs and follow the bike path.

Approaching Refugio State Beach, you’ll see abundant kelp just offshore. If a breeze is blowing over the water, note how areas with kelp are smooth and kelpless areas are rippled.

Refugio State Beach, at the mouth of Refugio Canyon, is a rocky beach with tidepools. Turn around here, or continue beach-walking up-coast (it’s 10 more miles to Gaviota State Beach) for as long as time and tides permit.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at