in El Capitán State Beach
On the beautiful coast west of Santa Barbara, you’ll find El Capitán State Beach, a 2,600-acre California State Park with a large campground and hiking trails. The park’s top draw is the beach, and while you can drive right up to a strip of surf-friendly sand, you may also want to stretch your legs on the park’s short nature trail. The Nature Trail loops through a lush sycamore grove bordering El Capitán Creek to approach the rocky shore at the end of El Capitán Point. This easy stroll is just 0.35 miles long, so it will only take about ten minutes to hike this level loop (unless you decide to picnic along the way or explore more of the scenic waterfront).
The nature trail begins near the main entrance of El Capitán State Beach, alongside a dirt road that heads down to the beach. Don’t take the road. Instead, take the dirt trail heading southwest next to the large sign labeled Nature Trail.
Cross a footbridge to enter a thriving woodland dominated by large sycamores. About 250 feet from the trailhead, you will come to a split in the trail that marks the start of the loop. You can proceed in either direction at this point.
Turning left to hike the loop in a clockwise direction, you will pass through more impressive sycamores with tangled branches crisscrossing the trail. Beneath the sycamores, you’ll spot pops of color for nasturtiums that bloom in oranges and reds. The trail comes up alongside El Capitán Creek, where you can rest on a bench and watch the small creek flow between the trees.
The Nature Trail leaves the creek and the forest to head toward the beach. Your path will narrow temporarily to pass through some tall brush, and this is the only part of the loop that is not wheelchair-friendly. When you reach the ocean, turn right on a wide dirt trail through the grass at the edge of the rocky shoreline. The trail is lined with a few barbecue grills and picnic tables where you can take a break and watch waves crash against the boulder-strewn beach. On the inland side of the trail is a grassy field that is big enough to pass a ball around in.
The loop is not along the ocean for long, and you will soon reach a junction with a trail heading back into the forest. If you continued straight, you could walk along the beach up to the main parking area or to the dirt road that ran alongside the trailhead for the Nature Trail.
To complete the loop on the Nature Trail, turn right at the junction, hiking along the side of the field and back into the forest of giant sycamores. Weave through the impressive trees to reach the junction where the loop began. Turn left and hike back over the bridge to the trailhead.
Dogs and bikes are not allowed on this trail. There are numbered markers along the trail, so check with a ranger at the entrance gate to see if you can get a trail guide to bring on your hike. No permit is required to hike the Nature Trail, but El Capitán State Beach has an entrance fee of $10 per day (as of 2017). If you are camping at El Capitán State Beach, you will not need to pay an additional entrance fee.
To get to the trailhead: From Highway 101 west of Santa Barbara, take exit 117 for El Capitán State Beach Road. Turn south at the end of the offramp (toward the ocean) and drive a short distance to the park entrance. The trailhead is on the left just inside the park. Drive straight to the day use parking area and then walk back to the start of Nature Trail.
Trailhead address: 2 El Capitan State Beach Road, Goleta, CA 93117
Trailhead coordinates: 34.460105, -120.023608 (34° 27′ 36.37″N 120° 01′ 24.98″W)
You may also view a regional map of surrounding Central Coast trails and campgrounds.
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