Adventures During Our Santa Barbara Campervan Trip Pt 1
Nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean sits Santa Barbara, California. While Santa Barbara is in many ways the urban center of California’s Central Coast – with a vibrant downtown, hip tech scene, and its own UC school – at its core, Santa Barbara remains a quiet beach town, sitting just beyond the traffic and Escape’s Los Angeles depot, 100 miles to the south.
Santa Barbara and the surrounding towns offer miles upon miles of hiking trails and dozens of world-class beaches. With its abundance of outdoor offerings, Santa Barbara lends itself very well to exploration by campervan: a night at the foot of Brush Peak can be followed by a day of surfing and sunbathing at El Capitan State Beach.
There’s a lot of ground to cover – literally and figuratively – so this post will be broken up into two parts. You’re currently reading Part 1, where we focus on Santa Barbara’s expansive camping and hiking scene. Stay tuned for Part 2, where I’ll tell you about some of the best beaches, restaurants, and activities around town.
Places To Park A Campervan In Santa Barbara
So you drove a campervan to Santa Barbara. Now where are you supposed to put the thing while you’re gallivanting about? If you’re looking to experience more of the town, with its many beaches and restaurants, there are two RV parks and a handful of motels to choose from. Of course, you probably didn’t rent a campervan so you could stay at a motel.
Venturing just a little inland up highway 154 places you almost immediately into the Los Padres National Forest, with its bounty of campgrounds – like Sage Hill, Los Prietos, and Paradise.
You’ll also find Cachuma Lake Recreational Area in the neighborhood, with its various campsites, hiking trails, and fishing spots. Setting up shop a little farther northwest also puts you in striking distance of the Santa Ynez Valley: wine country of the Central Coast.
If you prefer to stay along the water, El Capitan and Refugio State Beaches are both within half an hour of downtown Santa Barbara. Both offer RV and tent camping with unparalleled beach access. They also offer good surfing to beginners, with swells staying around 1-3 feet during the Spring.
As always, when camping, remember to leave no trace.
Hiking The Trails Of Santa Barbara
Whether you decide to set up shop in town, inland, or a little up the coast, you won’t be disappointed by your hiking options. Santa Barbara offers every kind of trail, from easy beach strolls to grueling, multi-thousand foot climbs up the front country peaks. (More on the former in Part 2.)
To start, no account of the Santa Barbara hiking scene would be complete without at least mentioning Inspiration Point. This trail is a wildly popular, well-maintained, easy-to-moderate 3.4-mile out-and-back. Inspiration Point offers stunning views of what seems like all of Santa Barbara County; sweeping from Summerland to the east, across all of Santa Barbara proper, and stretching all the way to Goleta to the west. On a clear day (which is most days) you can even see the Channel Islands, nearly 30 miles south into the Pacific.
For a more involved approach to Inspiration Point, consider Jesuita Trail. A moderate 6.8-mile out-and-back, Jesuita takes you from Stevens Park in the Upper State Street neighborhood right up to Inspiration Point. From there, you can turn around to complete the out-and-back, or head north and climb Arlington Peak, turning your moderate 6.8-mile hike into a difficult 12.2-mile climb, complete with scrambling sections. (Take note: while the old rule of thumb advises packing one liter of water per two hours of hiking, you can easily double this hiking Arlington Peak in hot weather; the trail includes several exposed stretches with no shade, where dehydration can really take hold.) If you’re up for the challenge, the view from Arlington blows Inspiration Point out of the water.
Panoramic view from Arlington Peak, featuring the author’s brother and girlfriend.
If you’ve chosen to set up shop in the Santa Ynez Valley or by Lake Cachuma, consider Snyder Trail, a moderate 7.2-mile out-and-back that starts practically steps from the Los Prietos Campgrounds. Snyder is friendly to both dogs and mountain bikes, and offers stunning backcountry views from the top of its 2,000-foot climb.
Meanwhile, if you’re still on the coast, the Aniso Trail connects the two beaches mentioned above – El Capitan and Refugio – with an easy, 5.5-mile roundtrip up and down the coastline. If you’re looking for more of a vantage point, both the Bill Wallace Loop (6.8-mile loop) and the Canyon & Ridgetop Trails (4-mile loop) offer easy-to-moderate climbs for a great view without having to leave the El Capitan State Beach grounds.
Wrapping Up Our Adventures In Santa Barbara
I hope this quick taste of Santa Barbara’s camping and hiking scene has piqued your interest enough to consider booking a campervan and adding this little beach town to your itinerary. But if not, stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll cover the highlights of Santa Barbara’s many beaches, diverse food scene, and things to do around town.