Come and discover the Gaviota Coast in Santa Barbara County!
Santa Barbara is one of my favorite destinations in Southern California. Since it is located about 100 miles from Los Angeles, I try to visit two or three times per year.
You guys know how I am. If I chose to keep going to a place, I make an effort to keep discovering it. I research places I have not seen yet.
And, that is how during my last visit to the area, I decided to stop by the northern county state beaches. I have driven around this scenic area tons of times but I have never had the opportunity to stop and take a good look at the views.
Well, things turned out better than what I expected. I discovered a stretch of shoreline full of magnificent views and fascinating history.
The Gaviota Coast is Southern California’s largest stretch of undeveloped coastline, containing approximately 50 percent of its remaining rural shores. Located in Northern Santa Barbara County, this 76 mile swath of pristine beaches and hilly landscapes passes through National Forest lands and five state and county parks.
Gaviota means seagull in Spanish. The soldiers that were part of the first land expedition in Alta California (the Portola Expedition) knew the area as La Gaviota since some of them killed a seagull there. The nickname ended up being more popular than the official name.
I have not explored the entire length of the coast yet. Therefore, this post concentrates on three State Beaches: Gaviota, Refugio and El Capitan.
Gaviota State Park
This is my favorite beach in this specific coast.
The park is divided in two units by Route 101 (the freeway). Both units of the park contain trails for hiking, mountain biking and horse riding. The east unit contains trails to the Gaviota Peak, hot springs and caves. The west unit includes the beach, a pier and a campground.
I spent more than an hour exploring the park’s beach. Cliffs are strongly caressed by the waves and the volcanic activity is very noticeable in the area.
You see layer after layer of rocks. I really enjoy taking a close look at formations like this.
I couldn’t resist and ended up knew deep into the water. Too bad I wasn’t prepared for a dip.
The waters in the park are part of the Kashtayit (place of the willow) State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA). California leads the nation and many parts of the world with its notorious Marine Conservation Areas. These enjoy different levels of protection and conserve marine habitat and diversity.
The beach is also known for the high train trestle that passes over it. We saw the Amtrak passing by like three times.
Gaviota Coast: Vista Point
This stop between Gaviota State Park and El Capitan State Beach affords great views of the coast and its cliffs. The stop has six interpretative signs explaining the history and notable facts of the coast.
Gaviota Coast: Refugio State Beach
Refugio State Beach offers excellent coastal fishing as well as trails and picnic sites. Palm trees planted near Refugio Creek give a distinctive look to the beach and camping area. Visitors can get a unique perspective of the coast line by taking the kayak tours offered by State Park Lifeguards.
The beach and the area take their names from Rancho Refugio. This particular ranch gained a place in history when Captain Hippolyte Bouchard sacked and burned it.
Bouchard sailed under the flag of the United Provinces of Rio de la Plata (known today as Argentina). To Californios, he was a pirate. To Argentineans, he is a patriot.
Bouchard attacked the Monterey Presidio, destroyed Rancho Refugio, spared the mission and presidio of Santa Barbara and proceeded raid Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Gaviota Coast: El Capitan State Beach
El Capitán State Beach offers visitors a sandy beach, rocky tidepools, and stands of sycamore and oaks along El Capitán Creek. It’s a perfect setting for swimming, fishing, surfing, picnicking and camping. A stairway provides access from the bluffs to the beach area.
The Anza expedition camped near this beach in 1776. The name Capitan probably refers to Juan Bautista de Anza, the expedition’s leader.
Anza’s expedition intended to find a more direct route to Monterey and to further colonize land (San Francisco was on sight). They also wanted to stop the advancement of the Russians through the north.
Father Pedro Font, who recorded the expedition, wrote the people of the expedition, some of whom have never seen the ocean, had much to admire when they reached the Gaviota Coast.
It is interesting to note that even thought De Anza reached San Francisco and claimed the area for the Kingdom of Spain, Russians kept peaking around the Spanish coast.
They had hunters from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska hunting for otters. The competition for pellets was fierce and got violent several times. The pellets were known as soft gold.
- Access to the beaches and parks cost $10 per day.
- Your “day pass” is good to enter all the beaches along the coast. This allows for easy beach hopping.
- Google each beach name for additional information about camping and onsite store hours.
- Beaches can get very crowded during summer months. Try to arrive early to grab a good parking spot.
- As I wrote above, this coast is largely undeveloped. If you want to spend the day at the beach, bring enough food, water and drinks. The nearest supermarket or restaurant can be located more than 15 miles away (depending on what beach you visit).
More of Santa Barbara
Places to Visit in Santa Barbara
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Ken Schneider says
I have visited Santa Barbara only twice, and always in the inhabited city, where the beauty of the homes and properties was very impressive. Too bad I never had time to appreciate the natural beauty you so effectively describe and illustrate so well with your wonderful images and narrative.
Thanks Ken! There is not doubt Santa Barbara is a beautiful city. However, the country is full of natural beauty. I love it so much there.
I have never been in this area and thoroughly enjoyed your photos and commentary. Would love to walk the beaches but I’m not sure which one. Why not several?
Carol, that is why I visited the three of them. I wasn’t sure what I was going to find but now nobody has to tell me.
Photo Cache says
Great information on what’s available with a trip to SB. Next year, I probably will take a closer look at the state and do some more road tripping. About time also to complete seeing all the 21 California Missions.
I want to visit the 21 Missions too. I still have to stop by some of them in Northern California.
I love the meaning behind the name of this coastline – such a pretty and well fitting name for a beach! These photos are stunning Ruth, I just love the blues of the sea and the sky there and those layers in the rocks are fascinating – I’m a big fan of geology so I would have spent pletny of time taking tons of photos there too. Beautiful shots! – Tasha
As a fan of geology, you would love these beaches. I know there is some level of volcanic activity in the area but do not have details. Would like to learn more. I find geology very interesting.
image-in-ing: weekly photo linky says
What a beautiful location – a photographer’s delight. (And I bet swimmers, surfers, sunbathers, and boaters love it as well!)
Thanks for linking up at http://image-in-ing.blogspot.com/2016/08/cats-consumate-contortionists.html
Yup! These places are a delight to people who enjoy different things. Photographers will have a blast but people who go to relax too.
The more rocks there are and the more rugged the terrains are for beaches, the lovelier they are in pictures. And i also love your shot with those purple grasses. I can imagine the endless subjects in that expanse of landscape!
There is a good mix of rocky and sandy beaches in the area. Therefore, there are nice areas to hit the water if that is the purpose of the visit. There are so many things to see around the beaches. I am mesmerized with the area.
I could be happy there! 🙂 I love cliffs that have been caressed by water. The rock formations are fascinating.
These beaches are not seen from the freeway. Therefore, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As you can see, the trip ended up being better than what I was expecting.
Megan - Truly Madly Kids says
Living in the UK, I have a real image of what California looks like – and this wonderful undeveloped scene isn’t it! How wonderful to see another side to how I imagine California – truly gorgeous. #mondayescapes
Glad I helped to broaden the idea you had of the state. California is many things. Unfortunately, it is mostly represented by its cities (which are great but they are not all the state has to offer).
Rhonda Albom says
This area looks very secluded. I must have driven right past it years ago.
Probably. The beaches are not that visible from the freeway.
What a beautiful place.
I know! Totally worth a visit.
What a beautiful beach! I’ve never heard of it!! It’s definitely beautiful and I love that under the pier bridge shot you took!! #WanderfulWednesdays
ps. My post is the image that didn’t load properly on the link up! It is safe!
Thanks Lolo. You have to visit these beaches one day.
Marcella ~ WhatAWonderfulWorld says
Wow, these shades of blue are beyond beautiful! 😀 I love the idea of keep returning to a place and getting to know it more and more, that can be really special.
A lot of times we do not have a long period to get away. Therefore, we have to go to a nearby place. Since we have been to most of them, there is no other option than to discover the place more in depth.
I visited Santa Barbara once but my husband and I spent the time on the pier. If I get an opportunity to return someday I’d like to explore its unusual shoreline after seeing your photos, Ruth.
I still have to explore some more places in the coast. We tend to go to the mountains.
Beautiful photos of the rock formations and the pier!
Gaviota is my favorite beach in the area. I am a fan of piers and am trying to visit all of them in California.
Different Shores says
I love that rickety old wooden pier! So good for photos but I never seem to ever find one like this, just the stone ones. I’d probably spend hours on and under it. I love the idea of beach-hopping and even better when the coast is undeveloped like this and you have to take your own supplies. This is a gorgeous guide; I hope I make it over there some day!
Well, we have a lot of piers here in California, so, it is not a problem to find them (in different states of repair). I like to visit beaches but I am not that fond of staying lounging around. That is why I prefer to move to another one.
Van @ Snow in Tromso says
I absolutely love the pier at the first beach! They make for such great pictures, don’t they? 😉
Yes, I love to discovers piers like that.
What a beautiful area. The definition of a rocky beach. The grass panoramic is stunning!
I love that shot. I had to include it one way or another.
This three beaches look lovely and I love thay they’re mostly undeveloped! That’s the way a beach should be 😀 Cali beaches don’t get much better than this. I’d love to spend a day (or more) exploring this area! Thanks for sharing and linking up 😀
I visited the beaches on spring. I think that is why they weren’t that crowded. I am sure these beaches get crowded in summer. The camping spots were full when we visited.
Trekking with Becky says
Vista Point looks like the best part! 😀
It was the first time I stopped by there even though I drove by more than 20 times. Not sure why I didn’t stop before.
Jackie Smith says
Well everything you tempted us with looks great but I’ll choose Refugio for my first visit if I ever get that way. Loved your photos on this one, they really captured a sense of place on the coast.
Oh, thanks Jackie! It is a pleasure to share this small slice of paradise.
Loved your pics.. i don’t know if I will ever visit… the best thing is enjoying your captures and your travel. 🙂
The greenery around seems soothing and the bridge looks mighty.
Sad, you couldn’t take the dip, it would have been enjoyable for sure.
Well, the thing is that the water is very cold is Southern California. Being from the Caribbean, I am not used to them.
budget jan says
There are some lovely photos here Ruth. I’ve never seen a train line over a beach before! I love the white cloud and tree on the beach side as well as the purple grasses. 🙂 That is a huge coastal area to explore – it will keep you exploring for ages. 🙂
Jan, when you think you know a place well you bump into a places like these. It gives you more desire to keep hitting the road.
Ruth Daly says
I love those rock formations – just stunning. Your photos really make me want to visit these beaches (which often happens – my list of places to go gets longer each week!). The info about the beaches is very interesting, too.
Well, I guess blog hopping does not help our wanderlust. I will be happy visiting the beach every day.
Lydia C. Lee says
The cliffs are beautiful…the beach a little treacherous!
I think we visited during low tide. Not sure how high the water gets when the tide increases. The part where people fish is slippery. You have to be careful there.
Kathy Marris says
Interesting rock formations and I love the old jetty. I think Vista Point with its jagged cliffs would appeal to me. I have also posted about Australian beaches today. 🙂
I read your post about the Australian beaches. So many pretty ones to choose from!
Thanks a lot Monika!
We drove the Big Sur coast many years ago from LA to San Francisco but there was a weather problem so we had to skip Santa Barbara and it’s coast. So I’ve never been. Your photos are beautiful – thanks for sharing and letting me experience it!
Oh I see. So bad you had to skip this part of the state. Well, at least you got to see Big Sur which can be considered the crown of the Californian Coast.
Ahh I miss California and Santa Barbara! Def one of my favorite CA cities and had so many fun memories during college! Love it! Thank you again for joining #FlyAwayFriday and looking forward to following along on each other’s adventures! Xo Chloe
Did you go to college there? I know a lot of people who have attended college in the city has problems getting over all the beautiful places in the city.
Kit Graham says
These photos make Santa Barbara look so peaceful!
Santa Barbara is a city with less than 100,000 residents. Compared to cities in Southern California it can be considered small. So, in general, I would say it is very peaceful.
After reading your post I feel like I already spent a day at Gaviota Beach. I know this place very well. We always pass it on our way to Santa Barbara, or Monterey, but never stopped to explore it like you did because we are always going somewhere else. I think it’s really wise to just do just what you did: stop and see what it has to offer. There is always so much more to every place than just what you can see from the car.
Anda, like you I have passed thru these beaches a lot of times. On this particular trip, I was determined to take a look at something new. I started by Gaviota Beach and continued along the coast.
Ashley @ The Wandering Weekenders says
I feel like we’ve been to a lot of the major coastal cities in California, but we have yet to make it to Santa Barbara. The California coast is just so beautiful, and I would love to be able to explore all of those parks! It all looks so beautiful, and I love your pictures of the docks!
You have to stop by Santa Barbara! I know the airport is not necessarily well connected to major cities but the city is a quick drive from Los Angeles. It should be a fun trip.
Oh my gosh! This is in SoCal?! I still have so much to learn about SoCal I guess! I’m definitely bookmarking this and I’ll give you credit for sure! 🙂 Thanks so much for joining us at #FlyAwayFriday – hope to see you back next week! xo
Yes, these are some of our beautiful beaches. I know there is a lot to see!
Sorry if this is a dupe comment – when I submitted, it told me I already posted the exact same comment before?! Anyway! I had no idea this place existed! Apparently I have so much to learn when it comes to SoCal! Thanks to you I’ll be visiting! Thanks for joining us at #FlyAwayFriday – hope to see you next week! xo
No problem. I am not sure why some comments go directly to the spam folder. I have to approve some of them.
Just came back across to say thank you for the most recent comments! – Tasha
Your welcome! I hope you had a great birthday!
Sally-Ann Brown says
I can’t believe that you have to pay $10 to visit the beach and a national park. We are so lucky here in Western Australia. But the rock formations were beautiful.
You have to pay when the beaches are managed by the state. Some beaches are even more expensive during the summer. But, we have beaches were access is free. The only thing is that there may not be facilities.
Marcelle Simone Heller says
I didn’t expect a coast in California to be so remote and empty. Where are all the people? Certainly a reason for me to explore Gaviota Coast. #WeekendWanderlust
The Central Coast is very peaceful and empty. Feels like an undiscovered gem most of the times.
All that blue is drawing me in! Gaviota Coast looks absolutely amazing and relaxing.
The good thing about California is that you always have that blue no matter the season.
Michelle | michwanderlust says
These places look absolutely gorgeous, Ruth! Great job finding these hidden gems. Don’t you love it when you discover something so pristine and beautiful that hasn’t yet been discovered by the mass tourism market?
I am with you! We need to keep places like these free from development. It would be heart breaking to see something like this go away or get ruined.
What a beautiful place! I never made it up to the Santa Barbara area when I lived in LA. My friends and I are actually road tripping down from Seattle in Sept so I’ll have to mention this beach for a stop!
Well, that road trip is the perfect opportunity to stop by Santa Barbara. I am sure you would like the city and the beaches.
Good post, your article is really nice, love it!
Thanks a lot!
Packing my Suitcase says
You always find amazing places! I never heard of this one, it’s amazing. It’s so secluded, and the beach looks so tempting. Beautiful photos too Ruth, I love it!
Happy to have you on #MondayEscapes 😉
Sometimes, you find great places when you are not looking. I can say finding these beaches was a lucky thing. I am glad I found them.
Lyn aka TheTravellingLindfields says
David and I love Santa Barbara. We have been there more than once but you seem to have discovered so much more than we ever have.
Some parts of the Santa Barbara Coast are unknown to me. I have plans to hit other places and keep discovering.
Paula McInerney says
We haven’t had a chance to explore Southern California, but know that we will one day. Will need to keep Gaviota Coast on the list.
It will be a delight to have you guys around. I am sure you will enjoy all the offerings.
Alan Brickey says
I want to give you a head’s up.
You have two photos of El Capitan State Beach labeled as Refugio State Beach. I originally found the photo on Wikipedia mislabeled and when looking for photos that are really of Refugio, I found it was your photo. They ought to be changed.
I might change the one on Wikipedia if I can find something suitable.
Just letting you know,