Campground Reviews: Santa Barbara County, California

Courthouse News’ western bureau chief files his inaugural batch of campground reviews. First up: California’s Santa Barbara County.

Tired of waking up at campgrounds with a stiff neck and back in the cramped quarters of a Honda Element, I made the rash decision more than three years ago to spend most of my savings on a used truck and camper. Since then my trusty co-pilot Klaus the dog and I have been to dozens of campgrounds in seven states, from Southern California to near the U.S.-Canada border in northern Montana. We’ve camped on coasts, mountainsides, friends’ driveways and at RV parks.

We’ve survived breakdowns, camper doors that wouldn’t open, truck doors that wouldn’t close, plenty of dead batteries, a flood (in the camper) and multiple fires (outside). I’ve learned to overpack food, medicine and beer, to appreciate air conditioning and to roll slow in my studio apartment on wheels.

We debut a new series on campground reviews with a visit to Santa Barbara County in California.

Gaviota State Park

The Gaviota Beach campground in the foreground, with the day use area near the train trestle and the beach beyond. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

The campground at Gaviota State Park is little more than a parking lot with earthen plots that were dusty and brittle during a fall visit, but people don’t come to Gaviota for the amenities. They come for the beach and, to a lesser extent, the hiking.

Established in 1953, the park covers more than 2,700 acres from the Pacific shore to inland hills dotted with hiking trails, some of which lead to the private Hollister Ranch Community.

One of three state park campgrounds on a stretch of rural Santa Barbara County coast — El Capitan and Refugio are the others — Gaviota boasts 40 campsites for recreational vehicles up to 30 feet and one site for hikers or cyclists. Most share a concrete parking spot, with fire pits and picnic tables on the opposite sides, and space to pitch tents.

I managed to snag one of two remaining spots not long before a weekday visit in September 2020. Though currently closed due to Covid, reservations are required when the campground opens again during the pandemic. In non-pandemic times reservations are accepted but not mandatory.Though the restroom at the day use area between the campground and the beach remained open, the state closed the only one in the campground, stationing port-a-potties outside it, next to my site.

The campground lacks hookups, but water spigots are scattered throughout and gas generators are allowed, to the potential chagrin of tent campers. The sun powered my solar panels enough to keep the camper battery charged and my laptop, phone and tablet running. My Verizon smartphone had excellent 4G connection.

Amtrak trains rumble over a trestle between the campground and the beach multiple times per day, but the noise did not bother me.

On my first day there, a group congregated in one corner. Curious, I wandered over with the dog, welcome in the campground but not on the beach or hiking trails. A ranger stood in front of a hissing, covered five-gallon bucket. I don’t mean the bucket was hissing, but the rattlesnake inside was.

Plucked from a campsite, the detainee was a youngster, the ranger said. He planned to release it in backcountry also frequented by mountain lions.

Gaviota Beach and pier, bathed in the purple light of a California sunset. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

Approximately 30 miles from Santa Barbara, Gaviota is an excellent launch point for trips to that tony city.

That’s if you choose to leave the park. One of the hiking trails ends at Gaviota Peak. At slightly under 2,500 feet, it’s not the biggest mountain, but higher than the surrounding countryside and it provides excellent views on clear days. On the way back, weary hikers can soak in hot springs located not far from a trailhead up the road from the campground.

But the hiking can’t compete with the beach. Hemmed in on both sides by dramatic bluffs, the small south-facing beach is a haven for fishing, swimming and lounging. I ended my days enjoying stunning sunsets, surrounded by visitors from Asia, Europe and other parts of the United States,

Flying Flags RV Resort & Campground, Buellton

Flying Flags RV Resort and Campground in the Santa Barbara, California, town of Buellton offers a variety of camping and lodging options, from tents to RV pads to posh cabins. (Photo courtesy HighwayWestVacations.com)

The name Pea Soup Andersen’s is familiar to anybody who has driven past the plethora of billboards that dot the I-5 and the 101 between the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California.

The sign for the original location hangs high in the sky across the street from my site at Flying Flags RV Park in downtown Buellton. Friends I met at the park had the soup as kids and didn’t feel the need to again.

“It’s just pea soup,” said one of them, as if that settled the matter. And I supposed it did. We did not partake.

Andersen’s isn’t the only business near the large RV park. In an industrial area down the road, visitors can sip wine at a series of tasting rooms for some of the wineries scattered throughout Santa Barbara Wine Country, while Figueroa Mountain Brewing offering options for beer drinkers, and food. Though the park boasts multiple restaurants and bars they were closed during our pandemic-era visit, as was the Sideways Lounge — named after the 2004 movie — just outside the entrance. And no, I didn’t drink any Merlot during the trip.

Boasting 228 sites with full or partial hookups for RVs of any size, 125 tent sites and dozens of cabins, cottages and outfitted Airstream trailers for rent, Flying Flags feels more busy village than campground.

Since the majority of the premium sites were occupied, I opted for a less expensive area and had most of it to myself. My internet worked fine, but the same couldn’t be said in much of the park.

Unlike most campgrounds, Flying Flags charges different rates every day — a boon on slow days, but the prices can approach $100 on busy weekends. Reservations are accepted.

Dogs are allowed, and abundant. An off-leash dog park is a bonus.

With arguably the best amenities of any RV park I’ve visited, Flying Flags is a good launch point for day trips to the Danish-themed town of Solvang (4 miles) and other parts of Santa Barbara County.

Cachuma Lake Recreation Area

The marina at Cachuma Lake, Santa Barbara County, California. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

Renowned for largemouth bass fishing and stocked with rainbow trout, Cachuma Lake in the foothills outside Santa Barbara is beautiful to boot.

Created in 1953 with the construction of Bradbury Dam, the reservoir named after a native Chumash village covers 3,200 acres at 750 feet above sea level. With more than 400 sites, this campground also feels more like a village than a campground, but less cramped than Flying Flags.

Body contact is prohibited on the lake. That’s right: no swimming, improving the experience for anglers. Alas, I don’t own a boat, and my friends — in town for work — had to leave their Boston Whaler at home.

Most sites come with partial or full hookups, picnic table and fire pit. My site was largely concrete with some scruffy, parched earth in the back and a spindly tree. I had good 4G service on my phone.

Tents are allowed, and the county run park offers cabins and yurts for rent, a playground, full-service marina, general store, and a nature center. Reservations are accepted.Friendly rangers are available to answer questions during the day, though I wish they had been around when I arrived at night because a lack of clear signage made finding my site a challenge.

We spent part of a Sunday afternoon sipping wine in Los Olivos, a charming speck of a town a few miles down the road. The folks at Storm Wines treated us well. The sample menu included some excellent choices and they managed the socially distanced experience with aplomb.

We could have ventured into Santa Barbara, approximately 18 miles to the southeast, the same distance as Neverland Ranch — once home to the late pop star Michael Jackson — to the northwest.

Sunset over Cachuma Lake in Santa Barbara County, California. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

After a quick nap back at the camper I explored the nooks and crannies of the campground on my bike. Already planning a return visit — hopefully this time with a boat, or at least a rod — I made mental notes of the best sites, many of which did not include hookups.

Dogs are permitted, and there were plenty. On Sunday morning the park filled with the sound of football games blasting from the exterior televisions of some of the nicer RVs. Some campers lightheartedly talked smack to fans of other teams.

Mild weather makes the campground a year-round destination.

The occasional prevalence of annoying flies along with foxtails and burs that can get caught in the feet of unsuspecting dogs were a small price to pay for a relaxing weekend at a beautiful lakeside campground.

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