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 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.
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.