California State Parks Launches General Plan Update for El Capitán, Refugio, and Gaviota

State Parks General Plan Update for El Capitan, Refugio and Gaviota beaches (courtesy)

California State Parks has announced a comprehensive General Plan Update for three of Santa Barbara County’s most cherished coastal parks: El Capitán State Beach, Refugio State Beach, and Gaviota State Park.

This ambitious initiative, informed by extensive community input, aims to modernize park infrastructure, adapt to climate change impacts, and enhance recreational opportunities while preserving the parks’ natural, cultural, and tribal resources for future generations.

Located off Highway 101, approximately 20-30 miles north of Santa Barbara; El Capitán, Refugio, and Gaviota collectively offer unique recreational experiences. These destinations are not just popular among tourists from across the state, but they are also vital to the residents of nearby cities and towns like Lompoc and Santa Ynez, providing crucial coastal access, developed day-use, and overnight camping facilities.

The need for the General Plan Update has been driven by significant changes experienced by the parks since the adoption of their original plans in 1979. The guidance provided at that time is now considered outdated due to several pressing challenges, including severe winter storm damage, sea-level rise and other climate change impacts, aging infrastructure, and increased recreational demand.

This initiative marks a significant step forward in preparing the areas for the challenges and opportunities of the next thirty years. The plan is committed to aligning with state-wide sustainability goals, improving park resilience, safeguarding park resources, and ensuring the safety and enjoyment of visitors for generations to come.

General Plan Process Diagram

El Capitán State Beach

El Capitán State Beach, encompassing a sprawling 2,648 acres of which over 2,500 acres lie inland of U.S. Highway 101 and abut Los Padres National Forest, offers an idyllic coastal retreat. Acquired in 2002, this scenic area is celebrated for its sandy shores, intriguing rocky tidepools, and verdant sycamore and oak groves along El Capitán Creek, presenting a variety of recreational opportunities such as swimming, fishing, surfing, hiking, picnicking, and more.

The park, primarily known for its hiking trails, also supports a range of day-use activities including guided tours, scuba diving, snorkeling, windsurfing, and family-oriented programs. With 143 campsites, the most compared to two other parks in the General Plan update, El Capitán caters to diverse camping needs with family, group, and RV accommodations, alongside basic amenities like a camp store, restrooms, and both indoor and outdoor showers.

El Capitán is also a vital hub for several State Parks operations, housing the maintenance yard and lifeguard headquarters that serve all three parks. Its ecological diversity spans coastal woodlands, riparian zones, marine environments, and scrub habitats, making it a habitat for a wide range of flora and fauna. Furthermore, the beach is a treasure trove of archaeological and tribal significance, adding a rich historical layer to its natural beauty.

Refugio State Beach

Refugio State Beach spans 938 acres and is renowned for its exceptional coastal fishing, trails, and picturesque day-use picnic spots, enhanced by iconic Canary Island Date palms along the shoreline and near Refugio Creek. The park offers a variety of amenities, including hiking and biking trails, and supports activities such as swimming, windsurfing, surfing, kayaking, along with family-oriented programs. It houses 67 family campsites, three group sites, hike/bike campsites, and RV accommodations, complemented by facilities like a camp store, restrooms, showers, a basketball court, playground, and a campfire center.

Additionally, Refugio State Beach is home to a 750-acre underwater park leased and managed by State Parks, attracting divers, fishers, and educational groups with its rich marine life. The beach hosts several important State Parks operations, including staff housing, law enforcement, vehicle storage, visitor services, and the junior lifeguard program.

Ecologically, the area encompasses coastal sage scrub, marine, and riparian habitats, adding to its biodiversity. Refugio State Beach is also a site of significant archaeological, tribal, and historic value, with notable features from the Rutherford Ranch era, including original buildings and palm trees.

Gaviota State Park

Gaviota State Park, spanning 2,712 acres, offers a plethora of recreational activities set against a backdrop of diverse landscapes, including hiking and multi-use trails that venture into oak woodlands and chaparral territories, as well as to natural sulfur hot springs and vantage points that offer expansive views of the Channel Islands, Point Conception, Gaviota Pass, and the Lompoc Valley. The park caters to a wide range of day-use activities, from equestrian trails and picnicking to fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, windsurfing, surfing, and geocaching. It also provides thirty-nine overnight camping spots, accommodating family groups, hike-and-bike campers, and RV users, along with essentials like a camp store, restrooms, and both indoor and outdoor showers.

Gaviota’s ecological diversity showcases a mix of habitats, including grasslands, oak woodlands, chaparral, coastal sage scrub, riparian zones, fresh water aquatic regions, marshes, coastal strands, salt marshes, and marine environments. Adjacent to the park, the Kashtayit State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA) focuses on ocean biodiversity conservation, cultural resource protection, and marine recreation and research opportunities.

Highlighting its cultural significance, Gaviota State Park is home to crucial archaeological, tribal, and historic sites, including the historically important Las Cruces Adobe.

Visitor Experience Surveys

“We want to hear from you!” states the plan’s website, inviting the public to participate in the Visitor Experience Survey. The results will help shape the future of these beloved parks, ensuring that the update accurately reflects the needs of the community and the environment.

The project underscores the significance of El Capitán, Refugio, and Gaviota State Parks as key recreational, environmental, and cultural assets in California.

For more information, interested individuals are encouraged to join the mailing list via to receive updates about the project or visit the website at

Edhat Staff

Written by Edhat Staff

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  1. What a bunch of Malarkey… These 3 State Beach Parks have been in a State of Disrepair for DECADES… The bike path /walkway between El Cap and Refugio have been “broken” and in pieces for at LEAST 15 years…. The North beach access stairs at El Cap have been closed for years…The CA State Park Rangers located and living @ Refugio and El Cap are nothing more than DOG POLICE… They spend all their time hunting down dog owners who dare to have a leashed dog on the beach(es) so they can issue State Park citations…We frequent the beach between Refugio and El Cap (NOT part of the State Park) at low tides with our dog and they are literally sitting in their trucks on the beach boundary, ready to give you a ticket…one Ranger spent an hour waiting to see if anyone with a dog was going towards El Cap @ low tide…. LOL!
    Fix the bikepath, create a (ONE) dog friendly beach area at either Gaviota, Refugio or El Cap and upgrade the campgrounds to make it worth $50+ a night. Encourage day use by increasing public access by allowing more parking surrounding the State Park boundaries..

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