Family Road Trip to El Capitan Canyon

Written by Jan Craddock
Photography by Jan Craddock

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El Capitan Canyon offers both cosy cabins and safari tents.

With so many choices for family vacations this year, my husband and I have decided to do a series of mini-vacations instead of one long vacation to a single destination. Our goal is to combine an adventure with an educational element for our son, Ian. Over spring break, we headed to El Capitan Canyon (just 20 miles north of Santa Barbara) and combined it with touring Lotusland, a large botanical garden. This destination checked off something on everyone’s list. My husband liked that it was affordable, and I was happy that it was close to great restaurants and wineries. For Ian, the fun activities were important—hiking, biking, and swimming. It had it all!

El Capitan Canyon is a campground made up of small cabins and tents, but their twist on the camping experience is what they call “Glamping.” It’s high-end (glamorous) camping for those who don’t like to pup their own tent and sleep on the ground. With a gourmet market and a spa located in the campground, El Capitan offers accommodations that range from large cabins with a kitchen, bathrooms with soaking tubs, and fireplaces, to tents with beds. Tents do come with linens as well as a picnic table and a fire pit. Bathrooms, complete with showers, are close and clean. We chose a tent with two double beds for our stay.

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The waterfall pond at Lotusland.

El Capitan Canyon is about a six-hour drive from Las Vegas, so plan on a couple of stops along the way. One of our favoritess is the Starbucks at the Lenwood exit in Barstow. Fast, convenient, and clean, it also has more than one bathroom (something very important in my book). Once you hit the coast, the scenery is spectacular, and you’ll see very little civilization but a lot of beautiful and dramatic coastal views. Stop for a late lunch in Santa Barbara before your final drive up to the campground. We stopped in Ojai and went to the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa for lunch. This five-star resort is stunning and is a great place to relax and enjoy lunch before heading on. We sat on the edge of their magnificent golf course with the 100-year-old oak trees and the outlying mountains as our backdrop.

After lunch, it took us about 30 minutes to get to the campground. Once we checked in, we followed a guide up to our campsite and unpacked. Our tent—like the others—was fairly spacious and had an outside deck (Make sure to pack some camp chairs!). As we unloaded, we could see groups of families and friends playing outside on the grassy areas between tents and getting ready to set up dinner. It was very fun and friendly.

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Micheal and Ian lunching at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. This hotel in Ojai, CA also features an award winning on-site spa and golf course.

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A 150+ year-old oak tree at the entrance to Lotusland.

Guests can bring their own meals or phone the camp market for fixings that they deliver right to the tent for preparation in the fire pit. After we had an elegant dinner of cowboy hamburgers and s’mores, we called it a night. The tents glowed in the dark like paper lanterns as we closed up the tent flaps and headed to bed. It was magical!

 

The next morning, we had breakfast at the Market. The camp mascot cat “Scarface” greeted us, and we went in and ordered our pancakes and huevos rancheros. Mornings in the canyon are chilly, and we huddled by the potbelly stove, but their coffee was amazing and the a cat on our laps and the glow of the stove warmed us up quickly. After breakfast, we checked out the El Capitan Market which had a very nice local wine selection and lots of souvenirs of the trip.

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Fiddlehead fern composting at Lotusland.

Next on the agenda was our hike. Well-marked trails made this super enjoyable as we scaled the mountain and looked down at the sycamore trees lining the canyon out to the Pacific Ocean. We finished the hike without encountering the mountain lions or bears, and we missed walking in the poison oak. We found our car and headed up to the wine country.

As we traveled into the Santa Ynez Valley, we discovered lots of little unique wineries all of which were kid friendly. After a few tastings (mostly me), we made our selections and headed back towards camp and the beach. The beach is a five-minute bike ride from the campgrounds. Since the campground provides bikes, we just needed to grab a helmet and check out a bike. The beach was beautiful with lots of smooths rocks in just about every color, and there were sandy places for us to put down a blanket and enjoy the view.

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The El Capitan State Beach offers visitors a sandy beach, rocky tidepools, and stands of sycamore and oaks along El Capitán Creek.

We finished up our trip the next day with our educational component as we headed back down the coast and went to Lotusland. Ganna Walska Lotusland (its official name) has been on my must-see list for a quite a while.  As a family, we have a large garden of our own, and we enjoy going to see public gardens. Lotusland was a must see for us and should be a must-see for you! We toured the estate which over 3000 plants, (including an amazing collection of succulents and cactus), Japanese gardens, many reflecting pools, and the late owner’s collection of eclectic statuary. It was 37 acres of perfection. Because the gardens are in a residential neighborhood, they allow a limited number of guests per year. Make sure you book your reservations early.

 

For more information on glamping at El Capitan Canyon, visit elcaptancanyon.com. To learn more about Ganna Walska Lotusland, visit lotusland.org.