There’s little doubt that California’s Refugio State Beach stands alongside Jalama Beach County Park as one of the best beach front tent and RV campgrounds in Santa Barbara County. Located just off Highway 101, approximately 20 miles north-west of the City of Santa Barbara, the 67-site campground -- which is bisected by Refugio Creek -- is notable for its date palms, easy beach access, exceptional coastal fishing and abundant marine life.
Although the California State Parks website lists the maximum travel trailer length as 27 feet and the maximum motorhome length as 30 feet, a number of the Refugio State Beach RV campsites are listed on Reserve America with a maximum length of 35 feet. In any event, not only could the campground handle our 35 foot Class C with ease but apparently it could also cope handily with the 40-foot Class A motorhome that was sitting over in the 61-67 campsite row during our stay.
Refugio camp sites include a fire ring and picnic table and there are fresh water spigots, pay showers, restrooms (with power points) and dumpsters at various locations throughout the campground. You can also find a small camp store for bait, tackle and basic camping supplies on the far side of the creek. Absent electrical hookups you’re permitted to use your generator between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. so the only thing you’ll have to monitor is your fresh and waste water because Refugio (just like El Capitan Campground) does not provide a dump station or dedicated fresh water fill for RVs.
If you prefer the comfort of full hookups just head back down Highway 101 for about two miles and take the El Capitan turn. Turn left under the freeway at the stop sign. Turn left again after passing under the highway. Follow the road that parallels the 101 and then turn right onto Calle Real before turning on to El Capitan Terrace Lane and checking in to the Ocean Mesa RV Resort. En route you’ll pass “El Capitan Canyon,” a hip glamping resort that was featured in an episode of “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” The walk to the beach is obviously going to be a little longer from Ocean Mesa but the amenities are excellent.
Whilst RVers at Refugio Beach will be insulated to some extent from background noise, tent campers will have to contend with the steady roar of traffic on the elevated section of Highway 101 and the rumble of passing passenger trains on the railroad embankment that runs parallel to the eastern edge of the campground. However, on the upside, both kids and railway enthusiasts will doubtless get a kick out of the daily passage of the iconic Amtrak Coast Starlight train -- with its signature bi-level Superliner coaches -- on its journey from Seattle to Los Angeles and back again.
Refugio Beach boasts a great selection of wildlife -- from gulls, seals and dolphins to egrets, coots and pelicans -- and provides an array of beach activities for campers and day trippers including kayaking, surfing, ocean fishing and swimming. If you like to hike and bike you can follow the walking and cycling trail that links Refugio and El Capitan beach (about a 4-mile round trip). Of course, you could just chill out on the beach, do a little beachcombing or check out the tide pools with the kids.
Swimmers should be mindful of the strong currents and significant kelp beds that lie just off the beach. According to the California State Parks website, lifeguards patrol the beach year around although the lifeguard towers are only staffed from around Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.
Even absent lifeguards in the towers, when there’s an emergency the authorities seem quick to respond. During our visit a 58-year-old man apparently suffered a heart attack whilst kayaking, fell into the water and nearly drowned. The throng of first responders surrounding the casualty on the beach included a couple of State Park Lifeguards, a California State Parks Peace Officer, an EMT, a couple of AMR paramedics, an off-duty nurse and members of both the Santa Barbara County Fire Department and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. The casualty was subsequently transported to hospital courtesy of a California Shock Trauma Air Rescue (Calstar) Medevac EC135 chopper (check out the slideshow).
Location: Refugio State Beach, 10 Refugio Beach Road. Goleta CA 93117 • Tel: (805) 968-1033 •