Coastal campers, here’s the bad news: El Capitán State Beach is going to completely close for about one year starting on September 1, 2021. That’s according to a notice on the state-run campground’s website, which is somewhat buried beneath the long list of COVID-related rules and announcements.
The good news, for those with patience, is that the closure will allow State Parks to build a new entry road to accommodate more cars; a new bridge over the creek near the entrance to the park, with ample room for steelhead trout passage beneath; a larger kiosk for rangers to process day-use and camping visitors; and an ADA-accessible trail along the entrance road to allow safer access for pedestrians, who currently must walk along the road to reach the beach and campground.
“We didn’t come out with a big shabang about it because COVID has slowed down a lot of things, and getting agencies to issues permits has been a real challenge,” said Dena Bellman, who took over as the State Parks Channel Coast District Planning Chief and PIO in January 2019. “So we are still trying to get those permits, but our plan, and the funding, and the way we need to approach it really needs to start on September 1.” In fact, it was slated to start a year earlier, before COVID threw a wrench in those plans.
The ever-popular campground, which overlooks the beach along the Gaviota Coast just a few miles from Goleta, features more than 130 camp sites, many of which can accommodate RVs, bicycle trekkers, and larger groups. That’s why it’s often sold-out, even in the off-season, and is popular with tourists and locals alike.
“It’s a really exciting project, and probably years overdue,” said Bellman. The project focuses entirely on the entrance to the park, currently a two-lane road with no sidewalks that travels over an old bridge to be serviced by an aging kiosk. “What we’re really trying to do is find a much more efficient way for people to enter the park and not cause congestion in other areas,” she said, noting that, on extremely busy days, traffic can back up to the 101 on- and offramps.
The road will be widened to more lanes, and the larger kiosk will be able to deal with two visitor vehicles at a time. The rebuilt bridge will be better for stormwater runoff and steelhead trout passage, removing the current barriers that exist to the endangered fish swimming upstream to reproduce.
The ADA-accessible path is also a critical addition, since so many visitors — whether surfers who parked outside of the park or overnight guests at El Capitan Canyon and Ocean Mesa properties across the freeway — now must walk along the road. “There are a lot more people coming to El Cap State Beach than was ever envisioned when the infrastructure was built here,” said Bellman. “Trying to accommodate that all of these years has put a stress on our system.”
She anticipates that the park will be closed for a year, but said that the timeline is technically nine months. “That’s what we would prefer, but a year is a much more reasonable timeline,” said Bellman, explaining that the weather could affect work, among other variables.
When closed, there will be no way to legally access the El Cap shoreline, as the entrance road will be off-limits to the public. To offset this loss of coastal access, the usual seasonal capacity reductions at Refugio State Beach and Gaviota State Beach will not occur, and both parks will be fully open, weather permitting, of course. Surfers seeking those rare but magical El Cap tubes will have to paddle or boat in from elsewhere.
The extensive work is also triggering a number of mitigation projects around the park, so expect to see more native plantings and restored riparian habitat when it’s reopened. “We’re really proud of the fact that this is a fully beneficial project,” said Bellman. “We’re looking forward to having a much better facility to welcome the public.”