One of my favorite places to camp, ever since I was a child, is Refugio State Beach. Over the years the cliffs have eroded and the ecology is better cared for, yet the little cove remains very much the same as it was in the 80’s (yes, I am that old haha). We love camping at Refugio, and I think your family will too.
Refugio State Beach is the perfect destination for a summer family camping trip in Southern California. The campsites are just a few hundred feet from the beach. You get to fall asleep to the sounds of waves crashing on the shore. There’s plenty of space to play, bike, swim, and the campgroung is just minutes from the city. Need I say more?
I’ve compiled everything you need to know about taking your family on a beach camping trip in this beautiful hidden gem in Santa Barbara. Some information is specific to the area, but most of it applies to any beach camping trip with kids.
Reservations are required for camping at Refugio State Beach. You can book online at ReserveCalifornia.Com. Be sure to check back frequently for open spots, as last-minute cancellations happen and sometimes that’s the best way to snag a campsite!
Campsites have a picnic table and a fire pit with an attached grill. The campsites are on dirt and many of them have little to no shade, so a pop up canopy is almost essential. You are allowed up to 3 vegicles, and can bring an RV or have an RV rental delivered to the campground. Generators are permitted except during “quiet” hours at night and there are no RV hookups. Of course, tent camping is also an option. And remember, this is a beach campground, so expect to have a lot of sand tracked into your tent or RV!
The campground has 2 sides, divided in the middle by a natural lagoon. Don’t worry, it doesn’t put off any unpleasant smells. The lagoon adds another ecosystem to the area, with the sounds of croaking frogs at night and the occasional snake hanging around during the day. The stagnant water is pretty gross-looking and full of critters, and is not suitable for swimming or wading.
The campground has restrooms (with sinks but no hand soap), public water spigots, as well as pay shower facilities that take quarters only. As of May 10, 2021, the free-to-use external beach showers, typically used for rinsing sandy feet and surfboards, were not operational.
Dogs are allowed in the campground, but not on the beach. We met a camp host and his beautiful retriever named Goldie. They ride around together in a golf cart doing the host’s daily rounds. Be sure and say hi to Goldie, if you can get her attention from diligently looking for squirrels.
Pests: A Warning
Speaking of squirrels, these food thieves are all over the place and they’re persistent. Like many campgrounds, Refugio State Beach has its share of scavengers like squirrels, crows, and the occasional mouse. They will get into whatever food you leave out in the open, so be sure and pack food away in cars, coolers, or in tightly-lidded plastic tubs like these. If you walk away from your Cheez-its, you can bet a sea gull or squirrel will take off with your snack.
If you need supplies, the camp store may be open during peak season. Otherwise it’s a short trip to Goleta where you’ll find grocery stores, a Costco, bike repair/rental shops and coffee shops.
Fun Things to do With Kids at Refugio State Beach
My favorite thing about this campground is that it keeps kids entertained all day long. There is so much for everyone to enjoy!
Walk the beach around the cliff at low tide and look for tidepools at low tide.
Ride bikes, scooters, or skateboards around the campground. Probably the thing I like most about this campground is that the roads are wide and the landscape is flat, so I can see my kids from almost anywhere in the park.
Play on the grassy lawn areas. Bring your favorite lawn games like cornhole, footballs, soccer balls, etc. Camping can’t be all scrubbing pots and sweeping out tents!
Bike or walk the Aniso Creek Trail. This is a paved path, mostly for biking, that connects Refugio State Beach campground with its neighbor to the south, El Capitan State Beach campground. It is a 5-mile out-and-back ride, which is unfortunately closed off at the middle due to erosion. The ride to the closure is still worth the trip. The trail takes you at a safe distance along the cliff’s edge, where you can look for dolphins out in the ocean or enjoy the morning glories along the trail.
Play in the ocean. Waves get up to estimated 3 feet, but they break right on the shore so it is not an ideal beach for boarding.
Things you may want to bring:
Wetsuits, as the water is cold most of the year. Most swimmers don’t wear them, but if you have a spring wetsuit and can fit it with your gear, you may want it.
Boogie boards or surfboards. However, be advised that the waves are not very good for riding.
Sand toys. When camping at Refugio, there is a lot of sand to play with!
A pop-up canopy is ESSENTIAL for camping at Refugio State Beach, as there is unfortunately not a lot of shade on the camp sites. This is the one we have, from Walmart. It has lasted us years.
A Stomp Rocket. We’ve had one for years, and in fact we bought an extra this past summer. It always draws a crowd of other kids when we bring it out. It’s a great way to keep kids entertained, plus Refugio has nice open grass fields that are just right for rockets.
Fishing poles and gear. I haven’t seen anyone catch anything, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try!
A stand up paddle board. This cove is perfect for paddling. If you don’t have rom for the full board, consider an inflatable one.
A kayak or rubber raft. Rafts are fun but will get pushed around by the current. As with paddle boarding, this cove is a classic kayak location.
Disclaimer: We love camping at Refugio, but it’s not all sunshine and roses. In fact, expect to see a coastal marine layer (aka fog) most mornings and evenings. Being right on the beach, the weather can be breezy and damp. The best times to visit Refugio State Beach are mid May through September.
Have you been to Refugio? What was your experience?
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