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Endless beach: fall under the spell of the Gaviota Coast, where wilderness meets Southern California beach culture but nature still prevails.

LATE AFTERNOON at Gaviota State Park, the gentle spell of waves and wind is briefly broken as Amtrak's Coast Starlight rumbles across an old iron trestle.

The train draws the attention of fishermen along the pier, who look up to watch its passage. Often when a train goes by, you feel a pang of envy as you ponder the prospect of being whisked to new places. But not here. If anyone, it's the passengers who are jealous as they're treated to an all-too-brief glimpse of Santa Barbara County's Gaviota Coast.

Here sandstone bluffs sparkle like bars of gold, while the great mass of Santa Cruz Island looms in the distance. But it's the ocean's hue that most dazzles the eye, a shimmering cerulean surface broken only by beds of kelp and the gentle rise of low swells that move without urgency toward shore.

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So it goes for the next 25 miles down toward Santa Barbara along the Gaviota Coast: long unspoiled beaches, hidden canyons, and rolling orchards of avocado and citrus that climb to the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Here plein air meets orange-crate label.

While convenient to both Santa Barbara and the wine country to the north, the Gaviota Coast offers its own experience: an escape along the last best stretch of the Southern California coast.

Where dusk and dawn come slowly

El Capitan Canyon Resort is tucked away in a narrow canyon that runs between the mountains and the beach. With safari tents and cabins, its upscale camping is the perfect alternative for anyone who equally appreciates the glories of nature and the joys of a comfortable bed--complete with down comforter.

The campground is like a temporary village, its population changing nightly. A newly arriving couple with toddler in tow drop off their gear and supplies. One cabin over, a 10-year-old boy watches intently as his dad rearranges the red-hot embers in one of the campground's iron firepits while tutoring his son on the fine points of barbecuing over a wood fire.

As the smell of toasted marshmallows fades into the cool air and glowing campfires dim, night comes to the canyon. The sky fills with stars--no city lights to interfere out here--and the smear of the Milky Way comes into view. Then the canyon serves up a nocturnal symphony: the chimelike trickle of El Capitan Creek, the yips of coyotes bouncing around the hills, and the hoots of owls high in the coast live oaks and sycamores.

The next morning is quiet, with just a few people who have walked over from the resort and some kayakers carrying their rigs down the bluff from one of the coveted sites at the state beach's campground. As the day-trippers arrive, the beach takes on the feeling of a Southern California that sometimes seems to survive only in vintage beach movies. A group of girls flirt with a pod of bodyboard-toting guys, their eyes on the ladies but reflexively returning to the waves. Families lunch at what just may be the most fortuitously situated picnic tables anywhere on the West Coast.

Even with the weekend crowd, the beach never loses its country vibe. And walk 10 minutes up the beach and El Capitan belongs only to you--and maybe to sandpipers being chased by foaming waves, and dolphins cruising just offshore.

A wild coastal canyon

With the inevitable focus on its beaches, Gaviota Coast visitors often overlook the splendor of its canyons and hills. There's much to explore: Gaviota State Park offers miles of hiking trails on its 2,760 acres. And about 10 minutes north of El Capitan, the Arroyo Hondo Preserve is a microcosm of the Gaviota Coast--the wildness, the Spanish legacy, and the long agricultural tradition.

The canyon runs from the mountains and empties into the ocean beneath a towering 90-year-old mission-style highway bridge. For the last 213 years, Arroyo Hondo has been in the hands of just three families. Now its 1842 adobe is occupied by preserve caretakers John Warner and Jennifer Dunn.

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Theirs is a slice of paradise. Hike up in the canyon's upper reaches, and you'll spot steelhead--all but gone from Southern California--in shallow pools. The orchard has an olive tree and a pear tree that date back to around 1820, as well as a cornucopia of other fruits, from citrus and peaches to six types of avocados.

"It's hard to find places that haven't changed," says Warner. "But this canyon is the way it's always been. I'm able to stop and listen and not hear anything but nature."

Along the Gaviota Coast, the fortunate ones stop to explore its hills, play in its waves, and, as Warner suggests, simply pause to listen. Because timeless places are best experienced without timetables.

Getting there

The Gaviota Coast runs about 25 miles up the coast from Santa Barbara along U.S. 101, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles and 300 miles south of San Francisco.

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Where to stay and eat

Though lodging is limited to two resorts, the Gaviota Coast offers some of California's premier coastal camping (for info see "Beaches," at far right). Dining options are limited on the coast but abundant in the nearby Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara.

Bacara Resort & Spa Super-posh, it brings a Spanish colonial setting to an ocean-front location in Goleta. Its three restaurants--The Bistro ($$$$), Miro ($$$$), and Spa Cafe ($$$)--all use fresh produce from the resort's 1,000-acre ranch. 360 rooms from $475; www.bacararesort.com or 877/422-4245.

El Capitan Canyon Resort North of Santa Barbara, choices range from the new tent and RV sites at Ocean Mesa (www.oceanmesa.com or 866/410-5783) to cedar cabins with whirlpool tubs. Activities include a summer concert series, yoga, and horseback riding. Pick up sandwiches and salads at the resort's Canyon Market ($). 134 units from $145; www.elcapitancanyon.com or 866/352-2729.

What to do

Arroyo Hondo Preserve Open for hiking and guided walks by reservation only. 10-4 the first and third Sat--Sun monthly; www.sblandtrust.org or 805/567-1115.

Beaches Refugio and El Capitan State Beaches and Gaviota State Park all have excellent campsites--so excellent that they must be booked months in advance for summer (from $25 a night). But be prepared for noise; freight trains pass just yards from the campgrounds in the middle of the night. For more information, visit www.parks.ca.gov or call 805/968-1033.

Gaviota State Park Outstanding hiking trails into the back-country include the 6-mile round-trip to and from the commanding views on 2,458-foot Gaviota Peak. From U.S. 101, take the State 1/Lompoc exit, turn right and follow the frontage road to parking ($2 per vehicle); for the fishing pier, from U.S. 101, take the Gaviota State Beach turnoff ($8 per vehicle); www.parks.ca.gov or 805/968-1033.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRIS LESCHINSKY
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Title Annotation:Getaway
Author:Jaffe, Matthew
Publication:Sunset
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2007
Words:1143
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