Canyon History

El Capitan State Beach Campground

Legends of El Capitan Canyon (Ajuilashmu)

El Capitan Canyon offers a rich history of hospitality—from its beginnings as an ancient Chumash tribal celebration site, reaching into 19th century Mexican adobes and continuing around the cabins and campfires of today’s comfortable lodging. Situated 17 miles west of Santa Barbara, a magnificent grove of sycamore and oak stands at the entrance just as it did in prehistoric times, guarding the Canyon’s pristine legacy.

Halm Kwawar, the Great Spirit, created this land we know as California. Looking down from his place in the sky, he wished for a land, but saw only water. Spotting a giant turtle as big as an island, he called down, “Turtle! Bring your six brothers here.” He told the turtles to form a line from head to tail running north to south. On their backs, he spread some rushes. Into it, he poked his finger, making trees grow and rivers flow. From the trees, he plucked leaves and, blowing on them. They flew away singing, turning into birds. Pleased, the Great Spirit told the turtle brothers, “Remember, this is a great honor I have given you- to bear this land on your backs.

More than 8,000 years ago, the first inhabitants were undoubtedly impressed by fertile foothills to the north and the creek coursing through the canyon flowing into the great ocean to the south. Along the creek, the ancient Chumash peoples built their hut villages and devoted themselves to harvesting the bounty of the sea. Dark-haired men constructed canoes using indigenous woods, hammer-stones and caulking cakes of fused tar. Strong women cared for the young and sought the tangy elderberries, nutritious; sage seeds, plants and wild game on the grassy mesa.

Chumash legend calls this area Ajuilashmu (Ah-wah-whi-lac-mu)—the dancing place of celebration. It is known as the home of the Paqwot band that ruled from this coastal ritual center. Adjoining the creek, a long trail leads to a sacred place called Senaq (associated in Chumash myth with fire) and an ancient burial ground where remains of a medicine man buried with his “panpipes” (whistles) was discovered. Tribal elders still revere this site and hold rituals and blessings here—continuing the Chumash’s deep honor of the land, water and sky. Hi Lo Ky Ich (go in spirit), we are told. In 1542, the area was “discovered” and claimed for Spain by explorer Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo. Spanish soldiers established the Presidio (fortress) in Santa Barbara in 1782 and Ajuilashmu became noted on their charts as “El Capitan.” Legend has it named for Captain Don Jose Francisco de Ortega—one of the founders of the Presidio—who came ashore and was greeted by Chumash tribal leaders. In 1822, Spain granted California to Mexico and many great ranches were designated including La Canada del Corral (Corral Canyon) which contained El Capitan Canyon. On November 5, 1841, Jose Delores Ortega (a descendant of Presidio Captain Don José Ortega) was granted the deed to El Capitan.

Tradition has it that the extensive Ortega family adobes at El Capitan welcomed many travelers by land and by sea including U.S. Captain John Fremont during his “conquest” of California in 1847. California became part of the United States in 1848, but life on El Capitan continued on much the same—a highly productive rancho raising cattle, grain and avocados—remaining within the Ortega clan until its sale to Juan Camarillo in 1866 for $3,000. Over the next century, Rancho El Capitan had a succession of owners yet still remained largely undeveloped and pristine.

El Capitan Canyon Cabin Hotel

The modern-day El Capitan Canyon Resort began as a rustic private campground in 1970 on a 300-acre site directly across from El Capitan State Beach. In 2000, new local owners Chuck Blitz and Roger Himovitz completely transformed El Capitan Canyon into a refined rural retreat for the 21st century. Re-opened in May 2001, this cabin hotel allows guests to now choose from cedar cabins featuring french doors that open onto the creek, a choice of beds with down comforters, sleeping loft, private bath with shower, fridge, coffeemaker and heater; or deluxe canvas Tents complete with a wood floor, bedding, towels, table and chairs. With parking restricted to the Main Lodge area, no cars mar the peace and solitude of the Canyon. Visitors can gather canyon cuisine and local wines from the Canyon Store, dive in the heated swimming pool, indulge with an in-room massage, take a botanical hike guided by a naturalist there’s always a chance to encounter the native floral and fauna. In the summer on Saturday evenings, guests gather around the main campfire to savor a delicious dinner buffet while entertained by the area’s best bluegrass, blues and jazz musicians. Under the stars, the sounds of celebration echo through El Capitan Canyon, a timeless scene reminiscent of the ancient Chumash village of Ajuilashmu.

Haku (Welcome)