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Southern California Without High-Rises

Updated: Apr 3, 2018

Note: Carpinteria is grappling with the fallout from California’s largest wildfire on record, the Thomas fire, which denuded the hillsides in late 2017, leading to deaths from mudslides in nearby Montecito, and evacuations in the months since. The bad press from all of this might make Carpinteria an even quieter town to visit this year for a vacation.

For those who want to hit the Southern California coastline without the crowds and high-rises, a deserving little nook is the town of Carpinteria, south of Santa Barbara. There’s no SeaWorld here or Disneyland Park. But Carpinteria makes up for it in small-town charm.

One of the best things to do in Carpinteria is spend some time at the beach. Sunshine and surf are well known attractions for the area, although prepare for a chill in the winter. The view of the Los Padres National Forest mountains flanked by the tinged green ocean is not to be missed.

The so-called "safest beach" is in Carpinteria.

Carpinteria has its own Tar Pits Park, a bit smaller but older than La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. According to a placard, the remains of tusked Mastodons and bison have been found here dating back to the Pleistocene epoch. Mishopshnow Indians used the tar to make boats. Hence in 1769, when the Spaniard Gaspar de Portola arrived, he named the village Carpinteria.

Now, you can walk or ride a bike along the shoreline and catch a glimpse nearby of seals in the Carpinteria Harbor Seal Rookery, where the seals birth pups in February or March.

Of course, every town likes to boast of something important, like being the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, or something. Carpinteria doesn’t have that, so it takes a stab at promising the world’s safest beach, because of its lack of riptides. I decided not to verify the claim with a swim in the cold Pacific waters in December.

A view of Tar Pits Park.

And if you aren’t impressed by the safest beach, surely the largest known Torrey pine in existence will impress. Visit it while enjoying an acai bowl at the Lucky Lama coffee shop. In case this California staple hasn’t made it to your town, it’s a blend of frozen berry from Brazil, the acai berry, and other breakfast goodies such as fruit and granola.

An acai bowl at Lucky Lama.

The food in Carpinteria isn’t likely to draw foodies from across the earth, but there are decent options. For families on a budget, The Spot is a popular with burgers under $5, fish tacos and tostadas. There’s also Thai and Vietnamese restaurants and plenty of Mexican food. Reynaldo’s Bakery and Mexican Food boasts Mexican staples such as wedding cookies, a kind of almond cookie with powdery sugar on top.

Getting to Carpinteria can be a challenge if you’re planning to drive. One alternative is to take Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner train from Los Angeles, so you can enjoy the view of the Pacific Ocean. The train stops plenty of times at every small town along the way, but at least you’ll avoid the hassles of driving and you usually won’t lose time, given Los Angeles’ notorious traffic. The closest car rental facility is 20 minutes away in Santa Barbara, but if you don’t have a car, you can easily get around on the town’s bus, which is 50 cents for standard one-way fare, with children free. Or rent a bike for the day from one of several bike shops.

Carpinteria also is a popular place for retirees in winter, when the no-longer-working set flock to the town for apartments that can run about $2,000 per month within walking distance of the beach. Prices go up in the summer. Hotels such as the Best Western Plus Carpinteria Inn and Holiday Inn Express are reasonably priced, but placed near Highway 101. RVs and tents also fill up the Carpinteria State Beach campground with families year-around.

*I never make money by linking to sites or mentioning organizations in these blog posts.

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