Big Sur sits nestled underneath Monterey Bay, below the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. It is a rugged and breathtaking portion of the popular central California Coast and is truly a rare region. It is the “longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States”. To the east of Big Sur you’ll find rolling hills of the Santa Lucia Mountains which span 140 miles to the Cuyama River in San Luis Obispo County. To the west is the white, sandy shoreline of the Pacific Ocean.
The only way to journey through Big Sur is on the coast, kissing the curvy, two-lane stretch of Highway 1. All of these elements combine to make a beautiful destination for hiking, stargazing, camping, and salty beach combing.
Backpacking is my personal favorite way of camping. And if I can do it for free – even better. When you backpack you literally carry your home on your back as you explore remote and isolated wilderness areas. Let’s not forget that highly protected Big Sur is known exactly for its isolation.
There are many campgrounds here that are privately owned or run by State Parks. But they can be very popular and reservations fill up even six months in advance. Not to mention the fees connected. So what are your options if you can not get a reservation or your budget is tight? Free camping!
In Big Sur, Los Padres National Forest stretches through the entire region and has the backpackers dream of dispersed camping spots where you can pitch a tent. If you come in spring you can even see the vibrant wildflowers right outside your tent. All four Ranger Districts allow dispersed camping, although Santa Lucia Ranger District is currently not allowing dispersed camping on West Cuesta Ridge Road (TV Tower Road) for public safety. The best spots are located in south Big Sur where you will be among gorgeous trees and breathtaking bluffs. Just make sure to arrive early to grab a camping spot especially on weekends in this major destination area.
I know dispersed camping with no hook ups, no restrooms, no showers is not for everyone. Big Sur is definitely not short on campgrounds. All delivering that combination of lush forest and warm coastline beaches. Here are some of the top recommended campgrounds:
- Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: This park covers approximately 1,006 acres of land all around the rushing Big Sur River. Because of it’s beautiful collection of thousand year old Redwoods, Pfeiffer Big Sur has earned the nickname ‘Little Yosemite’. The campground is quite large with 187 RV and tent sites available for reservations. Each campsite comes with parking, a fire pit, a grill, and a picnic table to enjoy. Other pluses are it is dog friendly, has showers and toilets available, and RV campers can take full advantage of the dump station.
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Named after Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a trailblazing pioneer woman in the Big Sur country, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is the home to McWay Falls. This 80-foot waterfall is just breathtaking as it plummets over a cliff right into the Pacific Ocean. The campgrounds here are described as environmentally friendly. The two sites are hike-in only and can fit up to eight people in total. A picnic table, fire ring, and pit toilets are the amenities. A little limited but camping by the waterfall more than makes up for it.
- Kirk Creek Campground: You are guaranteed an ocean view at each of the 34 campsites. Located on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean you are a short walk from the rocky beach below. Pets are allowed but the only amenity, so to speak, are vault toilets.
Remember these campgrounds fill up very fast in Big Sur. Try and plan out at least six months to ensure you get the location you desire. Also a pro tip is having multiple dates and locations as options to ensure you are able to snag that Big Sur vacation.
Cabins and Resorts
Are you looking for something not so ‘roughing it’? Well, Big Sur, even though sparsely populated, has some really delightful resorts available for those not exactly stoked on camping.
At Treebones Resort you will get to experience glamping at its best. You can choose from one of their yurts in the yurt village or what is called an autonomous tent. What is that you ask? It is a one-of-a-kind tent designed to resemble a giant cocoon! These cocoon shaped beauties come equipped with clawfoot showers and flushable composting toilets. Lastly, Treebones Resort also has Twig Huts available to camp in. These woven structures are created to be human sized nests. Bring your own sleeping bag and enjoy your wood ladder access home for the night.
Fernwood Campground and Resort is a local mainstay that first opened in 1932. You can choose from classic tent camping, a motel, your own cabin, RV camp hookups or stay in an adventure tent. The property is its own little village with a tavern watering hole, a restaurant bar and grill, general store and more. Fernwood Campground and Resort is one of the friendliest places to visit in Big Sur and I can not disagree.
Still looking for more creature comforts? There are various family owned hotels in the area. Check out Carmel River Inn with its unique and quaint cottages, the Wayside Inn located near shopping and restaurants at Carmel Plaza or Big Sur Lodge with its classic cabin in the woods charm.
What To Do
Now that you know where you want to stay, here are some top hikes to do for the entire family!
- Gorge Trail: This trail in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is a mere mile in length, but it brings you into a steep narrow gorge with huge granite rocks and swimming holes.
- Molera 8-mile Loop: Located in Andrew Molera State Park, this hike is 8 miles roundtrip, hence the name. Rated as moderate to strenuous it is a combination of the Ridge Trail, the Panorama Trail and the Bluffs Trail. All three guarantee great coastal views and beach access to enjoy.
- McWay Waterfall Trail: As I mentioned before this waterfall is not one to miss. It is a very short .64 mile round trip easy hike. The trail takes you to an overlook facing McWay Falls, an incredible 80-foot waterfall that drops directly onto the sandy beach. Keep in mind that beach access is prohibited here.
- Ewoldsen Trail: Also located in Julia Pfeiffer State Park is the 4.5 miles roundtrip Ewoldsen Trail. This is a moderate to strenuous loop trail that starts in the redwood forest by McWay Creek and climbs to incredible coastal views.
Big Sur truly is a special and cherished place. The locals continue to work hard to keep it wild while still welcoming guests from all over the world to take in its beauty. If you are backpacking, inn staying, or cocoon yurt camping, Big Sur has something for everyone’s preferences. As always please remember to practice Leave No Trace principles when exploring.
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Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would not be a forever home for all of them, they adopted their daughter buckets and are legal guardians to their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus