Nestled between Carmon Highlands and San Semion, Big Sur is a slice of paradise – a part of the central coast of California which stretches for 76 miles. It gives you the breathtaking views of a never-ending Pacific and awe-inspiring rugged mountains with a long meandering highway sandwiched between them.
Its stunning wilderness, redwood forests, pleasant weather, scenic sunsets, and beaches make this place any tourist’s dreamland. You can picture its popularity with the fact that every year it attracts just as many backpackers, campers and hikers as the Yellow Stone National Park (albeit Big Sur falls short of some facilities when compared to it).
Speaking of campers, Big Sur is the perfect place for camping thanks to its natural beauty and many, many magnificent camping grounds. If you are looking to camp here, before you pack your bags, you should plan out your camping trip best you can. To help you do that, this guide highlights must-know camping spots and several practical camping tips.
When to visit?
Although you can visit Big Sur any time of the year – the weather is beautiful, as is the scenery all year round, but May to August is the peak-season for camping.
As I mentioned earlier, Big Sur receives a sizable number of campers during the high season. So, if you’d rather not go heel-to-toe with other campers, consider visiting towards the end of October or somewhere between April and November. That’s when the crowds start to shrink and it’s easier to find a relatively secluded spot. With the dwindling crowds, the accommodation rates also fall, which means extra bucks in your wallet.
If you wish to see majestic whales in their natural habitat, you can spot California Gray Whales towards the end of the fall, Humpback Whales towards the end of the spring, and Blue Whales in summer.
The off-season can get pretty damp and the coastal area receives plentiful rainfall, so don’t forget to pack your all-weather camping gear. It can also get pretty nippy during the night time, so make sure you bundle up before stepping outside the tent.
The weather patterns can be unpredictable, so check the forecast before you hit the road.
Where to stay?
Looking to camp for free along the Pacific Coast Highway? If you are, you’re out of luck because the police and national park service officers have declared PCH off-limits for any kind of camping. But if you’re looking to camp just off one of many forest service roads, you’ll have to take some extra steps to ensure that you’re being responsible. That means when you’re camping there, you can’t litter the place with trash.
Although, the police, along with the locals, discourage camping alongside PCH, once get off the highway. You can find a number of free government owned camping grounds. Nacimiento-Ferguson, Plasket Ridge, and Willow-Creek Road are some of the forest service roads, where you can drive up to and pitch your tent for free. However, if you’re visiting during high-season, it can be a bit difficult to find an open spot, so you’ll have to do a bit of driving to find a good site.
If you’d rather not jump through all these hoops, reserve a spot at a campground in one of the four mesmerizing state parks in advance. And considering how busy it can get during peak-season, you might have to make the booking months ahead of time. The only exception to this rule would be Andrew Molera State Park – more on that in a few.
You can imagine from the need to book in advance that it can get pretty crowded in these campsites (even though they’re paid).
With that in mind, here are some of the most popular paid camping options in Big Sur.
Pfeiffer Burns State Park
This state park is an absolute jaw-dropping camping ground. It is located on a cliff overlooking the ocean. Unfortunately, there are only two camping sites, so you have to make reservations almost six months ahead of time (that is if it’s not sold out already). Getting a spot here can be challenging but very rewarding if you do manage it.
Limekiln State Park
This state park is home to some massive redwoods, the Limekiln Falls, four abandoned limekilns (where the state park gets its name from) and twenty-four campsites. You’ll also have to make reservations here ahead of time but the waiting list isn’t as long as Pfeiffer Burns’.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Pfeiffer Big Sur is the largest camping ground with almost one hundred and seventy-four camping sites. It offers some beautiful views of the ocean, wilderness, and hiking trails. The sheer number of sites make this camping ground a busy place all year round which means it can pretty noisy.
You’ll have to make bookings six months in advance if you want any hope of getting a spot. For $35 a tent, you get a number of amenities. It’s also pet-friendly, so you don’t have to worry if you camp with your dogs.
If you’re looking for the best oceanfront views combined with the most fascinating hiking trails Big Sur has to offer, nothing beats Kirk Creek. Although it has next to amenities (no electricity or cellular reception), it has 35 different campsites, which will cost you $35 per night.
Andrew Molera State Park
If you can arrive there earlier than most and can snag a good spot, Andrew Molera might be an attractive option for you. It’s the only campground that doesn’t require you to make reservations ahead of time.
With its twenty-four campsites and access to uncrowded beaches and hiking trails, Andrew Molera is arguably the most gorgeous campground in Big Sur.
Where to go hiking?
Although the outdoor activities in Big Sur are potentially limitless, trekking and hiking are by far the most popular attractions. So much so that if you love nature, your trip to Big Sur won’t be complete without a hike. If you’re visiting during the summer, I’d recommend you start early to avoid the sun best you can since most hikes can be completed anywhere between three to five hours.
If you’re pressed for time but would still like to enjoy a good hike and take in the natural beauty, McWay might be the answer to your problem. It’s only half a mile in length and is home to the McWay Falls which is almost 80-feet tall and simply magnificent.
North Coast Ridge Trail
This trail should take you somewhere around three hours and presents some awe-inspiring views of the coastal area and mountain peaks. You should be able to spot Cook Springs – which flows all year round if it’s not drought season.
Vicente Flat Trail
If you’re looking for a trail that gives you some challenge, hit the almost ten miles long Vicente Flat Trail. It has nearly everything a hiker would like to feast their eyes on – tall mountains, views of the Pacific, canyons and of course, gorgeous oak forests.
It’s almost two thousand feet above the sea-level. In plain English, it will be a challenge for your legs and lungs.
A word of caution
As breathtaking as Big Sur is, some natural threats to visitor’s safety aren’t unheard of.
The first and foremost of these threats being Poison Oak. You’ll need to learn to identify it because there’s tons of it in Big Sur. This dreadful plant can easily send you to the hospital and if you burn it and inhale its smoke, it can be fatal.
Snakes and Ticks
When trekking, watch out for both snakes and ticks. When you come back from your hike, make a habit of checking yourself for tick bites. Avoid walking through tall grass whenever possible.
Landslides during the rainy season
During the off-season, it rains a lot – sometimes up to 100 inches, which puts you at the risk of getting caught in a mudslide when driving up the coast.
Don’t forget to carry bug-spray with you because you’ll encounter bugs of every shape and size in Big Sur – from mosquitos and bees to tarantulas and even scorpions.
And there you have it, what to do in Big Sur and where to stay in Big Sur to make sure that your trip to Big Sur will be a memorable one. I hope by reading this post, you can appreciate the need to plan out your trip as meticulously as you can. Because showing up there unprepared will only spell frustration and headache for you.
Besides the planning, you need to act as a responsible camper — dump your trash properly and ensure that your campfires are completely put out before you leave the site.