A trip to the idyllic California coast is a quintessential part of Americana – an open road winding its way through the mountains, the crashing waves of the Pacific always within the sight, eventually leading to a secluded campsite where you can escape the bustle of the city.
Even today, the escapist dreamland along America’s West Coast holds true, albeit minus the “secluded” part. It’s retained its artist community roots , even as floods of tourists come to share in its natural beauty each year. Outdoor recreation opportunities are near limitless, from camping along windswept beaches to summiting massive peaks. There is something for outdoor lover when camping in Big Sur.
Table of Contents
- When to Visit?
- How to Get There?
- What To Pack?
- The Hazards of Backpacking Big Sur
- Big Sur Hiking Trails
- Camping in Big Sur
- Proper Planning is Key
Big Sur experienced severe flooding and mudslides in early 2017, causing the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge to collapse. These events have closed some of the campgrounds and made transportation in the area much more difficult. It is expected to be resolved before winter of this year, but check with local authorities to understand which areas are open and safe to use.
1. When to Visit
The best time for camping in Big Sur is between June and August, when the weather is the most agreeable. The region can get pretty wet from November to April, particularly along the Coastal Ridge, which can see over 100 inches of rain annually.
On the other hand, Big Sur is quite crowded during the summer months, and the rain in the winter and shoulder season keeps the throngs of tourists away. Visiting in the off-season allows for some solitude (and lower accommodation costs) if you can stand getting a little wet.
If you have the flexibility during your trip to wait out inclement weather, the shoulder seasons of April/May and September/October are ideal. It might be too rainy part of the time to comfortably summit mountains, but you could always spend some time in a tent (or one of the area’s superb coffee shops) and relax or read a book until the weather is right.
2. How to Get There
From the North
Big Sur is about three hours south of downtown San Francisco. The beauty starts long before you reach Big Sur though, as the route to it traces the famed Pacific Coast Highway .
From Santa Cruz down through Monterey and Carmel, the highway hugs the Pacific Ocean and provides some of the most breathtaking views you’ll ever see from a car. There’s significant traffic along this road during the summer, as it’s a very popular road trip route for residents of both Los Angeles and San Francisco.
From the South
Los Angeles is about five hours from Big Sur, taking the shortest route. While it’s not the fastest way to get there, driving the PCH is certainly the most scenic and is well worth it if you have the time (only adding an hour or so).
Taking this route, you’ll also have the opportunity to visit Hearst Castle, just outside San Simeon. The stop offers a fascinating look at the opulent home of one of the richest and most powerful businessmen in American history, and the strange life that he lived there.
Otherwise, just follow the I-5 past the exits for Bakersfield, and then turn onto Highway 46. From there, you’ll follow a northwesterly route on Highway 101 and some back roads through the San Lucia Mountains. You won’t see any shimmering blue waters, but it’s still an interesting drive through rural California and a fascinating experience for anyone who spends most of their time in the cities.
Options for lodging in the Big Sur region are vast, with a number of very expensive (and very comfortable) hotels and cabins for those that can afford them. But there are also budget accommodations if you know where to look, and AirBnB has many exquisite, non-traditional options for those seeking something different.
Big Sur Lodge
The Big Sur Lodge is the area’s premier place to stay, and is chocked full of amenities for luxury travelers or anyone who wants to be pampered before heading off into the wilderness. It’s located right outside Pfeiffer State Park, so you could be on the trail in no time. Spend your evenings in front of a roaring fireplace; you’ve earned it after a day of hiking.
Big Sur Campgrounds & Cabins
Budget-minded travelers who still aren’t ready to spend the night deep in the wilderness should head to Big Sur Campground & Cabins . There are a number of tent sites along with cabins for travelers who don’t have their own equipment. Coin-op laundry and a camp store will assuage those who don’t want to feel too far from civilization.
$175/night for cabins
Glen Oaks Big Sur
If you’re looking for the privacy of a cabin but don’t want to give up the comforts you’d find at a luxury hotel, Glen Oaks Big Sur might be for you. Their exteriors appear rustic, but the interiors are ultra-modern and have everything you could need for the perfect glamping trip.
Outside Big Sur
Of course if you don’t want to pay the enormous price tag of Big Sur accommodations, you can always stay in Monterey or San Jose, which have a wide range of budget options and are only an hour or two away. Even during the summer tourist season, you can find a room in either town for around $100 a night.
4. What To Pack
The gear you’ll need for your trip is highly dependent on two factors: what time of year you’re visiting and how long you intend to stay in the back-country. Even visiting during the winter won’t require cold weather gear, but a rain jacket and pants along with a quality rain fly on your tent will make your trip much more pleasant.
Day Hiking Supplies
- Small Backpack – You’ll probably need 15-25 liters to hold your essentials.
- Snacks – You don’t wont to bonk on the trail; your body need sugar and salt to power through the day. Snickers bars are a fantastic fuel.
- Insect Repellent – Insects are big fans of the both wilderness and your blood; apply repellent to keep them at bay.
- Sunscreen – Some of the trails are very exposed, so wear SPF 30 or greater.
- Water – Carry reusable bottles or a hydration bladder. If it’s hot, you can end up drinking a liter of water every hour you’re out on the trail.
- Basic First-Aid Kit – Carry bandages, blister patches, antibacterial ointment, ibuprofen, and antihistamine tablets (for if you come into contact with poison oak).
- Rain Jacket – If it’s small enough, it’s not a bad idea to carry a rain jacket at all times, but it’s an absolute necessity during the winter months.
- Emergency Supplies – Bad things can happen, and if you’re deep in the wilderness, you might not make it back to the trail-head by nightfall. You should always carry fire starter gear, some extra food, an emergency blanket, and a headlamp just in case disaster strikes.
Camping and Overnight Backpacking Supplies
- Large Backpack – If you’re planning on camping in the back-country, you’ll need a 35-50 liter pack to carry all your supplies.
- Three-Season Tent – Big Sur gets occasional snow, but the biggest concern is rain. Make sure your tent seams are sealed, and put up the rain fly unless you’re absolutely certain there will be clear skies all night.
- 15° Sleeping Bag – This might be overkill the summer, but just unzip the bag and use it as a blanket. It’s always better to be safe than cold.
- Sleeping Pad – It’s your call how comfortable you want to be, but if you’re car camping and weight is no concern, why wouldn’t you go for the 4-inch-thick Thermarest?
- Water Filter – The best way to purify drinking water from a stream is with a filter. Chlorine tablets and UV systems don’t get the dirt out of the water; that’s a big problem during the spring runoff.
- Cooking Supplies – If you’re staying in a campground, this might include a cast-iron skillet to make pancakes over the fire; in the backcountry, it will more likely be a set of titanium or aluminum pots and a spork for cooking minute rice. You’ll also need a cook stove in the backcountry since campfires are not permitted.
- Day Hiking Supplies (listed above) – Yes, even the small backpack – you’ll still need it for short hikes from the campground or campsite.
5. The Hazards of Backpacking Big Sur
Big Sur is a pretty safe place to hike. It has very few poisonous snakes or big predators, but there are still a few things you’ll want to watch out for.
Poison Oak is everywhere in the Big Sur region. Sometimes the trails are so narrow that it's impossible to avoid it. The plant has three broad leaves that are often covered in shiny oil, the irritant. Unfortunately, poison oak looks very similar to the harmless California Blackberry plant.
Wearing long sleeves and pants can prevent contact with it. Touching the leaves will set off a 6-8 hour itching session, which can be somewhat lessened by running the affected area under cold water. You can also take antihistamines to reduce the itch. If you forget what it looks like, remember the mantra “Leaves of Three, Let Them Be.”
Ticks are unavoidable, but you can prevent them from latching on by doing a thorough check after every hike. They like to hide near the warm, moist areas of the body, so check places like the armpits extra carefully. The Western Black Legged Tick is the most important one to avoid, as it’s the only species in the area that transmits Lyme disease .
Ticks hang on to plants and tall grasses, so there’s less risk of encountering them if you stay near the center of the trail. If you do find one on yourself after a hike, carefully remove it with a pair of tweezers.
Fortunately, they’re not a big problem in Big Sur, though several black bears have been spotted in recent years. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them, as impossible as that may seem. While hiking, make your presence known, and they should flee before you ever see them. If you do encounter one, remain calm, try to appear as large as possible, and slowly back away.
6. Big Sur Hiking Trails
Pfeiffer Falls & Valley View Overlook
Pfeiffer Falls and the Valley View Overlook are probably the most popular hikes in area and the one that any ranger or frequent visitor would suggest. The trailhead is located a quarter-mile up the road from the gift shop at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
This hike’s popularity is due to it being relatively easy, two miles out-and-back with only 450 feet of elevation. There are some steep spots towards the beginning of the hike, but they don’t last long and won’t tire most people out.
About half way up the trail is a fork, with the right side heading towards Pfeiffer Falls and the left towards Valley View. The hike is easy enough that you can do both in less than two hours, and they’re both worth seeing.
The path is wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side through the enchanting forest of redwoods. The Valley View is an Instagram-worthy overlook of the surrounding hills and the perfect spot to have a picnic in the forest. Pfeiffer Falls isn’t very big and is best visited during the spring runoff if you want to see much water coming down, but this hike is more about the journey than the destination.
Mount Manuel is a great hike for anyone who’s looking for a challenge and some serious elevation. The out-and-back trail climbs 3,050 feet in just over four and a half miles; the trail follows a consistent grade throughout, but it can still be grueling for anyone who’s physically unprepared.
The trail starts at the Pfeiffer State Park parking lot and makes it way through a series of switchbacks, flanked on either side by tall brush and shrubbery. Ticks are a major concern in this first section, so try to stay in the center of the trail and be sure to check yourself and your hiking partners thoroughly afterwards. As the trail climbs higher, it becomes more exposed, and the scenery opens up to showcase the lush green mountains.
The view from the summit is quite impressive, and is a fantastic opportunity to see the Big Sur Gorge and Little Sur Valley. Don’t expect to spot the waves of the Pacific though; mountains closer to the coast obstruct the views. There’s not a whole lot of shade along the trail, so it’s best to do this hike in the shoulder season or at least on a cooler day if possible.
While many trails in the Big Sur region highlight the forest and the mountains, the Bluffs Trail is where you go to see the coast. To get a quick look at the ocean, it’s only 0.7 miles from the trailhead near the Point Valley Ranger Station.
But there’s no need to stop there, as the trail extends 2.5 miles further down to the coast for those who are up for some adventure. If you do choose to extend your hike, it’s possible to make it a 6.5-mile loop trail that meanders back to the highway after following the coastal cliffs.
This route along the coast is not very well maintained and is loaded with poison oak during the summer. However, hikers with the protection of long pants will be rewarded with stunning sea views from the cliffs and a myriad of colorful wildflowers that cling to life along the windswept coasts.
7. Camping in Big Sur
No matter where you stay in the Big Sur area, there will likely be crowds in the summer. It’s one of the most popular camping areas in the most populous state in the U.S.
Plan ahead and book as early as possible, because they can fill up six months in advance. Fortunately, it’s easy to book some of the sites online using Reserve America.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
If you’re coming to Big Sur for the beach and the ocean, know that the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park has no access to it.
The park does have 189 sites that can accommodate tents or RV campers. The fee for the standard campsite is $35/night, but there are some riverfront sites that are $50.
All sites come with a fire pit, picnic table, and grill. There are no water and toilet hookups for RVs though, so you’ll need to walk to the communal bathrooms and taps nearby. Hot showers are available for $1 per three and a half minutes of water.
Andrew Molera State Park
Andrew Molera State Park is the campground you’ll want to stay at if you want beach access. It’s much smaller than Pfeiffer, with just 24 walk-in tent sites located a third of a mile from the parking area. The sites are first-come, first-served, and they cost $25 per night.
Sleeping in your vehicle is not allowed; you must camp in a tent in the designated sites, away from the parking lot.
All sites come with a fire ring, picnic table, and grill. Wood for campfires cannot be collected within the park and should be purchased beforehand at the park entrance.
Anyone who wants to build a campfire needs a state-issued permit, which can downloaded from the state’s website or picked up from any Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management Office.
To keep the fire under control, you’re also required to have a shovel and bucket of water for extinguishing it. While most wildfires in California are caused by lightning strikes, do your part to prevent any further fires. They have been particularly devastating to the state’s beautiful landscapes over the past decade.
8. Proper Planning is Key
A trip to Big Sur is sure to be a delightful experience for anyone, but proper planning will make the trip much more enjoyable. Whether you just want to head out for a quick hike or are staying overnight camping in Big Sur, consider how the crowds and weather will affect it.
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