Ah Big Sur, a heavenly California getaway for anyone seeking some wilderness refuge, fresh coastal air, and the camping trip of a lifetime.
Big Sur has been a popular destination to escape to for years and years. The stars of Los Angeles would (and still do) frequently retreat to this strip of land to get off the grid for a while, and soon tourists began flocking to the area for the pristine bit of the Golden State, too.
Home to tons of California stars and those few lucky locals, Big Sur is a popular place to visit for its picturesque landscapes, abundance of wildlife, and relaxed atmosphere.
Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about Big Sur camping, from tents and RVs to the most luxurious experiences in this little slice of paradise.
- 1 How to Get to Big Sur
- 2 Best Time to Go Camping in Big Sur
- 3 Best Places to Camp in Big Sur (Big Sur Campgrounds & Fees)
- 4 Best Hotels in Big Sur: Alternatives to Camping
- 5 Best Hikes & Trails in Big Sur
- 6 Things to Do in Big Sur Besides Hiking
- 7 Big Sur Camping: Safety Tips
- 8 What to Pack for Big Sur Camping
How to Get to Big Sur
Big Sur is located on the central California coast, just south of Carmel. The area is surrounded by the great Ventana Wilderness Area and the Los Padres National Forest, as well as the wide open Pacific Ocean.
Getting to Big Sur can be a little bit tricky, especially if you’re traveling from outside of the United States. Here are some pointers for locating this idyllic Californian getaway destination.
The closest airport to Big Sur is Monterey Airport, which is located just 30 miles from the Big Sur Valley. It is a small airport and generally only gets traffic from Denver, Vegas, and Phoenix. If you plan on flying all the way, you should take a flight into either San Jose or San Francisco International Airports before hopping on a commuter flight to Monterey.
Alternatively, you can fly into San Francisco or San Jose and rent a car to drive to Big Sur. This may end up being both more economical and convenient than taking the second flight.
San Jose is located 120 miles from Big Sur while San Francisco is 150. You can rent a car at either airport (just be sure to book ahead of time!), and drop it off at the same place at the end of your trip.
Having a car is pretty essential for visiting Big Sur as most things are quite spread out. Plus, there’s nothing quite as amazing as taking a drive down the coastal Highway 1. Renting a car is certainly the best way to make the most of your Big Sur experience once you touch down in California!
Best Time to Go Camping in Big Sur
One of the best parts about Big Sur is that it’s pretty much glorious year round.
That said, the stretch of coastline is busiest between April and October. During high season, you’re bound to get caught up in crowded trails, busy campsites, and everything else that comes along with people swarming to a beautiful place.
If you can visit in early spring or late fall, you’ll have a much calmer place to enjoy, especially if you avoid weekends. No matter when your trip is, it’s a good idea to avoid weekends as you’ll have campers and locals who have come out to enjoy the sights.
Best Places to Camp in Big Sur (Big Sur Campgrounds & Fees)
There’s an abundance of places to camp in Big Sur, whether you’re looking for a simple tent pitch or a more luxury glamping experience. But one thing all of these places have in common is that you need to book far in advance to reserve your space.
Most campsites (and general Big Sur accommodation) can be reserved up to six months ahead of time, as visitors ensure their spot for when peak season rolls around. No matter where you choose, be sure to reserve your place now!
To help you pick your camping spot, here are some of the best places you can camp in and around Big Sur.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
With 189 RV and tent pitches, bring your motorhome or just your tent to enjoy the great outdoors of Big Sur.
Each campsite at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park comes complete with a spot to park your vehicle, a picnic table, fire pit, and grill. You’ll also have access to the bathrooms that are outfitted with toilets, showers, and a dump station for RVs.
This campsite is one of the most popular ones in Big Sur so booking far in advance is your best bet of securing a spot — reservations open up six months ahead of time! You’ll have the choice of a standard campsite or a premium one that sits along the riverfront. The choice is yours!
There are tons to explore near the Pfeiffer campground, including Mcway Falls, a 60-foot waterfall, and dozens of trails that snake through the California redwoods.
At Pfeiffer, you’re looking at paying between $35 to $50 per night. Each campsite accommodates up to eight people, and dogs are welcome too.
Limekiln State Park
Want to sleep next to the ocean, under the stars, and wake up surrounded by massive redwoods? Then be sure to stop by Limekiln for some of the best beach camping in Big Sur.
With 33 campsites, this is another popular area for travelers to spend the night. It’s an insanely gorgeous spot, with sprawling beach views and the wooded forest right at your back. When you’re not sleeping, you can spend some time wandering the nearby area to discover limekiln ruins and Limekiln Falls, or go on beach hikes.
Similar to the other campsites in Big Sur, if you want to stay at Limekiln, you must book as far in advance as possible. Reservations open six months before the date, so you’re going to want to secure your spot or be sorry you missed out!
Each campsite comes complete with a fire pit and picnic table, and costs $35 per night.
Andrew Molera State Park
Headed to Big Sur more spontaneously and booking six months out just doesn’t work for you? Well, all 24 campsites at Andrew Molera State Park are first-come, first-served and have a scenic view to boot.
To access the grassy meadow that houses the campsites, you’ll have to walk ⅓ mile from the parking area. That means this isn’t the best place to come if you’re car-camping or traveling with an RV or motorhome.
On the flip side, this is a glorious place to come and set up a tent, as it’s certainly a quieter site in Big Sur.
Each campsite is outfitted with a picnic table, fire pit and grill, as well as a food storage bin. There are restrooms nearby and large garbage bins so you can dispose of waste properly.
It’s a basic place, but somewhere worth camping if you don’t want anything fancy and are looking to get back to nature for a bit!
Kirk Creek Campground
For the best ocean views, Kirk Creek is the place you want to be. Sitting right on the bluff overlooking the Pacific, you’ll have beach, greenery, and rocky views in your vision as you chill out at your campsite.
The campground has 34 sites spread out, many along the cliff’s edge to take in the sprawling landscape right in front of you. There’s no water or dump stations on site but there is a vault toilet for your personal needs.
Half of the sites are reservation-based, while the other half are first-come, first-served. Each site costs $35 per night — completely worth it for one of the best views in Big Sur!
For an upscale, once-in-a-lifetime glamping experience, Treebones Resort is the place to be. Take your pick of unique lodging — the decked out Yurts, human nests and huts made from twigs, or an autonomous tent designed to be like a cliffside cocoon.
There are also standard tent sites that boasts gorgeous ocean views available, if you don’t mind bringing your own gear.
Treebones stays true to its name, with a resort-like atmosphere complete with a pool and hot tub, yoga offerings, and massages on site! There are two restaurants on the compound serving up three meals a day, one even being a sushi bar. Pretty luxurious, huh?
Trails to the beach and through the Redwoods are a short walk away, but it’s gonna cost ya. Standard tent sites at Treebones start at $95, while yurts and an autonomous tent can reach up to more than $500! Book early to enjoy a little slice of paradise.
Free Camping in Big Sur
Since Big Sur camping is anything but cheap, I thought I’d let you in on a little secret. There’s free camping in the area! However, you must be very cautious about where you camp and always follow the principles of Leave No Trace.
Camping off forest service roads was all the rage in Big Sur until recently, when locals and the authorities grew sick of spontaneous campsites and growing rubbish piles popping up all over the sides of Highway 1.
Thus, there has since been a crackdown and while free camping isn’t what it once was in Big Sur, there are still a few places you can check out to stay without paying.
The service roads running through the Los Padres National Forest are some of the most popular places to camp for free in Big Sur, with roads like Los Burros and Plaskett Ridge drawing small crowds looking for somewhere to spend the night.
Los Padres is also home to Nacimiento-Ferguson Road which was generally filled with tons of off-road campers. However, due to the Big Sur mudslides in 2017, it was made illegal to camp here. While it may be tempting, you could face up to a $5,000 fine if you’re caught sleeping here, so best to stick to other service roads in the area.
If you do choose to camp for free in Big Sur, it’s of the utmost importance that you are responsible, careful, and leave no trace! Be sure to be at least 70 steps away from a water source to use the bathroom, carry out all of the trash you bring in, and avoid using fire if possible!
The last thing you want to do is cause a wildfire, which is entirely plausible if you’re burning an open flame in the woods of Big Sur. Be smart, be cautious, and enjoy yourself!
Best Hotels in Big Sur: Alternatives to Camping
Want to enjoy Big Sur without the mosquitos and gas stoves? There are plenty of hotels and other accommodation options in the area, where you can spend cozy nights after adventuring during the day.
Carmel Valley Lodge
A nice option that’s at a lower price point is the Carmel Valley Lodge. Located a scenic drive from Big Sur, the property is surrounded by mountains and greenery that’s sure to make for an unforgettable stay.
Each spacious room comes with a private patio either overlooking the pool or garden, along with a full bathroom, cable TV, and a fireplace. Enjoy a continental breakfast before setting out on your adventures for the day, and be sure to come back for a quick dip in the pool to relax afterwards.
Just a short walk away is the Carmel Valley Village where you can find wine tasting, restaurants and shops galore. Although it’s an hour away from Big Sur, it’s one of the best places to stay in the area without breaking the bank.
Ventana Big Sur
If you want to stay right in Big Sur and don’t mind spending a pretty penny, spring for a room at Ventana, an Alila Resort.
The rooms boast views of ocean, forest or canyon that are sure to dazzle as soon as you wake up in the morning. Each bathroom has a shower and a tub, not to mention all of the fluffy towels you could dream of. Some rooms come complete with a hot tub on the deck or a fireplace, so choose wisely!
When you’re not in your room (although how could you leave?), enjoy either the heated pools or the Japanese hot bath, and then climb out for a delicious meal at one of their two restaurants. There are complimentary yoga classes, tours around the property, wine tastings and an on-site art gallery.
If you’re going to stay in style while in Big Sur, I recommend you do it here.
Post Ranch Inn
It’s nearly impossible to make a list of the best hotels in Big Sur without a mention of Post Ranch Inn. It’s easy to understand why when you see the sweeping cliff-top views from the property and its rustic-modern architecture.
The cushy guest rooms have giant windows that bring in views of the ocean or redwoods, along with accessible outdoor space and sometimes a private outdoor tub! Gorgeously built and seeming to blend into the surrounding landscape, a stay at the Post Ranch Inn will be nothing short of remarkable.
Your booking includes extras like a daily gourmet buffet breakfast and a fully-stocked mini-bar, as well as guest activities like outdoor yoga, nature walks, and star gazing to take in Big Sur’s best.
The property also has a complete spa and world-class dining options that are sure to blow you away.
The one thing the rooms at Post Ranch don’t have are TVs and alarm clocks — but that’s a good thing! You can better take in the beautiful surroundings, free from modern-day distractions.
Best Hikes & Trails in Big Sur
Big Sur is nothing short of renowned when it comes to hiking trails and breathtaking viewpoints in the area. One minute, ginormous redwoods are looming over your head and the next you’re looking down at a white sand beach and expansive ocean.
While no trail in Big Sur will disappoint, here are some of the best hikes to see the best of the best!
Note: Due to the past mudslides and other damaging weather events in California, some trails may be closed or limited. Be sure to double check the specific trail’s accessibility before setting out!
McWay Waterfall Trail
Distance: 0.64 mile | Difficulty: Easy
A Big Sur must, this easy hike, totalling 0.64 miles in a short round-trip, brings you to the viewing area for the McWay falls and the beautiful California coast. McWay falls is an 80-foot Big Sur waterfall that lands directly on the beach in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, making for an unforgettable view.
You’ll get stunning sights of the crystal clear ocean and a pristine beach hidden in a cove below, as well as expansive rocky views along the level trail.
This is certainly a hike that can’t be missed, especially because it’s so quick and easy!
Getting There: McWay Falls has its own parking area in close proximity to the start of the trail. After parking your car, walk back the way you came towards Highway 1 and you’ll find a sign pointing you towards the Overlook / Waterfall Trail / Pelton Wheel.
Follow this sign and you’ll end up in a path that goes through a tunnel under the highway. After the tunnel, you’ll emerge and be facing the ocean, with the path leading to the falls just a few yards away.
Distance: 4.5 miles | Difficulty: Easy – Hard
Located in the heart of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, this glorious trail is a bit of a climb but with views that are definitely worth it.
A solid 4.5 miles, Ewoldsen Trail follows the McWay Creek through giant redwood forests and picturesque coastal ledges to the top, for an unparalleled view of Big Sur. You get a little bit of everything the area has to offer with this hike, so it’s a great way to compliment the quick McWay Waterfall Trail mentioned above.
Getting There: Ewoldsen and McWay Waterfalls share a parking lot, furthering the ease of visiting both places in one go. To access Ewoldsen Trail, keep your eyes peeled for a sign near the east side of the parking lot pointing you to the “Ewoldsen/Canyon Trail.”
After following the sign, you’ll end up on the trail right away, and be surrounded by vast redwoods immediately.
Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View
Distance: 2 Miles | Difficulty: Easy – Medium
Big Sur certainly has a lot of waterfalls and Pfeiffer Falls should be paid a visit if this is what you’re into. The hike to the falls is on the shorter side and is easy enough, making for a fun outing when you have a few hours to enjoy the wilderness.
The waterfall is right in a canyon of redwoods, making for quite the scene. And a few steps further, you’ll get to a great lookout where you’ll get to appreciate the Big Sur River Valley in all of its glory.
With two great sights in one, it’s no wonder Pfeiffer Falls always makes the Big Sur hiking lists.
Getting There: You can start the Pfeiffer Falls & Valley View hike in two different areas, depending on where you parked your car.
After parking, if you entered the park and turned right, you’ll end up on a road that leads away from Highway 1 into the Big Sur wilderness. Following this for a few minutes should lead you to a marker signaling the beginning of the trail.
Alternatively, if you went straight after entering the park, you should walk back along the road until you see a sign for the trail entrance opposite the lodge on your right-hand side.
Andrew Molera State Park
Distance: 8.8 miles | Difficulty: Long but fairly easy
This gorgeous state park holds over 20 miles of hiking trails, a beautiful beach, and more wildlife than you can imagine.
For a truly memorable experience, take the loop which is a 9-mile hike filled with panoramic views of bluff and beach. You’ll cross over a coastal ridge and be faced with all the beauty of Big Sur, before descending to the local beaches for a quick swim.
This is a great hike to take if you’re looking for some sandy solitude as plenty of the beaches along the way are quite remote.
Even if you don’t take the loop, give the park a gander to see some splendid California nature. There’s truly nothing like it!
Getting There: After leaving your car in the parking area, you should keep your eyes out for a sign saying “Creamery Meadow Trail to Beach / Trail Camp Entrance North End of Parking Lot.” Walk towards the ocean and then cross the bridge going over the Big Sur River.
Once you get across the river, walk left (south) following the River Trail until you get to a junction. Follow the signs for the Creamery Trail on the right and walk until you hit the beach. After, you should walk back to the trail and follow the Ridge Trail, which will let out to the Bluffs Trail on the right.
This should put you right on the loop, which eventually links up with the Panorama Trail which will give you great views of Point Sur and the famed lighthouse.
Continue following the trail until it loops back around to the Ridge Trail and eventually the Creamery Meadow Trail again.
It may seem a bit tricky finding your way on this loop, but follow the signs and you should be all good!
Sand Dollar Beach
Distance: 0.7 mile | Difficulty: Easy
It’s indisputable that one of the best beaches in Big Sur is Sand Dollar. As one of the longest beaches in the area, Sand Dollar is the perfect place to spend a day soaking in the sun and lounging by the Pacific Ocean.
To start your day of relaxation, take a quick half-mile hike to the beach, but be ready to be impressed on the way. You’ll come to two scenic viewpoints before reaching the beach that boasts rocky overlooks and water as far as the eye can see.
Sand Dollar is the perfect way to combine exercise with relaxation, so what are you waiting for?
Getting There: Park at the designated parking area, and look for a sign and steps that lead to the ocean. Walk straight on the gravel path towards the beach!
Before actually hitting the beach, hit the trail on the right. It leads to an overlook with views of the whole beach, complete with whales and dolphins migrating along the coast.
Distance: 5 – 10 miles | Difficulty: Hard
A last solid hike in Big Sur is a longer one that ventures into Silver Peak Wilderness. The Cruickshank Trail can be anywhere from 5 to nearly 10 miles of walking along gorgeous ridges, flanked with ocean views and large redwood groves.
This hike is definitely tougher due to the elevation gain and steep trail, but it’s well worth it as it’s filled with lush greenery, tantalizing bodies of water, and some of the most stunning coastal views. That is why you came to Big Sur in the first place, isn’t it?
Make a day out of it and enjoy hiking the best of Big Sur!
Getting There: After parking, head for the sign pointing you in the direction of the Cruickshank Trail and follow the direction point in. You’ll have to hike a bit for the views, but nothing’s better than an overlook after a ton of strenuous switchbacks!
Things to Do in Big Sur Besides Hiking
Not a big hiker? No worries, there’s plenty to do in Big Sur and the surrounding areas to keep anyone entertained.
Visit Bixby Creek Bridge
Basically the Golden Gate Bridge but for Big Sur, the Bixby Creek Bridge cannot be missed while visiting Big Sur. This iconic structure is right on the coastline of Highway 1, and with tons of turnouts, visitors are able to park their car to enjoy the views.
The bridge crosses a canyon carved out by Bixby Creek. So, on one side, you’ve got lush mountains and on the other you have the expansive Pacific ocean.
An ideal place for sunrise, sunset, or anytime in between, it’s not a trip to Big Sur without a stop here.
Take a Scenic Drive Along Highway 1
So you’re on Highway 1 to check out Bixby Creek Bridge… why not keep driving?
Highway 1 is without a doubt one of the most scenic highways in the world. With coastal views that you’ve only dreamt of, this stretch of road curves through the California mountains and is truly a sight to behold.
If you’re looking for something to do, take a long drive along the highway. No matter which direction you choose, you’ll be able to see the remarkable landscape, but you may want to drive from south to north to be on the inside of the curves!
Watch the Sunset at Point Sur Lighthouse
For a little bit of California culture and a touch of history along with great views, head to the Point Sur lighthouse to catch a sunset.
This lighthouse is a California State HIstoric Landmark and is a lovely place to visit as you’re passing through the area. You can take a guided tour (offered on a first-come, first-served basis) to learn the history and explore the structure sitting right on the Pacific.
Just be sure to bring along a jacket because it gets super chilly out there!
Hit the Beach
What would a trip to California be without hitting the beach? The beaches in Big Sur absolutely cannot be missed as they’re some of the most glorious in the United States.
Soft white sand, secluded coves, and a deep blue ocean, take your choice from the abundance of beaches just waiting to be discovered. Some notable ones are Sand Dollar, Pfeiffer Beach, Limekiln State Park, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Pop into a Few Vineyards for Some Wine
Besides the beaches, California is also known for making some unbelievable wine. There are plenty of vineyards in the Big Sur area, many of which have tasting rooms and tours available to eager guests.
Spend a day hopping between Californian wineries to get to know the renowned reds and whites that come from the area.
Big Sur Camping: Safety Tips
Camping in Big Sur is generally pretty safe, so you have little to worry about by way of hazards. That said, you should still have your eyes peeled for a few things.
Big Sur is packed with poison oak so you’re bound to encounter it at some point or another. The best way to avoid being covered in an itchy red rash is to remember the saying “leaves of three, let them be”, and stay away from any of the plant you’ve spotted.
If you do end up coming into contact with poison oak, be sure to wash the area with soap and cold water ASAP and try to prevent touching it. Wash anything that you were wearing or that may have come into contact with the plant, and you should be safe from it spreading any further.
Most of the time, ticks are unavoidable but it’s still important to protect yourself from them and the other bugs that are all over Big Sur.
First, always wear bug spray to prevent those little buggers from climbing onto you. It also helps to wear high socks and extra protection on your legs and arms if you’re hiking through heavily wooded areas.
Next, you should always check yourself and anyone you’re with (including your dogs!) for ticks throughout the day — and especially before you go to sleep. Ticks like to hide in warm, dark places to check in all of the little cracks and crevices. Don’t forget to check behind your ears!
While not super common, Big Sur is home to rattlesnakes, which tend to blend in with their surroundings. You’re more likely to see them while hiking than just out in the open, but you best stay as far away from them as possible because they’re poisonous.
Rattlesnakes tend to camouflage themselves in the similarly colored dirt that surrounds them, but more than anything, they like warm open areas. You can find them basking in the middle of trails or getting some rays on a sunwarmed rock.
Keep your eyes peeled and stay alert, these little guys can be anywhere!
Mountain Lions & Black Bears
… oh my! While it’s extremely rare to encounter either of these animals while in Big Sur, they do live in the surrounding wilderness, and have been spotted from time to time.
If you come across a mountain lion or bear, avoid contact and back away slowly. Make yourself appear to be larger by raising your limbs, speaking loudly, and throwing branches or stones in the animal’s direction. Avoid swift movements and try to exit the situation without bending down or turning your back.
Be safe and use common sense!
Besides run-ins with Big Sur’s active wildlife, you should also practice basic safety by always hiking with a companion, only making fires in approved places (and putting it out completely and properly after the fact!), and following the principles of Leave No Trace.
We’ve only got one earth, so we must take care of it!
What to Pack for Big Sur Camping
There are a few things you’re definitely going to want to remember to pack for your Big Sur adventure to make the most of your trip to the beautiful California wilderness.
First thing’s first: basic shelter. It’s important to have a tent to go camping in Big Sur to protect you from the elements and keep you nice and cozy at night.
I’d recommend bringing a lightweight tent, just in case there’s a bit of walking to get to the campsite. This way you won’t be weighed down, and can comfortably haul your tent wherever it needs to go!
Read More: Best Backpacking Tents
Alright so tent, check. Now, for the sleeping bag. Be sure to choose one that’s suitable for the time of year you’ll be visiting! The last thing you want is to wake up drenched in sweat or worse — shivering.
Go for a three-season sleeping bag so you can use it comfortably in Big Sur and for camping trips in the future. This is one of my favorites!
Read More: Best Lightweight Sleeping Bags
To keep yourself well-fed, bring along a camp stove and any cookware you may need to whip up the perfect campsite meal. I’d also recommend bringing along an extra bottle of propane, just in case something happens to the first one or you end up needing a bit more than planned.
After a gorgeous sunset, Big Sur gets dark quickly.
While camping, you’ll certainly need some light after the sun goes down, so bring a headlamp or lantern to keep your space lit up. Both of these options allow you to have light hands-free, as opposed to a traditional flashlight that needs to be held. Just saying!
If you pack one thing for Big Sur, pack bug spray! The place is basically a feeding ground for mosquitoes and ticks, so it’s important to protect yourself from those nasty pests.
Sitting right on the Pacific coast, it’s nearly impossible to visit Big Sur without a dip in the ocean. Pack a bathing suit so you can jump in the water and swim to your heart’s content. I promise you won’t regret this one!
Weather in Big Sur can be highly unpredictable, so it’s in your best interests to pack a raincoat.
I personally bring a raincoat with me almost everywhere I go, and it’s easy if you have one that’s lightweight and compressible. This raincoat is easy to throw in your bag and forget about until the time comes. Then you’ll be thanking yourself a million times over when you’re protected from an unexpected downpour.
Big Sur gets hot, hot, hot and with all the hiking that’s in your future, you better bring a water bottle (or two) to keep yourself hydrated along the way.
There are so many different bottles to choose from, whether you want something that’s insulated, collapsible, or just holds a ton. I’m a total Nalgene person, what about you?
Read More: Best Water Bottles for Travel
If you don’t plan on spending your entire trip at your campground, you should bring along a versatile day pack to store necessities for all of your adventures.
Throw in a water bottle, raincoat, and anything else you may need for a day on the trails or by the ocean. I particularly like this daypack because it folds up when not in use!
Finally, you are going to want to bring along your hiking boots as there’s a ton of Big Sur ground to cover.
The trails here are truly something remarkable, so don’t miss out on the best by not packing appropriate shoes! Just remember to break them in beforehand to avoid uncomfortable blisters after a long day on your feet.
Want to make sure you’ve really got everything?
Check out our camping packing list!
Big Sur is seriously one of the most gorgeous places on earth, and no pictures will ever be able to do it justice. From hiking to beaching to everything in between, there’s no shortage of what you can do on a camping trip to the California wilderness.
I guess you’ll just have to pack up your backpack and stash your tent. It’s time to discover all that the Big Sur wilderness has to offer.
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