The Big Sur - A Comprehensive Guide
      “Big Sur is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked at from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look” - H. Miller

GUIDE

This is going to be difficult to articulate by simply writing, "Go here and here," so I'm going to use maps to assist in detailing the variety of options Big Sur brings. As a local, it's important for me to provide sound recommendations and advise on my favorite spots to enjoy in the Big Sur, Santa Lucia Range.  

This article is separated (by images and headers) into four sections: 

CAMPING

POINTS OF INTEREST

BEACHES

HIKES

Camping in Big Sur

Camping in Big Sur is a rite of passage for every Californian. If nothing else, driving the PCH Big Sur coastline offers a tranquility respite, especially if you get to ride shotgun. I highly recommend cruising with all your windows down, sunroof open and some chill music blasted at full volume. I've put together a collection for two types of camping: 

Car Camping (Glamping) & Wilderness (Backpacking) Camping

If you want to camp and you don't have a reservation, which is typical among my group of amigos, I highly encourage you buy an Adventure Pass and be ready for some dispersed camping up Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. This is about a forty-five minute drive off the PCH Hwy 1, into the luminous Santa Lucia Range. After you reaching the peak, you'll encounter a fork in the road, one paved, the other dirt.  Taking the dirt road (to the right) that leads to dispersed campsites where basically you'll find any spot you can and pitch your tent. The paved road (to the left) leads to some more car camping options, though be warned, if it's bug season you'll be enjoying these sites with troves of insects and other critters. The further east you head, especially if it's summer, plan for hot weather.  I've car camped with my amigos and lady at the Ponderosa Campground in 100-degree heat.  Fortunately, many of those sites, though not all, have shade.  

CAR CAMPING

NORTHERN END OF BIG SUR

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park Campground (170 sites)The Big Sur experience most people want. A thick and towering redwood canopy, hundreds of acres of coastal oaks, chaparral and meadows, adjacent to the Ventana Wilderness's 200 miles of hiking trails. Walk-in's have a couple sites available, but be warned and consider the time of year you visit as all these sites typically get booked eons in advance. 

Andrew Molera Campground (24 sites) - No reservations needed here, but show up early if not days before the weekend to ensure you have a site. So north on the PCH Hwy 1 that it almost doesn't feel like you're in Big Sur. I've camped at Andrew Molera a couple times, it's always chill, but it's definitely not at the top of anyone's favorite list. First of all, if you're car camping, you don't want your car to be nearly a mile away from your campsite. You usually don't plan for dragging your gear to your site. Such is the case at Andrew Molera. You park in the dirt lot with all the beach going commoners and drag your crap out to your campsite, which most likely has a single tree, if you're lucky. There are couple sites with shade, but most of the sites have little to zero shade. Yeah, that totally sucks. Bring a canopy. But then the squirrels, dear god, the squirrels are insane here.  They are everywhere and they have no problem hanging out next to your feet, sometimes on you. One time, my buddies and I were hard chilling at our site when we heard one of the squirrel lookouts freakishly begin chirping and screeching. We looked to the west and like a scene from David Attenborough's Planet Earth, a Bobcat emerged from the scrub full sprint and tackled one of the squirrels hanging on the perimeter.  The Bobcat trotted back into the brush with dinner between the jowls. It is one of the coolest things I've ever seen. Everyone in the campground was sick of the squirrels constant harassment so seeing one sacrificed to mother nature resulted in the kind of applause reserved for winning the World Series. So yeah, Andrew Molera, it's hot, it's a bitch to walk into while dragging your gear (bring a wagon) offers little shade and too many people packed together.  But seeing that squirrel go down makes this place a solid 6/10. 

Big Sur Riverside Campground (22 sites) - I haven't stayed here, but it popped up on a deep dive, appears to be a privately owned and maintained camping and cabin area with 22 sites bookable online by shooting the owners an email or call (831-667-2414). Located on the northern most end of Big Sur, 22 miles south of Carmel.  Heads up though, these campsites, though perched on the creek, come at a premium ($60 a night on river, $55 off-river--yay, savings).  

Bottchers Gap Campground (11 sites) No reservations required, first-come first-served - Another site I haven't stayed at, but has pretty great reviews. Oak studded with grills, fire rings and picnic tables.  Bring your own firewood. Located 8 miles inland off the PCH Hwy 1 on Palo Colorado Road, 11 miles south of Carmel. This is also like Andrew Molera where you have to walk-in your gear, so be aware of this when you plan to stay here. No water. Bring copious bug spray, this isn't a joke.

MIDWAY BIG SUR

Lime Kiln Creek Campground (24 sites) - My favorite Big Sur car camping ground. Has two dozen sites, all booked pretty much the moment they become bookable in early May. This is one of those places where if you luck out, you can get a campsite right on the beach and hear two forms of water in sonic kinship from your sleeping bag, an ocean crashing and a low, sweet creek rabble. When I die, scatter my ashes here. This is as close to Earthen heaven as available for mankind. Choose sites between coastal chaparral and tropical forest.  

Plaskett Creek Campground (43 sites) Grassy car camping at its finest. Possibly the most frequented campground in Big Sur, adjacent to one of the most popular and beautiful beaches (Plaskett Beach) in California. For people like myself, who hate camping in close proximity to neighbors, this isn't really my bag. Nevertheless, Plaskett is an institutional campground. This is the kind of place you take your friend or partner who despises the very idea of camping, where it feels almost like you're sleeping in your backyard instead of nature. But hey, that's cool, sometimes all you want is to be near the ocean and still, you're in Big Sur. And being anywhere in Big Sur is like having pizza on an airline--is it the best pizza you've ever had? Fuck no, but it's still pizza. Is camping in Plaskett Creek the best place to enjoy Big Sur, eh, could be argued, it comes down to preference and the kind of camping experience you're going for. You do get some toasty fire rings, picnic benches, flushable toilets (I know right? What is this Hearst Castle luxury nonsense--if I can't crap in the woods, I'm not camping) and lots of pavement.    

Kirk Creek Campground (32 sites) - 32 sites available with no water available. Good luck trying to get in. It's one of the big camping draws here, and like Plaskett or Lime Kiln it is filled pretty much the day that reservations are made available in May. Sites are on the ocean and adjacent to the Nacimiento Road ridge access. Beautiful sites, but unless you book early, there's a slim chance you'll get to stay here.  

EASTERN SIDE OF BIG SUR

Ponderosa Campground (23 sites) - Requires about an hour and twenty minutes of driving from turning off the PCH Hwy 1, heading up Nacimiento Road to the other side of the Santa Lucia Range. This is Big Sur's underdog camping area, but still offers wonderful Big Sur experiences to those unable to score a first string car camping ground (Lime Kiln, Plaskett Creek, Kirk Creek, etc.). The second string campground for when everywhere else is packed. The lady and I have camped here a few times and enjoyed taking in the copious wildlife, we were once obsessed with a sweet snake we found hanging in an adjacent creek bed. It's hot as hell here usually, but there are a lot of sites available, be sure you bring bug spray and tons of water. 

Nacimiento Campground (8 sites) No reservation required, but remember this is on the other side of the mountain - Requires about an hour and twenty minutes of driving from turning off the PCH Hwy 1, heading up Nacimiento Road to the other side of the Santa Lucia Range. Another second string set of 8 sites, typically frequented by people escaping the armies of glampers at the usually filled campgrounds, nevertheless Nacimiento Campground brings the chill. Tall gnarled oaks provide shade, if it has been a rainy year, you can expect water in the creek. Be aware, it gets hot as Hades here in the summer so pack tons of water and bug spray.  Serious about the bug spray, folks. Mosquitos love Big Sur wilderness as much as us. 

BACKPACKING (WILDERNESS) CAMPING

There are many campsites available in Big Sur's Ventana Wilderness, still part of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range.  I've tracked down a perfect map for your camping needs. All the red dots on the map below are camping areas, though the sites further into the green are, of course, backpacking campsites, which means you'll need to hike-in your gear, usually this is attached to a couple to few mile hike.  Super chill and totally do-able. The benefit to these sites is that they are often the most beautiful, remote and enjoyable places to camp in Big Sur. You can sleep next to a creek and under a supple redwood forest in two different evenings. The giant camping map below shows all the below car-camping sites also.

Right-click and save the map (below). This is your new Big Sur best friend. It's a huge image viewable in great detail. Just about every wilderness campsite is listed. These are the best places and ways to experience Big Sur. 

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Scenic Vistas & Places to Stop

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I was tempted to start rattling off favorite places to stop, but thankfully the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce has already done the heavy lifting and produced the sweet scenic and places to stop map, to the right. If you aren't into camping there are hotels, inns and resorts available for you.

If you want to totally go balls out, stay at the Post Ranch Inn or Treebones Resort. Expect to pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars per night here. You only live once. Look them up, you get what you pay for. 

Some of my favorite stops include the Elephant Seal Rookery by San Simeon, Bixby Bridge, the Ventana Wildlife Discovery Center and Henry Miller Library. If you're hungry, stop at Nepenthe Restaurant, which hangs on a cliff and enjoy the spectacular views down the coast. Arrive in January and you're in luck, you can witness Humpback whales on the Pacific horizon heading south on their annual migration. 

One of my favorite places for hard chilling is Big Sur River Inn, where you grab a brew and bite and hang on their massive lawn on one of their Adirondack chairs listening to the Big Sur river cascade toward the Pacific. It's one of the chillest places in California. I once came here and the cottonwoods were dropping white fibers from the sky like a mid-summer snow.

An indelible memory.  

A classic pit-stop is Gorda, the main center of town market, where you restock brews, wine or snacks for the road ahead. I always recommend people bring their own food on this trek. The restaurants along the PCH, although magnificently curated, are expensive and I've never had a truly memorable meal other than experiences associated with the views.

Hell, my lady and I have drifted up the PCH just to make breakfast under the redwoods on a propane camping grill.

Another timeless experience. 

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Big Sur & Central Coast Beaches

I could provide you with another laundry list of locations and you'd have to fight your way through the list and figure out where on the drive these places are, or I could do the smart thing of providing a sweet map that shows all the beaches available on this stretch of California. Basically, if you want to hit the beach, you're looking at all locations between San Simeon and Point Lobos. 

Some of my favorites are:

  • Garrapata Beach (2 miles of sand) 
  • Jade Cove
  • Andrew Molera Beach
  • Pfeiffer Beach
  • Sand Dollar Beach
  • Willow Creek Beach

Many thanks to the fine people at California's Best Beaches for putting this map together.

Keep in mind that although Big Sur beaches are beautiful, they aren't the typical sandy expanses you imagine when thinking of California beaches. Expect the water here to be colder than the Southern California Pacific, the beaches are nevertheless wonderful expanses of cliffs, redwoods, coastal oaks and chaparral perfect for your mental escape. 

Great Big Sur Hikes

The true authority on Big Sur hikes is Big Sur Trailmap .net. The site has trail and wilderness campsite conditions with active trail reporting by everyday hikers.  

Big Sur Trailmaps has a wonderful interactive trail condition map found here which is somewhat mobile friendly.

Big Sur's hiking highlights.

Consider the Ventana Wilderness contains over 200 miles of hiking trails. I'll break down some of the critically praised and notable Big Sur hikes from the most strenuous to moderate and easy day hikes. Each hike links to a page with greater detail and directions to the hike. 

FEEL THE DIFFICULT BURN (STRENUOUS) 

Rocky Ridge and Soberanes Canyon

Cone Peak Sea to Sky Trail (12 miles roundtrip) 

Tanbark Trail & Tin House (5.6 miles roundtrip)

Vincent Flat Trail (4 - 10.2 miles roundtrip)

MODERATE CHILL

Ewoldson Trail (4.6 miles roundtrip)

The Ridge, Panorama and Bluffs Loop (7.5 miles roundtrip)

Mill Creek Trail (3.2 miles roundtrip)

Salmon Creek Trail (6.5 miles roundtrip)

Cruickshank Trail (6 miles roundtrip)

EASY CHILL

Pfeiffer Falls / Valley View Trails (2 miles)

Lime Kiln Creek (3 miles roundtrip)

McWay Waterfall Trail (0.64 miles roundtrip)

Pacific Valley Bluff Trail (0.7 miles roundtrip)

Sand Dollar Beach Trail (0.7 miles roundtrip)

Jade Cove Trail (1.5 miles roundtrip)

Partington Cove Trail (1 mile roundtrip)

Soda Springs Trail (1 mile roundtrip)

Willow Creek Trail (3.6 miles roundtrip)

Rocky Ridge and Soberanes Canyon

The Californist would love to hear from you in the comment section. If you enjoyed this resource or found it helpful, please share the content by hitting one of the buttons below or sending a link. 

Let us know about your favorite places to camp or stop along the PCH, we're always on the lookout for new adventures.