How to Plan the Perfect Big Sur Camping Trip

Tent on field by sea during sunset
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A wild stretch of California coastline tucked between ocean and mountains, Big Sur is any camper’s dream destination. This section of the Golden State is known for its towering redwood forests and rugged natural beauty, making it one of the most popular camping destinations on the west coast and the perfect place to unplug from everyday life. If you’re thinking about turning a well-deserved weekend into a memorable camping vacation at Big Sur, we’ve got all the tips and tricks you’ll need to start planning. 

Start Out Early

You’ll find Big Sur about 140 miles south of San Francisco, west of the Santa Lucia Mountains. And if the ideal camping conditions don’t convince you, maybe the stunning drive along California’s famed Highway 1 (also known as the Pacific Coast Highway) will be reason enough. As you're planning, be sure to take traffic into account. Thanks to its isolated location, Big Sur is notorious for traffic delays, especially in the summer months between June and August. Start out early for the drive there, especially if you plan on stopping.

Despite the potential traffic, the drive to Big Sur is just as idyllic as the location, offering some of the state's most gorgeous views. If coming from the south, take a visit to Hearst Castle or San Simeon to see the beach's famous wild elephant seals. From the north, Carmel or Santa Cruz are both incredible places to stop along the way.

Plan Accommodations Well in Advance

There are a few options for camping in Big Sur, from state parts to private campgrounds (and even glamping). According to the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, camping on the side of the road along Highway 1 is illegal, and there are several signs posted affirming this in the area. Same goes for Nacimiento-Ferguson Road, which was previously a popular spot for visitors to score free camping. Most campsites sell out months in advance, so you should start checking online for reservations six months in advance if you have a specific date in mind. Even if you have your heart set on areas that don’t offer reservations for campsites, have a backup plan just in case. 

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Coveted spots inside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park can (and will) fill up six months in advance, no matter what time of year. There’s a good reason why, since this campground offers everything you could ever want in a California coastal location. Stunning mountain views, proximity to the beach, and severalhiking trails to choose from within walking distance from camp. 

Andrew Molera State Park

A little rougher than Pfeiffer, nearby Andrew Molera State Park is a first-come-first-serve campground with about 24 sites. There aren’t any showers, but facilities come with toilets and drinking water available. Be aware that there is a maximum of four people allowed in one campsite at a time.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Just south of the center of Big Sur on the coastal side, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is reserved for campers who truly want to get away from it all. There are only two campsites available inside the whole park, and both are by reservation only, so needless to say they fill up pretty far in advance. Both spots are also walk in only, meaning you’ll have to bring all of your equipment on foot.

Limekiln State Park

On the very south end of Big Sur, Limekiln State Park offers 33 campsites with both restrooms and showers available. A number of campsites at Limekiln have ocean views, though the other sites are still stunning with a grove of redwood trees and a year round creek nearby. Be sure to check out the 1.4 mile trail to the waterfall if you’re up for a moderate hike here.

Kirk Creek Campground

Beachside camping doesn’t get any better than at Kirk Creek Campground, which boasts ocean views from each of its 40 campsites. The sites sit on a bluff overlooking the Pacific about 100 feet high, and sites are first-come-first-serve. While there is a rocky beach below, it's worth a short five-mile drive from the campground to visit the large stretch of sand at Sand Dollar Beach.

Big Sur Campground & Cabins

Big Sur Campground & Cabins is one of the most popular options for those traveling with families. A bit pricier than state park camping, this spot had clean bathrooms with hot water showers and even a little store to buy snacks and coffee (as well as the usual firewood and bags of ice). A large playground in the middle of the property makes this place perfect for children.

Fernwood Campground and Resort

Big Sur’s well rounded option for accommodations, guests at Fernwood Campground and Resort have the classic options of tent camping or RV hookups available, along with a motel, forest cabins, tent cabins, and a glamping style “Adventure Tent.” The adjoining restaurant and tavern are local hangouts for Big Sur’s few full time residents, and there is also a general store stocked with essentials and camping supplies.

Creek near Big Sur Campgrounds & Cabins

Katherine Gallagher

Explore the Trails

There truly is no better way to experience the beauty of Big Sur’s forested surroundings than by utilizing one of its many hiking trails. Big Sur has an overwhelming number of trails to choose from, so it's best to pick just one or two to tackle during the weekend. There are excellent options near every camping accommodation in Big Sur, so don’t be afraid to ask around for a map or recommendations when you arrive.

Creamery Meadows Trail: Located inside Andrew Molera State Park, this is a 2.4 mile out and back trail that is considered good for all skill levels. Great for bird watching and wildflowers, the trail ends at sandy Molera Beach.

McWay Falls: This short, flat walk is only about 0.64 miles round trip and takes hikers to McWay Falls Overlook. Be aware that there is no beach access to McWay Falls, and trying to find your own path down isn’t just dangerous, it could result in citations or arrests. The hike starts inside Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.

Salmon Creek: A popular local hike, Salmon Creek runs through Los Padres National Forest about 45 miles south of the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The hike is only a quarter mile round trip past rugged boulders and trees, ending in a beautiful 120-foot waterfall.

Buzzard's Roost Trail: Located inside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, this moderate 4.8 miles hike is a round trip loop through majestic redwood trees and a 365 degree view on top of Pfeiffer Ridge. There are lots of switchbacks and a couple of leg-busting parts towards the top, but the summit’s coastal views are well worth the workout.

Buzzard's Loop hiking trail in Big Sur

Katherine Gallagher

Enjoy the Views

Big Sur has a few iconic lookouts that are a definite must-see while visiting the area. Perhaps the most famous, McWay Falls, overlooks an 80-foot-tall waterfall off the coast across from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in southern Big Sur. The waterfall flows out onto the beach and into the ocean, and is visible from the side of the road. Since there isn’t exactly a designated parking area here, the safest option is to turn into Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and use the tunnel to reach McWay Falls trail. About 35 miles north, the Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most photographed bridges in the state. 

Point Sur Lighthouse, an official California state historic park, offers tours of the historic 1889 lighthouse that rests on a cliff over 250 feet above sea level. Nearby, the gorgeous Pfeiffer Beach is known for its sunsets and sand dunes ($12 parking fee) inside Los Padres National Forest. Another option, especially recommended after a long hike, is one of Big Sur’s natural hot springs.

McWay Falls in Big Sur

Katherine Gallagher

What You'll Need to Pack

Your packing list will likely depend on when exactly you go and the specific activities you plan to do, but here's a list of some essentials you'll want to bring.

  • Tent
  • Sleeping pad or mattress
  • Camping stove
  • Cookware
  • Ice chest
  • Sleeping bag
  • Day pack or backpack
  • Headlight or flashlight
  • Multitool
  • First aid kit
  • Quick-drying towel
  • Hiking boots
  • Bug repellent
  • Portable charger
  • Reusable water bottle

Be a Responsible Traveler

Big Sur’s beauty has not gone unnoticed over the years, attracting millions of tourists each year. Do your part to honor this stunning region of central California’s coast by picking up your trash and always respecting posted signs, locals, police officers, and state park officials. Help keep the land pristine by staying on designated hiking paths, keeping water sources clean (use biodegradable soap and shampoo while showering in camps), keeping ample distance (and not feeding!) wildlife, and practicing fire safety.

Like most of California’s forested areas, Big Sur is especially prone to wildfires. Be sure to only light fires and use barbecues in designated campgrounds. To light your way around your campsite, use only flameless products like lanterns and flashlights, and never leave your fire unattended. Once you plan to leave, fully extinguish your fire and make sure there are no dry leaves or wood left behind. Similarly, try to purchase your firewood from as close to your campsite as possible (“buy it where you burn it”), rather than bringing it in from an outside area. This prevents non-native invasive parasites or insects from being introduced to the environment.

Travel Tips

  • There are limited gas options in Big Sur, so start with a full tank before your drive. Things like groceries are limited as well, but you can usually purchase firewood and ice at your campsite.
  • Download a map of the area on your phone or take a screenshot before setting out. Once you reach Big Sur cell reception will be spotty, if not completely nonexistent. For the same reason, plan to reach your destination before dark to avoid getting lost without a map.
  • Big Sur is known for slightly unpredictable weather. Pack for rain and sun, just in case.
  • The spring and fall seasons typically see less crowds.
  • Big Sur State Parks are open from 8 a.m. to sunset. You can buy a $10 car pass that allows for access into all parks on the same day.
  • There is a ton of poison oak in Big Sur, a good reason to stay on the designated trails while hiking. It can get on your clothes, shoes, or pets before spreading to skin. Avoid plants with a shiny, triple leaf pattern and prominent veins. Leaves are typically green but turn reddish colors in the summer and fall.
  • If you want a break from campsite meals, Big Sur Bakery and Nepenthe are two great options for dining or take out.
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