5 Tips for Camping in Big Sur

Big Sur Coastline via domcarver

Big Sur Coastline via domcarver

What is Big Sur all about?

Some people like the beach while others prefer the mountains. Me? I prefer both.

Big Sur, frequently described as “the greatest meeting of land and water in the world” is an undeveloped, sparsely populated region of California’s Central Coast.

What do you get when the beautiful Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean? Picturesque coastline that will leave you contemplating whether what you see before you is real or not.

Big Sur is a 76 mile (122 km) stretch along the famous Pacific Coast Highway (PCH, Route 1, or Highway 1). Big Sur's territory starts in Carmel (Monterey), stretches south to San Simeon, and goes inland (east) about 10 miles.

In Big Sur there are infinite sights to see and trails to hike. There's not too many beaches to lounge on in Big Sur, because most of the Big Sur coastline is cliffs that dive right into the ocean, but we did manage to find a hidden trail that led down to our own "private" beach (tip #5 below). This blog post will outline some tips and tricks we learned during our two-day weekend of camping and hiking in Big Sur.

The rugged coast of Big Sur via  charlesmiller

The rugged coast of Big Sur via charlesmiller

1. Camping and Lodging in Big Sur

There are a few lodging options in Big Sur such as Big Sur River Inn and Post Ranch Inn but staying at a lodge in Big Sur, one of the most popular destinations along the California Coast will cost a pretty penny.

If you like to have fun with budget in mind, I would highly suggest grabbing your tent, sleeping bag (40°F or 4°C), firewood, and friends for an unforgettable camping trip in Big Sur.

Like any rural town, the cost of ordinary items can be expensive to buy there, so my suggestion is to make all of your purchases in advance of your trip.


Map of Big Sur

2. Big Sur Campgrounds

Ready for an awesome camping trip in Big Sur? Perfect! Start by reading the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce's page on the subject. Then try reserving a spot at the Big Sur Campground, Ventana Campground, or Riverside Campground. There are quite a few campgrounds throughout Big Sur. Yelp and Hipcamp are great resources for helping decide your optimal camping spot.

If you're trip is more spontaneous, it might be difficult to find a camping spot. Our trip was more on the spontaneous side but we were able to find a spot at the coordinates below. It's up a windy road with dispersed/makeshift/primitive campsites.

Campsite coordinates: 35°59’37.1”N 121°28’53.3”W (For informational purposes only - it is currently illegal to camp here but it wasn't when we went)

Check the USDA Forest Service website for more information on obtaining a fire permit for backcountry/primitive camping.

Once you're settled into your camp spot for the night, and your campfire is burning, try my favorite camping dinner recipe. It doesn't have a name, yet, but I make it by placing chicken sausage, bell pepper, onion, microwavable rice, mushrooms, and my favorite seasonings into aluminum foil. I fold the aluminum it into a big ball and twist the top. I place the filled and wrapped foil on hot coals for 10-15 minutes (or until done), then I eat it right out of the foil. Mm...delicious!

Big Sur - Bixby Bridge in the distant right via  Calilover

Big Sur - Bixby Bridge in the distant right via Calilover

3. Big Sur Camping and Hiking Packing Checklist

Don't forget these camping and hiking essentials. This is not an all inclusive list, but represents gear that I find to be most important for a successful camping and hiking trip.

Looking down the cliffs in Big Sur via  Gustavo Gerdel

Looking down the cliffs in Big Sur via Gustavo Gerdel

4. Sykes Hot Springs

Of the many attractions Big Sur has to offer, one of the best destinations is Sykes Hot Springs. Skye's 100°F (38°C) springs are the perfect place to relax after the strenuous 10 mile hike it takes to get there.

Given that the hike will take the average person 4-6 hours one way, most people bring their tents and sleeping bags and camp by the springs. However, if you are in good shape, leave early, and don’t mind hustling, the Sykes Hot Springs journey can be accomplished in just a day.

For us...well, we couldn't actually make it to the springs. We tried though! We left a little too late, around noon, and had to turn back after about 8 miles because it was getting dark.

We should have left earlier. We were getting way too distracted by the breathtaking views along the way...which is why we were taking our time.

Even though we didn't make it, the hike to Skye's Hot Springs in Big Sur was still lots of fun and well worth the adventure. Thumbs up.

Big Sur's famous Bixby Bridge via  Supermac1961

Big Sur's famous Bixby Bridge via Supermac1961

5. The Hidden "All Natural" Beach in Big Sur

One of the best beaches in Big Sur is a hidden beach that takes maybe about a 1 mile hike to get to. The descent down to the beach is not easy and I would recommend going in groups of 2 or more as a hand may be needed at times.

Here's the parking lot, trail, and beach on Google Maps. The trail is hidden behind shrubs so you will need to get close to see it. You can see the trail to the beach on the google maps link.

After descending a few switchbacks, you’ll scramble down a few large rocks until you finally reach what I like to call...serenity. Walk south along the beach and you'll find a nice waterfall and a stretch of sand to lounge on.

So why do I call it an all natural beach? Well because we got in our birthday suits! The beach is pretty private, so we took it all off and felt so...free!

So if you're looking for a beach for some light swimming in Big Sur, this hidden beach is a great place to let loose and unwind. Lay back, relax, and listen to the sounds of the waves crashing. Feel the kiss of the sun on your skin and the salty breeze through your hair. And most importantly, have fun and be safe!

If you'd like to learn more about visiting Big Sur, check out this Big Sur Visitors Guide PDF from the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce

Big Sur FAQ

Is big sur open?

Check the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce's Highway Conditions page

Is Big Sur dog friendly?

Yup, ad bringfido.com has great information on the subject

Does Big Sur have redwoods?

Redwoods are plentiful in Big Sur, you'll definitely see some!

Why is Big Sur called Big Sur?

Early Spanish settlers in Monterey named the area "el sur grande", which means "the big south", because the area to their south was huge and unexplored, and its coastline was treacherous for ships


Does Big Sur have bears? Mountain lions?

Bears are occasionally spotted in Big Sur, and yes there are mountain lions but the chance for an encounter is very low

Is Big Sur a National Park?

Nope, should be. Pfieffer Big Sur is a California State Park in Big Sur

Does Big Sur get snow?

You probably won't see any snow in Big Sur, although it does happen

Is Big Sur open for camping?

Yes, Big Sur is open for camping. Read this page next

Big Sur's Rolling Hills via  Gordon Smith

Big Sur's Rolling Hills via Gordon Smith

That's it, my 5 tips for a fun hiking and camping trip in Big Sur.

If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below!

Craig Curelop

Craig Curelop

About the Author

Craig Curelop is a financial analyst and real estate investor living in Denver, CO. Craig loves to exercise (Crossfit/yoga), hike, travel, read, play golf, and watch football.