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Camping in Big Sur means setting up your tent on ocean cliffs and in redwood groves, next to babbling brooks and lazy rivers, and underneath bright stars and wheeling galaxies. Whether you want to rough it on a backpacking overnight, keep it moderately rustic with a drive-in site, or go full-glamp with serious amenities, Big Sur has options. Sign up and we’ll send you travel tips for our favorite spots in California! But that isolation means it’s not the easiest destination to get to: the only way into Big Sur’s stunning landscape is via Highway One (aka the Pacific Coast Highway) which runs along the entire California Coast from north of San Diego to just south of the Oregon border.
A roundabout way to get to Big Sur is to take the Amtrak Starlight train to San Luis Obispo and then drive from there – it’s about 1.5 hours. Big Sur has a wide variety of campgrounds for you to choose from ranging from rugged hike-ins to glamping.
All of that winter rain, while it brings color and life to Big Sur, can also lead to trouble: this area of the California coast is super susceptible to landslides. After particularly bad fire seasons, the charred ground can’t absorb as much moisture, and when these conditions occur, the mud starts to flow.
A landslide will cut off access to Big Sur every few years, but don’t worry: it’s usually fixed within a few months. Highway closures along the Big Sur coast aren’t exactly rare — sections of road have been closed pretty regularly for decades.
But if you’ll be visiting during the winter, it’s worth checking the weather, the road conditions, and the risk before planning your trip. In my opinion as a California local, the best time to go camping in Big Sur is in the spring, between February and April! From February through March, Big Sur comes alive with gushing waterfalls, stunning greenery, and blooming wildflowers. Big Sur’s peak season, from June through August, sees less rain and bigger crowds. While September and October have the warmest weather, it’s also California’s hot and dry fire season, so you’ll need to be extra careful with your campfires – and you may not actually be allowed to have them at all on high-risk days. In the winter when temps drop and the rains come, be aware: landslides are fairly common in this area.
Take basic bear precautions, which include keeping food close at hand, making noise when you hike, and being aware of your surroundings. Acting as a giant campsite search engine, The Dyrt has a huge amount of information available about both publicly and privately-owned campgrounds.
Our favorite feature is the paid version of their mobile app, which helps you find camping from your vehicle even when you don’t have WiFi or cell services.
With 90 miles of coast and lots of nooks, crannies, and coves, Big Sur is home to plenty of campgrounds and backcountry sites.
This is definitely the easier choice — you won’t have to do as much detailed planning, and as long as your supplies makes it into your car, it’ll be available to you at the campsite. You also don’t need as much specialized gear, because (as mentioned above) you can throw in an air mattress, a cooler full of fresh food, and any other bulky items you want.
It’s totally separate though, and offers a range of camping experiences from rustic to pretty swanky — meaning you can camp…or you can glamp. The campground is located in a beautiful redwood canyon about 2 miles south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
Individual campsites are situated among the redwoods and strung along the babbling Post Creek — this is one picturesque campground. The campground is located near amenities like cafes, restaurants, shops, general stores and a post office. Glamping sites only: towels, sink, Adirondack chairs, WiFi, lanterns, power outlets From the north, drive 2 miles south past Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on Highway 1.
From the south, you’ll drive about 9 miles north past Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park on Highway 1. In addition to the magical sunshine beams filtering in through the towering, misty redwoods, Ventana Campground is close to most of the “civilization” within Big Sur — meaning a few restaurants, gas stations, and a super-cute bakery are all nearby. Not to mention a tavern, restaurant, general store, camping supplies, and events! You can enjoy a craft cocktail on the outside deck surrounded by towering redwoods before stumbling back to your tent – how magical is that? Keep an eye out for the rare albino redwood tree next to the check-in kiosk at the campground! The onsite restaurant – the Tavern – serves lunch and dinner and offers indoor and outdoor seating.
From the south, drive 9.5 miles north from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State park on Highway 1. Camping supplies, a general store, and even an onsite tavern make this a fantastic place for those that like campgrounds with lots of amenities You’re definitely not roughing it here!
Kirk Creek Campground is located on an oceanside bluff within Los Padres National Forest, offering ocean views from every campsite. The sites are gorgeous, overlooking the rocky outcroppings and sandy beaches along this isolated wilderness playground. The campground is also basically across the highway from Nacimiento Road, which leads to a scenic overlook (if the view from your campsite ever gets old!) From the south, drive about 40 miles north from Hearst San Simeon State Park.
From the north, drive about 6 miles south on Highway 1 from Andrew Molera State Park. From the south, drive about 10 miles north on Highway 1 from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
On a hot day, relax in the pools and sunbathe on the rocks in this scenic river playground. Limekiln State Park got its name from these kilns, which were built at the base of a large limestone deposit.
The kilns weren’t active for long, because the lime (and nearby redwood forest) was quickly depleted. If you’re in an “ocean site,” you’ll have immediate access to the beach and can fall asleep to the soothing surf.
The campground includes access to a small beach where Limekiln Creek empties into the Pacific. From the north, drive about 15 miles south on Highway 1 from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
If you’re in an “ocean site,” you’ve got immediate access to the beach and can fall asleep to the soothing surf.
Plaskett Creek Campground in Los Padres National Forest isn’t right on the water, but it’s a short walk to Sand Dollar Beach. From the south, drive about 35 miles north on Highway 1 from Hearst San Simeon State Park. The campground is on the east side of the highway, just south of the Sand Dollar Beach day use area.
Staying at this campground means you’re just a minute’s walk from Sand Dollar Beach – Big Sur’s biggest sandy stretch. This beach is a gorgeous crescent of white sand curling around the deep blue Pacific and, like the name suggests, it’s a perfect spot for beachcombing.
From the north, drive about 3 miles south on Highway 1 from Andrew Molera State Park.
From the south, drive about 1 mile north on Highway 1 from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
The campground also sits along the Big Sur River, so you can swim, wade, relax, or tube without ever leaving camp. Ponderosa Campground is one of the best places to go stargazing in Big Sur, thanks to its distance from the coast as well as interfering city lights!
Ponderosa Campground is a bit of an off-the-beaten path place to pitch your tent in Big Sur. Ponderosa’s location about 14 miles from the coast makes it an excellent place for stargazing, so plan to take advantage of any clear nights. This campground is tucked up into the mountains along the Nacimiento River, so there are plenty of opportunities for fishing and swimming.
You’ve also got nearby access to miles of hiking trails in the surrounding Los Padres National Forest.
You’ll definitely need to check road closures before you plan your drive to Ponderosa Campground. From Highway 1 just south of Limekiln State Park, the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road heads east into the mountains for about 14 miles before reaching the campground.
Landslides can and have closed this road, so check to make sure it’s open before you plan to drive in from the coast. This campground’s distance from the ocean makes it a great place to stargaze on a clear night.
Big Sur’s remote location makes it great for seeing the night sky, but if you’re too close to the ocean, the fog can interfere.
But far from the fog and city lights, this campground is a great option if you’re interested in seeing what the night sky actually looks like. Bring a telescope or binoculars if you have them, but stargazing with the naked eye is plenty special. Some walk-in sites are a quick eighth of a mile jaunt, while some are a fully-fledged backpacking trip away.
Walk-in sites typically have fewer, if any amenities, so you’ll need to plan for things like water purification and going to the bathroom outside. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park features redwood forests, chaparral, and granite cliffs dropping into Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
These walk-in campsites are on the west (ocean) side of Highway 1, 1 mile south of McWay Cove.
From the north, drive about 12 miles south on Highway 1 from Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Parking is just off the highway, and you’ll walk about an eighth of a mile along the dirt trail to the campsites. While Vicente Flat is located in the redwoods, your hike to get there will be full of stunning views of the ocean!
Vicente Flat is a hike-in campground that makes for a perfect overnight backpacking trip. Because of its wilderness designation remote location, there aren’t any amenities to speak of — unless you count the fantastic views and gurgling stream (which we do)!
Bring a bathroom kit to cathole your waste, and note that you’ll need a state campfire permit for all fire and stove usage. And although the hike to get to the campsite with a full pack on your back isn’t the easiest thing in the world, it’s also super doable for beginners who allow themselves plenty of time. The hike to Vicente Flat camp is about 5 miles each way, making for an easy overnight backpacking trip. You’ll need to pack in everything for the night, though there is a “mostly reliable” water source running through camp.
When the creek is unreliable, there’s also a year-round water source above Vicente Flat along the Stone Ridge trail. Review Leave No Trace principles before heading out — backpacking requires a bit more forethought and preparation than your standard camping trip. Along the way, you’ll pass tiny Espinosa Camp which has a couple of campsites, but definitely continue to Vicente Flat — we promise, it’s worth it. While getting to this campsite requires a hike, a stroll along the coastal bluffs is an amazing way to experience Big Sur. Big Sur is pretty isolated, so there isn’t much in terms of shopping, dining, or attractions. But there’s plenty to do in Big Sur: with 90 miles of gorgeous, rugged, coastline, it’s an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise!
Sidenote: Like many of our favorite places in Northern California, Big Sur has a whole bunch of weird, quirky history, my favorite of which involves a cult-like “institute,” clothing-optional hot springs, and a shootout involving Hunter S. Thompson. The purple color comes from garnet in the cliffs and makes for some unique beach scenery. The purple color comes from garnet in the cliffs and makes for some unique beach scenery.
For breakfast, wake up early and head to Big Sur Bakery to snag one of their incredible croissants before they run out!
One of the most influential artists to make their mark on Big Sur is Henry Miller, whose Memorial Library remains the cultural center of Big Sur and attracts artists from all over the world to give impromptu concerts. Dive into the quirky history of Big Sur (literally) and head to the Esalen Institute to relax in the hot springs.
Big Sur is full of miles of trails winding through mountains and peeking at sweeping coastal vistas through redwood trees. To best enjoy Big Sur, we recommend lacing up your hiking boots and exploring on foot.
The Partington Cove trail leads through a tree-lined canyon and a tunnel to a beautiful rocky beach.
The Pfeiffer Falls & Valley View Trail is an easy 2-mile hike filled with waterfalls and sweeping vistas. Picture a graceful waterfall dropping 80 feet onto a white sand beach, surrounded by a rocky cove with the Pacific Ocean crashing onto the shore. If you’d like to test your faith in modern engineering (or just admire from afar), stop at the famous Bixby Bridge along Highway 1.
Jeremy in his happy place, with a fire and a pair of tongs at Ventana Campground in Big Sur. So we’ve created a FREE, printable version of our Camping Essentials packing list!
Just drop your email in the box below and we’ll send it straight to your inbox, along with a few insider tips to help you plan more outdoor adventures. Are you ready to pack your cooler and sleeping bag and head to a Big Sur campground?
A humanist cult, a Danish hideaway, a gravitational anomaly, towering trees, a spoiled rich kid’s castle, clothing-optional hot springs, and the cutest (and weirdest) animals imaginable: in this episode, we cover everything you need to plan your trip up the California Coast – and all the weird history you never knew along the way.