With 90-miles of pristine coastline, Big Sur is just about the dreamiest place to cruise out of cell service and pitch a tent. There are redwoods and waterfalls, craggy alcoves and socked-in canyons, and on a clear, late summer day you can see whale spouts off in the distance.
Look up in the sky to spot a condor – you can’t miss them, they’re the ones with the 10-ft wingspan – or peek over the cliffs to watch the otters bob in the waves. From the birds to the bakery (THE Big Sur Bakery – get the brown butter cookie), the mossy rocks and the babbling brooks, the silent hikes to the crashing swells – here’s our guide to the best campsites in Big Sur. Don’t forget your long johns.
BLM & FOREST SERVICE ROADS
The Los Padres National Forest is home to Big Sur and there are lots of places on the side of the road that you are allowed to camp for free. Big Sur campgrounds can fill up months in advance, so car camping on public BLM land (Bureau of Land Management) is a great back-up or last-minute trick. BUT -- and this is a big but -- be sure to check the LPNF website before going to check rules and restrictions. Please be cautious of changing weather and wildfires and always listen to officials. And always respect the no campfire rule and PACK IN, PACK OUT.
Nacimiento-Ferguson Road is a windy, steep road a few miles south of Lucia. It’s got stunning views and many small “campsites,” aka flat spots off of the road where people have been setting up small tents and car camping for years.
Plaskett Ridge Road
For the more rugged campers (or at least the ones with an AWD vehicle), this dirt “road” heads straight into the Big Sur interior. It flattens out toward the top of the hill and there are and grassy meadows and hillsides aplenty.
Another roadside attraction, what Prewitt lacks in toilets and running water it makes up for in sprawling ocean views. Get there early to watch the sun go from high in the sky to right into the Pacific. Make PB&Js and whiskey for dinner and call it a night.
BACK COUNTRY CAMPING
There are over 50 backcountry trails and “campsites” that will take you off the crowded tourist tracks of Big Sur. It’s a great way to connect with Big Sur’s wildlife, but if you plan to build a campfire or use a stove or barbecue outside of a developed campground area, you need a free campfire permit.
Sykes Hot Springs
A 10 mile hike in from the Ventana Wilderness visitor’s center (along the Pine Ridge Trail) are the stellar hot springs and even more stellar primitive camp sites. The hot springs may be a bit crowded in the day but come late afternoon the crowds clear and you have the Big Sur River and the 100° F pools to yourself. Get an early start on this hike-in so you can savor the waterfalls along the way – and get your pick of the best sites.
*Note: Sykes Hot Springs via Pine Ridge Trail may be closed so check beforehand
Cook Spring Camp
Less of a commitment, the North Coast Trail hike to Cook Spring Camp is only a 5 miles hike in with sweeping views of the coast and mountains. This hike leads to a primitive backcountry camp under a canopy of sugar cone pine trees.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
This is the Big Kahuna of campsites. With over 170+ camping and RV sites, this campground is where most people come when they come to Big Sur. Sure, it can be crowded sometimes, but if you get a spot next to the Big Sur River in the way back you’ll be none the wiser to the chaos (there are also some cute cabins if that’s your jam). Each spot has parking, a fire ring and access to bathrooms and showers, so it’s not exactly “roughing it.” But the site is friendly for families (and dogs!) and it’s centrally located so you’ll have your pick of all that Big Sur has to offer.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
If Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is the jumbo site, Julie Pfeiffer Burns State Park is the blue moon. With just 2 environmental (no showers, no running water) campsites available, these two sites have ocean views and a private 80ft waterfall. They are a HOT commodity and are almost always booked, but if you see an opening, seize it. You won’t be sorry when you’re drinking coffee with whales, dolphins, and sea lions.
Andrew Molera State Park
This is the only real “first come, first served” campground in Big Sur, so prepare to get there early to snag one of the 24 sites. Set in a dreamy meadow, these hike-in campsites are about ⅓ mile from the parking area but still offer a lot of the typical campsite amenities (bathrooms, picnic tables, fire pit, etc.). It’s also surrounded by multiple hiking trails that wander through meadows, rolling bluffs, rocky beaches, and stunning hilltop views. We like the Andrew Molera Loop trail – a significant 8.8 mile loop with a 1100 ft elevation gain and a whole bushel of scenic switchbacks.
Limekiln State Park
Limekiln feels like you stepped into Fern Gully. With 33 campsites that span the coast to the redwoods, the best part of Limekiln is the hike back through the redwoods up to the old late 19th century limekilns and Limekiln Falls (100ft waterfall). Snag a spot that overlooks the creek and stay for a few days – no need to go anywhere else.
Kirk Creek Campground
If Julia Pfeiffer is filled up (which is likely), check out the oceanside Kirk Creek Campground. This site has 34 spots that sit between Highway 1 and the Pacific – so it’s literally jutting out into the ocean. This may be the best view camping view in all of Big Sur (when the fog lifts) but be wary of Poison oak – it is EVERYWHERE. If you bring a dog, keep it on the leash. You’ll thank us later.
Even if you have a reservation, always check with the campgrounds and the Forest Service for any updates regulations or guidelines before you show up. California is often affected by Natural Disasters so you need to be aware of Mother Nature’s many mood swings. And crazy weather or not, always enjoy campfires in designated pits and be sure to snuff out every ember before bed (and we mean EVERY ember). Pack in, pack out, and leave not trace. Oh, and have fun!