El Sur Grande (the Big South), now known as Big Sur, is a destination for millions of tourists every year. The rugged terrain overlooking miles of undeveloped coastline along California’s scenic Highway 1 is a bucket list item for sure.
But because millions of people have this place on their radar, Big Sur is becoming overcrowded, quite possibly making this sought-after destination a bit overrated.
What Is Big Sur?
Located on California’s central coast along Highway 1, more commonly referred to as the Pacific Coast Highway or the PCH, Big Sur consists of around 90 miles of some of the nation’s most beautiful coastline.
In fact, it’s often called the “longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States.”
And it should be, as the Santa Lucia Mountains seem to rise straight out of the Pacific Ocean, giving tourists, locals, and outdoor enthusiasts miles of hiking, biking trails, and surf spots that are true hidden gems.
Rugged coastlines also provide a diversity of terrain for many wildlife. There’s wildlife, including the mighty California Condors, sea otters, sea lions, seals, and at times, the giant of the ocean, whales.
You can hike for miles from its western slope through redwood forests, cool valleys, and mountain streams. The ridges high above the Pacific provide stunning vistas of the vast blue ocean below.
From the eastern slope, 3 million acres of the Los Padres National Forest will capture your full attention with its lasting beauty. It’s easy to understand why Big Sur is a destination for so many.
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Where Can You Camp in Big Sur?
But it’s this popularity that’s causing difficulty when it comes time to find a camping spot in Big Sur. To fully experience the paradise here, it’s highly recommended to spend more than a day or two in the area.
Many of its beaches are only accessible by foot; however, there are miles of trails to explore and scenic drives that take your breath away. Camping is one of the best ways to take advantage of all there is to do and see here.
Fair warning, though: camping in Big Sur is not easy to come by, nor is it inexpensive. We’ve got three campgrounds for you.
Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground
About: Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is on the western slope of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Because of this, throughout the park and the campground, you can enjoy the Big Sur River Gorge views while spending time here.
There are many hiking and biking trails accessible from the campground where you can bask in the glory of the redwoods, sycamore, willows, and more.
Amenities: The campground offers 189 sites for RVs, tents, and backpackers, with many of them alongside the Big Sur River. If camping in an RV, you’ll need to be less than 32 feet for motorhomes and less than 27 feet for trailers.
Each site includes a fire pit and a picnic table. And while there are no hookups, there are toilets, water, and coin-operated showers conveniently located throughout the campground. There is also a dump site available for those staying here and passing through.
Prices start at $35 per night for cars and RVs. Hiking and biking sites are available for $5 per night.
About: Ventana Campground is located within a gorgeous 40-acre redwood canyon. Centrally located, you’ll have easy access to several state parks within 10 miles of the campground. This is a tent-only campground, so come prepared with everything you need to experience a night away from the crowds.
Amenities: While this is a tent-only space, there are still plenty of amenities. You’ll find two modern bathhouses, water throughout the campground, a picnic table, and a fire ring at each site. Prices start around $80 per night.
Fernwood Campground and Resort
About: Fernwood offers a true resort experience. From cabins tucked away in the forest to canvas tents for glamping to motel rooms and RV parking and tent sites, your camping experience can be as rugged or as fancy as you desire.
Plus, there’s direct access to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, giving you the best of the resort along with the best of nature. Located along the Big Sur River, this resort is the perfect getaway to end your day playing along Big Sur.
Amenities: The amenities here include everything you could possibly need. The tavern provides drinks, food, and live music. The general store has supplies, snacks, groceries, and even a full espresso bar.
All RV sites also come with electricity and water but keep the large RVs at home. Motorhomes need to be less than 30 feet and trailers less than 28.
Picnic tables and fire pits are at each site. There are also two bathhouses in the campground, keeping you fresh and clean throughout your stay here. RV sites start at $85 per night, and tent sites start at $50 per night.
Can You Camp For Free In Big Sur?
Because Big Sur is such a popular destination, free camping is difficult to find. But while it’s next to impossible, if you have the proper vehicle, it can be done.
Keep in mind, camping anywhere along the Pacific Coast Highway is illegal. So if you’re looking for free camping, do it legally at Prewitt Ridge in the Los Padres National Forest.
Do it wisely. This means no RVs or vans or tiny little cars. The road to access Prewitt Ridge Campground is an old fire road and requires four-wheel drive and high clearance vehicles. If you have one of those and everything you need for camping, the views above the coastline here are extraordinary.
While this area is designated as a campground, there are no amenities. It’s dispersed camping at its finest.
There are no bathrooms, trash bins, water, and fire bans are often in effect. Bring in everything you need, and pack out all your trash. If you have the wherewithal for dispersed camping, the patience, and the vehicle to get up the road, you can experience Big Sur camping for free.
Where Can I Camp in Big Sur Without a Reservation?
Most, if not all, campsites are reserved six months in advance throughout Big Sur, even in the winter months. There are some campgrounds, however, that may have some walk-up sites due to cancellations.
To access these sites, you must be present at the campground. Times vary, but you should be there in the afternoon, if not earlier.
There is another option for those in self-contained vehicles if you’re only passing through and need a place to stop for the night. Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park has an en-route overnight option where you can park in their day-use parking lots from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m. This is not cheap, however, and will run you $45.
Don’t show up with plans to camp in Big Sur without reservations. If you don’t have a reservation and can’t gain access to a walk-up site, finding another site may be next to impossible.
You’d have to move on without experiencing this stunning area. Plan far ahead to make your stay here much more enjoyable.
Is Big Sur Crowded?
There is no beating around the bush with this answer. Big Sur is very crowded.
Around 3 million visitors flock here every year, and it’s among the top 35 tourist destinations in the world. With approximately 7 million people living within a day’s drive away, accessing the Big Sur area is no joke, either.
Much of the road along this stretch of the highway, while offering stunning views of the mountains and the ocean, is a two-lane road neighboring steep coastal cliffs. It can be backed up for 10 miles to 20 miles, with everyone excited to experience the natural and rugged beauty of Big Sur.
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What Is the Best Time to Go to Big Sur?
Not visiting during the summer months will help you avoid crowds and traffic. Summer is extremely busy and packed. And while the weather may be nice with 300 days of sunshine year-round, summer is also quite often when the coastal fog sets in late in the day.
Winter can be a good time to visit for cheaper lodging and fewer crowds. But winter is also the rainy season, resulting in road closures, limiting access to some of the best places to visit in Big Sur.
Spring is another possible option, especially when the wildflowers are blooming along the coast. However, Spring is the beginning of the busy season which runs from April almost to October.
The best time to experience Big Sur is to plan a visit for the fall months. That’s when crowds are lessening, and the weather is still quite pleasant without worrying too much about rain or fog. September through November are the magical months for visiting Big Sur.
Is Big Sur Camping Worth It?
Just as when visiting other popular places, putting up with crowds and lack of camping can be worth it if you prepare. But if you plan ahead and visit during off-peak times, visiting Big Sur can be worth the effort.
If you’re seeking a remote outdoor experience without the hassle of crowds, you may want to head elsewhere. There are many other scenic and remote places to explore across the country.
But, if Big Sur is a destination that you can’t miss out on, plan ahead, come prepared for crowds, and hike off into the distance of the harder-to-reach trails and beaches. You may just be pleasantly surprised.
Will you put Big Sur on your bucket list?
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