Big Sur Camping: Best Hikes, Campgrounds and Must-See Spots
The Big Sur region makes up one of the most scenic drives in the entire world — anyone who tells you otherwise is simply wrong and should be banned from giving you advice.
Within the 90-mile stretch of California's Highway 1 between Carmel and San Simeon, Big Sur is bordered by the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The only thing better than driving down the rugged highway with its breathtaking views is taking the time to stop and camp in its forests.
Not sure where to begin? Use this Big Sur camping guide to find the best campgrounds and hikes to do in the area.
Best Big Sur Camping Spots
California may just be the most naturally beautiful state in the entire U.S. And camping allows you to truly appreciate and enjoy the natural wonders it has to offer.
There are countless incredible camping spots to spend the night along Big Sur, and we've narrowed them down to the top 10.
1. Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground
Nightly fee: $35+
Located in the vast Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Pfeiffer campground is one of the area's most popular ones, so don't forget to make reservations well in advance.
The site is right on Big Sur River, so it's very popular with families. It also has tent and RV spots so that van lifers can also enjoy it.
Need a way to keep the kids busy? The nearby Campfire Center regularly hosts activities and workshops for wilderness enthusiasts.
Best Hike in Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground
Up for a moderate 2.5-mile loop? Do the Buzzard's Roost Trail at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
The trail will take you across the Big Sur River, through majestic redwoods and onto a magnificent ridge.
2. Plaskett Creek Campground
Nightly fee: $35+
Yes, camping in the forest is blissful, but camping in the woods while listening to the ocean is an experience unlike any other.
The Plaskett Creek Campground is within the Los Padres National Forest, near the famous Sand Dollar Beach, Big Sur's largest. Staying in this campground gets you the best of both worlds — in a single day, you could do a hike in the woods and surf in the Pacific Ocean.
Best Hike in Plaskett Creek Campground
Not all memorable trails are long. Case in point: the Jade Cove and Plaskett Rock Trail.
Only about 0.3 miles, the trail is easy but absolutely magical — for its scenery, yes, but also because you'll have the chance to prospect for jade stones.
Jade Cove has the world's only known concentration of jade underwater. Visitors are allowed to use small hand tools to extract jade but can only take what they can carry out by hand.
3. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Nightly fee: $30+
Unrelated to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and campground, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is another coveted campsite. Its popularity is mainly due to it being the gateway to the viewpoint of McWay Falls, a tall waterfall that falls straight into the ocean.
The site is one you have to see with your own eyes. Unfortunately, you won't be the only person wanting to see the phenomenon, so you'll have to book spots at the campgrounds about six months in advance.
You'll have to hike to get to the park's campgrounds, which are tent-only and very primitive. There is no water or garbage disposal provided, so make sure you bring in what you need and take everything out with you when you leave.
Best Hike in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
You can't visit Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and not hike the McWay Waterfall Trail. This easy, .64-mile trail takes you to the famed 80-foot waterfall that will easily give you your best Big Sur photo op.
If the trail is too small to scratch your hiking itch, do it and then embark on the 5.6-mile Tan Bark Trail. This loop is moderate to hard and will have you going up the jagged hills of Partington Canyon.
4. Limekiln State Park Campgrounds
Nightly fee: $35+
Can't choose the kind of landscape you want? Limekiln State Park combines the best of Big Sur.
You'll have access to ocean views, redwood groves and gorgeous waterfalls, all of which you can easily witness on the same day!
The state park has 24 spots that you can reserve at least six months in advance.
Best Hike in Limekiln State Park
The Limekiln Trail is one of the most popular in its namesake park. Stretching 9.8 miles, it takes most people about six hours to complete it — though if you head out early, you can take your sweet time and absorb the beauty of the redwoods you'll be passing.
Besides woods, you'll see the convergence point of three canyons. You can even bring Fido along, as dogs are allowed on a leash.
5. Ventana Campground
Nightly fee: $80+ (tent), $240+ (glamping)
Sleep under the protective shade of tall coastal redwoods at Alila Ventana. You'll have the choice between a primitive campsite and a glamping site.
The regular site is tent-only and only offers bathrooms and showers. Still, it helps you disconnect from the world and enjoy the woods around you. If you want nature with comfort, the glamping tents have a bed, a sink and even electricity.
As one of the best Big Sur camping spots, this site is featured in National Geographic's "50 States, 500 Campgrounds" by Joe Yogerst. The author recommends checking out the nearby Nepenthe restaurant perched on a clifftop.
Best Hike in Ventana Campground
There are plenty of trails that you can drive to from Ventana Campground, but if you don't feel like driving, go ahead and hike the Coast Ridge Road Trail. Starting from the campground, you'll ascend a dirt road surrounded by forest and end up on the ridgeline.
You'll need an intermediate level for this hike, but the views will make it worthwhile.
6. Andrew Molera State Park
Nightly fee: $30
Did you plan your Big Sur trip last minute? There are still some campgrounds that don't necessarily require reservations.
At Andrew Molera State Park, some tent sites are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis. Early risers and lucky campers can enjoy the area without needing to book six months in advance.
Most of the sites are hike-in only, though the hike from the parking lot is less than half a mile. There are also two hike-and-bike sites, which charge only $5. The campground has water and toilets but no showers.
Best Trail in Andrew Molera State Park
If you want the notorious sweeping vistas of Big Sur, hike the Bluffs Trail. For 1.7 miles, you'll be taking in the rough waves crashing against towering bluffs.
For those who want more of a challenge, the Pfeiffer Ridge Loop combines several trails and is 7.4 miles. You can start at Creamery Meadow Trail, merge to Bluffs Trail, continue to Spring Trail, follow Panorama Trail and finally take Ridge Trail to get back to Creamery Meadow.
7. Washburn Campground
Nightly fee: $20
One of two campgrounds in Hearst San Simeon State Park, Washburn is one of the cheapest camping sites in Big Sur. The facilities match the price, as the site only has pit toilets.
Its primitive facilities attract many visitors, who like roughing it out, but if you want something a bit more comfortable, the park also has the nearby San Simeon Creek Campground.
Best Trail in Washburn Campground
The 4-mile San Simeon Bay Trail starts at the Washburn Campground parking lot. You'll enjoy views of the Santa Lucia Mountains and the ocean — you may even get to see Hearst Castle in the distance!
Bring your dog on a leash to share the experience.
8. Fernwood Campground and Resort
Nightly fee: $70-$100
Offering options for all kinds of camping, the Fernwood Campground has tent sites, glamping tents, RV spots and cabins. You can choose how close and personal you want to get to nature.
Facilities are well-equipped with showers, flush toilets and a store. For RV campers, full electricity hookups are available.
The campground is near the Big Sur River, waterfalls and scenic wood trails. You'll also be able to drive to Pfeiffer Beach.
Best Trail in Fernwood Campground
Pfeiffer Falls Trail is famous because of the waterfall that gives it its name. With an impressive 60-foot fall, this 1.4-mile trail is highly frequented. Though the waterfall is the main attraction, the road to it is not too bad, boasting a beautiful redwoods grove.
You can also do the 1.2-mile Big Sur River Gorge Trail, which will take you through a narrow gorge into refreshing swimming holes.
9. Kirk Creek Campground
Nightly fee: $35
Often considered the Big Sur camping spot with the best views, Kirk Creek Campground is located on a bluff with a dramatic drop right onto the Pacific.
Every single spot on the site has views of the ocean, and you can count on the waves lulling you to sleep. You can enjoy walking trails in Los Padres National Forest or take small paths straight to the beach.
There are RV sites as well as tent ones, but hook-ups are not available — which is a good thing in our book since the last thing you need here is for a rude RVer with a loud TV to ruin the atmosphere.
Best Trail in Kirk Creek Campground
Want those typical panoramic views of Highway 1 winding along the coast? Try the Vicente Flat Trail.
At 10.9 miles, the entire trail takes about six hours to complete, though many people stop and turn around at any given point. As you climb the coastal hills, you'll be surprised by how the view keeps getting better and better. You may be lucky enough to catch famed California wildflowers in full bloom in the spring.
10. Free Camping Spots
Nightly fee: None
Yes, there is such a thing as free camping in Big Sur; it's just not the most convenient option.
But if you're determined to save every penny possible, you can look for free camping spots along Los Padres National Forest. Sound suspicious? This is completely legit, we promise! The National Park Service allows dispersed camping in national forests, but these are subject to availability.
Some good spots for dispersed camping sites include Plaskett Ridge Road and Los Burros Road. Note that dispersed camping is only available for tents and not RVs.
Best Big Sur Hotels
Things happen while you travel. A thunderstorm, an injury or any other inconvenience might make it impossible for you to camp in Big Sur.
If this happens, you should have a backup plan. We recommend the rustic Deetjen's Big Sur Inn if you still want to feel disconnected from everyday life. Big Sur Lodge will allow you to stay within Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park while protecting you from the elements. And if you want to really splurge, stay in the scenic five-star Post Ranch Inn.
Best Things to Do in Big Sur (Besides Hike)
Hiking and camping in the numerous state parks that Big Sur encompasses is a must-do.
But if you don't have time for an immersive trip or if you want to do something not nature-related, there are plenty of other interesting things to do along the highway.
1. Elephant Seal Vista Point
Just north of San Simeon is the Elephant Seal Vista Point, famous for the numerous elephant seals that come to enjoy the sand and sun here.
At times, it's almost difficult to see the sand with the number of elephant seals that sunbathe in this spot, which has made it a favorite lookout stop in Big Sur.
2. Henry Miller Memorial Library
This is not the kind of library where they tell you to shush but rather a memorial to the writers and artists that once lived in Big Sur — especially Henry Miller.
Known for his works of fiction like "Tropic of Cancer," Miller inspired this gathering place that has become a hub for artists as well as a book store.
3. Esalen Hot Springs
We'll break our nature rule for Esalen hot springs because it's one that most people miss and because it's within a lodge.
Esalen is a sort of campus that promotes different kinds of spiritual healing and practices. But even if you're not doing workshops here, you can stay in the lodge to take advantage of the relaxing waters of the hot springs.
Single-person tubs are available on a first-come-first-served basis, and they provide views that you wouldn't believe.
4. Nepenthe Restaurant
A veritable Big Sur establishment, Nepenthe is the restaurant with the best view in the area.
By most accounts, the food is OK but nothing that will transport you to another dimension. Still, the scenery will do that, so you won't even notice what you're eating. If the restaurant is outside of your budget, you can always order a drink while enjoying the vistas.
5. Hearst Castle
Though not technically within Big Sur, Hearst Castle is near Saint Simeon and therefore counts as a must-see place while visiting the area.
As one of the coolest castles in the U.S., the castle was once the opulent residence of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. With pools inspired in classical Greece and Rome, over 160 rooms and notorious past guests like President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charlie Chaplin, it's a piece of California history.
What to Watch Out for While Camping in Big Sur
While camping in Big Sur will be the adventure of a lifetime, you should be aware of the possible dangers involved.
Most of these dangers pertain to wildlife, as different parts of the area have black bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes and/or ticks. Before camping anywhere, make sure you research what animals you may encounter and take necessary precautions to avoid them.
You're also very likely to see poison oak, which you definitely don't want to deal with. Knowing what this plant looks like is your best way to avoid it — just remember to not touch anything that has three leaves!