Gazing up at the stars through the canopy of redwoods sounds like your way of charging the batteries? If the answer is yes, Big Sur backpacking might be perfect for your next camping trip! Take a look at what this dramatic part of the U.S. coastline has to offer — these are the best tips for backpacking in Big Sur!
Where is Big Sur
With over 100 kilometers/62 miles of coastline, Big Sur is one of the longest and most beautiful shorelines in the U.S. It’s located on California’s Central Coast and stretches from Monterey in the north to San Simeon in the south.
Big Sur offers an impressive coastline, redwood groves seemingly rising from the Pacific Ocean, sunny Saint Lucia hillsides, as well as many waterfalls, hot springs, swimming holes and beaches. No wonder that Big Sur backpacking trails are on every hikers’ bucket list!
Picture by: Marty Cohen - Big Sur
This special destination is for sure one of California’s national treasures. To this day, the area remains highly protected from development, which means it’s sparsely populated and the majority of the land is public. This leaves plenty of room for state parks and preserves.
One of the reasons Big Sur is considered a remote destination is that you can reach it by a narrow seaside road incised in massive cliffs. Because of its beauty, the famous California Highway 1 became a popular scenic drive destination, as well as a widely known movie backdrop.
When to go backpacking in Big Sur
Every season brings something different to Big Sur, which makes it a year-round tourist destination. Make sure to do your research before the visit and prepare for the right weather conditions.
It’s great to go hiking and backpacking in Big Sur during fall, winter and spring months when the Sierras are still too cold and snowy. In spring, you’ll witness bursts of yellow and pink along every hillside, while fall brings out a soothing amber color palette. Both seasons offer moderate temperatures, which makes them optimal for a hike without having to worry about adapting to unpleasant weather conditions.
If you visit it during winter, you’ll have to prepare for getting wet. Rainy winter months attract fewer backpackers to this part of California’s coastline, but enjoying stunning ocean vistas and gray whale watching make up for the lack of sun.
You surely won’t miss sunny skies and warm temperatures during summer in Big Sur. However, keep in mind that Santa Lucia Coastal Range can get alarmingly hot. Springs and creeks can dry up and leave exhausted hikers without reliable water sources. Nonetheless, if you stick to hikes in wet groves and stay close to the beach, you can still enjoy the summer trip.
Do you need a permit for backpacking in Big Sur
Unlike the Sierra Mountains or California’s national parks, Big Sur doesn’t require permits for hikers looking to spend a night among the tall redwood canopies and misty coastline views. Without having to deal with Big Sur backpacking permits, this part of California’s shore is an excellent destination for last-minute backpackers.
However, you’ll need a California Fire Permit to operate any kind of a backpacking stove that uses pressurized fuel. You can get your free permit online by watching a video and answering a short quiz. Make sure to print it and take it with you before leaving.
Best Big Sur camping sites
To really appreciate the nature of one of California’s most iconic destinations, embrace the outdoors and plan a Big Sur backpacking and camping trip. Check out our list of some of the most amazing Big Sur campsites.
Kirk Creek Camping
Kirk Creek is one of the best places to camp in Big Sur, as every campsite comes with a striking view of the Pacific Ocean. The campground is within a walking distance of several trails leading to the Los Padres National Forest. For a day of swimming, sunbathing and surfing, hit the beautiful Sand Dollar Beach.
Picture by: Russ Bishop - Sand Dollar beach
If you're up for a biking adventure, gorgeous mountain biking trails are only a short drive away.
- Fee: $35 per night
- Location: 6,5 kilometers from Lucia
- Highlights: Picnic tables and campfire rings on each site
Ventana Campground is situated in a magnificent redwood canyon. The trees keep the area cool during the day, so this is one of the best locations for summer camping. Ventana is on the higher end of the price scale, but you'll surely get your money's worth. Every site includes room for at least two tents, a parking space, a campfire ring with a grill and a picnic table. Furthermore, there are restroom facilities with showers, a store that sells firewood and the Ventana Resort calling you for a warm meal or a cocktail.
- Fee: $85 per night
- Location: 48 kilometers from Carmel
- Highlights: Exquisite redwood canyon, restroom facilities and a nearby resort
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park Camping
The Julia Pfeiffer Campsite is highly popular due to its proximity to McWay Falls, an iconic 24-meter-tall waterfall that flows year-round.
Picture by: James Donovan - McWay Falls
The campsite is perfect for those looking for an authentic camping experience. There are two campgrounds, both of which are hike-in only, without provided water or garbage bins. To enjoy this unique piece of nature on the western side of the Pacific Coast Highway, make sure to book a spot at least six months in advance.
- Fee: $30 per night
- Location: 63 kilometers from Carmel
- Highlights: Close to McWay Falls
Pfieffer Big Sur State Park Camping
Pfeiffer Big Sur Campsite is situated along the Big Sur River and features restroom facilities, hot showers, a dump station and water taps on some sites. It can accommodate 8-meter-long trailers and 10-meter-long RVs. There are a few sites reserved for tents only. There is no beach access from within the park, but there are lots of excellent hiking trails, as well as opportunities for wildlife viewing. Note: try not to confuse Pfieffer Big Sur with Julia Pfieffer State Park.
- Fee: $35-50 per night
- Location: 45 kilometers from Carmel
- Highlights: Redwood groves, waterfalls and hiking trails
Limekiln State Park Camping
Limekiln is a small forested state park featuring the redwoods, rugged coast and lime kilns (kilns used for the calcination of limestone to produce quicklime). The campsites are equipped with fire pits, pedestal barbecue grills and picnic tables. Its downside is that the sites are so small that only smaller RVs and trailers are allowed. Once you get there, you can check out the lime kilns from the 1880s, a 30-meter waterfall named Limekiln Falls, a nearby beach and hiking trails.
- Fee: $35 per night
- Location: 3 kilometers from Lucia
- Highlights: Limekiln Falls, historic lime kilns
Best Big Sur trails
It's hard not to fall in love with panoramic coastal views and towering redwood groves, so it's no wonder that Big Sur is considered to be a hiker's paradise. From casual hikes for beginners to steep paths with a 1000-meter elevation gain, Big Sur offers something for all. Check out these Big Sur backpacking trails and choose the one suited to your wishes.
Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View Trails
Pfeiffer Falls and Valley View Trails are relatively easy trails recommended to beginners visiting Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. A few parts of the trail are a bit rocky, so it's important to be cautious when passing through those sections. You'll get to see giant redwood trees, charming waterfalls, colorful wildflowers and enjoy the view of the Big Sur River Valley. The trail splits into two branches, one going to Pfeiffer Falls and the other to Valley View, so you'll get two destinations on this Big Sur backpacking loop.
- Duration: 1:15h
- Level: Easy
Buckeye Trail to Alder Creek Camp
Start at the Salmon Creek Ranger Station in the Silver Peak Wilderness and get ready to climb! As you progress, you'll get to see those breathtaking coastal views Big Sur is the most famous for. Along the way, you can find great camping spots if you wish to turn this into a two-day hike. Be careful when crossing Villa Camp — it’s one of the more scenic campsites and offers spring to refill water, but you can get trapped on the far side of the creek if visiting shortly after rainfall.
- Duration: 8h
- Level: Medium
Stone Ridge Trail to Goat Camp
If you're an experienced backpacker, try the lesser-known path in the heart of Big Sur. You'll start at Highway 1, between Lucia and Limekiln, and immediately start climbing. Enjoy grasslands and forests along the way, and (if you're not too exhausted) make a detour to Limekiln State Park. The climb doesn't stop until you reach the flat campsites at Goat Camp, where you can pitch your tent, grill up dinner and gaze out at the Pacific.
- Duration: 10h
- Level: Hard
Keep in mind that, when you’re backpacking in Big Sur, there’s a possibility you won’t get cell service, as you’ll be surrounded by mountains and sea. Make sure you purchase or print out a Big Sur backpacking map before embarking on your trip.
Having no signal means that you can finally relax. Visit your favorite Big Sur spot, bring warm blankets, get cozy around the campfire and become one with nature.
If you need some additional advice, be sure to check out our backpacking hacks guide.