Categories: CampingGuides & hacks

A Weekend Warrior’s Guide to Big Sur Camping

There are plenty of awesome Big Sur camping options, but during the spring and summer they tend to book up pretty far in advance. We recommend Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground, Andrew Molera or one of these options if you’ve got some time to plan. If you’re anything like Alyx Schwarz from Shoestring Adventures though, you may just have enough camping karma to roll the dice and show up:

At the end of August, my friends and I embarked on a weekend road trip to Big Sur without campground reservations. The idea was crazy, but I have a weakness for spontaneous adventures.

Eight of us began the journey from Los Angeles Friday after work and spent the night at San Simeon State Campground. Early Saturday morning, we continued up the coast to Big Sur. The drive on Highway 1 is an adventure in itself. The road travels along the edge of the coastal cliffs, revealing views of the bright turquoise water around every white knuckle hairpin turn. After a while, we turned off the highway and drove into the woods, leaving behind the ocean.

We paid the camp host at Bottcher’s Gap, loaded our backpacks and began a 2.5­mi downhill hike toward Little Sur Camp, a small backcountry campground along the Little Sur River. A dirt road led to a narrow path overgrown with poison oak. Miraculously, we reached our campsite unscathed and met our friendly neighbor, as he was skinny­dipping in the river.

The weather was pleasantly warm, so a few of us hiked downstream in search of a sunny swimming hole. Once we found the spot, we stripped down to our bathing suits for a mid­afternoon polar bear plunge.

Back at camp, we prepared a fine backpackers’ feast. As the sun went down, we drank whiskey and told stories around our imaginary campfire. I caught myself rubbing my hands together to warm them by the lantern.

Sunday morning after breakfast, we hiked out and began our journey back to Los Angeles, making a few stops along the way.

First, we pulled over to snap some photos of Bixby Bridge on Highway 1, the most iconic site in Central California and one of the tallest single­span concrete bridges in the world.

Next, we took a short walk to McWay Waterfall, a stunning 80 foot waterfall that crashes on the sandy shore below in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Visible from Highway 1, the falls were named after the early settler and farmer Christopher McWay. I had driven past at least six times, but didn’t spot it until now!

Our last stop was a local jade hunting spot, accessible only by scaling a steep cliff covered in poison oak. This hike usually reawakens my fear of heights for a good reason. At least, I worked up enough adrenaline to keep me awake for the long ride home.

Big Sur captures my curiosity and wonder each time I visit. I’ve explored her ocean cliffs, her hot springs, her forests and rivers. I look forward to returning to this rugged and diverse landscape for another adventure soon.

We recommend the following Big Sur camping options to plan your next excursion: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground, Andrew Molera or one of the many other options available.

You can find more of Alyx’s outdoor escapades on her blog, Shoestring Adventures.

Or, keep up with her on:


Psst… if you’re not a big planner, and not quite willing to roll the dice this time around, you can check out some Hipcamps in the area that you can usually book on shorter notice. Here are some of our favorites:

  • If you’re looking for a prime group camping spot with a private swimming hole (yep, you heard us), 15 of your friends can book Heart of the Wild for just $20 a camper.
  • Love to surf but hate the crowds? Independence Camp Santa Cruz has 100-acres of private land for your to explore and is only a few minutes from world-renowned surf.
  • Want a rugged coastline all to yourself? Pitch your tent at A Place to Stay and enjoy a wild and lonely coastline where mountains meet the sea.
  • Glampers rejoice: you can ditch the tent and stay in the cabin at the Big Sur Mountain Retreat. With both coastal and mountain views, you can thank us later.

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