Big Sur camping and hiking!
Big Sur California is one of the most beautiful and awe inspiring places I have ever had the honor of visiting. Over my 2 trips there I absolutely fell in love with the entire area and its towering majestic redwoods, sheer cliffs to Caribbean blue water, awe inspiring views and all around feeling of wildness that it brings out of you! Plus I got engaged there!
Big Sur is a lightly populated region along the central coast of California where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise up quickly from nearly right out of the Pacific Ocean. According to Wikipedia the name “Big Sur” is derived from the original Spanish language “El Sur Grande” meaning “The Big South”, or from “El Pais Grande Del Sur”, “The Big Country of the South”, which refers to its location south of the Monterey Peninsula. There are no actual defined borders of Big Sur but it’s generally recognized as an area of approximately 90 miles of coastline stretching from the Carmel River in Monterey County, North to the San Carpoforo Creek in San Louis Obispo County and extending inland from the ocean 20 miles to the Eastern foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Leaving from Encinitas and with good traffic through LA (yeah right!) you can make it there in just over 6 hours however I would estimate 7 because there is always LA traffic. Always. Both times I have made the trip I drove from Encinitas to Santa Barbara and stayed the night there continuing on to Big Sur in the morning. This breaks up the drive nicely and Santa Barbara is always a great time and beautiful area to check out. Also Santa Barbara is one of the few places in California you can have a drink or dinner on the ocean and watch the sun set over land behind you as opposed to over the ocean as you’d expect. This is due to the angle of the coastline where it is located and surprised the heck out of my fiancée and I the first time we experienced it!
If you are heading up there to camp as we were I would recommend loading up on most of your food and other necessities in Santa Barbara as towns will become more scarce and everything more expensive the closer you get to Big Sur. From Santa Barbara it will take about 3 hours or so till you start working your way into the actual area of Big Sur. Once you go through San Luis Obispo and then the Morro Bay area you have already been following the CA Highway 1 but now you get on the stretch that was actually the first built section of Highway 1 in all of California! This first section of what is probably the nation’s most iconic roadway first opened in the 1930’s! Soon enough you are driving right along the coast with 1500 foot vertical drops to the ocean literally inches away from your tires. I wasn’t quite prepared for how strenuous driving this road was as you have to be constantly aware of what’s going on around you 100% at all times. There are constant switchbacks, blind corners, road bikers, RV’s and several places where there is one lane and a stop/go light which you have to wait your turn to go at. Luckily some of these spots offer an amazing opportunity to quickly stretch your legs and make for some great photo ops over the ocean. Just make sure to keep one eye on the line of cars!
Both trips to Big Sur I went over my birthday which is August 5th. The first time was around 4 years ago and I went with 2 of my roommates and another buddy of ours we picked up in Ventura on the way. Surprisingly enough we just assumed that if we showed up early enough to one of the first-come first-serve campsites we’d have no trouble getting a spot. Little did we know how massively popular the Big Sur area is, especially during August! Also we were all nursing a little (massive) hangover from partying in Santa Barbara the night before for my birthday so we didn’t quite get the 5 am (9 am) start we wanted. Although in retrospect I doubt an earlier departure time would have helped us much. After driving through nearly all of the Big Sur area and getting turned away at full campground after full campground including Silver Dollar, Kirk Creek, Riverside Cabins and Campgrounds, Limekiln, Fernwood, Big Sur River Inn among others. At this point we started discussing other options such as driving up to San Francisco as it didn’t appear we’d be staying anywhere in Big Sur. Luckily for us there was literally one campground left as we headed South which was Andrew Molera State Park. Once again luckily (and unknown to us) this State Park only offered hike in campsites and there were 3 left! After several mile long trips back and forth to my truck to unload everything we set up our site and took off walking down the Big Sur River towards the ocean. Now there was a perfectly nice trail to hike and actually take horses on next to the river but we had been in my truck all day and were looking for adventure! Less than a mile later and with the water only reaching chest deep we ended at the Pacific Ocean where the Big Sur river empties itself. Needless to say the coastline was simply amazing, with rocky outcroppings and beautiful tangled pieces of driftwood everywhere. We were like 12 year olds again running down the beach and simply forgetting about everything else in the world other than the beauty that surrounded us for a few moments. There is no other feeling quite like this in the world.\
After exploring the coastline some more we went back to our campsite and cooked up a bunch of great camp food including brats, beans and corn among other delicious items. There may also have been some beer and bourbon drank but that’s mostly a rumor.
The next morning after some light groaning and stretching we made a quick breakfast, hopped in the truck and headed to McWay Falls in Julia Pfieffer Burns State Park for some hiking. McWay Falls is an arrestingly beautiful 80 foot waterfall just on the West side of the Highway 1 that is probably the easiest, most accessible, gorgeous spot for all who come to Big Sur. There are paved paths and rest assured if you are here in the summer there will be crowds. However there are places in this world where dealing with crowds is worth what you get out of it and this is one of those places. As I noted quickly above the ocean water in Big Sur and especially in the cove at McWay Falls is such a bright turquoise blue you’d swear you’re in the Caribbean. Once you’ve got your fill of the waterfall and hiking around on the West side of the 1 you can either cross the road or walk underneath it through a large tunnel into the rest of the park. There are several hiking trails that leave this area but we essentially followed the Redwood lined river up and further in. Unless it will damage flora or fauna I am not much of a “trail” guy, I’d rather get off a little by my own and find a challenging hike that 7 million people haven’t done. The main trail does actually follow the river for a while but then veers off on its own. I recommend continuing to follow the river as you will be rewarded with not just one but 2 beautiful, secluded waterfalls. The first is about 10-15 feet and the second is at least 30-40 feet and literally picture perfect. I didn’t know at the time but I would be getting engaged at that exact same waterfall nearly 2 years to the day later!
After one of the most beautiful hikes of my life it was time to head back to the campsite. We got back early enough in the afternoon that we all did another quick hike to the ocean and back to check for some surfable waves. Unfortunately still nothing working wave-wise, same as the day before. We did find one break earlier that day called Fullers that is a long, long walk from the road and is supposedly a very heavy wave that also has heavy locals. We decided the surfing could wait.
After some more hiking and fun times around a bonfire with some of our neighbors it was time to pack up Sunday morning and head back to San Diego. We decided against driving the Highway 1 the entire way back and instead drove North to Monterey where you can go east and get onto the 101 which is a major freeway and you can go 80 MPH as opposed to about 15 mph on the Highway 1.
That was my first experience in Big Sur and from the moment I got home I couldn’t wait to get back! I am one of those people that loves exploring new places and adventuring off the main path. I am constantly trying to balance my love for amazing places like Big Sur that I have already been and want to explore much more, with my desire to travel and explore all new places I have never been. However the proximity of Big Sur to me is like a magnet that always draws me back. I recently went on a camping trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park and now am afflicted with that same issue there, but that’s for another post.
The next time I went to Big Sur I was a lot more prepared for what was ahead, what I needed and didn’t need to bring and also was smart enough to book a camp site in advance! If you are looking to book a site anytime June-August in Big Sur you are most likely going to have to book 4-6 months in advance. One of the campgrounds we had pulled into but couldn’t get a spot on the first trip was the Riverside Campground and Cabins. You have to drive down a steep driveway to get to the campground but then you are surrounded by Redwoods and the majestic Big Sur River flows right through the campground, with a lot of sites are located right next to it. When I decided to take my fiancée to Big Sur (who was still my girlfriend at the time) I knew I wanted to get a spot at The Riverside Campground if at all possible. Luckily I booked about 5 months in advance and got a spot that turned out to be the best in the entire campground! We were all by ourselves above all other campsites literally surrounded by Redwoods.
Along with hiking McWay Falls and up the Big Sur River like I did the first trip there I knew I wanted to find somewhere new to explore I hadn’t seen yet for Beth and I to discover together. The Riverside Cabins and Campground is run by a really nice old couple who suggested we check out Pfeiffer Beach for somewhere different. It was a little tricky to find down a long very narrow road lacking in much signage but well worth it once you get there. There is some great hiking and the waves crashing into the rock formations on shore are mesmerizing. There is also some beautiful rust red sand here in areas that I am guessing comes from a high iron content in the rocks. One other place we stopped by quick to have a taste of local champagne after our engagement is a restaurant called Nepenthe that I highly recommend stopping at. It’s located way up on top of the cliffs overlooking nearly all of Big Sur and is one of the best lookout points I have found along the entire stretch of coast. Plus they have friendly bartenders, great local wine, champagne and tasty food!
Big Sur will always have a special place in my heart and soul, hopefully you all get a chance to visit as well!
http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=582 – Andrew Molera State Campground
http://www.discover-central-california.com/pfeiffer-beach.html – Pfieffer Beach
http://www.riversidecampground.com/ Where Beth and I camped, beautiful spot right on the Big Sur River
http://www.bigsurcalifornia.org/camping.html – A handy guide to camping in Big Sur
http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=578 – Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
http://nepenthebigsur.com/ – Nepenthe