Big Sur, California is what coastal roadtrip dreams are made of. The rugged and majestic stretch of coastline on California’s central coast begins after San Simeon, and continues up highway 1 to Carmel. The long stretch of undeveloped land is strikingly different than the rest of California’s densely populated coast — this is one of the things that makes it so special. The clear blue water, wildflowers, cliffs, and bridges (mostly built in the 1930’s) bring thousands of visitors here every year.
However, getting to Big Sur isn’t easy. There is one stretch of highway that winds 80+ miles along the cliffs. So visiting Big Sur can only be done by entering either from the North or South, with nearly 90 miles of spectacular coastline views in-between. When Big Sur experienced massive fires and landslides, the southern entrance was closed for more than a year, making it even more exclusive. It just opened back up this summer (2018).
Lodging in Big Sur ranges tremendously from high end one-of-a-kind hotels to budget camping! There is the spectacular Post Ranch Inn that will run upwards of $1000 a night (on my bucket list!) to small Inns in the 150 -400$ range. But for those on a budget or families who want to camp, there are a few state park options including Pheiffer Burns State Park, as well as several private campgrounds.
This summer we spent three days camping at Pfeiffer Burns State Park – one of the most affordable ways to stay in Big Sur!
Pfeiffer Burns State Park Campground
This campground is pretty big, but it books up FAST. I was really lucky to book our site when I did. If you want to camp in Big Sur, you need to be ready when booking opens six months before.
The campground is right along the Big Sur river. Some sites back up directly to the river (which in the summer has a really mellow flow). Some sites are also under thick redwood cover, while others have a lot of sun which can be really hot in mid-summer. I recommend taking a good look at photos before booking.
Positives about the Campground
-The River. The river runs through the campground and it has a beautiful swimming hole that was freezing but a definite highlight for us and a great way to cool off after a hard hike.
-Big campsites — the sites are all pretty spacious. I didn’t feel like we were ever too close to neighbors.
–Hikes within walking distance. There were a number of hikes that we could go to right from our campsite.
-State park pass — by camping in Pfeiffer Burns you automatically get “free” entrance to the other state parking lots in the area as long as you are camping. We thought this was a great bonus when we went to different parks to hike and they waived the $10 entrance fee.
-Family oriented — We found that the vast majority of the campers were families. We didn’t experience any loud or obnoxious neighbors.
Negatives about the Campground
-Animals and Flies – I have never camped in a place with such aggressive animals. Between the birds divebombing and the 3-4 squirrels going for our food at all times, I feel like we needed a guard posted! We had to constantly put our food in the car. Also, the campground is filled with Stellar Jay’s — they have the WORST and loudest sounds that pierce through earplugs 🙂 Additionally, from about noon to five PM our site was covered with little flies.
-Cleanliness of Restrooms — The restrooms were pretty gross (which is sadly pretty standard for California State Park campgrounds).
-Poison Oak — EVERYWHERE – I know this year was pretty bad for poison oak, but I would expect a really popular campground to spray it back from paths to restrooms etc. It felt like we were tiptoeing constantly everywhere to avoid touching it.
Things to Do in Big Sur
Take a Drive – You don’t need to be a hiker to enjoy the views, you can simply enjoy the views from the car. If you do this route (which is well worth it!) make sure you pull off at the iconic Bixby Bridge and other turn-offs to get some photos.
Big Sur is a hiker’s paradise – there are views from everywhere. Unfortunately due to major fires a few years ago, many trails are closed. I use the All Trails App – (And LOVE it) – I also paid for the ability to download maps because most of Big Sur lacks cell service. One other thing to note is that MANY of the trails in Big Sur have a lot of poison oak – and ticks. I got one on my hat. Just be really mindful – stay on the trails and you should be fine. These are the hikes we did:
Buzzard’s Roost Trail (right from the campground) – Medium/hard (3 mile loop)
The great thing about this trail is that you don’t even have to leave the campground. Its about a three mile roundtrip trail that is mostly wooded until you get to the top. I wouldn’t say this trail is great for small children unless you know their hiking ability. There are some steep dropoffs. The view from the top was awesome. The ocean, and miles of mountain views all around.
Bluff Trail Loop, Andrew Molera State Park – Medium (8 mile loop)
Amazing ocean views abound on this loop trail. Unfortunately so does poison oak. Still, its such a beautiful trail, inclines are totally manageable. If you don’t want to do the full 8 mile loop you can do an out and back — or just walk down to the beach nearby. We didn’t do a beach day here but saw many people walking down with chairs and umbrellas and surf boards. (Bonus: If you have your campground parking pass – you get he parking fee waived)
Soberanes Point – Easy (1 mile)
This might be one of the most beautiful trails in the world. I am not kidding. Its super short and easy. Wildflowers, turquoise water, a waterfall — it has it all. Its a pretty busy spot, but worth it. We pulled over for this short hike on our way out.
Hang out in the River –
The Big Sur River is one of the wonderful things about the area. The campground offers lots of areas to float and play. Additionally, we enjoy going to the Big Sur River Inn and getting a beer/wine/lemonade and walking down to the river where they have wood Adirondack chairs in the water. Sometimes they also have bands you can listen to.
Few waterfalls are as iconic and beautiful as McWay Falls — It is actually a tidefall, a waterfall that empties directly into the ocean, and one of only two in California. The great thing about this waterfall is that its super easy to walk out to – so with little kids its really easy. The negatives about this area are the crowds and the fact that the beach is off limits. We joked with our kids when they were little that it was a “pirate cove” because its such a magical looking place.
In short, Big Sur is famous for good reason. Its a beautiful place unlike anything else. I hope you all can visit one day!