Best Parks for Backpacking Big Sur

Best Parks for Backpacking Big Sur.  Hut sites isolated in the forest with hillside to the right and tall trees all around.

If you want to go backpacking in Bug Sur, the first thing you need to do is pick the perfect park.

Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Fall 2019

Introduction

Big Sur is a natural wonderland filled with beauty waiting to be experienced. Located along the Central California coast between Carmel Highlands and San Simeon, Big Sur dramatically rises from the Pacific Coast, giving visitors a beautiful mix of scenery that cannot be found anywhere else in California.

Our first trip there was simply breathtaking, and it remains our number one recommendation for people looking to backpack in California. There are several different parks within Big Sur. Each park has unique characteristics and personality, making it a great destination for a long vacation or a short trip to unwind and center yourself within nature.

There are few places in the world where you can find white, sandy beaches and majestic waterfalls in one location, but when backpacking through the Big Sur area, you will have the chance to experience both. Rivers, streams, sea life, redwoods, and many other unique backdrops await you in Big Sur. If you wish to visit this wonderful place, all you need to do is pick the perfect park and begin backpacking.

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

Turquoise blue water crashes against the rocks with green rolling hills to the right and sunset slightly out of frame.

Have you dreamed of backpacking amongst tall redwood trees, enjoying their ancient, majestic beauty in a quiet and secluded setting? If so, then Pfeiffer is the perfect place for you. There are no beaches here, no endless oceans, but Pfeiffer makes up for it by providing backpackers with unique scenes of nature that cannot be found anywhere else on Earth.

Pfeiffer is located on the western slope of the Santa Lucia Mountains, its peaks offering breathtaking views of the Big Sur River Gorge beneath. Pfeiffer’s mix of nature is unparalleled. If you want to see bobcats, kingfishers, and black-tail deer in their natural habitat punctuated by redwood, oak, and sycamore trees, then Pfeiffer is the perfect place to begin your backpacking trip in Big Sur.

Pfeiffer is 150 miles south of San Francisco and just 30 miles south of Monterey, making it a great destination for a weekend backpacking trip if you’re located in either of these cities. There are numerous campsites off Highway 1, such as Salmon Creek, Limekiln, and Kirk Creek, meaning you will have a close place to camp it out for the weekend if you are a day hiker taking advantage of one of the numerous day hike trails within the park.

This state park isn’t just for day hikers. There are over 300 miles of hiking trails in the backcountry that backpackers can take advantage of. No permits are needed to backpack through Pfeiffer, but you will need a permit for camp stove use if you stay at one of the campsites as campfires are not permitted within Pfeiffer. These permits can be obtained from the forest service.

The trail conditions in Pfeiffer can change quickly. Before embarking on your trip, you can check these conditions on the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce website. Once you begin your hike through the backcountry, watch out for poison oak and make sure to carry out everything you carry in to keep this beautiful country pristine and clean.

Point Sur State Historic Park

Woman stands on rocks that fall steeply to blue waters below.

If you dream of the ocean and the lights that have kept sailors safe for hundreds of years, then backpacking to Point Sur State Historic Park will provide you with the experience of a lifetime. This park provides you with breathtaking views of the Pacific from a height of 361 feet. Point Sur State Historic Park is located along Highway 1 just 15 miles south of Carmel and is a great destination for a day trip.

The Point Sur Lightstation is the highlight of this park. It sits on large, volcanic rocks 361 feet above the surf of the Pacific Ocean. The light station was first lit on August 1st, 1889, and has been active ever since, resulting in its placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

This historic park isn’t completely open to the public. Backpacking tours lasting three hours can be arranged through the Point Sur State Historic Park website. Once the tour has been reserved, you can meet your group on the west side of Highway 1 at the gated entrance 19 miles south of Rio Road in Carmel.

Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest

Single road runs along Pacific Ocean to the right and green hillside to the left.

Serene rivers and streams cutting through pristine redwood forests are the highlights of this park. Ventana Wilderness is the gateway to the Big Sur River corridor and features many different campsites, including Barlow Flat and Terrace Creek. Pine Ridge Trail winds through this park for 23 miles, making it a great weekend backpacking destination, and the multiple campsites along the trail are perfectly spaced to allow you to take shelter each night as you traverse this stunning wilderness (there's also Sykes Hot Springs along the way if you're interested - and it's open!).

Pine Ridge Trail was built in 1916 by the Post family when they realized the natural beauty of the area. If you are a tree lover, you’ll find many different types to enjoy. The western half of the trail is cut by streams and dotted by redwoods. The eastern half of the trail features conifers and forested ridges made up of mixed hardwoods. Make sure to leave no trace so others can enjoy the beauty as well.

Parking for this year-round trail can be found at Big Sur Station. Once you leave Big Sur Station and hit the trail, you’ll reach several different sites. About 6 miles in, you can find Terrace Creek Camp and Barlow Flats Camp. The beautiful Redwood Camp situated along the Big Sur River can be found about 12 miles in. You will find Cone Peak Trail, Ventana Double Cone Peak, and China Camp further along the trail.

If backpacking amongst forests, streams, and rivers sounds like something you would enjoy, you can backpack Pine Ridge Trail without a permit. Parking at Big Sur Station parking lot will cost $10 per day, and other amenities, such as water and toilets, can be accessed for a fee.

Garrapata State Park

Flowers spring among green foliage with ocean in background.

The beautiful beaches of Garrapata provide a great opportunity for backpacking along the Big Sur coast. Located along Highway 1, Garrapata is 6.7 miles south of Rio Road in Carmel.

There are two trails for you to enjoy at Garrapata. The Soberanes Canyon Trail trailhead is situated across from Gate 8 of the Garrapata coastal trail. The length of this trail is 1.25 miles, and it takes you on a spectacular journey along the back of the canyon. If you want to experience more of the beach and ocean views, then the Garrapata Coastal Trail is for you. Backpacking this trail will take you two miles along the beachfront and offers views of a variety of coastal vegetation along the coast ridge. If you want to catch a peek at sea life, this trail is the perfect place to do so. Sea lions, harbor seals, and sea otters often make an appearance along the trail, offering amazing and rare experiences for the adventurous backpacker.

Silver Peak Wilderness

Man stares into distance in tall grass field.

Silver Peak Wilderness has many great trails for seasoned backpackers. This park was established in 1992 and has since grown to 31,555 acres of stunning and dramatic wilderness cut by moderate and strenuous trails. Parts of the Silver Peak backcountry are very remote and only open when weather permits.

The Buckeye Trail is one of the most scenic within the park. It runs 15 miles and starts at the Buckeye trailhead near Salmon Creek. The first three miles run along the coast, offering many great places for pictures and rest. After three miles, the trail turns inward and runs for two miles until it reaches the Upper Cruikshank Camp. There are many different campsites further up this route, including Silver Camp and Lion Den Camp. Towards the end of the trail, you can find Estrella and Spruce Creek trail camps.

If you are a lover of photography, then the Buckeye Trail is the perfect place to snap beautiful and unique pictures. The trail climbs above Highway 1 and offers amazing opportunities to photograph the coastal views below. Majestic redwood groves can be found further along the trail providing a scenic setting for nature photography.

Buckeye Trail can be reached by taking Highway 1 to a horseshoe bend found 3.7 miles north of Ragged Point Inn. The trailhead can be found next to the out-of-service Salmon Creek Ranger Station.

Andrew Molera State Park

Winding road runs along coast with clouds rising above.

If you are drawn to undeveloped, largely unspoiled nature, then Andrew Molera State Park will offer you the perfect backpacking experience. This is by far our favorite park in Big Sur for good reason. You can find just about every natural setting within Andrew Molera. If you’re an ocean lover, you can comb the beaches of the Pacific. There are also miles of trails that will take you through hilltops, meadows, and bluffs.

The Beach Trail at Andrew Molera stretches for two miles. The trailhead begins at the mouth of the Big Sur River and continues to Cooper Point. This trail is only available during low tide, and you should be aware of the time before starting your hike to make sure you do not get trapped once the tide rises.

The Bluffs Trail will offer you dramatic views as you travel above the Pacific Ocean for 1.7 miles. You cannot access the beach from this trail, but it offers several different places to stop and photograph the beautiful surf below.

If you’re an experienced backpacker, then the Ridge Trail is a great place to hike. This trail is 3.2 miles long and carries hikers up the ridge. Hiking along this uphill trail can be strenuous, and it’s recommended for seasoned hikers only.

Limekiln State Park

Milky Way shines over two tents at campsite.

Limekiln State Park is a dream setting for nature lovers. There are 24 campsites within the park, and spectacular waterfalls, redwood groves, and Pacific coastline can all be experienced here. The park is located off Highway 1, two miles south of Lucia. If you’d like to reserve a campsite, you can do so six months before your visit by visiting the California Department of Parks and Recreation website.

Once you reach Limekiln State Park, you can begin your hike along the Limekiln Trails. The trails here are very easy to navigate and will take you to several different sites along three different branches. Hiking up the Falls branch will take you to a cascading waterfall that offers a great setting for photographs. The Hare Creek branch will take you through Hare Canyon where you can witness the tallest and oldest redwood trees in Big Sur. Finally, the Limekiln branch will take you to the four enormous kilns that give this park its name. These kilns were built during the turn of the century by the Rockland Lime and Lumber Company and are a unique site that cannot be seen anywhere else in Big Sur.

Limekiln Park is perfect for a day trip. It’s open from 8:00 in the morning to sunset, allowing you enough time to hike all of the trails if you do not wish to stay at one of the campsites. No permit is needed to backpack within the park, and it’s free to enter.

Partington Cove in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Green water crashes against rocky cliffs.

Partington Cove is one of the best trails in Big Sur to witness the beautiful and rough Big Sur coastline. It is located within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and begins at the top of a fire road off Highway 1 before descending 200 feet to the coast below.

The beach at the bottom of this trail is one of the most dramatic in Big Sur, featuring rough surf beating against huge boulders and unspoiled sand. The trail leading into Partington Cove is 1.5 miles long, and it’s the perfect length to allow the anticipation to build as you descend onto the beach. This trail features an interesting tunnel constructed in the 1880s that stretches 60 feet through solid rock.

Partington Cove is open year-round, and there is no fee to enjoy this spectacular trail. The tides dramatically change the landscape here. Make sure you plan your hike perfectly so you can enjoy both low and high tide.

Final Thoughts on Backpacking in Big Sur

Tree stands alone with night sky in background.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.”

— John Muir

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Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Summer 2019

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