Konnichi wa / Great Outdoors / Summer 2019
Big Sur Camping & Other Lodging Options
Big Sur, only a three-hour drive from SF, is an area without boundaries, both physical and of the imagination.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is an area without boundaries along California's central coast and is generally considered to be the gem of central California.
It includes the portion of Highway 1 between Carmel Highlands and San Simeon and is made up of a number of designated state parks, forests, and wilderness areas: Andrew Molera State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Limekiln State Park, Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Garrapata State Park, Los Padres National Forest, and the Ventana Wilderness.
Most visitors know Big Sur for its hiking trails, unparalleled Pacific Ocean views, and the scenic drive along the Big Sur coast; but there's another slightly less popular activity that's immensely rewarding and still gets plenty of attention from those in the know:
Big Sur camping.
Camping in Big Sur can be a challenge, particularly during the more popular times of year, as campsites fill up quickly and there are a limited number of options, which leaves many visitors desperately looking for alternatives.
As a result, some visitors have made impromptu campsites of open spots along the roads in Big Sur, especially along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which has led to a number of issues over the years that have resulted in this activity being banned. As such, camping is permitted only in designated private or state or federal park campsites or within USFS land.
Nevertheless, there are many bold souls who still try to camp in undesignated sites and in 2016 one of them started a campfire that got out of control and led to the Soberanes Fire which burned over 130,000 acres of land and resulted in one fatality. The fire took three months and $236 million to extinguish.
Therefore, we strongly discourage this activity and will not be recommending any sites outside of those designated for camping.
Saddle Rock & South Gardens Environmental Campgrounds at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (4.7 out of 5 on Google; for the park itself, not the campsites)
These are prime, prime sites due to their proximity to McWay Falls and to the fact that they're the only two campsites within Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. For those reasons, reservations generally fill up six months in advance, so book early.
The sites are hike-in only and therefore no vehicles are allowed near the campsites; however, visitors can park at the main parking lot or along Highway 1, provided they show proof of registration in the windshield. Each site allows a maximum of four people and has a picnic table, fire pit, and a food box. You have to hike-in all of your water and firewood, and all all trash must leave with you.
Dogs are permitted but must be kept on a 6-ft. leash at all times and are not allowed on trails. Keep in mind that visitors are not allowed on McWay Beach, so there's no beach access here.
Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground (4.6 out of 5 on Google)
There are 189 RV and tent sites available on or near the Big Sur River. Each campsite allows up to 8 campers and has a picnic table, fire ring, and half-grill. Campsites are generally spacious and private, but visitors have mentioned it's not quite an authentic camping experience and note that the campground can get a little crowded on holidays and weekends.
Fresh water, restrooms, and hot showers are just a short walk away and while RVs are allowed, there are no hookups for RV camping.
The campground is open year-round and walk-ins are accepted, but sites usually fill up six months in advance (even during winter) so the probability of getting a walk-in site is quite low. Online reservations, however, cannot be made within 48 hours of your stay and there may be a few last-minute cancellations within that timeframe, so day-of campsites could be available.
If you're wanting to grab a day-of spot, you'll need to be at the entrance kiosk by 8am to have any chance of getting one, so plan accordingly.
Campsites are $35/night and premium riverfront sites are $50/night, which are pricey but both include parking for one vehicle. If you want to park an extra vehicle, it will be another $45/night.
The South Camp (sites 1-78) is near the general store and laundromat, but the Main Camp (sites 131-188) is generally most recommended. Visitors mention liking the river sites (171-179) and also campsites in the 140s, which are among the redwoods.
Riverside Campground & Cabins (4.6 out of 5 on Google)
Another private campground with 34 campsites and 11 cabins, but this one seems to be outperforming expectations as the reviews are glowing.
Accommodations are a bit rustic, but located in a nice area along the Big Sur River. Staff are incredibly welcoming and friendly.
There are complaints that the sites may be a bit close together, but all-in-all this seems like a great choice among the private campground options.
Vicente Flat Campground (4.9 out of 5 on Google)
Kirk Creek Campground (4.5 out of 5 on Google)
$35 per site for up to six people and one vehicle. Each site has a table, campfire ring, and grill.
No water available at the campground, so be sure to pack plenty in (there's also a short, five-minute walk to the creek nearby if you have a filter).
Allows a maximum of 8 people per site (with an extra $10pp charge above 6) and two vehicles. Amenities are few but the scenery is incredible. Reservations can be made online in advance.
Prewitt Ridge Campsite (4.3 out of 5 on Google)
Incredible primitive sites with panoramic views of the ocean, but accessible only by dirt road with loose sand and large potholes.
Only high-clearance vehicles with 4x4 should attempt and, even then, you're taking a risk. However, the views may be worth it to some. No reservations required.
Plaskett Creek Campground (4.3 out of 5 on Google)
Popular campground within walking distance of Sand Dollar Beach. Very popular with families due to the large grassy sites and outdoor activities. Flush toilets, sinks, and drinking water are available. $35 per night for up to six people and one vehicle. Reservations can be made online in advance.
Saint Lucia Campground & Chapel (5.0 out of 5 on Google)
Small campsite owned by the church located on the same grounds. Very ideally located and good reviews on customer service.
Fernwood Resort and Campground (4.4 out of 5 on Google)
Mixed reviews here.
Tent camping is said to be very crowded and somewhat noisy with neighbors partying well into the early hours.
There were also complaints that the prices are too high - even by Big Sur standards, which are getting pricier and pricier by the year.
However, the resort grill has live music on the weekends that is said to be fantastic and, one imagines, probably the main draw of the location.
If you're really into the music and want to party through the night, this may be the spot for you. Might be okay for a weekend getaway, but make sure it's for you.
Big Sur Campground & Cabins (4.3 out of 5 on Google)
This is a private campground with cabins available among giant redwood trees.
And while the area itself is quite nice, the reviews are somewhat mixed with most visitors having a good experience and a few having an extremely, extremely bad experience.
It seems that any interaction with staff is going to be poor and the sites may be slightly overpriced. But if you feel you can stomach those things, the campground and surrounding area are enjoyable, However, be aware that there's no direct beach access as the campground itself is surrounded by private property.
Ventana Campground (4.3 out of 5 on Google)
This is a privately-owned "boutique" campsite with showers, flush toilets, and a beautiful camping area.
That said, there are a number of complaints the camping spots are too small, the prices charged are too high, and the staff are light on customer service.
Seems to be going after the "glamping" niche. If that's your thing, this may be the place for you.
Andrew Molera State Park (Currently closed)
Has a small campground with 24 primitive, walk-in campsites available.
These are walk-in only, so no reservations allowed. The campground is located about 21 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1 and does not allow pets.
Sykes Hot Springs Campground (Currently closed)
Otherwise a very popular spot as it's a 20-mile out-and-back hike (10 miles each way) with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain and, as the name suggests, hot springs at the end.
Was getting a bit overused prior to closing and the symptoms were beginning to show with trash littered everywhere.
Will hopefully be in better condition once reopened, which is expected to take place in mid-2019.
You can check the current status here.
Hotels & Other Lodging
Deetjen's Big Sur Inn (4.7 out of 5 on Google)
It seems that a place like Big Sur deserves something truly unique and truly original, and Deetjen's Big Sur Inn delivers on that front.
Built from the 1930s through the 1960s by Grandpa Deetjen using local materials and his native, Norwegian-style architecture, this inn has been described repeatedly by guests as magical.
And prices are reasonable too at only $100-300 per night.
Glen Oaks Big Sur (4.6 out of 5 on Google)
An interesting juxtaposition of modern-ish decor with rustic-looking cabins.
Rates vary widely and reviews are somewhat mixed despite the high rating. Would tread lightly here and be careful about which room you choose.
It seems the cabins and cottages are preferred to the lodge, but also quite a bit more expensive.
Spa Alila (5.0 out of 5 on Google)
Very high-end spa retreat that's associated with the Ventana Resort and Ventana Campground.
Located on 240+ acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean, it's the place to be if you're looking for a relaxing spa weekend in Big Sur.
Ventana Big Sur (4.6 out of 5 on Google)
An incredibly nice but also incredibly expensive luxury hotel located within Big Sur.
Rooms go for $1,000 or more per night and even their glamping sites go for 500-600 dollars per night, so cash in those stock options and be prepared to pay.
Post Ranch Inn (4.7 out of 5 on Google)
A truly unique property with an excellent location and original architecture. More a collection of mini houses than a hotel, but each with spectacular views.
Rooms are north of $1,000 per night and, as with most things Big Sur, there were complaints the experience didn't quite live up to the high expectations set by that high price point.
However, the location is excellent and the service was well-reviewed. But it seems if you're looking for value, you should probably look elsewhere.
Treebones Resort (4.7 out of 5 on Google)
Another "glamping" location with campsites and yurts.
The yurts are in the $300-500 range and campsites are around $200 per night, which is astronomical compared to other campsites in the area but such is the price of glamping.
At first it seems like a down-market version of the Post Ranch Inn, but guests do love the unique architecture and mention having an overall excellent experience with the views, food, and staff all receiving compliments.
The one major complaint is that the sites are a bit overpriced, but this should come as no surprise by now to Big Sur visitors.
Tassajara Zen Mountain Center (4.7 out of 5 on Google)
A Buddhist Monastery located in the heart of the Ventana Wilderness near Tassajara Hot Springs, it's the oldest Japanese Buddhist Soto Zen monastery in the U.S. and very isolated, accessible only via a narrow, steep, one-lane dirt road that's best traveled with a 4x4 vehicle and even then with extreme caution.
Practitioners, as the people who live there call themselves, live on-site during the winter months and during the summer months the center is open to day and overnight guests.
It's a bit difficult to know what to make of the reviews with some stating it has a cult-like atmosphere and others complaining about the lackluster food and amenities for the steep price tag.
However, there's no arguing that this is a unique place and should probably be visited only by those who are very curious or very devoted.
Ripplewood Resort (4.5 out of 5 on Google)
Oldish looking cabins that go for $100-300 per night.
No frills here, but solid middle-of-the-road choice for those visiting who don't want to pay outrageous prices but also don't want to sleep on the ground.
Big Sur River Inn (4.3 out of 5 on Google)
As with most places in Big Sur, demand far outstrips supply and prices, as a result, tend to skyrocket.
This Inn has a nice location along the Big Sur River and a nice restaurant, but the rooms are basic for the price (which can be in excess of $400 per night on the river side) and there are no other restaurants around, so you can guess what that does to the pricing.
Big Sur Lodge (4.2 out of 5 on Google)
Slightly overpriced here, but that's Big Sur.
Rooms go for around $300-400 per night and are quite underwhelming, however lodge is very centrally located near Pfeiffer Beach.
Lucia Lodge (4.2 out of 5 on Google)
Again, very basic accommodations for very steep prices, but the views are incredible and the food isn't bad.
Final Thoughts on Big Sur Camping
While the parking areas can get a bit overcrowded around holidays and peak season, and the tent cabins leave something to be desired for the prices, there's no taking away the unique aura and magical landscape of this incredible national treasure. Guests are sure to have a great time if they plan ahead and choose their accommodation wisely.
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