Big Sur is one of the most iconic California destinations on the coast: winding roads with ocean views backed up to redwood trees, and water so blue it seems to belong in the tropics instead of California’s central coast. Here are a few inside tips to make the most of a trip to this beautiful coastal location.
Free Ocean View Camping
Big Sur has a significant number of campsites along the 20-mile stretch on the California State Route 1 between San Simeon and Carmel. However, like most campsites, there are fees involved. Because they’re less advertised, many aren’t aware that there is an availability of of free sites as well. The Plaskett Creek Campgrounds located on the east side of Highway 1 and just north of Sand Dollar Beach is a gateway to several free places to pitch your tent (and with some seriously amazing ocean views).
Once you see the sign for Plaskett Creek, turn into the paved roadway and continue driving up the steeply graded hill. Once you pass the paid grounds and RV park, you’ll reach an open space with gorgeous coastal scenery. Any of those areas are first come, first serve. Note: Despite having to go through Plaskett Creek, these sites are not considered to be a part of the Plaskett Creek grounds. If you go during the winter, you’ll have a front row seat to see whales spouting as they migrate.
Hiking & Beach-Going
The beauty of Big Sur is that you can hike into the heart of the woods, then turn around and walk across the highway to the beach. There are plenty of beautiful hikes in the Big Sur region that are easily accessible and most are fairly short. A couple must-do hikes while in Big Sur include the McWay Waterfall Trail and the Ewoldsen Trail. McWay doesn’t even breach a mile in distance, but the view of the waterfall against the coast and the turquoise water lapping into the cove is most definitely worth the trip. Meanwhile, the Ewoldsen Trail (right around the corner) is a 4.5-mile trip that blends both redwood groves with rocky-bedded streams and a few peeks of the ocean.
Pfeiffer State Beach is the most frequented in the Big Sur area. It’s about a mile drive towards the coast from Hwy 1 and costs $10 per car (it’s cash only, so don’t forget to stop at the ATM because it’s another mile and half to the nearest one). The beach is beautiful and has several “doorway” stone formations, which allow the oncoming surf to burst through, making a pretty fantastic sight. However, if you want to skip the fee, Garrapata Beach, about 20 miles further up the coast, has free parking along the road and is a relaxing place to spread out, have lunch or hunt for sea glass. If jade’s more your thing, visitors to Jade Beach, also in Big Sur, can find keepsakes to take home.
Along the entire stretch of Big Sur’s coastline there is a huge assortment of gift shops, eateries, galleries and more. Nepenthe is a popular food destination for its combination of contemporary eats and ocean views, as is the Big Sur Bakery, which is famous for its pastries and wood-fired pizzas. But two amazing must-see Big Sur gems are the Henry Miller Library and the hot springs at Esalen Institute.
Aside from browsing its books and art, if you check the Henry Miller schedule of events, you can catch a show at the library. The library hosts a variety of musical performers and serves as a venue for international film viewings and writing workshops. Meanwhile, for some nighttime fun, the Esalen Institute opens its private hot springs to the public between 1 am and 3 am. There’s something undeniably magical about bathing beneath a Big Sur night sky and listening to the ocean below, and if you can fit it in, you won’t be disappointed. It costs $25 per person, and because their public openings fill up quickly, it’s best to register online ahead of time. If staying in the state park, you can also to drive directly to the resort, but make sure you go early!
Travelers Tip: Gas is supremely expensive in the Big Sur area. If you can, fill up before you pass San Simeon (if coming from the south) or Carmel (if coming from the north). If you’re super thrifty, fill up a gas can and bring along.