How to Camp Big Sur / by lee tilghman

 Big Sur: one of those places that makes you go, "Dang, life is beautiful"

Big Sur: one of those places that makes you go, "Dang, life is beautiful"

The other week, I headed up the California coast to Big Sur, one of the prettiest places in the world. I first went here at age 16 with my family and was immediately enamored by its beauty. 

Driving along the US-1 highway is unlike anything my Connecticut soul has ever seen. It reminds me of the Spanish Riviera and Montana all at once, but with its own California vibe. Think rolling green pastures filled with sheep and cows, winding roads, cacti, and amber bluffs that caress waterfalls which descend into the deep vast turquoise Pacific. Big Sur is so cool and is pretty much the sole reason I wanted to move to California in the first place. 

 3 words when it comes to Big Sur: take me back. 

3 words when it comes to Big Sur: take me back. 

I put together a guide for those who are looking to experience Big Sur through the eyes of a camper. Of course, you can experience Big Sur many ways: there are airbnb's, retreats, yurts, hotels and motels, but camping is my favorite way. Why? There is no cell service in Big Sur, so it's much easier to disconnect, be present in nature, and feel more at peace. The nature is astonishing and always has me gasping by its sheer beauty. Sleeping outside underneath the stars really helps me appreciate all that nature has to selflessly offer us.

A camping trip to Big Sur is a great way to spend spring break, summer vacation, or a fall weekend away with friends. It's accessible, beautiful, affordable, and truly relaxing. Below are some of my favorite hikes, restaurants, and rest stops along the way to take some of the guesswork out of trip planning. 

Camping Notes:

  • Plan ahead. Many Big Sur campgrounds are by reservation only and they book up fast. Reservations can be made here
  • Plan your route. Depending on which direction you are coming to Big Sur from, road closures are still in effect after extreme weather mudslides.
  • Rent a car! Big Sur is called Big Sur because it's big. I'd say it's necessary to have or rent a (preferably 4WD) car that is safe to drive for the windy roads. 
  • Bring cash. Most places at Big Sur don't have internet, so they can't use credit cards. 
  • Go with a group. There is safety in numbers! Travel with friends. 
  • Use your intuition. While camping is fun and exciting, there are potential dangers and you are slightly more vulnerable. This shouldn't deter us from camping, but rather awaken us to our surroundings. If something feels off, pay attention to that and don't brush it off. That's your gut talking. 

We brought our own food on our trip and cooked 9/10 meals at the campsite. Cooking at camp is a part of the whole experience. It takes longer to prep and clean up so I usually planned about 2 hours around each mealtime to cook, eat, then clean. 

Our List:

  • Banza chickpea pasta
  • olive oil
  • lemons
  • Avocado 
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Grain free tortillas from Siete
  • black beans
  • hummus
  • carrots
  • Bulletproof Collagen bars
  • apples 
  • almond butter
  • paleo pancake mix
  • blueberries 
  • red pepper 
  • swiss chard

And now...to the guide!

Limekiln State Park (3 mile, intermediate hike, $10 parking)

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We headed here for a scenic, forest-filled hike on our last day. There are not many beach views from this hike, it's more in the forest surrounded by big trees on mossy ground. Expect lots of crowds on this hike, it's a popular one since it's mostly flat. There are a few different trails to take, but I only did the Limekiln one before getting quite tired. There were also some really pretty campsites around the area and they also have showers on the campgrounds. $10 for day parking, cash only, no credit cards or checks. 

 A secluded beach off the Spring Trail on the Andrew Molera loop. Definitely worth the extra decline and incline back up to the main trail. 

A secluded beach off the Spring Trail on the Andrew Molera loop. Definitely worth the extra decline and incline back up to the main trail. 

Andrew Molera Loop (8 miles, seasoned hiker and willing to get wet! $10 for parking)

If you are up for this hike, I highly, highly recommend it. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime hikes that I will never forget. Beware: within the first 1/2 mile of the hike you have to remove your shoes to wade through a knee/hip-deep flowing river but trust me, it's so worth it! The water is refreshingly clean and will wake you right on up for your hike. Don't expect to see many people on the loop. Take a photo of the trail map before leaving the parking lot. Give yourself 3.5 hours to complete. We did this hike at sunset and it was stunning. You can see the cows in the distance and hear them MOOOOO as the sun sets. Expect gaping views of the Pacific Ocean, valleys of wildflowers, pastures of cows, eucalyptus forests and pine trees galore. TIP: The park enforcers charge $10 for day parking, but if you park along the US-1 turnout designated for the loop, it's free. 

 Takin' in the golden hour from the Springs Trail on the Andrew Molera loop. 

Takin' in the golden hour from the Springs Trail on the Andrew Molera loop. 

Plasket Creek Campgrounds (campgrounds, $20/night)

My friend and I stayed here and loved it. It's within walking distance to a great beach (Sand Dollar, listed below) which is a big plus. The campground is a hot spot for families so I recommend it for the early-to-bed and early-to-rise folks. Not many partiers head to this campsite. The campsite offers a fire pit for each site so you can enjoy some good 'ol bonfire time. The grounds also have a water spicket and closed bathrooms for campers.  No showers are here, but I say embrace the dirt and grit. It will make coming home and taking a real shower that much more enjoyable! In the summer months you can probably swim in the streams and waterfalls to clean off but don't use soap or shampoo if so. Campsite is $20 a night and I recommend booking ahead if you are trying to plan a weekend trip. First come first serve is fine for some weekdays depending on time of year and holiday. 

Sand Dollar Beach (free)

Gorgeous beach with a mini-hike in. This beach is not wheelchair accessible. The beach offers a large, curved sprawling beach for picnics, hangs, naps and walks. There are usually a few surfers here too. In April it was dog-friendly so obviously I made BFF with like 10 furry friends. It's free if you walk in. I think cars have to pay $10 for parking or something. Not sure though. 

Big Sur Bakery (restaurant, $$$)

This place has got the cutest Big Sur vibes ever. It's a cafe/bakery by day and an intimate, string-lit restaurant by night. It's family owned and they focus on local, seasonal ingredients. You can taste the heart and soul that they put into the food. Even though I love all the camping food, my friend and I ate here one night on our trip because #TreatYoSelf. Boy, it was delicious. We both got the vegetarian entree: 1/2 roasted butternut squash filled with sautéed hen of the wood mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, cabbage, walnuts, other veggies I can't recall all tossed in herb-y pesto. It was so good. 10/10 would go back. 

McWay Falls (scenic view, free)

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I mean... how can you not go to Big Sur and check out the famous McWay Falls?! It's a stunning picturesque location because it shows so many different ecosystems in one: pine trees, waterfalls, cacti, palm plants, the ocean, amber bluffs, and a desert valley. I suggest going here for sunset. You will be feeling *all* the feels. 

Henry Miller Memorial Library (bookstore/library, free entry)

To be honest, I haven't gone here in my 3 times visiting Big Sur, but it's at the top of my list for next trip. It's a bookstore/library in the middle of the Redwood forest. They sometimes have open mic night and offer free outdoor concerts as well. 

Have you been to Big Sur? What do you like about it? Also, would you be interested in a blog post dedicated to what to pack for camping trips?