Jason Daniel Shaw
Perfect Itinerary for a Big Sur Camping Road Trip
Big Sur – Los Angeles, CA
The California coastline is just about as diverse as any place on earth and the section of coast known as Big Sur is no exception. I consider Big Sur to be the area from around San Simeon to Point Lobos, near Carmel. This section of Highway 1 is one of my favorite drives and a great place to disconnect and spend some time with nature – spectacular nature.
We made it to the following places:
- Oceano Dunes SVRA
- Pismo Beach
- Pirate’s Cove
- Nacimiento-Fergusson Road
- Sand Dollar Beach
- Plaskett Creek Campground
- Limekiln Trails
- Partington Cove
- McWay Falls
- Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground (South Camp)
- Fernwood Bar & Grill
- Point Sur Lighthouse
- Bixby Bridge
- Garrapata State Beach
- Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
- Carmel-by-the-Sea (Scenic Road)
- 17-Mile Drive (Pebble Beach)
Oceano Dunes SVRA – Pismo Beach, CA
Last Wednesday afternoon, Amanda and I set out on a road trip that took us through Pismo Beach, Big Sur and finally into the Carmel & Monterey area. It was Amanda’s first time seeing this section of the California coastline and although I have been before, I had never been during this time of the year (late spring / early summer).
After our long, bumper-to-bumper drive out of Los Angeles, our first stop was the Oceano Dunes SVRA (State Vehicular Recreational Area) in Pismo Beach and although it was dark out, it was so nice to be by the beach. Even if we could only just hear the waves crashing on the shore. If you have never been to Oceano Dunes, it is a section of beach that is run by the State of California that you can drive on and better yet, camp, right on the sand. Just be warned, that without a 4WD, there is a high likelihood that you WILL get stuck. It is only $10/night to camp here – where else are you going to find oceanfront accommodations for that cheap?! There is also a section of sand dunes at the southern end that allows you to take your off road vehicles for some fun. Don’t worry though, if you don’t have a quad or a sand rail or a Jeep, there are plenty of vendors that will give you a quick safety lesson and rent you whatever you desire. We setup camp and got a good night’s rest.
The next morning we slept in, thanks to the overcast, foggy morning but as soon as we emerged, there were a few people that were in need of assistance. One family had brought four vehicles, including a motorhome and had all of them stuck in the sand. By the time that we got packed up, they had all but one unstuck and we just had to help them pull their trailer to firm ground. We then aired down the tires and headed out into the dunes. The cold, cloudy morning was turning into a beautiful, sunny day.
The dunes are a blast in the Jeep. Amanda was a little skeptical about going over some of the ridges but after the first few, seemed to enjoy it. Since it was a Thursday, there weren’t that many people out there (just a group of people on quads) which really makes it nice. The dunes can get very busy, especially in the summer. That means being very diligent about safety for you and for others. As we were getting ready to leave, there was another family with a rental van that had got stuck and asked for some help. The Jeep once again came to the rescue (not a sponsored ad but if Jeep wants to sponsor our travels, email me haha).
TIP: Oceano Campground has showers that you can use if you park in the lot on Pier Ave and walk through the fence to the shower building. They are fed by tokens ($1.00 = 4 minutes) which can be purchased nearby.
Pirate’s Cove – Avila Beach, CA
Pismo Beach has so much character and makes me think that this is what all of the beach towns must have been like up and down the coast many decades ago. It was a perfect spot to stop for lunch (Mo’s Smokehouse BBQ) and to pick up some chocolate, fudge and saltwater taffy from Hotlix candy Store before a quick stroll along the pier. We wanted to make one more stop before heading north to Big Sur.
While Pirate’s Cove may be a nude beach, we weren’t stopping to sun our buns. Along Avila Beach Drive, there is an easily missed turnoff called Cave Landing Road that leads you up to the parking area. Parking is free but beware, the dirt parking lot can be treacherous if you don’t have a high clearance vehicle. The trail that leads to the beach comes to a fork with one way leading to the beach and the other leading to Smuggler’s Cave. The cave is what we came to explore. It is basically a natural tunnel with the other side being a sheer cliff that drops off into the ocean. It can be quite busy with a lot of locals that come to drink and smoke but if you can get it to yourself, it can be a pretty amazing place. Even if not, it makes for a great photo!
TIP: If you have more time, there are a lot of sea caves that you can explore by kayak along this section of coast, from Avila Beach to Shell Beach. There are several shops that you can rent gear from and even hire a guide if you are not as adventurous. The natural rock formations and sea life are not to be missed.
Unfortunately, we had to make it to our campground in Big Sur before sunset and it was already late in the afternoon.
Nacimiento-Fergusson Road – Big Sur, CA
Big Sur is prone to landslides and that, unfortunately, takes out Highway 1 a lot of times. As you may or may not know, a major landslide happened last year and took out a big portion of the road just south of Gorda. That means that for the past year, any through traffic had to use Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. While I had heard of this road before, I had never taken it. It is 24.5 miles long and runs through the U.S. Army’s Fort Hunter Liggett. While the road is paved, it is very narrow and winds through the mountains without guardrails. It is warned to not take the road at night but makes for a wonderful drive. From where you exit the 101 north of Paso Robles, the golden hills give way to a lush green canyon forest before climbing the Santa Lucia Mountains. Once at the peak, that is where the views can become dangerous. If you want to take photos, stop at one of the few pullouts because the road is barely wide enough for two cars and as I mentioned, the drop-offs are long and deadly. I am so happy that we were “forced” to take this road because it might have still been years before I would have explored it on my own. It is definitely worth the drive, even after Highway 1 reopens in July.
The first views of the rugged coast are always breathtaking. We made our way to Highway 1 just north of our campground (Plaskett Creek Campground) so we headed south a couple miles. The sun was setting and light was amazing so we made a quick stop at Sand Dollar Beach to watch the last bit of light. As I mentioned, I had never been to this are during this time of year so I was shocked at the abundance of colorful wildflowers that were everywhere.
TIP: Make it a point to explore Nacimiento-Fergusson Road on one of your trips to Big Sur. It is well worth the trip alone.
We found our spot at the campground and setup camp – complete with a campfire to cook some dinner and roast our marshmallows. The campsites at Plaskett Creek run $35 plus a $10 reservation fee.
Plaskett Creek Campground – Big Sur, CA
The next morning brought more clouds and a slow start to the day. We packed up our camp and stopped by Treebones for an early lunch. If you aren’t familiar with Treebones, it is a high-end camping resort (I know – there is such a thing) that allows you to stay in one of their yurts (think huge, round canvas tent that have most of the luxuries of home), a treehouse, a human bird nest or in your own tent on one of their camp sites. The prices for this are not cheap but can offer a very interesting stay. They have a sushi restaurant on site that has ocean views as well as more casual dining in their main lodge. We were able to charge batteries, get some food and use the wifi.
After getting some lunch, we were ready to start our hikes for the day and our first stop was Limekiln State Park. There are a couple trails there that we hiked, one leading you along Limekiln Creek to a 100-foot waterfall and the other that takes you across a few bridges to four old gigantic furnaces. In all, both hikes were only around 2 miles total and worth doing. The waterfall has two streams but only one flows regularly. The other flows when there is a lot of rain. This state park is run by a third party vendor so the cost to enter is $10 and doesn’t cover the other parks.
McWay Falls Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park – Big Sur, CA
Our next stop was at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to see McWay Falls. If you aren’t familiar with this waterfall, you may have seen it before and just not known its name. It is one of the most beautiful waterfalls that you will ever see. It flows down the side of a cliff to a white sandy beach with some of the most spectacular blue-green water. We parked in the lot and walked along the short path and through the tunnel. Once on the other side, you can see the cove but as you make your way around to the right, the waterfall comes into view and it is like paradise found. The trail leads just far enough to get a good view of the waterfall but is closed after that. It used to be open so that you can access the other side of the point, below the McWay House but due to safety concerns, it has been closed. I am not sure if or when it will reopen. We took a few photos here but planned to come back at sunset.
TIP: Visit McWay Falls at sunset as the waterfall and cove are in their best light then (assuming it isn’t a cloudy sunset). You will not be disappointed!
Partington Cove – Big Sur, CA
Partington Cove is just a couple miles north of McWay Falls but is not marked by anything other than a dirt pull off in a curve. However, the steep ½ mile trail down to the beach is wide and well-maintained and takes you through a 60-foot long tunnel before emerging on the other side at Partington Cove. We did some exploring along the rocks here and enjoyed the views south along the rocky coastline.
The next stop was to get checked into our campground and get showers before the highlight of the day – sunset at McWay Falls. We welcomed some semblance of civilization as we pulled into Big Sur Village and found Pfieffer Big Sur Campground. We had a nice quiet spot under the giant sequoias for the night. Again, the campground was $35 plus a $10 reservation fee. After our showers, we made our way back to McWay Falls for another spectacular (I know I may use that a lot but I do mean it) sunset.
Big Sur Village – Big Sur, CA
Dinner was at the Fernwood Bar & Grill, back in Big Sur Village. The food is mediocre but hot and fresh and they have free wifi. They also have a general store in case you forgot anything at home, like I did (a sweater). We were tired so we finished dinner and headed to camp. It was late so we decided to trade the campfire for pillows and get some rest.
Bixby Creek Bridge – Big Sur, CA
Our last official morning in Big Sur started much the same as the last two had – cloudy and cool. We got a quick bite to eat at Fernwood once again and then tried to go to Pfeiffer Beach but it was overcrowded and they weren’t letting anyone else in so we decided to just head north. We enjoyed our drive through the northern part of Big Sur, checking out the uniquely-located Point Sur Lighthouse and the super-famous Bixby Creek Bridge. We stopped to explore Garrapata State Park and Point Lobos State Reserve before making our way to the white sand beaches of Carmel. The nice thing about camping at the state parks is that you get free admission to other state parks for 24 hours.
Scenic Road – Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA
Carmel-by-the-Sea was one of the most beautiful beach towns that you will ever see. It blends into the adjacent Pebble Beach area and both offer incredible coastal views. We paid the $10.25 to enter Pebble Beach and take in the views along the famous 17-mile drive. The houses are huge and come with unfathomable price tags but the views are priceless.
Cannery Row – Monterey, CA
Monterey was the last stop of the day and Cannery Row provided the perfect entertainment spot. There are plenty of shops and restaurants to satisfy whatever you are looking for – the options are bountiful.
Danish Village – Solvang, CA
The drive back to LA can be a long one but the next day, we took our time and didn’t get in a rush. There is a little town about half way, just north of Santa Barbara, called Solvang that is like a Danish Village plucked out of Denmark and placed in central California. It provides the perfect place to get out and stretch your legs as you explore the various shops and eateries.
I hope you enjoyed reading about our Big Sur road trip and find some time to take an adventure up the coast yourself. If you have any questions or want any tips, just leave me a message on here or on Instagram. I would also love to hear about your thoughts on Big Sur. Stay tuned for more adventures.