Dispersed camping in Big Sur, the home of the majestic California condor, a major bird of prey, and animals such as coyotes, foxes, a colony of harbor seals and plenty of boars, is an excellent way to get in touch with the magnificent Californian wilderness.
Representing the exact place where monumental Santa Lucia mountains rise from the Pacific Ocean on the western coast of the US, Big Sur is a rugged, mountainous part of the wider stretch of California’s rich Central Coast region.
With up to 7 million visitors annually, Big Sur is well-known as one of the most beautiful contiguous stretches of mountains combined with beaches. The numerous extraordinary driving, hiking, and camping opportunities in this region earned this place its legendary reputation among those who visited it.
In this guide, I will guide you through several excellent dispersed spots and some with an entrance fee that you can use as a backup in case the free ones are full (the fees are typically reasonably-priced, too).
Also, in the passages below, I will talk about the special protected areas of this vast region and some of the many fun outdoor activities you can pursue here.
Overview of Free Camping in Big Sur
While the Central Coast will give you more tourist ideas than you’d know what to do with, in terms of camping, nothing comes close to the natural beauty and wilderness of Big Sur. It’s undoubtedly one of the best dispersed camping destinations in California.
The name of this vast stretch of the coast comes from Spanish and it means ‘The Big South.
The mountains have characteristically large slopes, with steep watersheds that often flow directly into the Pacific. The high altitude combined with the oceanic climate makes this region unique, as not many places on Earth have coastlines with mountains coming right out of the sea beneath.
The beaches of Big Sur are not a major swimmers’ destination because of the surrounding water’s rough and unpredictable nature. Despite the immense natural beauty, swimming or pursuing other water sports is not advisable here, as the currents tend to be strong and the water is often quite cold.
If you’d like to drive up and down beautiful winding scenic coastal roads with the Pacific on one side and the high mountains on the other, there’s no place in the world like Big Sur.
In particular, Highway 1 often carries the title of one of the most scenic and beautiful drives in the world, and it presents a great opportunity for a family road trip, complete with excellent stops along the way.
If you’d like to camp in a bit of a different setting, check out our guide to free camping near Joshua Tree National Park.
Best Dispersed Camping near Big Sur
Without a doubt, the best way to experience this patch of wilderness would be to arrive there with a backpack, or onboard a recreational vehicle, and either pitch your tent or park up within the borders of a dispersed campground.
Dispersed camping is a great way to get in touch with the nature around you in a way that does not interfere with the local ecosystem. In Big Sur, there’s certainly no better way to experience the gorgeous nature and breathtakingly beautiful views than to pitch a tent at one of the campgrounds.
I’ve compiled a list of four great dispersed campsites that will acquaint you with the beauty and uniqueness of Big Sur in the best possible way. By visiting these places, you’ll get to see the most scenic, unique qualities of Big Sur up close.
Set in high hills above Big Sur, Prewitt Ridge is a perfect example of everything great about camping near the ocean.
Breathtakingly-gorgeous views of the oceanfront rank this place among the most beautiful places in the entire world.
The exact spot where the water meets the sky makes this place a fantastic option for anyone interested in capturing unique Nat Geo-worthy photographs of the sunset or sunrise.
Reaching this place can be a challenge, though, as you must tackle rough roads and steep, winding paths.
Large sections of the road are entirely unpaved, and sport numerous blind corners, dangerous drop-offs, and narrow passes where larger vehicles may struggle to come through.
One thing to pay special attention to would be to avoid passing through, or worse still – setting up a tent on someone’s private property. Trespassing is not allowed here, and if you do so, you may be even looking at a hefty fine.
If you follow the signs along the road, you will probably have zero issues, as there is plenty of wide-open space everywhere within this area. The same goes for individual campsites, which are rather spacious and easy to access.
Plasket Ridge Road
Excellent views of the panoramic views of the Big Sur, the great Pacific that stretches behind it, and hard-to-reach but immensely visually pleasing campsites make this campground so popular among the many visitors who flock here every season.
However, the ride to the campsite is not that smooth.
Potholes, blind corners, tricky winding ascents, and steep drop-offs characterize the road that leads to this place. It’s not unsurprising that getting to this spot in many cases requires a 4×4, optimally with a high clearance.
This entire area is rather large, so despite its high visitor frequency, rest assured you will find a spot for yourself and your vehicle.
Similarly to many other campgrounds near Big Sur, en route to Plaskett Ridge Road, there’s a fair chance of wandering into someone’s private property. Since trespassing in these parts is strongly frowned upon, you should take special notice of the roadside signs.
More often than not, though, private property owners will mark the borders of their property with signs such as ‘no trespassing’, or ‘private property’, so you’ll know exactly when you’re in the vicinity of one.
Alder Creek Campground
Alder Creek campground consists of three campsites, offering more of a traditional camping experience than a high-altitude challenge only suitable for weathered mountaineers.
Each of the sites features a picnic table, as well as a fire ring (ironically, though, starting a fire around these parts is strictly prohibited, so the fire rings have more of a decorative function)
When it comes to other amenities, there are no toilets here, nor other facilities.
What this campground does feature, though, is excellent shade where you can set up your tents and other equipment. What’s more, the sites are right next to the creek itself, which gives all three of these an additional cool and fresh atmosphere that’d you’d struggle to find anywhere else.
A quaint point of interest here is an old mining operations site. Taking a slight detour to visit this place, you can discover a bit of local history and understand what makes the surrounding nature so unique.
A word of notice: The road leading to this campground is quite rough. If you have the capacity, arriving here in a high-clearance 4×4 is a highly-recommended course of action.
San Martin Top
Featuring positively fantastic views of the ocean, San Martin Top is a free campground that sits in the Los Padres National Forest, a woodland area neighboring Big Sur itself.
Reaching this sizable clearing with a great overview of the ocean below can be tricky though – mostly for nomenclatural reasons, oddly enough. Namely, the main road to this place is officially called ‘Los Burros Road,’ but locals prefer to call it ‘Willow Creek Road’ instead. The mappers at Google, on the other hand, decided that ‘Will Creek Road’ is the most suitable name.
Adding to the confusion would be the short, but important spur route that connects the main road to the campground itself. To get to the campsites, look for either ‘Los Burros Spur Road’, or simply ‘San Martin Road.’
Once you find this road, you will discover several beautiful spur campsites that scatter along its length.
The confusing road demarcations and the tough ascent at times are more than worth the effort, however. Once you reach the San Martin Top, you’ll have the full view of the vast Pacific ocean, with the tranquil and mysterious mountainous nature combined with hot oceanic climate as a unique and quaint vantage point.
A word of warning: There are private properties nearby, so following the signs (however confusing at times they can be) is essential for avoiding trespassing on someone’s backyard.
If you would like to go camping in a different setting, see our guide to dispersed camping near Kern River.
Best Developed Campgrounds near Big Sur
Given the immense popularity of the Big Sur greater region, there is always a possibility that you won’t be able to secure your favorite campground due to the high frequency of visitors.
If this happens, no worries – you can always pitch your tent or park your 4×4 in one of the nearby developed campgrounds.
For a reasonably small fee, you’ll be able to pitch your tent or park your RV, or an off-road vehicle (if you plan to reach some of the more remote campsites).
Here are two great campgrounds that are close to the dispersed ones I mentioned above. For the record, typically, developed campgrounds in this region don’t offer much in terms of amenities, so in this respect – you won’t have that much of a different experience than at a dispersed campground.
With only 9 sites, this small campground offers a rather private camping experience that allows you to enjoy the local scenery and the sheer natural beauty with a degree of privacy you won’t find at other similar locations.
You don’t need any reservations as all of the sites are first come, first served.
This campground charges an entrance fee of $20. This option may not be a dispersed campsite, but it can serve as an exciting backup.
If you’d like to visit this place with an RV, you’re more than welcome to, as this campsite accommodates RVs up to 25 feet in length. That said, the roads leading to this campground are narrow and winding with quite a few sharp turns and other rough patches of the road.
Another great pay-to-stay campground that can be an excellent backup if you don’t find a dispersed campground near Big Sur would be Ponderosa Campground.
At only 2.5 miles from the Nacimiento campground, this place offers more space and is generally more RV-friendly due to its size and ease of approach.
You will find 21 individual campsites at Ponderosa.
These sites are suitable mostly for tenting, although coming here with a van or an RV is also possible, as this place offers more than enough parking room. The limit for RV length is 35 feet, and rigs longer than that won’t be accepted.
In terms of privacy, you get plenty of room at this place, as the campsites are quite wide apart. Also, to make an already tranquil and beautiful atmosphere even more scenic, there is a small creek that passes through the campground. The campgrounds are located at either end of the stream.
Many of the campgrounds feature shade trees that overhang the sites, providing shelter from the sun, and to an extent, against the elements, and photo-op-worthy aesthetic potential.
Camping at this place costs $25 per night, and reservations can be made through Recreation.gov.
Big Sur Camping Considerations
The unique location and geological contrast between the ocean and the mountains give Big Sur an amazing set of characteristics you’d struggle to find anywhere else in the world.
For this reason, this region has some rather specific attributes that you may want to consider before visiting – especially if you plan to camp, hike, or do a bit of both.
Wildfires in the Big Sur region play a major role for the local wildlife and in how the local vegetation reinvigorates itself after a certain time.
Even since the USFS took charge of overseeing the Big Sur wildfire problem, the number of random and destructive wildfires went down.
That said, controlled fires are common, and the USFS officials will warn the visitors well in advance whenever a planned fire is due.
Due to the fragility of the local ecosystem and due to the hot and dry summer season, the authorities typically discourage visitors from starting campfires anywhere in the Big Sur region. Even though some campgrounds feature fire rings, you should not start a fire before consulting the local USFS or BLM office.
Hiking in Big Sur
Other than its massive camping and nature-sighting potential, Big Sur is also a major hiking destination.
Major trails such as Pine Ridge Trailhead attract both seasoned and rookie hikers from across the country, as well as from abroad.
Also, the massive Big Sur backcountry called Ventana Wilderness offers one-of-a-kind backpacking opportunities you do not want to miss out on – especially if you’re passionate about hiking and tackling new and exciting mountainous terrain with the Pacific Ocean as the background.
Driving Routes near Big Sur
If a route receives more visitors than Yosemite National Park annually, with drivers flocking to this region just for the thrill of driving down a particular highway, you can be sure that the area in question has something special about it.
Big Sur Highway 1 drive represents an immensely popular road-trip route with multiple exciting destinations such as Avila Beach, Ragged Point, San Simeon, and many others.
The reason why this highway drive is so popular is the simplicity of the road itself. What you get is a two-lane highway that stretches for miles and miles on end and that, for the most part, closely follows the ocean and the regions where the Santa Lucia mountains arise from the Pacific.
Where to Next?
Whether you’re a professional photographer inspired by nature, or a camper looking for the next big adventure – Big Sur is where you will find what you seek and much more.
Scenic drives for miles on end, fantastic views wherever you turn, and an intricate network of mountainous hiking trails with steep drop-offs, challenging cliffs, and beautiful rocky scenery every around you, all recommend Big Sur as a must-visit location for anyone with an outdoor bug in them.
However, it’s not the only must-visit location in the state. For more awesome campsites in California, read our guide to free dispersed camping near Yosemite National Park and free dispersed camping in Death Valley.
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.