The Untamed Splendor of Big Sur

South Coast : The Wild Coast.

“This is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked out on from the peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.” –Henry Miller, “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch”

There was a time when the 90-mile stretch of rugged California coastline that spills into the sea between Carmel and San Simeon was simply called “El Sur Grande”  — The Big South — a vague label for a vast, untamed land. Today, that essential wilderness remains, an unspoiled quality that lures campers, hikers and those who embrace nature, both in its simplicity and its raw, vivid splendor.

Stepping outside their travel trailer, Jean Doyle and Doug Patten absorbed the magnificent, massive views: acres of ocean, as far as the eye could see, towering mountains, and a frothy ribbon of tumbling surf.

California coast

No complaints, laughed the California couple. Just another fine morning in Big Sur.

“It’s really something, isn’t it,” said Doug Patten, nodding at the spectacular view, available with virtually no obstructions at Kirk Creek Campground, which perches like a grassy nest upon a cliff about 100 feet above the Pacific Ocean just off California’s Highway 1.

Though the campground’s 34 sites are unsheltered and austere — no RV hook-ups here — the view and access to great hiking, surfing, and ocean fishing go a long way toward making up for that, agree Patten and Doyle.

And of course there’s that view. That breathtaking, constant view.

“It’s great to wake up and see the water right there,” Patten admitted. “We like to come here because it’s close — a two-hour drive. Mostly, we’ll just hang out and relax, maybe do a little hiking.”

Welcome to Big Sur, a place where hanging out is an art form and relaxing just may be a required pastime. In a land where the bigger-than-life views never seem to stop, simply sitting and gazing are perfectly acceptable.

Perhaps it’s the mesmerizing intersection between sand and surf. Maybe it’s the generally mild climate, with sun-baked hills and cool ocean breezes.  Or it may just be the sheer scale of things: softly pleated hillsides set against sweeping blue water. Add to that a laid-back pace and a lovely measure of silence — broken only by the steady hiss of distant surf, the ever-present sound of the pulsing sea. it all adds up to one fact: Big Sur is a natural sanctuary.

Today, the pristine simplicity of the place remains — thankfully — largely undisturbed. About two thirds of the Big Sur coastal zone is in public ownership.  Yet despite the blissful absence of development, this destination can prove surprisingly accommodating to RVers, offering a wide choice of public and private camping options — the region draws about 4.5 million visitors annually. Whether you’re just passing through along the creeping contours of Highway 1 or pulling into one of the many campgrounds to stay awhile, Big Sur beckons you to linger just a little longer.

South from Monterey

There is no precise boundary to Big Sur. No road signs to tell you exactly when you’re there, or when you’re not. But the topography is a dead giveaway — towns disappear and the land opens to dramatic dimensions.

Visiting in an RV requires some consideration. Are you uncomfortable with heights? Do you have a tendency to be carsick on curvy roads? Are you a “pedal-to-the-metal” driver who just likes to get there on schedule and could care less about the scenery?

Answer “yes” to any of the above questions and you might want to rethink the Big Sur experience.

But if you welcome world-class views — from any height — enjoy the rhythm of rounding a curve, and don’t mind indulging in lots of scenic pullouts, this is the place for you.

As far as Robert Nanfelt is concerned, following Highway 1 through Big Sur is a driver’s delight — even if it means piloting a 45-foot motorhome while pulling along a Grand Cherokee.

Yet, he acknowledges, it might not be for everyone.

“If somebody is leery of this road, then try going south to north, so you won’t find yourself right out there against the outer edge of the cliffs,” suggested Nanfelt, who makes his home in Massachusetts when he’s not RVing.

“Don’t get stupid and try to go 45 mph around the curves,” he advised. “Also, try to pull out for the cars that can build up behind you because they’ll make you a nervous wreck.”

Nanfelt has made the trek up the Big Sur coastline at least four times and never tires of it. On a recent trip, he tackled it north to south — an itinerary that will take you from the charms of Monterey and Carmel, among the region’s most populated areas, southward to a landscape of open beauty. “I really don’t think you can take a bad photo here,” joked Darlene Bavis, of Canada, who was traveling with Nanfelt and snapping pictures to her heart’s content.

Monterey County makes an excellent starting point — a chance to stock up on provisions, since Big Sur markets are small and widely scattered.  Check out a few “can’t miss” attractions while you’re in the neighborhood.

Get your bearings for a coastal adventure at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, featuring a million-gallon indoor ocean. From a three-story kelp forest to sharks, sea otters, jellyfish and penguin exhibits, it’s a terrific introduction to the nearby undersea world. While there, literary buffs and Steinbeck fans should check out Fisherman’s Wharf and the infamous Cannery Row, now restored to commercial vigor through tourism.

Moving south through Carmel, be sure to make time to explore Point Lobos State Reserve — one of the richest marine habitats in California. Though it’s a day-use area, the beautiful landscape of headlands, rocky cliffs, coves and rolling meadows offer easy hiking trails — many parallel the coastline — and a good opportunity to stretch your legs and clear your mind.

Wildlife-viewing is rampant here. Watch seals basking on rocks, sea otters frolicking in the surf, pelicans diving for breakfast, and whales breeching offshore.  Divers will find an underwater world of vibrant color. The entrance is located about three miles south of Carmel off Highway 1.

Camping galore

Moving out of Carmel, the skies seem to open to the sea. Great aprons of white sand beaches fringe the ocean, and massive rocky shoulders jut against the pounding tide.

RVers are lucky. Highway 1 offers an abundance of scenic turnouts — a chance to pull off, study maps, take a picture, stretch, or just commune with the scenery.

Take the time to stop, again and again. Check out the 700-foot-span of Bixby Creek Bridge, a local landmark and one of the most beautiful bridges along Big Sur’s Highway 1.  As you spin south, you’ll likely see Point Sur Lighthouse, about one forth mile north of the Big Sur Naval Facility. Walking tours are offered on a first-come, first-served basis, but beware: large motorhomes and campers are not allowed on site. Even the number of visitors is limited “to preserve the sense of isolation and drama,” so come back with a truck or tow car.

And, you might as well drive right past Andrew Molera State Park, as only primitive walk-in camping is available.  Instead, head straight for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. As state parks go, this one has it all: lush redwood forests, thick groves of sycamore, cottonwood, maple and alders, open meadows and a great maze of scenic hiking trails.

California coastMotorhomes up to 32 feet long and trailers up to 27 feet long are permitted.  Though there are no hook-ups, you will find showers, restrooms, picnic areas and RV dump stations. And most of the 214 campsites offer a good degree of privacy, with mature vegetation.

“It’s just so peaceful back here,” said Patty Piper, who treks to the park with her partner Dave and their four dogs from Southern California at least a couple of times a year.  “And this (October) is a great time to visit,” she said. “The days are warm, the nights are cool, and the fog is largely gone.”  “It’s a great place to get away from it all,” Dave added.

During the week, the couple sees few visitors.  On fall weekends, campsites may fill completely — a good reason to make your online reservations early.

The Pipers enjoy meeting friends here for hiking, from several spectacular scenic loops to a self-guided nature loop. The Big Sur River also threads through the campground — a popular spot for a dip on a hot day.

“Our confession is that we like it here so much we almost never make it over to the coast. We can see a beach back home anytime, but the redwoods? That’s a different story,” Patty Piper confided. The Pipers advise visitors to be sure and fill up with water beforehand, stock up on provisions at home, and register early.

By the time you’ve reached Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, you’ll begin to notice several private campgrounds along Highway 1 — a good bet if you’re looking for full hook-ups and hot showers.  People we spoke with on the road recommended Big Sur Campground, a family-friendly facility with water and full RV hook-ups located among redwoods along the Big Sur River.

Hidden treasure

Oddly, one of Big Sur’s most popular destinations is also among its most well-kept secrets.  Pfeiffer Beach, with its famed arch-shaped rock formation, is a must-see attraction — a two-mile drive down Sycamore Canyon Road, and a short walk in. Yet, you’ll never see a clue that it even exists from Highway 1. And access can be especially tough for RVers.

Here’s the secret: take the only paved roadway that heads west off the highway between Pfeiffer Park and the Big Sur Post Office.  It’s a narrow, winding road, and signs caution against large motorhomes and trailers. But we observed a large dump truck handle it with ease. Still, a tow car is probably best to reach this day use area.

It’s definitely worth the effort. First-time visitors are generally awestruck by the raw beauty of the beach. “I’m drawn here by the serenity, the smells, and the sounds— just God’s wonder,” said Jeannie Ward, a visitor central California. “We probably make the trip four times a year.

”There is a small entrance fee and parking can fill up quickly, especially on weekends. But the wave action is dramatic and the sunset view hard to beat. Little wonder it’s a favorite with locals. And here’s a technical tip: for some reason, we found this area to have some of the strongest cell phone reception in all of Big Sur, which can be a problem otherwise.

Also know that as you tour Highway 1, you’ll find only a sprinkling of convenience markets and gas stations. They tend to be far flung, so if you’re low on gas, don’t gamble that you’ll make it to the next filling station. When in doubt, ask.

For hiking and picnicking, be sure to check out Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which stretches from the coastline into 3,000-foot ridges. Take the overlook trail to spy an 80-foot waterfall that dramatically plunges from granite cliffs into the waiting ocean.  The bench at the end of the overlook trail is also an excellent place to watch migrating gray whales in December, January, March and April.

California beachBy the time you cross over Big Creek Bridge, you’re already halfway down the coastline — among California’s most secluded and pristine stretch.

Spring sets the coastal hillsides ablaze with California poppies and other wildflowers. Summertime can bring ghostly fog, which can chill campers to the bone. Prepare to dress in layers, even in summer months.

Autumn brings fall colors and clearer days, especially well for stargazing, as the region has little competing light pollution. Big Sur generally sees more rainfall in January and February than any other time of the year.

Hiking, diving and surfing

Grab lunch and a dizzying coastal view in Lucia and keep rolling south to Limekiln State Park, 33 campsites anchored in a diverse setting, from rocky beach overlooks to quiet stream-side sites in a shaded redwood glen.

Undeveloped campsites can handle RVs up to 24 feet long and trailers up to 15 feet long. Restrooms and showers are available.  The park has good beach access, and the 300-foot shoreline is all drama, strewn with large, smooth rocks.

Ben and Kelly Hartel, and their 18-month-old son, snagged an ocean-view site. The Hartels had just brought their pop-up camper for this weekend trip

“We camped here a few years ago and like it,” Kelly recalled. “But it’s hard to choose whether to camp out here by the water or down by the creek and the redwoods.”

In addition to beachcombing and surf fishing, the park offers three major hiking trails, each about half a-mile long. Hare creek trail follows a stream bed to a grove of some of the largest and oldest redwood trees in Monterey County.  The Falls Trail traces Limekiln Creek to a 100-foot waterfall spilling over limestone cliffs.

The Hartels recommend the Kilns Trail, which leads to four historic lime kilns, reflecting the regions historic link to the production of lime in the early 1880s.

Just a few miles down the road, Kirk Creek Campground overlooks the sea. Few Big Sur campgrounds afford quite the same ocean view. But even fans admit that the lack of shade can be a problem in warm weather.

Just across Highway 1, hikers will find a trailhead that leads into the Ventana Wilderness, 167,323 acres of land straddling the Santa Lucia Mountain Range. The wilderness area boasts 197 miles of trails and all the isolation you care to find.

When Jean Doyle and Doug Patten visit, it’s a toss-up as to whether they stay at Kirk Creek Campground or nearby Plaskett Creek. Though located inland from the sea, Plaskett Creek offers family campsites in a shaded, park-like setting, complete with picnic tables, fire rings and pedestal grills.

RVs are permitted in the 44 sites and drinking water is available. You’ll also find good beach access to nearby Sand Dollar Beach and Jade Cove just west of Highway 1.

Tucked in a sheltered cove, Sand Dollar Beach presents visitors with the widest expanse of sand along the Big Sur coast, and possibly the mildest weather.  Standing on the beach and looking northeast, you can see towering 5,155-foot Cone Peak.  The beach is also popular with local surfers. Bring a picnic and watch the fun.

Jade Cove affords an unusual opportunity. A path winds from Highway 1 to the Jade Cove Beach, which rests within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It’s a popular destination for divers, and you can even find bits of jade scattered on the beach.

But rock hounds take caution, as regulations govern the collection of jade in this day-use area. Jade Cove is also a designated hang gliding landing site; keep your eyes open for an aerial show.

Just down the road, Willow Creek is a favorite spot for photographers, surfers and anglers. it’s a no-fee day-use site, but a nice turnout for an impromptu picnic or break from the traffic.

On to the castle

The southern tip of Big Sur offers little public camping, but is famous for great views and hiking opportunities.

The Salmon Creek trail starts on the south side of the Salmon Creek Bridge. It’s an easy trail that follows the creek to a waterfall, which tumbles down in two spectacular flows. Sun-warmed boulders create the perfect picnic spot, so pack one in.

Follow Highway 1 a few more miles and you can tackle a more challenging trek. Ragged Trail drops over 400 feet from start to finish, a short-but steep journey that will take you past wildflowers and one of Big Sur’s largest waterfalls to the beach.

Don't ForgetRagged Trail is sometimes closed due to weather conditions, and the trail is slippery in spots. But it’s one of the few places along the coast with a hiking trail literally carved into the face of a cliff, and the view is considered one of the region’s most scenic vistas.

Just six miles north of San Simeon, you’ll have a chance to visit Piedras Blanca’s Light Station, named for a white rock outcropping located just off the end of the point. Built in 1875, the 115-foot-tall lighthouse is open for tours on the third Saturday of each month. Reservations may be made through the National Geographic Theater, located at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center at (805) 927-6811.

Now that you’ve reveled in miles of natural wonders, you might enjoy seeing a man-made extravaganza, and the Hearst Castle fits the bill — a sharp contrast to the pristine coastline.

The palatial estate of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst is a 165-room manor with 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways.  Explore it through five tours, which include vigorous walking. Weather runs hot at castle grounds during summer months. You may wish to consider a night tour.

Tours often sell out, especially in the summer, so reservations are recommended and may be made by calling (800) 444-4445.

For more information about visiting Big Sur, check out and


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