Big Sur, Big Sur. Less a destination and more an abstract poem. Where oceans collide with the land and mist breathes steadily across highways. Where the dawn she wakes you with a chill, inviting you down to some raw beach to watch her explode across the horizon.
I first heard of Big Sur from the Jack Kerouac novel of the same name which I stumbled upon when I was 18 years old. Like much of Kerouac’s works, the book simply tells the tale of the author road tripping, philosophising and possibly drinking just a little bit too much. Basically, I knew right then that Big Sur was my kind of place and that somehow, someday I had to get there.
So yeah, ever since then, Big Sur has been very high up on my travel bucket list and this autumn, I finally got my ass in gear and got around to backpacking Big Sur.
Where is Big Sur?
Big Sur is a rugged stretch of coastline stretching approximately 100 miles along California’s pacific coast following Highway 1 from Carmel-On-Sea down to San Luis Osbido. Whilst there is now kind of a Big Sur town, Big Sur is technically not one single place and the town itself evolved purely to service the travellers tripping up and down its length. The Lonely Planet poetically put it like this;
“Big Sur is more a state of mind than a place”.
That is pretty much the only helpful thing Lonely Planet has to say about visiting Big Sur by the way.
Backpacking Big Sur
Backpacking Big Sur isn’t exactly difficult but it isn’t all that straightforward either. Like most of the US, the area is just not really set up for independent, budget travellers so you need to improvise a bit in order to get things done.
The Lonely Planet proved woefully unhelpful regarding Big Sur and simply suggested that “Big Sur is best explored by car” offering little in the way of alternatives. I don’t have a valid licence so had to work things out for myself the old fashioned way, by asking around and by a bit of trial and error.
Where to Start and how to do it?
To get the best possible experience out of Big Sur you should start out at Carmel-On-Sea and head south. This is because you will then have the stunning coastline on your side of the road as you descend. Coming north, up Big Sur is far less fun; you don’t have quite the same view and the steady incline can become quite punishing.
If you have to start at the bottom, then Big Sur will still be amazing. Simply read this guide in reverse for orientation info!
Carmel-On-Sea is quite expensive and pretty unremarkable. I, therefore, suggest staying in neighbouring Monterey (a bit cheaper and much better) where you can stay at HI Monterey for $30-$40 per night and stock up on supplies at Safeway. Carmel is very easily accessed from Monterey; it’s a 10-minute drive ($14 Uber), 30 minutes on a bus ($2.50) or a 50 minute, flat cycle.
Highway 1 begins just outside of Carmel and the Big Sur experience proper (ie, jaw-dropping scenery) begins about 5 miles along the route.
I arranged a bike rental in Monterey, collected the bike in Carmel and then started out from there. Bike rentals are plentiful in Monterey and Carmel and Craigslist for Monterey and Carmel also has plenty of used bikes for sale at great prices. More on this further down…
If you don’t have a car or a bike then there is a bus to Big Sir although I am unsure of frequency. It leaves from Carmel And will drop you off wherever you want along the route. The bus also stops for photographs at Bixby Bridge. Personally, I don’t recommend taking the bus to Big Sur as you won’t have the chance to stop along the way for photographs or to explore side the trails. Also, the busses don’t run anyway near frequently enough to treat them as a “hop on/hop off” service like you can in major cites or even in California’s Yosemite National Park.
The power of thumb
Hitchhiking is a very doable option. If you wait by Highway 1 (at the right side of the road) somebody will pick you up – simply try to look like the kind of person who won’t murder a kind stranger and someone will come to your aide pretty fast. They may ask for a donation (this is the US after-all, tips are a way of life…) and a few dollars will suffice.
You can also try to pre-arrange a ride by checking the Craigslist Ride section for Monterey, Carmel, Santa Cruz and San Francisco. There are also a number of dedicated ride share apps and sites out there but I never had any luck with them in California.
Big Sur Town
About 23 miles south of Carmel, you will hit a 4-mile long stretch populated by motels, stores & campgrounds. This is now loosely known as “Big Sur town” and is conveniently populated just shy of the halfway point. It, therefore, makes a decent spot to base yourself, to stock up on supplies or grab some hot food if you’re feeling flush.
There are 2 state campsites and a few private camp-sights. There is a general store, bakery, gas station, library and some restaurants. This is also where the Big Sur ranger station is located. Oh, there is also a Deli which has a Post Office annexed to it so you can send your friends/enemies a postcard from Big Sur whilst devouring a fresh sandwich!
Hitchhikers will rejoice to learn that Big Sur town is also an ideal place to pick up a ride heading either way. Simply wait at the gas station, deli, bakery or store and ask patrons which way they are driving (its either up or down…) and if they fancy giving you a lift. In my experience, many will but maybe avoid asking the obvious, monied tourists driving expensive, rental RV’s or flash cars. Why? Because generally, these people are only here to pose for Instagram shots and just don’t “get” the spirit of hitchhiking. Yes, I’m been judgmental as hell but only through bitter experience.
After Big Sur town there isn’t too much in the way of amenities for 25 – 30 miles when you hit Lucia and then Gorda. Lucia and Gorda are smaller, more expensive versions of Big Sur town. If you are taking Big Sur slowly, then you may end up having to base yourself here for a night. The campsites are decent though.
If you are driving, you don’t actually need to stay in Big Sur as you can get all the way from Carmel to San Luis in 3 hours (5 if you stop for photos). If you set off early, you can even get all the way from Monterey to the bottom and then back up to Monterey. However, I do recommend spending at least one night in Big Sur to really get a feel for the place, to see the stars and to experience the sunrise over the ocean.
Accommodation is generally expensive in Big Sur (in fact, EVERYTHING is expensive in Big Sur) ranging from the annoyingly expensive to the “are you taking the fucking piss mate?” expensive. Motel-esque cabins will set you back at least $150 in low season and a yurt at one of the eco-resorts may easily eat up an entire months salary. Yep, the hippie spirit has long vacated Big Sur making way for commercial tourism.
Campgrounds are therefore something of a Godsend. There are over 10 campgrounds punctuating the route with most of them centred in or around Big Sur town. To the best of my knowledge, all campsites charge $35 for RV’s with “full hook-up” and $25 – $35 if you arrive with a car. Many offer a beautiful, $5 “Hiker & Biker” rate. All have running water, toilets and fire pits although not all have showers.
In Big Sur, the State ran options are Andrew Molera and Pfeffer State Park. Both sights offer the $5 Hiker Biker rate, have showers and the money goes to the state rather than into the grabbing hands of some private landlord; choose ethically.
Further down the route, Los Padres campsite has astounding Ocean Views but at the time of writing they were making a premium of them by offering no concession to the Hiker Bikers (so everyone pays the full $35). I, therefore, stayed at Alder Creek which is 1 mile further south. It has no view and no showers but was otherwise fine.
If you are considering driving down the highway, camping at night but simply leaving your car by the side of the road to avoid paying the $25 – $35 campsite fee, then think again. The Highway’s are aggressively patrolled and traffic cops issue tickets with frenzied zeal. A friend of mine brought his car to Big Sur so was liable for the full $35 charge campsite charge. He, therefore, hid his car off the main road up on the trail that opens up before Treebones resort which is not patrolled.
Biking Big Sur
I decided to cycle down Big Sur because (1) it was the cheapest option (2) I needed exercise (3) feeling the road beneath one’s wheels and breeze flow through ones hair is utterly fucking euphoric. Biking Big Sur is not without its challenges though. The road is windy & narrow in places with a few blind spots. If an RV is coming each way you could end up in serious trouble at some points. Traffic can also be full on during peak season and on weekends. The trick is to simply use common sense provided that you possess it. Drive with caution, listen to the road and get off and push at any points that cause you concern. At the time of writing, there is a major roadblock immediately south of Gorda. This has caused traffic to drastically quieten all along Big Sur so this time (Nov 17 to approx summer 18), is the ideal time to bike Big Sur.
Cycling up from Big Sur by the way is far less fun than heading down. There are miles of steady incline as your approach the northern stretch and headwinds are common. I finally relented and accepted a lift the final 20 miles up after a vicious rainstorm set in – it was just one annoyance too many and it had ceased to be fun.
If you are cycling, try to get a bike with a proper rack; cycling with a back-pack becomes tedious after the first few hours. If you are doing the route in warmer months, also consider leaving your tent at home and simply taking a hammock, spare layers and numerous bin-bags. The saved weight will make the route a lot more enjoyable.
Cycling from Carmel to Big Sur town takes around 3 – 4 hours. Its then another 3 – 4 to Gorda and then 3 – 4 to San Luis.
Food in Big Sur can be annoyingly expensive. Eat a big meal before you leave and from thereon-in, try to self-cater as much as possible. If you are coming by motorised vehicle then bring as many tins, instant noodles and bread loaves as you can to cook over your campfire (you’ll also need a pan!). If you are biking its harder to stock up as you don’t want to overburden yourself.
Campsites do have fire pits but will force you to buy their wood in order to burn on it. Bundles are generally $10. My recommendation is to buy one bundle and then discreetly forage for dead, fallen wood, in order to make the fire last a bit longer.
You can pick up ready-made, cold sandwiches from between $6 – $8 at the store, bakery or deli in Big Sur and from $7 – $10 in Gorda. Hot options (burritos and pizzas) are more like $10 – $15+. If you eat in any of the restaurants or sit down cafes, then don’t expect any change from at least a $20. The sandwiches from the Deli and general store are very good, filling and the vegetarian range is very impressive.
When I cycled, I brought enough food for the first day and then ate at the stores for the remainder. As my only other daily costs were limited $5 to camp, I didn’t mind spending a further $30 on food in the end.
Things to do and see
The main attraction of Big Sur is simply the coastal view from the highway. Besides that, there are some awesome side trails and little hikes you can do. These include the unmissable Pffeifer beach which took my breath away and the Cerro Hill trail. Camping at Pffeifer beach is forbidden by the way. This is kind of a shame as it would be an awesome place to wake up. If you decide to go rogue and do it anyway then please bear in mind that fines for violations can be heavy and the tide may come in around you whilst you sleep.
There is also an ancient sacred place of pure geology known simply as “Indians” which is an hours hike, inland from Gorda. At Andrew Molera park you can watch Condor preservation work and by appointment only, you can tour the old lighthouse located just after Bixby Bridge.
The Nightlife in and around Big Sur is generally limited to sitting around your campfire or in one of the overpriced restaurants & lodges. That said, there is a determined hippy population down there and live music events are semi-frequent. The Henry Miller Library regularly features avant-garde music for people who like pretentious ideas more than good sound with the occasional appearance from a fading 60’s legend.
When I was there, the Treebones resort had just run a mini music festival so check notice boards around the area for details of events. The issue is that the distance between venues and camp sights makes getting to these happenings kind of hard unless you are (1) a totally tee-total partier (2) not troubled by drink-driving guidance and unfazed by the idea of jail time for DUI.
My advice is to simply get a 12 pack of Sierra Nevada pale ale & some Californian weed and connect with your companions, camp neighbours and the omnipresent roaring ocean. Save your partying for when you get back to the city.
How To Save Costs
As I said, Big Sur can get very expensive. If you stay at the guesthouses or lodges and then eat at restaurants expect to blow at least $200 per day. The best cost-saving measures are therefore to bring as much food with you as you possibly can and to camp. If you bring a car be prepared to pay $35 per night to enter a campground unless you can find a place to hide it. The cost is per vehicle, not per person so if there are a few of you the costs may not seem so bad.
The major hazard of Big Sur is the potential dangers on the road. The road is narrow for American standards and 2 RV’s headed in opposite directions can literally fill up the entire road space. There are also a number of blind spots along the route so caution is advised. The road can also get very busy on weekends and during these peak periods, I would advise against cycling the route unless you are very experienced.
The ocean is also very tumultuous and treacherous so swimming, bathing or surfing is not recommended anywhere. That said, people do it anyway.
There are also a lot of Ticks even around the main trails. To mitigate the risk of bites, wear long clothes. Check yourself regularly and if you do get a bite (believe me you will feel it) remove the little fucker by twisting it anti-clockwise with a pair of tweezers. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this yourself then a number of the locals have experience of doing it from a lifetime of living in the area.
Forest fires are also a concern during dry periods. There is a fire marshals station situated near Lucia but occasional outbreaks do occur.