Waterfalls, rugged mountains, towering redwood trees, stunning sunsets, and pristine beaches on this central Californian coast have been attracting dancers, hikers, hippies, artists, travelers, and wanderers from all over the world. Now you are looking at backpacking Big Sur, this beautiful part of the country, and this article will tell you the best things to see!
What Is Big Sur?
Big Sur is a stunning stretch of coastline which is as wild as it gets in California. It’s also potentially as beautiful as it gets. It is only a 2-and-a-half-hour drive from San Francisco if traffic permits.
Did you ever wish to see a waterfall descending straight into the ocean? That is just one of the scenic views you will get if you visit the Big Sur. Most of Big Sur is part of the Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness, Silver Peak Wilderness, and Fort Hunter Liggett, with each national park providing plenty of camping and hiking opportunities.
Where To Start Your Big Sur Adventure?
The best place to begin your backpacking adventure in Big Sur is at the Carmel-On-Sea in the north. From here, you should head down south along the gorgeous coastline. The road descends, making it a more pleasant trek than if you were to head north. The beautiful area is probably best explored by car. However, traveling on a bike is also a good way to explore Big Sur. It is also a good way to get some exercise while viewing the amazing scenery. If you don’t have a bike, no worries. There are bike rental areas available. Also, there is a public bus. Some choose to walk, while others take the option of hitching a ride with fellow travelers.
General Tips For Hiking Big Sur
The food available in the Big Sur is limited. It also tends to be quite expensive. Therefore, if you have your own vehicle, the best budget friendly option is to self-cater. If you are walking, then you might need to depend on some light food options for cooking on your gas stove. Also, if you decide to stay overnight, your evenings will be spent either sitting around a campfire (where permitted) or in one of the fancy lodges in the area.
The Big Sur Lodge and Lucia Lodge are two fantastic hotel options. However, one of the best ways to experience the region is by setting up camp in one of the many campgrounds. You should definitely set out-of-day-trip adventures to see as much of the coast and nature as possible. If you are backpacking without a car, bringing a camping hammock is a good solution to a great night’s sleep while eliminating heavy tent gear.
The Trails You Must Not Miss
Here are the ten must-do stops and trails as a backpacker in the Big Sur.
The Pine Ridge Trail
This 24-mile reciprocal trail will take you inland from the coast to natural hot springs, stunning hills, gorgeous rocky formations, and views of mountain tops. Unfortunately, it suffered damage after massive forest fires, therefore, sections of it are impassable. The rains after the fire caused mudslides, which brought down hundreds of trees that now block the western part of the trail. This Big Sur landslide changed the topography and impacted many trails.
When hiking this trail, make sure to check the local reports from the Highway 1 closure along with the weather conditions. This is to see what remains accessible. This hiking trail connects the Big Sur Station with Tassajara. Here, you can decide to do sections, return trips, or hike as far as the path allows. Along the way, you will also see a variety of wildlife habitats and impressive arrays of local flora and fauna.
The Vicente Trailhead
This trail is a ten mile out and back trail that is steep and challenging for most hikers. The difficult trek, however, makes up for the sweat (and maybe tears) by giving you astonishing views of the ocean and coastline. You will see rocks rising from the water, waves crashing on them, and wildflowers blooming along your path. If you wish to camp out, bring your hammock and stay at the Vicente Flat Rock Campground and make friends with the other explorers staying there overnight.
Stone Ridge Trail
This trail connects to the Vicente Trail and can be the next path you tackle after staying at the Vicente Flat Rock campground. Due to its difficulty, it’s advisable that backpackers and other visitors pack their bags light to hike up to the Cone Peak, which towers 5,155 feet above sea level. The hike is extremely steep and requires some scrambling over rocks before you reach the summit. Once there, looking around, you will feel a sense of accomplishment as Cone Peak is a monster in comparison to other coastal mountains such as Mount Tam and Mount Diablo.
Note: Do not forget to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and some protective clothing as the winds can get chilly at altitude.
This trail is considered the most scenic in the Silver Peak Wilderness. Historically, the Buckeye trail was the main route from Los Burros Mining District to various points along the coast. Since the 1880s, workers and visitors traveled the winding path north onto the coastal slope. Almost every part of the trail gives you postcard-worthy views. The trail begins at the Salmon Creek Guard Station near Highway 1 and heads towards the Buckeye Flat. This is a fantastic backcountry camp where you can set up your campsite and enjoy the surrounding nature. It has minimal facilities, so make sure to bring your water and necessities with you.
Ventana Double Cone Trail
If you are visiting California in the wintertime, then this is the ideal trail to hike along. The entire path is located on the high and sunny ridges in the Ventana Wilderness. This site is warmer compared to many other hikes which are hidden away in the cooler canyons. You start this hike from the Bottcher’s Gap and climb over Skinner Ride and Devil’s Peak. For nature lovers, the surrounding madrone and black oak forests will surely keep your attention. The trees are filled with chirping birds, and a variety of small mammals scampering through the underbrush.
Before reaching the summit, you will pass many campsites including Comins, Pat Spring, Little Pines, and Lone Pines. Any of these are a great spot to stop and camp at prior to hiking up to the Ventana Double Cone. Once there, you will be greeted with stunning 360-views in the heart of the Ventana Wilderness.
Bird Island Trail
The highlight of the Bird Island Trail is walking along the coast and catching glimpses of stunning coves far below the forested cliffs. The waters are a twinkling teal and if you are lucky, you will be able to see Sea Lions sunbathing in a few of the remote coves. Do not try and access those beaches for yours and the animal’s safety. The hike will eventually bring you to some beaches you can walk down to and cool off in the water. Continuing along the trail will bring you to views of the famous Bird Island.
Bird Island is a solitary rock rising from the ocean that birds have monopolized. There are hundreds of birds on there as its isolated location allows them to nest without predators.
Other Spots to Visit in Big Sur
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
The western side of the Santa Lucia Mountains hold the tall peaks of the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park above the Big Sur River Gorge. This is one of the most popular parks as it has a well-developed campground hidden among the tall redwood, maples, willows, and alders. This dense foliage and well-kept wilderness is the home to a myriad of wildlife. If you are lucky, you may spot some blacktail deer, gray squirrels, raccoons, skunks, an enormous variety of birds, and maybe even a bobcat!
Whether you are arriving in a camper trailer, RV, bike, or by foot, the campground has an ideal spot for you. While this park and campground don’t have direct access to the beach, you can take your vehicle down to Pfeiffer Beach. This beach is located only a short mile away.
Kirk Creek Campground
Yet another small and quaint campground near the Kirk Creek is a lovely place to stay at overnight. There is also a short trail you can do in the early morning. The Kirk Creek hike will take you to the waterfront and down onto the beach below the steep cliffs. During springtime, this walk will have you surrounded by fragrant blooming wildflowers and a refreshingly cool temperature of the Pacific Ocean.
The Bixby Creek Bridge is probably the most photographed bridge in California due to its graceful architecture and spectacular location. It is located 120 miles south of San Francisco and opened in 1932. It was built as a way for residents from the Big Sur area to remain mobile during winter. Blockages during cold weather had made it impossible to travel along the Old Coast Road inland. Now it has become a tourist attraction and is one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world.
Big Sur Mcway Waterfall
The last recommendation of the things to see in Big Sur is the iconic Big Sur Waterfall. You can choose to park in the parking lot. However, you do have to pay for access to the picnic tables. Also, many people opt to park on the road instead. It is a short and easy walk from where you park your car. Additionally, it will reward you with a sight you will never forget. Arguably, the better view of the waterfall is directly from the road. You will see the McWay Waterfall cascade down from the cliffs and plummet an impressive height straight into the ocean. The waves can get big, which makes it a fantastic location for a photo opportunity of the teal-colored ocean.
Let’s Go To Big Sur!
So, grab your hiking boots, car, drinking water, and most importantly, your camera and explore the stunning wilderness of the Big Sur. You can spend as little as a day, or even several weeks here. There is an abundance of things to see when backpacking this side of the Californian coast.