Travelogue: Camping in Big Sur, California

Just over a week ago, we spent a magical few days in Big Sur.

It’s not hyperbole. I think magical is actually the appropriate word choice because a. Big Sur, duh, and b. we packed up five kids and went camping—at a hike-in campsite! Also, there’s c:

Six months earlier, to the date, I had been logging in at Reserve California and waiting for the rolling reservation slot to open for the two on-the-water campsites at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. I could hardly believe my good fortune when I scored both sites the weekend before Aron’s 40th birthday. Magic!

We would stay for three nights and our friends would join us for two.

Here’s how it went…

We left Davis early Thursday morning, car packed to the brim. Conveniently, I always forget just how much work it is to pack for camping with kids. It’s probably the only way to keep doing it! We’re lucky that we get to share equipment with Aron’s sister, who lives in Germany, and get to store it in the rafters of his parents’ garage. Still, there’s a lot to remember!

I found a good packing list in the Camp Sunset book that helped us double check that we had all we would need. There’s also this guide to camp cooking that others may find useful.

From whichever direction you arrive, the drive into the stretch of coast known as Big Sur is incredible. A thin stretch of highway winds around the edge of the Santa Lucia Range and the Pacific Ocean, and around every bend is a new, unspoiled vista.

Be sure to factor in plenty of time for stopping and gawking.

And photo-taking.

Excitement over our campsite kept us more destination-bound than usual: we were eager to arrive with plenty of daylight hours to spare.

The setting was incredible!

The campsites we reserved were both walk-in, but we were able to temporarily park near a fire road and unload so that the hike up and down wasn’t too bad. Our friends had a wagon with them when they arrived, and that was a real help! There are fire rings, picnic table, and two pit-restrooms, but you do need to bring all of your own water and firewood.

I can’t say our packing was streamlined, but any extra effort was completely worth it.

I had scoured the internet (including this old Big Sur post my friend Natalie wrote) for images of the campsite to see how safe it would feel to be on a cliffside with so many young children and was a little worried before we arrived. However, there is a fence/barb wire boundary around the majority of the site, and while we were very explicit about rules, our kids also never seemed tempted to venture out of bounds.

After we took it all in, I drove back to the Julia Pfeiffer State Park entrance to fill up on water and park the car for the night. The walk back took me right past the famous McWay Falls—just before the sunset!

Much of Big Sur has been inaccessible for nearly two years since fire, floods and landslides (the largest in California state history) made access difficult. Highway 1 reopened this summer, but many of the trails are still under maintenance, including the short McWay Falls trail.  As ever, there is no beach access at this point.

There are so many places from where one should try to watch the sunset in Big Sur, but I was pretty excited to get to do so from there.

After watching the sun disappear into the Pacific, we set about making dinner.

One can forget how much trickier it gets to organize in the dark. We definitely had to work fast. That night we grilled sausages alongside onions and bacon, and heated up water for a pot of pasta. Aron had pre-made a cheese sauce at home for Mac-and-Cheese.

We fell asleep to the thunder of the surf and woke up to a light, misty fog.

As usual, Hudson was the first one up.

We surveyed the kelp beds, watching seabirds and looking for otters—and spotted one right away! I imagine it would be an exciting place to be during the whale migration season. Even now the kids were certain they’d spotted a whale—usually in the same place, over and over, every day (if you get my drift).

We took our time in the morning, making coffee and playing games before heading out for some light exploring.

There’s virtually no cell service throughout Big Sur, so it’s a good idea to bring a map (or pick up the one in the free tourist newspaper) if you have a destination in mind.

We hiked back up toward the car and headed back north to Big Sur Village, where we ate lunch at The Roadhouse (the Glen Oaks Lodge restaurant). There’s a cozy room with a fireplace and board games and a lovely back patio which looks down over the Big Sur River. After our meal, we followed a trail down the river for some time among the redwoods.

I think our kids could have pretty happily passed a few hours just being busy at the riverbed. I’ll always recall Garrick’s advice for visiting the area: “The Big Sur River is your family’s best friend.”

Though we didn’t need to, we couldn’t resist also stopping at Big Sur Bakery. The pastries and the coffee there are as good as any I’ve had anywhere and, in spite of some dearly high prices, it’s hard to pass up.

We learned the hard way, when we came back for a second time on Saturday, that the selection does run out if you aren’t there early!

We made one more brief detour at the entry point to Andrew Molera State Park, but ultimately decided we’d prefer to mill about the campsite until it was time to meet our friends.

Frankly, the biggest challenge to camping here was that it encourages you to just stay put and read a book, and yet there’s so much else to see and do, too.

I felt relieved that we had been before and could bear to miss out on a few things this time. In case you’re interested in a more robust list of suggestions, here’s a previous travelogue with more ideas on how to spend one’s day.

Soon, our friends arrived!

We helped them unload, swapping stories of 2am packing and prep (oh, camping), and then barely let them settle in before going on the walk around the point to the McWay Falls overlook.

(You might recognize Emarie and Nick from our Cayman Island trip—we’ve added three kids to our families since then!)

Hudson and Skyler were so thrilled to see their playmates and show them around the tent sites.

One realizes, at a certain point, that the best entertainment you can pack for one child is another child. They enjoyed themselves with very little intervention (just a few, “stop using that marshmallow roaster like a sword” reminders) and we were free to pour some before-dinner drinks.

We had each planned one night’s dinner, and one batch of cocktails (us, Negronis, and them, Old Fashions) to share.

With two sets of parents and the kids distracted, the grownups could relax a bit more and take in a few of the more precarious viewpoints. Even though we never really got close to the edge, I found myself gripping onto the tree beside me sometimes when we looked out or down. You could feel the power of the water in your chest!

With two families sharing the food prep, we ate well: On the first night, the kids roasted more sausages, and we had pork chops and grilled vegetables. On the second, steaks with an arugula-pitachio butter that was prepped at home, and a kale caesar with Emarie’s delicious dressing. “I don’t trust any recipe that only calls for one anchovy,” she told us.

Smaller stomachs rumbling faster, the kids had already moved on to roasting marshmallows by the time we sat down to dinner. And they’d moved into the tents before we moved onto our desserts. Despite all the excitement, or perhaps thanks to it, I recall they fell asleep quickly. Only Hudson lingered by the fire reading—lately he’s insatiable!

Aron got a drone camera a few weeks before we left, and it was exciting to see what everything looked like from new vantage points.

He has some really fun videos on his Instagram.

The kids ran back and forth, and occupied themselves in the hammock or on the trail looking for lizards (they actually caught and released one!), their screams of glee and battle almost drowning out the sound of the ocean (but not quite). We all remarked how nice it was to be the only people at the site, relieved of any obligation to shush them.

Sometimes they’d sit and play cards. I walked by as Hudson asked Skyler and Sam (the two 4-year-olds) if they had any sixes. “Goldfish, goldfish,” they both replied as I looked down to see their six. Ha!

At breakfast, Emarie made egg and bacon sandwiches on toasted English muffins at the camp stove, while an assembly line of sandwiches was started for lunch. We packed up a loaf’s worth of PB&Js, along with apples and some other snacks before setting out for the day.

There are only a few real options for getting down to the ocean in Big Sur. Closest are Partington Cove and Pfeiffer Beach (the purple sand); to the north there’s Andrew Molera State Beach (where we rode horses to the water) or the coves of Garrapata State Park. To the south are Mill Creek, Willow Creek, and Sand Dollar Beach (with Jade cove). We opted to drive south to the last one.

It was a bit out of the way, so I wouldn’t suggest it if you’re trying to stay out of the car, but the drive was beautiful and the wide open sand was a highlight for the kids, who spent a few hours digging for sand crabs and wading in the water. We were lucky that the largest surf breaks were pretty far out. We paid $10 for parking and a ranger told us that, should we wish to explore more, we’d find Jade Cove to one side (so named for the Jade in the rocks) and some caves to the other.

Afterward we backtracked past our campsite and back to the village for another stop at Big Sur Bakery. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the line was long and the pastry case had already been plundered. One could still opt to stay for a full lunch of pizzas and salads, but we had our packed lunches. We picked up some firewood and some candy incentives (for the hike out of Partington cove later) at the general store next door and moved a few miles south.

Along the way, we passed two other delicious options in the area: Nepenthe (a clifftop icon, 808 feet above the sea), and Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn (wonderful breakfasts!).

This was our first visit to Partington Cove. There’s a trail that winds down to the water just off one of the bigger bends in the road. Not knowing the exposure of the beaches at the base, we timed our visit to low tide.

It meant that one could take a dip in the (cold!) freshwater flowing out to the Pacific from Big Sur River, but the surf was still too dangerous for anyone to go very close to the ocean.

We had first followed the trail down to the wider beach visible from the highway, but backtracked and crossed the river with the help of a footbridge. From there we passed through a tunnel and came out into a much more protected cove.

Two divers were coming up the path. We scampered past them, out onto the rocks, from where we could peek into the small tidepools that had formed on the surface. It was gorgeous, but we didn’t linger long—as the tide started to come back in we agreed it was too nerve-wracking to supervise both the surf and the children.

You can see it from above in Aron’s IG feed. (Also, here.)

A Skittle-fairy helped us make the climb back out of the cove swift (leaving little piles along the way for the four smallest hikers), and we came back to find our site bathed in glow.

Every now and then, you’d have to remind yourself to stop, look around, and really take in the scene.

It really felt like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of place!

One thing that is interesting about Big Sur is the range of comfort one can opt for when it comes to lodging and experiences. You could backpack and bring in all of your own supplies, camp and eat out for every meal, or you could spend a fortune and leave everything to one of the luxury resorts like Post or Ventana. And the region is at once so well-suited to families—the redwoods and the river are perfect for kids—and so off-limits: most of high-end options don’t allow children under 13.

One of the places to stay, I’ve always been curious about: the Esalen Institute (now perhaps famous as the place Don Draper ends up in the last episode of Mad Men). They have hot springs that open to the public from 1am to 3am—reservations required and clothing optional—and which were just 4 miles south of us. We logged on to check on reservations just in case, but they fill up almost immediately every day.

On Sunday morning, we packed up our things and bid our site farewell just before lunchtime, then drove north to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where you can hike through the redwoods near the Big Sur River.

We had stayed at the lodge on our last visit, but the river had been too high for crossing. This time, concrete strips—laid out so as not to disrupt the river’s flow or its fish—were revealed and the kids leapt back and forth across with increasing courage and speed.

Mindful of the long drive home, we didn’t go on any of the longer hikes within the park, but the few short nature trails right around the lodge were perfect for our seven-and-under-crew. Getting to experience both redwood forests and wild coastline is one of the most majestic things about Big Sur.

And the ice cream case inside the lodge was a just-right end to a fun weekend with friends, an extra dose of birthday celebration!

Have you been to Big Sur? There’s so many ways to appreciate this gorgeous stretch of California. Any suggestions? 

P.S. Our visit to Point Lobos on our drive home and previous Big Sur Travelogues: With kids at Big Sur Lodge and Without Kids at Ventana Inn. Also, a guide from Natalie Bowen Brookshire with some tips if you’re planning a wedding or celebration there.

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