Camping at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: Roughing It
The two campsites at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur are consistently rated as two of the best on the West Coast. They’re also consistently booked up six months out. Fortunately for me, I visited the State Parks website right when someone else canceled their Sunday night reservation for spot #2, the “South Garden” site. (The next opening, as of this writing? October 4. Book now to avoid disappointment!)
We drove down to Big Sur early in the day, stopping along the way for a couple of side hikes. Once we arrived in Big Sur, we checked in at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The friendly park ranger gave us our official documents and check-in slip, and 20 minutes later we were at our site.
The Most Beautiful Campsites In California
How beautiful is this site? Let’s just say that if Peter Jackson is looking for somewhere outside of New Zealand to shoot The Hobbit, he should come here. No CGI required to make these views look magical! This perch, directly above McWay Falls, has panoramic views of Big Sur’s rocky coastline. (Because you’re directly above the falls, you can’t actually see them, but it’s a short 5-minute hike to get a gander at them.) You can see majestic mountains and beautiful blue ocean, listen to the thunder of McWay Falls and chirping birds, and smell the redwoods, the fresh clean air and a hint of sea spray. This video from 2009 gives a good sense of the campsites:
While site 1 may be closer to the water, site 2 has its own advantages. It’s surrounded by wild mustard flowers, which in turn lure in an amazing number of hummingbirds. I expected the hummingbirds to dart away as we set up camp, but we humans didn’t seem to bother them. They hovered amidst the flowers like little flying jewels.
Not only are these campgrounds exquisite; they’re secluded. During the day you may have a few hikers dropping by to check out the view, and nearly every one will ask you how you scored such an amazing spot. But by sundown, the only people in the park will be you, whoever you brought with you, and the campers at the other site. You’ll feel like you’re the only people in the world, especially if your fellow campers are as quiet as our neighbors were.
As the stars filled the sky, we gathered around our campfire. We heard owls hooting and saw the occasional shadow of a bat flying by. The rumbling waterfall in the distance was like Nature’s white-noise machine as we tucked in for the night; the sound was occasionally punctuated by barking sea lions (if you’ve never heard one, it’s like a duck trying to imitate a dog) and the crash of surf against the rocks.
Camping and sleeping late are not normally things that go hand in hand, but the campsites at Julia Pfeiffer Burns allow for a gentle awakening. We’d expected to awake to the direct laser of the sun’s rays at dawn, but the hill behind the campsite shaded us for hours. We woke up slowly to the sound of squawking birds. The sun didn’t touch our tent until about 9am.
Camping at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: The Nitty-Gritty
If you’re considering taking the leap from car camping to raw, hike-in camping, these campsites are the perfect intermediate step. At Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, there’s no on-site showers, camp store or wi-fi to get between you and a full-on nature experience. If you find you can’t do without any of those things, however, you can head 12 miles north to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, which is loaded with all those amenities.
Though the two campsites at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park are listed as unimproved environmental campsites, they have a few of the perks of improved campsites, including a fire pit, a picnic table, a metal storage box and adjacent trash bins and porta-potties. Unlike improved campsites, however, there’s no running water or RV hookups, the sites have not been leveled, and there’s no adjacent parking.
Currently, the plants that surround site 2 have begun to move into the site, as can be seen in the photo below. A 10’ by 10’ tent was a tight squeeze; next time we come (oh, yes, there will be a next time) we’ll bring something smaller.
Travel Light; You’ll Carry Everything In!
All gear must be carried in either from the parking lot (roughly ½ mile away down a gradual slope) or from a spot at the top of the fire road (about 300 very steep yards downhill). This is a big incentive to pack light in order to minimize the back-and-forth, and to stay for longer than an overnight.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is 12 miles south of the village of Big Sur, roughly a 20-minute drive. Translation: there will be no quick runs to the corner market to get the firewood, toothpaste or anything else you forgot. You’re only 4 miles north of Esalen, home of amazing hot springs perched on a cliff 50 feet above the ocean. The hot springs are open to the public with a reservation from 1am to 3am every day.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
Highway One, 37 miles south of Rio Road in Big Sur
Reserve your campsite at the ReserveAmerica website.