How to Camp for Free in Big Sur

Last weekend, my wife and I experienced the quintessential California roadtrip. On Saturday morning we loaded up Mogli, our beloved Subaru, and  drove to Big Sur for a weekend of breathtaking views, scenic hikes, and free camping.

Here are a few noteworthy things about our campsite: It was a gorgeous little slice of heaven in the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest. It had a 180 degree panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. It was a secluded escape from the craziness that is our Southern California lifestyle. Oh, and it was free. That’s right, free.

If you want to learn how to camp for free in Big Sur, then you’ve come to the right place. But if you like to pay nearly $50 to be packed like sardines into a parking lot that seems more like the 405 than a campground, then you probably want to look elsewhere.

Mogli

Free Camping

I’ll start with a few basics about free camping in general. If you want to read a more detailed guide to free camping, especially in Southern California, check out my previous post.

  1. Many National Forests allow you to camp for free along forest service roads as long as you follow some basic guidelines. Be sure to check the website for the particular forest you are visiting or contact a local rangers station. Here’s a website with some basics about dispersed camping.
  2. Once you’ve verified that dispersed camping is allowed in your national forest of choice, the next step is to find a suitable forest service road. This app lets you download forest maps to your phone. It’s pretty sweet because it’s GPS enabled too.
  3. Once you find some forest service roads in your national forest of choice, use Google Maps satellite view to see if these roads are suitable and if they have nice turnouts and places to pitch a tent.
  4. Mark a few potential campsites by dropping a pin on Apple Maps or Google Maps before you leave home.
  5. Go explore, and find those hidden gems.

Land Rover Silhouette

Los Padres 

The Los Padres National Forest stretches along the coast throughout the entire Big Sur area. However, the southernmost section of the forest is where you’ll find the best campsites.

I know of 3 roads in this area that have some excellent campsites (but I’m sure there are others):

  1. Los Burros Road
  2. Plaskett Ridge Road
  3. Nacimiento-Ferguson Road

Many of these roads are rocky and uneven, so I would highly recommend a high clearance vehicle and either AWD or 4WD. I’ve seen sedans and VW buses on these roads, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re feeling pretty confident.

Anyway, that’s basically it. Once you’re on a forest service road, you just drive until you find a nice little spot where you can pull of the road and pitch a tent. This past weekend was pretty crowded so we ended up passing 6-8 groups before we finally found a good spot that wasn’t taken. However, I’m glad we kept driving because we ended up having even better views than we would have had lower down on the road.

Through Tent

Final Thoughts and Tips

Before you go camping, check out this post on camping etiquette

  1. Don’t get discouraged if you see a lot of the spots are full lower down on the road. If you keep driving far enough, you’re bound to find an amazing campsite.
  2. Don’t try to plan everything out, the whole point of dispersed camping is to have an adventure. If you want a reservation that you can count on, you should be checking into the nearest KOA.
  3. Get there early. It’s much easier and less stressful if you’re trying to find a campsite in the early afternoon. Plus, it often takes an hour or so of driving down forest service roads to find an available campsite.
  4. Remember to get any necessary passes and permits before you go. In order to have a fire and use our camp stove, we needed a Los Padres campfire permit. In order to park we needed an Adventure Pass.
  5. Pack it in, pack it out. It’s important to respect and protect these amazing natural places for generations to come. Please remember to leave a campsite cleaner than when you found it.

Tent & Blanket

Well that’s all I’ve got. I hope you get out there and have an awesome adventure dispersed camping. Please let us know about your favorite trips, camping spots, and dispersed camping tricks in the comments below.

 

Share the stoke:

Next Post

Previous Post

27 Comments

  1. Aaron Bilane May 25, 2016

    This was really helpful, thank you! I’ve been camping before but someone else always organized it so I’m basically a beginner…

    One question came to mind as I read through it;
    1. The “Dispersed Camping” link says we can stay in one spot up to 16 days, how do you suggest we safeguard our stuff if we plan to drive to another location for a hike, the beach, etc… Should we completely pack up and then try to find another available spot in the afternoon? Or is it safe enough to leave our tent pitched?

    Thanks for the help and I’ll be sharing this page 😀

    • Josh May 25, 2016 — Post Author

      Hi Aaron. That’s great. I’m always glad to hear that posts are helpful!

      Typically, campers are a pretty trustworthy bunch. Whenever I’m dispersed camping, I leave my tent, sleeping bags, etc. at the campsite, and I’ve never had any issues with people messing with my stuff. This not only reserves your spot for the day but also means you don’t have to tear everything down each day.

      That said, be smart and don’t leave a laptop, phone, or other expensive item out in plain view. Usually I take the really expensive stuff with me.

      Hope that helps!

      • Aaron Bilane June 20, 2016

        Thanks for that Josh!

        I wanted to try and find other service roads so I was scouting areas near our preferred hikes to camp. Some roads had homes, Dolan Ridge or Coast Ridge rd seemed like some options, but how do I know if it’s okay to park off the road and camp on one of these other roads? How do you differentiate between them all? We’re nervous of parking somewhere were not supposed to and getting in trouble.
        Thanks again for the help!

        • Josh July 2, 2016 — Post Author

          Hi Aaron,

          I’m not sure about Dolan Ridge, but Coast Ridge Road looks like there would likely be some free camping along it. Typically, if the road is unpaved and maintained by the forest service, then the dispersed camping rules for that national forest should apply. Within Los Padres National Forest (and many others) the dispersed camping rules referenced above apply.

          Usually, internet research will only get you so far. The best bet is to drive to the spot and as long as it looks unpaved and there aren’t any no trespassing or private property signs, then I’d say go for it. I will say that when we camped on Los Burros road, as we were driving in there were multiple forest service signs talking about camping rules so it was pretty obvious that camping was allowed.

          Hope that helps.

          – Josh

          • Aaron Bilane July 18, 2016

            FYI
            We camped off of Nacimiento-Fergusson road and got asked to leave by a man who we believe worked for the Fire Department. He gave us a bogus looking piece of paper and said we couldn’t camp on the turnouts of that road, talked to someone else to try and figure out if it was true and was told that other campers had been given tickets a couple weeks prior. We stayed the night and camped off of Coast Ridge Trail (name on Google Maps) the next night, about 20min up N-F road.

            Hope this helps someone! As Josh says, stick to dirt roads and I don’t think you’ll be bothered, aside from the mosquitoes and flies!

            DON’T LEAVE ANY TRASH/TOILET PAPER BEHIND. This is why people are now being ticketed, locals are tired of seeing the trash.
            Bring dog poop bags with you and trash them the next day. I was able to hold it until we got down to the main road and use a campgrounds bathroom 🙂

          • Josh July 18, 2016 — Post Author

            Thanks for the update Aaron. That’s good to know. It’s really sad that people trash these beautiful places.

  2. JJ September 1, 2016

    Hi Yonder Stoke,
    I’m looking at a map and Los Padres National Forest is closer to Santa Barbara area. Do we need to buy an adventure pass specifically for Big Sur area (Los Burros Rd for example)?

    • Josh September 1, 2016 — Post Author

      Hi JJ,

      Good question. I was a little confused about the boundaries of the Los Padres NF as well. It’s true that it’s down by Santa Barbara, but there’s also another section of the Los Padres NF that encompasses much of the Big Sur coastline (I believe Los Burros road is within the NF boundaries). Check out the link below for more details:

      http://www.seemonterey.com/things-to-do/parks/los-padres/

      On a side note, I would certainly recommend buying an Adventure Pass. It’s a great deal and provides access to a lot of amazing national forest land.

  3. Laura September 24, 2016

    Hi! it would be awesome if you could use your site to educate people how to properly “use the bathroom” when there is no bathroom. And how dangerous fire can be. A lot of people without any camping experience read post like yours and then leave toilet paper behind and light fires. If you’re going to lead people into Big Sur, please be responsible and educate them first? Soberanes Fire has been burning for over 60 days now, started by an illegal campfire 🙁 Don’t assume your readers are as respectful as you are.

    • Josh September 25, 2016 — Post Author

      Hi Laura,

      That’s a great idea! I will work on writing a post discussing basic camping etiquette, proper waste disposal, and fire safety. I tried to include links to appropriate sites with information on campfire permits, wilderness passes, etc. However, it’s unfortunate that sometimes people are so disrespectful of these beautiful natural areas.

      Thank you for your input and concern.

      Cheers,

      Josh

    • Josh September 25, 2016 — Post Author

      Hi Laura,

      I just finished my post on basic camping etiquette. If you get a chance, please check it out (http://yonderstoke.com/index.php/2016/09/25/camping-etiquette-101/) and let me know what you think.

  4. Abbey November 9, 2016

    Heading to Big Sur from SD this weekend with my boyfriend & pup for exactly this! Glad I stumbled upon your site and now have info for coastal free camping!

    • Josh November 9, 2016 — Post Author

      That’s awesome to hear! Enjoy your time up in Big Sur. It’s such a special place.

  5. J Anen January 19, 2017

    We were out on Nacimiento-Ferguson Road this past weekend chatting with a NFS ranger, he said they will be enforcing no camping in turnouts due to a new county ordinance. There are still free spots to car camp in Big Sur, you just have to dig a little deeper.

    • Josh January 19, 2017 — Post Author

      Good to know. Thanks for the update!

    • Shawna January 29, 2017

      Are you able to locate any of these free spots in a regular car?

      • Josh February 6, 2017 — Post Author

        Hi Shawna,

        Many of the forest service roads are just gravel or dirt roads. I’ve seen regular 2wd cars and vans on these roads, however I would be careful if your car doesn’t have very much ground clearance. Additionally, check the weather before you go because these roads would be very treacherous for a 2wd car when they are wet. A final thought is you should always use your best judgement. If you don’t feel comfortable driving on a road in your car, then it’s definitely smarter to play it safe.

        Hope that helps,

        Josh

  6. Jade Smith February 21, 2017

    Hi there! I would LOVE to know where along the road you camped to find this great spot! Thank you!

    • Josh February 21, 2017 — Post Author

      Hi Jade,

      It was way up Los Burros road. There are a couple of really cool campsites right on top of the ridge up there. However, make sure to check with local rangers regarding current use of these roads. I’ve heard that the Big Sur area is tightening up regulations and not allowing nearly as much freedom camping due to irresponsible and messy campers. :/

      • Jade Smith February 21, 2017

        Makes sense! I really appreciate the response, Josh! We will definitely be checking out this site when we’re up there next.

  7. Scott July 14, 2017

    Kool! I’m stoked!! Leaving Moss Landing and headed to big Sur tomorrow, here from Nebraska!!!

    • Josh July 15, 2017 — Post Author

      Have an awesome trip! Big Sur is a beautiful place.

  8. Edwin garcia September 4, 2017

    Hi there, I own a Prius! Do you have any recommendations for a safe road for a Prius??

    • Josh September 4, 2017 — Post Author

      That’s a good question. Unfortunately, I can’t say for sure which roads would be good for a Prius. My advice would be to call the Los Padres Ranger Station.

  9. Sean van Doornum October 2, 2017

    Hey! Great article. Very helpful 🙂

    From Mid November for a bout 2 weeks i’m traveling through California with my wife from Sydney, Australia. We’re looking at doing a camping road trip from LA to SF and were wondering what the climate is like that time of year? Only thing I can’t quite get a reading on.

    After doing much research into camping grounds and other accommodation it seems dispersed camping is definitely the way to go!

    Cheers,

    Sean

    • Sean van Doornum October 2, 2017

      Oh and actually what is vehicle access like to these roads? 4×4 or is a regular car ok?

    • Josh October 4, 2017 — Post Author

      Hi Sean,

      Great question. It will vary throughout your roadtrip. LA and most of Southern California will more than likely be sunny and very comfortable. However, as you get further North, the temp will drop a bit and there’s a higher chance of rain. All in all, California is typically really comfortable and you should be fine as long as you bring a few jackets. From my experience, California in November should be very similar to NSW in May.

      Dispersed camping is definitely the way to go. Just make sure you do your research ahead of time to have spots picked out along the way.

      In regards to vehicle access, most of the roads don’t require 4×4. If you can get a car with higher clearance, that’s definitely recommended but I’ve seen many basic sedans on these roads. However, if the weather is wet, it will be much more difficult because these roads are primarily dirt.

      I hope that helps. And best of luck on your trip! That’s one of my favorite areas for a roadtrip!

      Cheers,
      Josh

Leave a Reply

© 2017 Yonder Stoke

Theme by Anders Norén