***Update for 2020: due to significantly increased traffic in the area, camping along some of the most popular forest service roads is currently prohibited. Please see this article for more information. I’m not sure about other roads in the area, but the general guidelines outlined in the post below apply in most national forests. Make sure to be respectful of these natural areas, cleanup after yourself and follow directions on any posted signs. Additionally, it’s always a good idea to call the local ranger station for current closure.***
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Mark a few potential campsites by dropping a pin on Apple Maps or Google Maps before you leave home.
- Go explore, and find those hidden gems.
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):
- Los Burros Road
- Plaskett Ridge Road
- 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.
Final Thoughts and Tips
Before you go camping, check out this post on camping etiquette
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.