The Best Free Campsites in Big Sur

Free camping in Big Sur? It might sound too good to be true…

But, thanks to Los Padres National Forest, there are actually a handful of dispersed campsites that don’t cost a penny.

Here’s where to go dispersed camping in Big Sur on your next trip.

See Also: Best Dispersed Camping in California


Dispersed camping closures in Big Sur are very common (due to overuse/abuse, winter storms, forest fires, and road damage). Here is a list of current closures.

For up-to-date information on road closures and dispersed camping restrictions, always call the Monterey Ranger District of Los Padres National Forest before your trip: (831) 242-0619

And, please read our Big Sur dispersed camping rules and etiquette guide (below) before your trip – and, of course, always follow the 7 Leave No Trace principles, no matter where you’re dispersed camping.


Best Dispersed Camping in Big Sur

Skip to the free campsite you’re most interested in:

Or, use our Big Sur dispersed camping map to browse the area’s best free campsites.


My Favorite Dispersed Campsites in Big Sur

Dispersed camping in Big Sur is somewhat limited. Your only options are in Los Padres National Forest, east of Highway 1, roughly between Gorda and Lucia. Here are four good locations to start your search.

Prewitt Ridge (Los Padres National Forest)

Camping at Prewitt Ridge is an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

Set high in the hills above Big Sur, most of these dispersed campsites boast indescribable views of the coastline and Pacific Ocean far below. Watching the sunset here is one of my most special camping memories.

However, reaching Prewitt Ridge is a challenge. First you must brave the steep, winding, albeit paved Nacimiento-Fergusson Road (camping off of this road is illegal) before turning off onto the Coast Ridge Trail and then Prewitt Ridge Road, both very rough unpaved fire roads with blind corners, steep drop-offs, loose rock, and little room to pass.

You can also access the Coast Ridge Trail (and Prewitt Ridge) from Plaskett Ridge Road to the south. I’ve never personally driven this route, so can’t offer any advice, although it does look like it takes much longer – and I’ve heard the road is even rougher.

Make sure to only set up camp within the legal dispersed camping area (“Prewitt Ridge Campground” on Google Maps). Respect all signage related to camping closures and off-limits areas. This area is patrolled regularly and tickets are very expensive.

Just as important is avoiding private property. Coast Ridge Trail and Prewitt Ridge Road are used as access roads for several residences in the area. Respect all “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs. Don’t cross through any gates or fences. Avoid venturing down private roads.

Fortunately, the dispersed campsites at Prewitt Ridge are quite obvious. Most are simply dirt pullouts located on the expansive grassy ridge. You can also continue on a spur road out to Alms Ridge for even more camping options.

For More Info:

Prewitt Ridge is part of Los Padres National Forest.

Call the Monterey Ranger District for more information: (831) 242-0619

Get Directions to Prewitt Ridge

Plaskett Ridge Road (Los Padres National Forest)

Plaskett Ridge Road is another excellent option for free camping in Big Sur.

Like Prewitt Ridge, many of these dispersed campsites boast panoramic views of the Big Sur coastline and Pacific Ocean beyond.

The drive up Plaskett Ridge Road generally isn’t too bad. Although conditions can change greatly from year to year (and, especially, after rain), the going doesn’t truly get rough until you near the intersection with the Coast Ridge Trail. Of course, you should expect potholes, blind hills and corners, and steep drop-offs the entire way.

Wait until you’re on top of the sprawling grassy ridgeline where the road flattens out a bit before setting up camp. These campsites have the best views of the Pacific Ocean.

It’s extremely important not to camp on private property here. Luckily, everything is well-marked with “No Trespassing, “Private Property,” and similar signs. Obviously, don’t go into fenced areas or down gated side roads.

Like all other free campsites in Big Sur, Plaskett Ridge does get busy. Luckily, the area is quite expansive and you should be able to find somewhere to set up camp (although it might not be very secluded).

For More Info:

Plaskett Ridge is part of Los Padres National Forest.

Call the Monterey Ranger District for more information: (831) 242-0619

Get Directions to Plaskett Ridge

Alder Creek Camp (Los Padres National Forest)

Alder Creek is a great place for free camping in Big Sur, especially for those that prefer more of a “traditional” campground experience.

It’s more of a free primitive campground than dispersed camping with three “campsites” that each have picnic tables and fire rings (campfires are always banned, however). Yet, like dispersed camping, there are no bathrooms here (not even vault toilets), so please plan to pack out all human waste. 

Access Alder Creek Camp via Los Burros Road (also called Willow Creek Road). This unpaved road is quite rough and rutted – not to mention steep and windy with several sheer drop-offs.

However, the road into these campsites isn’t nearly as bad as Coast Ridge Trail to Prewitt Ridge or Plaskett Ridge Road, at least on my last visit. Of course, road conditions vary greatly and can change in an instant, so please call the Monterey Ranger District for current road information.

The campsites here are set under shady oak trees on the banks of Alder Creek. Ocean views are close at hand, but the camping area itself doesn’t provide these views. If you explore, you might even find remnants of old mining operations nearby.

For More Info:

Alder Creek Camp is part of Los Padres National Forest.

Call the Monterey Ranger District for more information: (831) 242-0619

Get Directions to Alder Creek Camp

San Martin Top (Los Padres National Forest)

San Martin Top is another free campsite in Big Sur with fantastic ocean views.

Getting here can be a little confusing as several different road names are used interchangeably, depending on who you ask. For example, locals often call the main access road “Willow Creek Road” while road signs say “Los Burros Road.” Yet, for some reason, Google Maps calls it “Will Creek Road.”

And, then there’s the spur road itself. Google Maps calls this “Los Burros Spur Road” while most other GPS maps call it “San Martin Road.” Luckily, if you just follow the main Los Burros Road (/Willow Creek Road) up to the intersection, a large sign with arrows will point you right towards San Martin Top.

Once you’re on the spur road headed towards San Martin Top, you’ll find several dispersed campsites. One of my favorites (and, perhaps, the most private) is located roughly 0.7 miles from the intersection, but my absolute favorite (and the one with the best view) is near the very end of the ridge road.

Once again, I want to remind you that people do live up here, so be respectful and absolutely don’t drive onto or camp on private property. In my experience, private property is very clearly marked, so just keep your eyes open and be aware.

Ten Digit Grid has a very thorough guide to dispersed camping on San Martin Top with maps that explicitly mark private property on Los Burros and Los Burros Spur Roads.

For More Info:

San Martin Top is part of Los Padres National Forest.

Call the Monterey Ranger District for more information: (831) 242-0619

Get Directions to San Martin Top


Consider a Developed Campground Instead

Because dispersed camping in Big Sur is so limited (and closures are so common), it’s smart to at least consider staying at a paid campground instead, even just as a backup plan. Here are five great options.

Nacimiento Campground (Los Padres National Forest)

Nacimiento Campground is tucked away about 11 miles down Nacimiento-Fergusson Road from Highway 1.

The small, primitive campground has just 9 campsites. All are first-come, first-served. RVs and trailers up to 25 feet are welcome (although you should remember the access road is narrow and winding). Camping here costs $20 per night.

This is one of my favorite developed campgrounds in Big Sur thanks to its small size, relatively private campsites, and location right next to a small creek.

* Call the ranger station before your visit for current information on Nacimiento-Fergusson Road – closures on the western section are common, especially during and just after winter.

Learn more about Nacimiento Campground.

Ponderosa Campground (Los Padres National Forest)

Ponderosa Campground is another developed campground located just off Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, just 2.5 miles east of Nacimiento Campground.

It has 21 campsites that are best suited for tents, vans, and vehicle campers. However, some sites will accommodate RVs and trailers up to 35 feet in length. Reservations are available online at Recreation.gov. Camping here costs $25 per night.

The campsites here are quite spread apart. Couple that with an abundance of shady trees and there’s a surprising amount of privacy for a developed campground. A pretty little mountain stream also passes through the campground.

* Call the ranger station before your visit for current information on Nacimiento-Fergusson Road – closures on the western section are common, especially during and just after winter.

Learn more about Ponderosa Campground.

Kirk Creek Campground (Los Padres National Forest)

Kirk Creek Campground is very popular – and for good reason.

The campground is perched on an open bluff high above the Big Sur coastline. Most campsites have views of the Pacific Ocean while all are a short hike away from the beach. The convenient location makes it easy to access all of Big Sur’s most popular attractions.

The 40 available campsites fill up quickly. Reservations are available, so make yours well in advance (on Recreation.gov). RVs and trailers are limited to 30 feet and under. Camping here costs $35 per night.

Learn more about Kirk Creek Campground.

Plaskett Creek Campground (Los Padres National Forest)

Plaskett Creek Campground is another lovely Los Padres National Forest campground just off Highway 1.

Unfortunately, this campground is very popular and reservations fill up fast. Try to make your reservations (on Recreation.gov) as far in advance as possible. Booking a campsite can be difficult, but is well worth the effort. Sand Dollar Beach is just a short walk away.

There are 44 campsites here. Many are suitable for RVs and trailers, including a few that are large enough for big rigs. Camping here costs $35 per night.

Learn more about Plaskett Creek Campground.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is one of the most amazing places in Big Sur, bar none.

Not only is the camping among the best in the country, but the beach is one of the best (thanks in large part to McWay Falls which empties onto the beach or into the ocean, depending on the tide) in Big Sur. Plus, the park is home to simply amazing thousand-year-old redwood trees that tower up to 300 feet tall.

The camping here is hike-in only (just a short walk) and is limited to just two campsites set on a cliff just above the crashing waves of the ocean below. These are booked up extremely quickly, but try your luck on ReserveCalifornia.com to see if you can score a camping permit. Camping here costs $30 per night.

For a more traditional state park camping experience, check out nearby Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park whose campground has 189 campsites for tents and RVs scattered along the Big Sur River. Camping here costs $35 to $50 per night.

Learn more about camping at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.


Important Big Sur Dispersed Camping Info

Bixby Bridge and Pacific Ocean coastline in Big Sur

* Please read the following before going dispersed camping in Big Sur.

Overuse (and abuse) along with winter storm and forest fire damage frequently cause closures in Los Padres National Forest, especially along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road (currently closed from Highway 1 east to the summit).

Check here for current info on road closures and please always double check conditions by calling the Monterey Ranger District before your trip: (831) 242-0619

Remember that roadside camping is illegal along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road (as well as all other roads in Monterey County, including the Pacific Coast Highway). The area is regularly patrolled and you will be ticketed up to $5,000 when you’re caught.

The only exception is along certain forest service roads in Los Padres National Forest. Yet, even forest roads where dispersed camping is typically allowed can be made off-limits at a moment’s notice. Respect all signage, avoid all restricted areas, and you won’t have any problems.

Understand that private property dots the forest service roads in Los Padres National Forest, including along the Coast Ridge Trail, South Coast Ridge Road, Plaskett Ridge Road, Los Burros Road, and others.

Not only must you avoid entering private property (luckily, it’s all very visibly marked), but you need to understand that these locals use the same unpaved roads you’re on to reach their homes. Vehicles that get stuck can cause major delays, not to mention expensive road damage (that often takes months to repair).

I strongly encourage 4WD and high-clearance when dispersed camping in Big Sur. You’ll likely see other campers make the drive in standard passenger vehicles (or hear about those who have done so online), but please don’t attempt this yourself.

Like I said, this part of Los Padres National Forest has struggled greatly with unequipped vehicles getting stuck and causing serious road damage. And, if you do get stuck, cell reception is almost non-existent. Plus, it’s all but impossible to find someone to pull you out – tow trucks won’t come here.

Depending on the time of year, even 4×4 rigs can have a hard time traversing these roads. Please avoid this area after heavy rains. I also strongly advise not attempting the drive after dark. Heavy fog is also common (and just as dangerous), but is unfortunately difficult to predict.

Last, but certainly not least, please, please, please treat Big Sur with respect. Pack out all your trash (including human waste), absolutely stay off all closed roads, and understand that campfires are always illegal while dispersed camping here. You even need a California campfire permit to use a portable stove.

Oh, one more thing – Google Maps and other GPS maps are notoriously unreliable here. I strongly recommend using an official Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) from the USFS. You can pick up hard copies at the Monterey Ranger Station or Big Sur Station.


Have Fun Dispersed Camping in Big Sur!

Big Sur is home to some of the most beautiful free camping in the United States, let alone California.

Despite the difficulties, it’s well worth making the effort to camp here. However, I want to reiterate once again, it’s essential you only come here in a properly-equipped vehicle with an understanding of all the risks involved.

Although shutdowns are common and the access roads are very rough, camping at Prewitt Ridge, Plaskett Ridge Road, Alder Creek Camp, and San Martin Top are all literally experiences of a lifetime.

If you still have questions about dispersed camping in Los Padres National Forest near Big Sur, please don’t hesitate to shoot me a line: jake@campnado.com

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