Car Camping in Big Sur


We just finished up loading our groceries into the car when Ryan looked over and saw an auto parts store. “We should get one of those heat reflectors for the windshield, it will give us more privacy at night.”  $2.50 later (yay clearance price) we were set with a nice privacy shield. With our car was full of inexpensive camping gear and supplies, we were ready to head out to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park in California.

The night before we stayed in the sleepy seaside town of Cayucos so the drive to our campground was about 2.5 hours away.  According to guide books, we needed to fill up with gas in Cambria since it would be a while before we saw another gas station.  A warning that, although gave us peace of mind to take seriously, was not one that needed to be followed since there were a couple gas stations within the park with surprisingly comparable prices. The only thing left to do was enjoy the sites that Big Sur has to offer.

The Drive to the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Within 30 minutes of our drive we stopped at the Piedras Blancas Rookery overlook, which was covered in Elephant Seals.  Some were even posturing in the water. The amount of wildlife on the California  Coast is mind boggling for someone born and raised in the Midwest.

The drive to the campground followed a predictable rhythm. Up, down, winding along the coast, foggy and below 50 degrees, sunny and above 70.  The ocean, with its constant layer of fog, was ever present to our left. On the right the landscape transitioned from  rolling hills of farm land  into mountain cliffs kissing the edge of the ocean.  I had experienced nothing quite like this before.  Sure we’ve done the famed Road to Hana, driven around the Olympic Peninsula and the road between Vancouver B.C. to Whistler.  But those drives can’t be compared to the California Coast in Big Sur. They’re all just so different.

Just one lane each way, Highway 1 hugs the state of California for most of its length.  Turn-outs and overlooks are placed at opportune moments, perfect for you to get out and take in the breathtaking views and snap a few photos. We saw numerous people heading off onto hiking trails along the way.  We thought they were braves souls because it always seemed to be at the points the were cold and foggy.

When we got further into Big Sur we began to explore by pulling off the road and enjoy the views. I would suggest bringing a good pair of binoculars for this trip.  We would have missed seeing the adorable Sea Otters in the Sea Kelp beds below if we didn’t have ours.  After being hunted to near extinction, Sea Otters are starting to make a come back along the coast. I am happy to announce that Ryan and I witnessed these two little guys helping out that cause.

We continued our way to our campsite through mostly clear roads with a couple construction zones that ended up slowing us down a bit. Construction along the road in this area is tricky because they usually have to close down one lane of the highway to work. Fortunately we didn’t run into too bad of traffic since it seemed like heading North was much less popular than going South.


Our Campsite
After we checked-in and bought our firewood (for just $10 which included a fire-starter log) we made our way to our campsite. We were enamored by the beauty of the campground and even more-so by our campsite.  Nestled among Red Woods, near a river bed with mountains in the distance Ryan and I couldn’t be more excited about the next two nights.We quickly realized that our spot was one of the better sites in the South Camp (thank you internet research for being right!).  Although it was close to the entry point of South camp, we wouldn’t have to worry about headlights shining in since the car area was set a comfortable distance from the road. If we had a tent, we would have been able to set it up hidden among a large fallen Red Wood. Fortunately we didn’t have to go through the pain of setting a tent up so we browsed our guide book and decided to head out to Partington Cove for a quick hike and brush with history.


Trouble Was Brewing (TMI Warning)

The night before I had a bit of a sour stomach. I thought that with the episode I had the night before I was in the clear.  Especially since my stomach hadn’t really bothered me during most of the drive.  Of all the trips I have been on in the last few years, including 10 days in Thailand, I haven’t gotten traveler’s diarrhea. So why now? Why when I just so happen to be camping for the next two nights? I mean really, what are the chances? Fortunately the second wave didn’t hit until we had reached our campsite which was equipped with regular (not terribly private) toilets. I popped an imodium and hoped that would do the trick.

Our First Hike in Big Sur
 We headed back south a couple miles to the trailhead to Partington Cove.   This particular cove cannot be seen from the road.  You must descend 240 ft from your car on a dusty, shadeless path, meander briefly through a forest, cross over a creek and walk through a man-made tunnel.  This particular cove has been used for for a hundred years to transport goods and equipment.  During prohibition it was used to smuggle alcohol into California and during the construction of Highway 1 it was used to transport equipment that helped to build the highway.

The sound the waves made as they slammed against the rocks was immense. I was as if some other worldly being was warning us to not get too close to the edge of the water.  We climbed along the rocky terrain, looking at creatures in small tide pools, chasing crabs and thinking about the history of the cove.  We cut the hike a little short since my stomach was once again acting up and we still  had a hike back up to the car.  There was no way I was going to have an ‘oops, I crapped my pants’ moment this early in my life. The shadeless ascent back to the car was less than fun, but I kept my complaints to a minimum (I think).


An Unexpected Whale Sighting
On our way to McWay Falls Ryan and I spotted a whale breach the waters in the distance so we pulled over to watch for a while.  Since we didn’t get much Whale action in Hawaii, this was a very special treat for us. Unfortunately, my stomach started to act up again and I had to abandon Ryan to take care of business.  Thank goodness we were only a quarter of a mile away from the McWay Falls rest area. I met back up with Ryan and we watched as the whale pod made its way North, blowing their spouts and slapping their tails.  We only witnessed a breach once or twice more, but it was amazing.  One whale slapped his tail for a couple of minutes and with each slap we could see his tail hit the water before the sound made its way to us.


McWay Falls

McWay Falls at Sunset

McWay Falls is not a well kept secret secret so chances are you will be sharing the stunning view with dozens of your closest tourist friends. Although the waterfall is visible immediately, there is a better view point down a short path. McWay falls is a stunning waterfall that pours onto the beach during low tide and into the ocean during high tide.  The beach is off limits due to its nearly inaccessible nature and nesting birds. However, we were lucky enough to be there the day three selfish jerks decided to scale down the side of the cliff so they could take off their clothes and bask in the glory of the waterfall. Fortunately most people are respectful of the reasons why that area is off limits and it is mostly untouched by people.  Aside from the three fools that ended up having to scale back up the cliff side after searching for their car keys for a good 30 minutes, McWay Falls is breathtaking.


First Night

Our stomachs started to grumble (in a good way) and we were losing light so we headed back to our campsite to get a fire going. On the menu were pre-made veggie kebobs, Firestone Walker beer and S’mores. Apparently our fire wasn’t hot enough because the only kebobs that were fully cooked were our last ones of the night.  Never-the-less, we thought they were scrumptious after a day on the road and our short hike. As Ryan got the fire and food going I set up the sleep area in the car. This included folding the back seats of our mid-size SUV down, setting up our bedding, putting the privacy shield on our windshield and draping mosquito netting over one of the rear windows so we could keep the window open at night without letting bugs in.

The best thing that I purchased for this trip ended up being a head lamp.  It was perfect for working on the food in the dark and walking around.  One neat feature about it is that it had red lights so that your night vision wasn’t affected by the light.  Ryan was skeptical about the light when I first purchased it, but soon he was wearing it more than me.  (I ended up getting him one for Christmas). The night was chilly, but we were prepared so it didn’t phase us.  We hung out enjoying the night, looking up at the sliver of sky we could see through the Red Woods to star gaze and talking the trip and life.

As day 1 of our camping adventure came to a close we started to settle down in the car.  We made some final touches to add more privacy and add a bit more comfort to the otherwise hard bed and fell asleep.  Sometime in the middle of the night we were awoken by an eery noise of scratching by our heads.  We concluded that it must have been some sort of rodent or squirrel in the tire wells.  Once I banged on my tire well they seemed to go away. The rest of the night was spent in a slumber interrupted only by our need to reposition to a more comfortable spot.

Read part 2 of our Beautiful Big Sur Car Camping Adventure!

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