Most people drive through with little more than hanging their phone out the window for a picture of the steep and rocky coastline. Iconic Big Sur is a breathtaking wonder of the west coast with so much to offer; blooming wildflowers, whale watching from the elevated cliffs, spotting sea otters rafting in the sun, or secluded naps on private beaches blanketed in jade and sunlight. Spring time is perhaps one of the best times for a visit if you’re willing to brave the cooler winds and seek out the greener season’s blossoming. The initial challenge with a visit to Big Sur is getting out of the heard of cars meandering down highway 1 and find the perfect spot to enjoy the scenery. During a recent trip to Los Padres National Forest, an area of forest maintained by the United State Forest Service, we found a number of ideal secret spots for free camping. It is legal to camp anywhere in Los Padres.
Suicide Point, or Two Joint Point as the locals call it, is a dramatically elevated point high above Willow Creek. A few mile drive up the switch backing dirt road looks out over the point and over the Pacific Ocean. At the precipice of this valley is an unmistakeable campsite. This stretch of perfection is framed by a few small boulders dictating a natural lot. Wandering back into the woods from here you notice a number of camp areas shrouded in the trees, including one perched out on the cliff with a perfect window to the valley that drains Willow Creek out into the ocean.
As we headed down the trail on our final day still beaming from the uninterrupted peace and wondrous views we ran into a Forest Service Ranger. A quick chat revealed that a lot of people run into trouble as they head up that road. As the elevation increases the slope of the road begins to do the same. Unfamiliar drivers often find themselves in a situation where they can’t go any further and can’t safely turn around either. If you aren’t sure of your vehicle, there are lower level turn outs for parking and it is a pretty easy hike up spotting lots of camping options along the way. “Just last night for example” said the ranger, “A youth pastor took some kids up here in a church van. They got stuck and had to spend the night with no supplies, no water or flashlights! Had to field some angry phone calls from the kid’s parents all morning long” he continued, obviously annoyed by the overall scenario. Novice explorers should take caution for places like this. The remote aspect is quite an allure for visiting, but the trek comes at your own risk. If you’re not sure what to bring you probably shouldn’t head up the trail to begin with. These are primitive campsites, there are no bathrooms or running water on this road. Adventurers will be expected to bring all their necessities with them and be adequately prepared for every scenario.
Part of what keeps Big Sur and Los Padres National Forest unique is the element of seclusion in all the beauty. The masses tend to camp at some of the more popular paid sites just off the highway; a quick, $30 in-and-out scenario with the metaphysical ambience of a Walmart parking lot. A little more searching, a lot more patience and a naturalist’s vigilance and you can find a camper’s paradise perched on a cliff over the Pacific. To camp in these parts comes with an implied respect to a short but firm list of rules. Rule number one, ALWAYS clean up after yourself. I get it, trash is messy and a pain to clean up after a long weekend outdoors. These gems have remained beautiful for the sole reason that the masses haven’t discovered them. The accumulation of trash will draw rapid attention to these areas and encourage regulation by authorities. To put it bluntly don’t ruin it for the rest of us, leave the forest like you found it. Rule number two, be mindful of your campfires. California, though experiencing a lush El Nino, is in a drought. A stray spark is often all you need to cause a dangerous event. It is important to get a permit, these are usually available through the National Forestry Service. When obtaining the permit be sure to observe the local regulations that can change daily. In addition, put out your coals thoroughly. A rogue breeze can kick up your embers and create a huge problem in the dry brush. Rule number three, respect the locals. Its a blissfully simple mentality here; a basic ‘do unto others…’ way of life. You get what you give; come out raging about your rights and your vacation and you’ll be met with an equal ration of salt. You’ll be surprised how friendly some people are out here when you offer a simple smile and salutation.
A full day in this zone of Big Sur comes with a wealth of daily activities. Just down from the suggested camping area you will come to Willow Creek day use area. A couple small parking lots positioned under the Willow Creek Bridge will provide direct access to a rocky beach. Here you will find public bathrooms and trash receptacles. Drive north a couple more miles on the coast highway and you’ll come to Sand Dollar Beach. A well known destination covered in dark sand and smooth stones. You will find free roadside parking just along highway 1 or park at the day use parking lot for $10. The hike down from the parking area is a short one, covering a few switchbacks and a staircase down to the stretch of gorgeous beaches. Spend the day here basking in the sun, swimming in the boulder sheltered waters or picnicking with friends.
There are so many more places like this that Big Sur offers, from pristine seclusion or a rowdy bar to enjoy good wine and beer. I encourage you to begin here or make your own way. Observe the posted rules, explore the boundless beaches and leave no trace. Maybe next time you catch yourself snapping pictures from the passenger seat of your car, you’ll take a moment to breath in a richer deepness of the rugged west coast of California and take the road less traveled.