Tent Camping in Big Sur


Big Sur is a pretty special place. 

When we first went to Big Sur for a wedding in 2012, I was in awe the entire time. Dramatic cliff sides, giant redwoods, turquoise waters, dappled light, and purple sand. Every vista was breathtaking, every moment was special. And ever since then I've been wanting to go back. 

Not willing to let another year go by, I added a tent camping trip to my 30 Before 30 list, hoping that would help me make a trip back to Big Sur a priority. And it did. A few months after I made that list I suggested to Ryan that we celebrate our four year dating anniversary up there with the dogs and a couple of weeks ago we bought a tent, packed the car, and headed out on the 8 hour drive from San Diego to Big Sur. 

We entered the 90-mile stretch of Big Sur right as the sun was setting. Our little car curved the rest of Route 1 in the swiftly consuming darkness and by the time we arrived at Riverside Campground it was pitch black. Then we had to set up camp in the slow drizzle that started almost immediately after we pulled our tent out of the car. Of course.

Last time we were in Big Sur, we stayed in a cabin with Brewer. Since this was my first time pitching a tent, the rain and the darkness weren't exactly optimal. Then we managed to get the tent up only to find out that we (I) forgot our air mattress pump, so after (prematurely) accepting defeat it was time to drink a beer and pass out next to the dogs on the cold, hard ground. We were really camping now!

The rain lasted all night, which was actually nice to listen to. And in the morning, our anniversary day, we woke up to the freshest post-rain air I've smelled in years.

We sat down to a nice breakfast of Trader Joe's Cold Brew Coffee and Organic Pumpkin Pop Tarts (me) and bagels and cream cheese (Ryan) and took in the scenery. Our spot, Site 10, on the river was a picture perfect place to call home for the next few days.

After organizing our camp a bit more, a short rain started up again, so we relaxed in the tent, belly-rubbed Banjo into a dog coma, and started drinking because, vacation.

Then when the rain ended, so did our air mattress problems. Riverside Campground actually has an air compressor out on the tree next to the main office, perfect for smarties like me who ignore the "Don't Forget a Pump!" sign on the air mattress box. I blew up our air mattress, cleaned up our tent, and headed out with Ryan and the pups to check out the rest of the campground and the adjoining Big Sur Campground next door.

When we got back from our walk, Ryan took a nap and I set about starting my very first campfire and cooking my very first meal over an open fire. We kept the fire going and opened a couple of bottles of wine from our Ramona wine-tasting trip, talked until it was quiet hours, then talked some more.

It was a perfect way to celebrate 4 years with my best friend. :)

We slept in the next day, having finally gotten a good night's sleep on the air mattress, and woke up too late for breakfast foods. Instead, I made us some turkey sandwiches, which we ate by the river, and then we packed up our stuff for a day out and about.

First up? Hiking among the redwoods along the dog-friendly Pine Ridge Trail.

Since we needed another dog-friendly way to spend the rest of the day, we opted for a long, scenic drive. We headed farther up the coast, away from our campsite, first to see the iconic Bixby Canyon Bridge and then to do the famous 17 Mile Drive through Pebble Beach.

The drive was a three hour round trip excursion outside of our campgrounds and a great way to close out the afternoon with the furballs before coming back to camp and frying up chicken quesadillas for dinner over the fire.

The next morning we had our only restaurant splurge of the trip. There are so, so many great restaurants in Big Sur, but not all of them are dog friendly and ALL of them are super expensive. However, I had heard too many great things about Big Sur Bakery to pass it up again.

At the Bakery, there's a casual side where you can get coffee and one of their chocolate croissants and seat yourself or you can make a reservation for the other side where there is an enclosed patio that apparently isn't typically dog-friendly (the other side is).

We'd made reservations for their brunch and so they said they would let our pups in as an exception. The food was delicious and the portions were huge so we just shared a bread board, an order of their scrambled eggs, greens and herbed cream cheese on sourdough toast, and a cup of tomato soup.

After the bakery, I wanted to stop by the Henry Miller Memorial Library, which isn't a library so much as it is a store, cafe, gallery and event space. In fact they were having a wedding that afternoon, so we didn't get to order a coffee and walk around the property as I had hoped. But I'm glad we made it in before it was closed for the rest of the day! It is definitely worth a stop on the drive through Big Sur.

Before I left, I bought a copy of Kerouac's "Big Sur," which I've always wanted to read, and we made our way back to the campsite for a lazy evening by the fire.

On the final morning of our trip, I had one last thing I wanted to do: get a picture of the four of us in front of the famous McWay Falls. We took a picture here with Brewer on our last visit and it always made me sad that we didn't have one with Banjo too.

The short .5 mile "hike" (it's more like a walk) to McWay is not dog-friendly, but we went early and hoped no one would catch us. If you're going to sneak your dog there too, I would recommend going really early in the morning like we did.

When you get to the get there Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP, park outside the entrance on the road headed south to avoid parking fees and there are stairs right off the road onto the trail. The broad trail hugs the cliffside for a brief, fenced-in ten minute walk until you can finally see the falls. It is a gorgeous and amazing photo opportunity... just not necessarily an easy one with two dogs.

The above shot took at least 15 tries and three separate strangers taking our photo and Banjo still wouldn't look at the camera. But that's our little nugget for you!

If there's anything that I can say about Big Sur, it's this: go see it yourself. Old Jack was right, words don't do justice for a place this beautiful. I could try to find the right adjectives and descriptions forever and it still wouldn't fully describe the majesty that is Big Sur.

In fact, I can see why so many artists retreat here. There's endless inspiration and all your efforts feel small in the face of all that natural beauty. But in a good way, a way that pushes you to stretch your creativity further and further.

The next time we go tent camping there, I would love to bring our friends. Because the only other thing I will say about this place? It's meant to be shared.

Big Sur Tent Camping Packing List
  • Tent, tent stakes, and rainfly
  • Hatchet for chopping wood with a flat side for hammering in stakes
  • Tarp (to put under the tent to keep clean) 
  • Air mattress
  • Air mattress pump
  • Dustpan or small broom (for sweeping out the tent)
  • Sheets, blankets and pillows
  • Dog bowls
  • Dog tie-ups
  • Dog food
  • Two plates, two cups, two bowls and two sets of utensils
  • Sharp cooking knife
  • Cast iron skillet (this is our favorite combo) 
  • Pot holders
  • Fire starters / newspaper
  • Cooler
  • Headlamps
  • Solar lantern
  • Camping chairs
  • Aluminum foil
  • Paper towels
  • Plastic garbage bags
  • Ziploc bags
  • Bug spray
  • Tablecloth
  • Bottle opener/corkscrew
  • Spatula, wooden spoon and tongs
  • Salt, pepper, evoo spray, and other seasonings
  • Scissors
  • Cutting mats
  • Duct tape