The climate is mild, but temperatures can become hot in the summer,
particularly for open, low elevation, and inland locations. Many
trails at the higher elevations have little or no shade. Along
the coast, summer "fog" (actually low-lying cloud)
particularly in the morning, keeping temperatures cool but also
restricting views - it is not uncommon to ascend from a foggy
trailhead to (after an elevation gain of several thousand feet)
sunshine and mountain views.
The "Steep Terrain"
, and "Rough Tread"
factors described below
often produce slow hiking speeds.
For "passable" trails, i.e. ones not rated "clear" or "wilderness freeway", a local rule-of-thumb
is to expect to travel half the distance you can on a good Sierra trail (and "difficult" rated ones take longer)
A PCT afficionado I met at one camp complained about not being able to log as many miles
as he'd been expecting. Wilderness hikers should think about "effort", not just "miles".
Terrain contrasts make Big Sur
visually spectacular. They also create large elevation
gains/losses along many trails. Instead of directly ascending/descending
such terrain, the trails tend to contour along the steep slope, often resulting in
narrow tread, tread with side-slope, and washedout sections.
After the 2008 and 2016 fires, which burned much of the Ventana wilderness
area, many formerly forested area have become more open and
brushy. Brush grows fast and trail maintenance is mostly
volunteer and spotty. So many trail sections have intruding
brush and can be difficult to hike, especially with a backpack.
Intruding brush initially scrapes your arms and legs, then
requires pushing through while it scrapes your face and eyes,
and finally makes the trail difficult to locate. Depending
on the trail, wearing short pants or shirts may not be
comfortable. Many Big Sur hikers carry along some kind
of eye protection to don when necessary and/or wear a wide-brimmed hat to help part the brush.
Since the trails often contour along steep slopes, they are
continually being degraded by erosion and usage, often resulting in rough, sloping, and narrow
tread and stones and debris along the tread. These factors can be hard on the
ankles. In particular, erosion and slides after rains can produce
very narrow sections which must be carefully negotiated, especially with a
backpack - falling off could result in a dangerous slide down a
steep slope; poles can be helpful in such situations.
Off-trail travel is prohibited in State Parks but permitted in the
Off-trail travel in the National Forest can be very easy or very difficult, largely
depending upon the amount of brushiness - and impossible
when brush becomes interlocked.
Many "use trail" off-trail routes exist, i.e paths which are not official USFS-designated trails but instead
created by frequent usage producing a more-or-less followable path, and are depicted as orange "use trails" on my
Big Sur Trailmap
. Of course their ease-of-use depends upon how frequently
they've been recently used, which can wax and wane.
When "bushwhacking", i.e. both "off-trail" and "off-usetrail", I've learned to choose my routes carefully - often by examining GoogleEarth imagery
prior to a hike to see where I should and
should not try to go. In difficult situations, I've even plotted a route on
GoogleEarth and loaded that into my GPS - while GPS error is such that
brush will still be encountered, I then know a best direction to
head since nearby clear areas often cannot be seen when inside the brush.
Many water sources dry up in the summer, particularly at higher
elevations and especially in drought years -
so may need to pack enough water for an
entire day, which can be many liters on a hot day. Local
tip: surface water can disappear underground but then re-appear
downstream - if no water is found at an expected location, first try
looking downstream, then upstream.
In the days after a winter storm, larger streams/rivers can swell to the point of being
dangerous to cross, receding slowly after the rain stops. This is particularly true
later in the rainy season, after the ground has absorbed all the water it can easily hold.
Campgrounds and Camps:
State Park campgrounds all accept reservations and require fees (Julia Pfieffer Burns SP no longer allows camping)
The USFS makes a distinction between "Camps" and "Campgrounds". "Campgrounds" are in the front-country,
with vehicle access - those along asphalt roads have fees and will take reservations, those along dirt roads do not
take reservations but can have a fee - campgrounds requiring a fee are noted in its Trailmap pop-up "info bubble".
Back-country "Camps" (aka "Primitive Camps")
do not have either reservations or fees. "Dispersed Camping"
(i.e. simply camping off-trail)
Campfiles and Stoves:
A California Campfire permit is required
(available at Big Sur Station or on-line)
Campfires are normally banned during summer and fall, until the new rain total
meets a USFS criterion (unfortunately, this is a forest-wide criterion
and since the southern Los Padres, around Santa Barbara, typically gets rain later than the northern Los Padres,
for Big Sur it is overly conservative)
Note that open fires may be allowed in "campgrounds" (with vehicle access)
but not in
During extreme fire hazard conditions, stove use is also prohibited. The latest fire restrictions are usually available on the
Los Padres NF "Fire Restrictions" webpage
Generally along the road by the trailhead. Parking along Route 1 is limited
to 72 hours. Park only in grass-free areas, to prevent exhaust system induced fires - violaters are subject to citation.
Unfortunately, break-in thefts have occasionally occurred for cars parked overnight along Route 1.
Day parking also available at some campgrounds, for a fee.
Seasonal road access:
Cone Peak Road (dirt)
and Indians-ArroyoSeco Road (dirt)
access to Escondido Camp are closed during rainy season, controlled by King City USFS (831-385-5434)
Tassajara Road (dirt)
, Willow Creek Road (dirt)
, and South Coast Ridge Road (dirt)
are open year round but can be
treacherous after heavy rain/snow events. Milpitas Road access to Santa Lucia Memorial Campground (trailheads for Carrizo, Arroyo Seco, Rodeo Flat, and Santa Lucia Trails)
closed at ford for high water levels, controlled by Fort Hunter-Liggett (831-386-2513)
Dogs are allowed in the wilderness area if "under control".
They are not allowed in State Parks. They will bring back poison oak
and ticks, so need to be checked (and do think twice about taking them)
Common all over Big Sur, except in open sunny locations. Know
how to recognize it
Avoid it or push to the side with a
pole/stick. Wear long shirts and pants. Wash your skin with a strong soap
or solvent after inadvertent contact.
Common in the summer, especially around water. The two
varieties are biting flies and tiny "face flies"
(they swarm around your face, apparently attracted by the moisture, and can be
. Biting fly season is the first half of the summer,
face fly season is the entire hot season. Smart summer hikers carry a bug
Common during the rainy season, particularly in grassy areas and after a rain. Tick
checks should be made frequently. Know how to extract a tick
without pulling off the head (a slow, steady pull backward gives the
tick a chance to release its jaws and let itself be pulled out).
Lyme disease is almost unknown.
Occasionally seen (or heard) in warmer seasons - the usual precautions
should be taken.
Bear cannisters are not required.
Bears have not been seen in the Ventana/SilverPeak wilderness areas for decades, but bear prints and scat have been found after the Soberanes Fire of 2016 - though
(as of December 2018)
there have been no actual wilderness sightings.
If you see one, count yourself lucky and please report it on the
VWA Discussion Forum
- others will be certainly be interested (and envious)
Yes they are out there and scat is often found along trails, but sightings are extremely rare and I have never heard of a reported problem.
Prohibited in wilderness areas, which cover most of the local Los Padres National Forest. Bikers can
use the view-laden ArroyoSeco-Indian Road (closed to vehicles)
precipitous Prewitt Ridge Usetrail (down-hill)
Time of Year:
Considering all the above factors, locals consider autumn
the best season for Big Sur hiking - temperatures are cool, bugs have
disappeared, and rain is unlikely; the only negative is fewer
sources of water at higher elevations. In winter and spring the
cool temperatures also make for enjoyable
hiking and water is more available - but weather must be watched, since rain can swell the larger
streams. The least desirable season is summer
since trails get
hot, bugs abound at lower elevations, seasonal water sources dry up,
and campfires are prohibited (and during extreme fire conditions, stoves are also prohibited)
. If hiking in summer,
consider cooler trails along higher elevation ridges (though
water sources are then more of a concern)
or in shaded forests
or along a river (but bugs are more