Big Sur Hiking Info

Related links:   Trail Conditions Map Wilderness places to visit   Big Sur backpack suggestions   Wilderness tours   Printed maps  

Basic backpacking webpages: (or do your own web search)   from Backcountry.com   from Backpacker.com   from REI.com  

Information for planning a Big Sur hike
Particularly for National Forest (wilderness) hiking
(last update: Sep 23, 2021)

Contact Info:  
Big Sur Station (StateParks/USFS Visitor Center)
     831-667-2315   website
     bigsurstation@gmail.com
USFS Monterey District Office (King City)
     831-242-0619   website
Andrew Molera State Park: 
     831-667-1112   website
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park: 
     831-667-1112   website
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: 
     831-667-1112   website
Limekiln State Park: 
     831-434-1996   website

Where to hike:   This is a topic unto itself!  Hike descriptions can be found by web searching, but here I'll provide one not available via seach, a long-time favorite now available only as an archive, Jon Iverson's list of dayhike favorites along Route 1 and his associated map, a longer list with how-to-get there info, and my own wilderness places to visit and backpack suggestions. Note that some trails may be closed - see my trail conditions map.

Weather:   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, making for hot hiking.  Along the coast, summer "fog" (actually low-lying cloud) is common, particularly in the morning, keeping temperatures cool but also restricting lower elevation views (often one ascends from a foggy trailhead to, after an elevation gain of several thousand feet, sunshine and mountain views)

State Park Trails:   Are generally in good shape tread-wise and brush-wise if "open", but can be steep.  The Rough Tread and Brush descriptions below are oriented towards hikes into the National Forest, where conditions are much more variable!  Note that dogs are not permitted in State Parks. 

Miles:   The "Steep Terrain", "Rough Tread", and "Brush" factors described below often produce slow hiking speeds.  Outsiders unused to Ventana wilderness trails typically overestimate the number of miles they will comfortably travel in a day.  The Silver Peak wilderness is generally more open than the Ventana so allows more miles per day.  Of course your mileage will greatly depend upon the condition of the trail.  For "passable" Ventana trails ["yellow" on my trail conditions map] a local rule-of-thumb is to expect to travel half the distance you can on a good Sierra trail (and "difficult" ones – "orange" on trail conditions map – 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 simply "miles". 

Steep Terrain:   Terrain contrasts make Big Sur visually spectacular - but this also creates large elevation gains/losses along many trails.  To reduce the ascent/descent many trails contour along the steep slope - which often results in narrow tread, tread with side-slope, and washout/landslide sections. 

Rough Tread:   Trails which contour along steep slopes 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. 

Brush:   Chaparral 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.  As it grows, intruding brush at first scrapes your arms and legs, then with further growth requires pushing through while it scrapes your face and eyes, with more time makes the trail difficult to locate, and eventually becomes impassable when braches interlock.  Depending on the trail, wearing short pants or shirts may not be comfortable (also when poison oak is high and ubiquitous).  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. 

Cutting:   For brushy trails, some like to carry something to help cut a broader path through.  If done correctly this is commendable, but too often folks do a sketchy job making conditions worse – e.g. creating sharp branches ready to poke eyeballs – or cutting so narrow a path that trail workers are not helped – they must recut to the full trail width.  Please make fewer but better cuts, reaching deeper into the brush, instead of many superficial cuts.  Trail workers will thank you for that!  Garden-variety snippers can often produce only superficial cuts.  Instead I recommend a short and light, but surprisingly powerful, Fiskars 15" PowerGear composite loppers (at Amazon). For heavier cutting, my favorite saw is the Samuri Ichiban (at Amazon).  Machetes are not recommended - intended for softer plants, if not handled well they can bounce back uncontrollably on the often woody branches. 

Off-trail:   Off-trail travel is prohibited in State Parks but permitted in the National Forest.  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 branches become interlocked.  Many off-trail "use 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 - these 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.  For more info:  off-trail hiking webpage.

Hiking Maps:   For interactive use, of course my Big Sur Trailmap.  For printed maps, the most detailed (48k:1) are my single-page print-your-own maps.  For those wanting a single large-scale printed map, my preferences are, in order, Green Trails Maps map (63k:1), Wilderness Press map (64k:1), National Geographic map (80k:1). (More info)

Water:   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. 

River Crossings:   In the days after a winter storm, larger streams 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. 

Permits:   A California Campfire permit is required for both open fires and portable stoves - see Campfires and Stoves below.  Permits are not required for any trails, camps, or campgrounds. 
Camping, Campgrounds, and Camps:   State Park campgrounds all accept reservations and require fees. 
    USFS "Campgrounds" are in the front-country, with vehicle access - those along paved 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".  Camping is not allowed along Route 1 or Nacimiento-Fergusson Road - it is allowed as "dispersed camping" along Forest Service dirt roads such as Cone Peak Road (in summer, when its gate is open) or South Coast Ridge Road. 
    USFS back-country "Camps" (aka "Primitive Camps") do not have either reservations or fees.  "Dispersed Camping" (i.e. simply camping off-trail) is allowed - but note that steep terrain can make finding a nice flat area difficult in many places, particularly if wanting to be close to water.  Permits are not required for camps or campgrounds. 
Campfiles and Stoves:   A California Campfire permit is required for both open fires and portable stoves (available at Big Sur Station or on-line) Campfire and stove use is usually restricted within the National Forest outside the winter season.  The least stringent restriction allows stoves in the backcountry but open fires only in "campgrounds" (with vehicle access).  The most stringent restriction, typically set during summer, bans campfires everywhere and bans stove use in the backcountry (until the subsequent rain total meets a USFS criterion - unfortunately, this is forest-wide and since the southern Los Padres, near Santa Barbara, typically gets rain later than the northern Los Padres, for Big Sur it is overly conservative).  The latest fire restrictions are posted on the USFS Los Padres NF "Fire Restrictions" webpage and also in the Big Sur Trailmap home page sidebar.

Wilderness Toilets:   Can be found at some popular campgrounds (noted on trailmap camp icon "info bubble" popup).  They require periodic servicing by volunteers and will overflow if overused.  Show the volunteers some love - do not use for trash (which must be then removed).  And since toilet paper degrades slowly, excluding it also helps maintenance and prevent overflow.  Do pee elsewhere before using - it greatly reduces odor!  The toilets are secluded but not enclosed - placing an object on/across the access trail entrance indicates it's "in use". 

Driving:   Big Sur roads are curvey and many cars drive well below the speed limit - so driving times can be longer than expected.  Rockslides frequently cause short-term and long-term road closures along Big Sur roads - for current Route 1 closure information, see CalTrans road conditions webpage Be especially alert for rocks on road if driving in early morning after a rainy night. 

Dirt Roads:   Conditions vary greatly, very seasonal dependent.  Many roads are left to the elements during the rainy season, then (usually) scraped during the dry season.  In summer many need only a high clearance vehicle, but in the rainy season 4WD is more necessary.  Much depends upon the vehicle and the driver.  My rules of thumb for summer conditions:
  Cone Peak Road - high clearance OK to Vicente Flat Trail, iffy beyond
  ArroyoSeco-Indians Road (south of Escondido Campground)- high clearance iffy.  Note ArroyoSeco-Indians Road north of Escondido Campground is permanently closed to vehicles - essentially is a trail
  Tassajara Road - high clearance OK to China Camp, iffy beyond
  South Coast Ridge Road - high clearance OK to Plaskett Ridge Campground, iffy beyond, 4WD definitely needed beyond Three Peaks
  Los Burros (Willow Creek Road - high clearance generally OK

Seasonal road access:   Cone Peak Road (dirt) and ArroyoSeco-Indians Road (dirt) access to Escondido Camp are closed during rainy season, controlled by Monterey District Ranger Office.  Willow Creek Road (dirt), and South Coast Ridge Road (dirt) are open year round but can be treacherous after heavy rain/snow events.  Tassajara Road (dirt) is occasionly closed during rains (soft closure, not gated) - see Montery County road closure information.  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) - non-ford access uses Red Grade Road (dirt) when not closed for military activities. 

Parking:   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 all State Parks, some USFS campgrounds, and Big Sur Station for a fee - those requiring a fee are noted in its Trailmap pop-up "info bubble". 

Flowers:   Abound during the spring, disappear in summer. 

Poison Oak:   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.  Most virulent in spring when oily.  In winter its leafless branches can be difficult to recognize (no thorns, see photo) but still harmful, though less virulent (and do not use to start a fire!)

Flies:   Common in the summer, especially around water.  The two varieties are larger biting flies and tiny "face flies" (they swarm around your face, apparently attracted by the moisture, and can be surprisingly annoying).  Biting fly season is the first half of the summer, face fly season is the entire hot season.  Many summer hikers carry a bug net and wear sleeves which can be rolled down when not moving. 

Ticks:   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. 

Rattlesnakes:   Occasionally seen (or heard) in warmer seasons - the usual precautions should be taken.

Mountain Lions:   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.

Wild Pigs:   Wild pigs can be found in more remote areas, but they are few, sightings are rare, and I know of no incidents.  Their presence is known mainly through their destruction of grassy areas by rooting - an ugly sight indeed.  Have not heard of any approaching camps looking for food. 

Bears:   June 2021: bear encounters increasing  Bear canisters are not required - but bear activity has been increasing and storing food in a bear-safe manner is now recommended for your safety and to prevent bears associating camps with food. 
    There are many ways to bear-proof food - bear canisters and, when done correctly, and with food inside an odor-proof bag, bear bag hanging.  Above all, don't keep food or scents inside your tent!  Note that rodents have been known to get into food left outside, so bear-proofing also solves that problem. 
    Bears had not been found in the Ventana/SilverPeak wilderness areas for decades, but bear prints and scat began appearing after the Soberanes Fire of 2016.  In 2021 bear encounters have been increasing - particularly in the Silver Peak wilderness area.  Recently bears have entered attended camps looking for food, in one case ripping a tent with food and backpacker inside.  There are also reports of bears breaking into unoccupied buildings containing food and breaking into containers which never had food inside left in unattended camps.  So they are associating human-objects with food and increasing contacts are anticipated, particularly in dry seasons.  Don't attract a bear looking for food into your camp! 

Mountain Bikes:   Prohibited in wilderness areas, which cover most of the local Los Padres National Forest.  Bikers can use the view-laden ArroyoSeco-Indian Road (a non-wilderness corridor, closed to vehicles, through a wilderness area) or the precipitous Prewitt Ridge Usetrail (down-hill!).  Or dirt roads such as Old Coast Road or South Coast Ridge Road (but note that bikes are prohibited along North Coast Ridge Road)

Dogs:   Dogs are allowed in the National Forest if "under control".  They are not allowed in State Parks.  They will bring back poison oak and ticks, so need to be washed/checked at least daily(and do think twice about taking them - many are glad afterwards that they did not bring their dogs)

Children:   The rough trails, steep terrain, and elevation gains can can be difficult for small children.  Do teach them to recognize & avoid poison oak and, in the rainy season, check them for ticks.  Plan an alternative route should they experience more difficulty than expected.  A bad experience when young can discourage them from later trips (I've heard a few reports of such) - less now can mean more later.  For the above reasons, I've personally seldom seen small children on wilderness trails (though many teenagers) - but I have heard anecdotal success stories from some parents with small childen. 

Solitude:   The "Steep Terrain", "Rough Tread", and "Brush" factors described above means most hikers head for the better maintained trails!  Many trails in the Ventana/SilverPeak wilderness have little use, where it is not uncommon to go an entire day without meeting anyone.  Obviously the more difficult-to-reach places have the fewest hikers - poorly maintained trails, trails at the end of a long dirt road, etc.  Weekends are much more crowded than weekdays.  The principal places gto avoid are trails starting at Route 1, and most especially the western Pine Ridge Trail. 

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 prevalent there)

Lastly for wilderness hikers, below is information important enough to be put atop my main Big Sur Trailmap webpage:
    You cannot assume a wilderness trail will be signed or passable or followable !    Trails may be blocked by brush or downfall or without apparent tread, especially for secondary trails and "use" trails.  Brush grows quickly in these wilderness areas, fire-damaged tree downfalls can be extensive, tread erosion along steep slopes is common, and trail maintenance is spotty. 
    Check the trail conditions before you go !    Too many hikers having no awareness of trail conditions have not had the wilderness experience they anticipated.  Where tread is sporadic or confusion with animal trails possible, use of a GPS loaded with accurate trail data is recommended!  Left-clicking on a Trailmap line displays an "information bubble" with a summary of latest hiker-reported trail conditions and a link to the full VWA Trail Report (when available), as well as trail distance, cumulative elevation gain, and GPS data - or you can read trail conditions on-line in the VWA Trail Report ForumFor a color-coded overview, see the wilderness trail conditions map




Jack Glendening (credit:p.danielson)
Jack Glendening
https://bigsurtrailmap.net


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