Big Sur

~Here’s How You Do It

An unexpected revisit to Big Sur had On A Dime solid in the awareness that this gem deserves its very own article. A timeless, redwood filled, oasis – Big Sur is lush in both scenery and history. “Lush” can also extend over into the price column for lodging though the five star quality does deliver for the fee. Alternatives do exist for the camping set and cost-minded that plan ahead and/or travel off-season.

Campsite #34
Campsite #34

These happy campers arrived on a Wednesday, at the end of February, and secured a campsite at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for two nights for $35 per night. No pre-booking meant no added fees; it was a flat $70 for 2 nights. Please be very aware that all of Big Sur books solid and in advance for the peak season, May 15-Sept. 15.  You will need reservations for these dates and if you wish to stay in the park’s lodge, plan far ahead. For our stay, approximately 30-40 sites were available at noon which was a boon as we noticed the sites varied significantly. Some are shrouded in deep shade (we’re talking DARK) for the entire day and others either back up to an open field or  are sheltered by a hillside covered in redwoods. Depending on if you are traveling with children or on an all-adult excursion, the choice could make a difference to the experience. Our site (number 34) was perfect for us. The photos reflect that it offered privacy, with a creek – rather than fellow campers, to the right of us and bathrooms at an easy distance but not within sight. The only cause for pause were the garbage cans near our camp however we appreciated the ability to throw away as we went and not have a garbage bag at our site and we encountered no animal vagabonds save for a skunk that wandered past our campfire one evening.

campsite creek
Creek to the right of campsite #34

A little side note, grab battery powered Christmas lights at the radical holiday after sale and use them in your tent. Just string them up by attaching with garbage bag ties.

tent lights
Battery powered magic

 For those with kids, consider the sites that back to the open field as there is ample room to run, play football, and we noticed remnants from a recent game of horseshoes. These sites also receive a nice amount of sunlight and in this cool climate, that can be muy importante.

Hikes abound throughout the park and cater to all levels of hikers. There is a flat, short nature hike with posted information as well an easily accessible hike to Pfeiffer Falls and the valley overlook at the entrance to the park. Day use available also.

Trail to Pfeiffer Falls

 We took this trek and found it lovely though we did notice a few, more laid back souls, reverse due to the steep uphill sections. There are benches along the way for respite. And yep, we respited 😉

big trees

Fellow adventurers, if you want to truly pare down your expenses, consider the backcountry. Currently you do not need a permit and pay no fees to head into the backcountry, however, you do need a fire permit. Even if you are only using a camp stove, you must get a fire permit. Check trail conditions as one 20 mile backpacking trip taken by yours truly, two teens, and a thirty year old, rock star hiker of a cousin coughed up drizzle, chilly weather, and such an early sunset (5pm) that dusk found the four of us huddled around the single burner camp stove for warmth. Backpacking has generally been glorious as well as incredibly cost friendly for this hiker but I have learned that the winter season’s greatest comfort challenge is early darkness.

Views of sunset in the off season are glorious and enjoying the moment after an easy stroll at Julia Pfeiffer State Park can be the answer. A little On A Dime secret, the parking lot on the north side of Pacific Coast Highway charges a fee but parking directly on PCH (perfectly legal) is free. We opted for free. Ironically, the free parking is closer to the trailhead. Please note that it is extremely unsafe to bypass fencing and attempt to access the beach where the waterfall entices.

Pfeiffer trail
Julia Pfeiffer State Park overlook

On our recent Big Sur stay, fantasy seemed to manifest into reality on many occasions. After blowing out the trunk full of firewood in one glorious bonfire, we cringed at the $10 a bundle price for replacement wood which easily would’ve had a decent fire run $20-$30! Yikes! Kismet prevailed when we encountered a “free wood” sign with a huge assortment of seasoned wood. That evening brought a delicious fire, all the more enjoyed because we paid nothing for it. Take note, firewood in Big Sur is EXPENSIVE.

free wood
Opportunity knocks

When visiting a pristine oasis that has held off fast food and chain stores, the tradeoff is that there is not much in the way of cost friendly food, however, and this is a big however, there is a solution. We brought camp food from a Monterey (community just north) Trader Joes. Cooking camp-side was our main source of delectable cuisine, which bode well when carefully visiting some stellar restaurants and cafes.

A few of the “don’t miss” sites are as follows, Nepenthe, The Big Sur Bakery, The Big Sur Coast Gallery and Cafe and The Henry Miller Library. Leading off is Nepenthe. This outrageously beautiful place has a history that is Big Sur hippie fascinating. The gift shop sells a book written by the granddaughter of the owners that covers the history as well as offering recipes and beautiful photos. My guy surprised me with this on our first trip a few years back and I read it cover to cover. It includes the connection to Henry Miller and that connection is tangible as The Henry Miller Library is a stone’s throw from Nepenthe, on the opposite side of Pacific Coast Highway. My guy swears by the Nepenthe Ambrosia burger (recipe) and I recently discovered a cocktail that I loved so much that it was featured on our blog. Nepenthe’s food is priced fairly for the quality and atmosphere but we saved by sharing the burger and cocktail. That said; please note that On A Dime endorses tipping generously the folks that offer lovely service and contribute greatly to the overall experience.

Another stop off that had top rate staff was The Big Sur Coast Gallery and Cafe. To beat the crowds, get there when we did, about 11am. We had the rooftop deck to ourselves and enjoyed a mocha, cappuccino and two mouth watering lemon bars for under $20. Given the location and amazing art, both in the gallery and outside, these prices were more than fair. The exterior sculptures, placed throughout a lush garden, with butterflies galore is a slice of heaven. And for fun when you arrive here, be sure to seek out the canine gallery mascot, Max. He does a mean mid air catch of a bone that is free entertainment.

After the Coast Gallery, we headed to The Henry Miller Library and, friends; this is where you will find the 60s hippie/out of the box, Big Sur experience. In a psychedelic meets earth mother setting sits the library which is really a lovely bookstore with literature for sale along with memorabilia, displayed in a casual manner. Henry Miller’s wish was for Big Sur to not become a place only for the wealthy and he accomplished that. This bohemian enclave retains an “everyone  is welcome” energy that is noticeable from the donation only coffee/tea table to the kitschy, yet thought provoking, art scattered about the property. There is no charge to visit the grounds and if exteriors appeal to your senses, rock onward to the Big Sur Bakery and check out both the Spirit Garden, a floral filled hummingbird hangout and the cozy bakery with plenty of outdoor casual seating.

For a locale associated with expensive real estate, Big Sur has a very down home, welcoming aura whether you find yourself in higher-end galleries or simply on the state beaches but one thing to note, there are no large signs and billboards. This is fantastic and should be the norm however, pay close attention to directions for some areas such as Julia Pfeiffer State Beach. For sunset and sunrise fans, this site is amazing and only charges $5 to park but there is no visible sign from Pacific Coast Highway. The turnoff is exactly one mile south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park entrance (we clocked it). The one very important thing to note when making Big Sur plans is that swimming is not a given. Though Pfeiffer State Beach is stunning, swimming is strongly discouraged with serious warnings posted throughout. The surf along much of the Big Sur area is both incredibly rough as well unpredictable. Always check with park staff on any safety concerns.

trail to Pfeiffer beach
Trail to Pfeiffer State Beach
Pfeiffer 9
End of the day Pfeiffer Beach

The rugged coast of Big Sur is unbeatable in pristine beauty and the fact that tourism has somehow been incorporated without compromising the integrity of the community is an accomplishment that should be bottled. Big Sur eschews snobbery and is welcoming of all visitors so don’t delay, put this on your “absolutely must do” list.

See our other article on Big Sur’s Kirk Creek Campground

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