There are times when one forgets for a moment that life's value is life, any further accomplishment is of very little importance comparatively -- Robinson Jeffers
Starting at the 1 North from San Luis Obispo. Bolds signify long-time favorites:
Morro Bay Strand - super-accessible surf spot on the central coast. They have camping there but it will be packed with RVs, etc. Lmk if you plan on staying in this area as I have other camp recs here (Montana de Oro)...but we're not even to Big Sur, yet!
San Simeon State Park - not a terrible camp spot but still no Big Sur. You can see Hearst Castle and walk to the beach, though...and go to sleep to the bark of the sea lions or elephant seals or both.
Salmon Creek TH - hiking and backpacking spot. Lmk and i can give more details (that goes for all these spots)
Willow Creek - there's a road to the right for free camping (absolutely no fires). Spent many awesome nights here. For whatever pseudo-mystical-hippie-dippie reason, I feel closest to my lost loved ones howling at the moon or toasting the sunrise in these once-pristine camping areas. Ahem, that said, a great spot that has been overrun in recent years. Up the same road is the garanola-ritz aka Treebones Resort with high-end treehouses, yurts and a campground; where I've never stayed. On the left of the 1 is a lookout, with a road descending down to a great spot for experienced surfers. Also, has a freshwater rinse spot and pit toilets (is that possible?) On lower tide, you can cross the creek and there's a beach area and a mellower surf spot called Homos which also serves as a great make-shift baseball stadium.
Plaskett Creek – my current camp spot. Pretty crowded but you can have fires and get rowdy. There's a backpacking/hiking trail called Prewitt Ridge just up the 1. Being able to suit up at the tent and have a quick, scenic walk to the water ... jah lives.
Sand Dollar Beach - favorite spot to surf, explore tide pools and generally just get sur-ious. Friendlier surf, in general, but always be aware of conditions. The water here gets deep quick and I've been swept out past my comfort zone before (but that's me). On the right day, the beach scene rivals that of any in California…hula hoops, surfboards, guitars and big smiles.
Jade Cove - cool little spot to look for jade but steep trail and tons of poison oak (watch out for oak everywhere!)
Some favorite pix of the area:
The sunset sequence:
Mill Creek – a great spot to chill and check surf. It’s occasionally ride-able but this spot seems more popular as a launch for fishing and diving. Also, provides a freshwater rinse for suit and soul.
Kirk Creek - another official campground I've never stayed at on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Pretty crowded and minimal beach access. There is a good TH on the other side (mountain-side, or ma uka in hawaiian :) with steep switchbacks at the start but pays off with great views. You can go on forever as it’s in the Los Padres National Forest with well-marked trails and backpacking sites.
A few views from the hike:
Nacimiento Road - a free, un-official camping area that I've never stayed at because I've heard of people getting rousted both by rangers and locals. The road is a cool drive that actually takes you all the way over to the 101. Also a good spot to dry the wetsuit and get some sun if there's a marine layer on the coast. (not pictured)
Limekiln State Park - another coastal campground that always looks congested so I've never stayed there...but the waterfall hike that starts at the end of the campground is one that I do pretty much every time in the area. It's not long or strenuous (it can be done in flip-flops) but there is some wet-rock scrambling at the end so it keeps your attention. There's nothing better than standing (or sitting) under that waterfall after a long day surfing/hiking. Also, more hiking and backpacking trails through a combination of the national forest and Ventana wilderness.
Lucia Lodge - pricey cottages and restaurant literally hanging off the cliff. good place to soak up a few cocktails and the view...the burger tastes good after a couple of days camping, too.
From here, you are departing what I consider Big Sur and entering the Big Sur that everyone else sees.
Esalen - only mention this because you might've heard about it as it's in Kerouac's book, Big Sur. Kinda hippie wellness center with famous hot springs. It's by reservation only until midnight then the baths are open to the public. Always sounded a little creepy to me so haven't been.
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park - here's the TH for the fairly famous McWay Falls hike. Short and crowded but worth doing once. More hiking trails leave from the day use pay area.
Henry Miller Library - cool spot to hang out and see music
Nepenthe - awesome place to stop for a cocktail and a bite...and pre-party for a Henry Miller show.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park - another official camping area I've never stayed in. Also has the TH for the Sykes Hot Springs trail which is on my to-do and maybe-won't-happen list. It's a strenuous 10-miles with natural hot springs and 7 primitive campsites. Unfortunately, the area has been closed due to over-use and the Soberanes fire.
Fernwood - favorite bar in Big Sur. Spent many awesome days/nights here. Live music, camping, hiking trails...a must-stop whenever I'm in the area but don't do overnights here too often any more due to pricing and crowds.
Andrew Molera State Park - don't recommend the campground so much but absolutely love this spot for day use. Cool hike to the beach (watch for snakes) and a fun but tricky surf spot. I've had great sessions here and I also had my closest call to needing a rescue (or body bag) here. So proceed with caution. Or stay on the beach and go for a long surreal walk at low tide, you might have the place to yourself.