Three off-the-radar spots to camp when the rest of Big Sur is booked.

Sites Unseen: Hit the Spot: Ponderosa (left) and Indians (right) reward the adventurous with serene riverside camping and beautiful rock formations, respectively.— Stuart Thornton


Back when I worked at Big Sur Station, we had one tidbit of advice for people looking to do some last minute weekend camping during the summer months without a reservation: Don’t come down.

But they still came. They came in phalanxes of RVs and SUVs. They slept on the side of the road, or they tried to get a few hours of shuteye in the Big Sur parking lot. The best were the German tourists, who would come in and ask if there was room for one small tent. They used their hands to show that the tent was very small, possibly even microscopic.

Luckily, those were the good old days when some of those without reservations could find a space camping in the big field at Andrew Molera State Park—even though the parking lot there would also fill up eventually. All that changed a few years ago, when State Parks decided to transform Molera into a campground with only 24 designated spaces. Those 24 sites are available on a first-come-first-served basis, so now you gotta get down there sometime Friday morning to snag one of those coveted spots.

So what does you do if you really want to camp in Big Sur during the crowded summer months, and you don’t have a reservation? Well, first, do everything within your power to get off on a weekday when it’s less crowded down there.

Of course, most folks can’t swing this and must come down on a weekend. If so, there are a few campgrounds that should have a few open sites. You are probably not going to get a magnificent view of the ocean like those at the popular US Forest Service Kirk Creek Campground. And there’s little chance that you will be able set up your tent under the cool redwoods by the Big Sur River as you would in Pfeiffer State Park or Fernwood. But you will most likely be able to find a spot, an omnipresent halo of flies, and a very memorable experience.


Located at the end of the eight-mile long Palo Colorado Road, this US Forest Service campground offers 12 first-come-first-served sites with views of the Big Sur backcountry. Far from the ocean, this place can really cook in the summer months. Also, the campground lacks any spigots, so campers should haul in plenty of water.

There are a couple of excursions from Bottchers Gap for folks who want to explore the surrounding Los Padres National Forest. From the left side of the campground, a trail leaves and climbs 2,000 feet up to Devil’s Peak and beyond. On the right, a road leads downhill towards Little Sur Camp, a small backcountry camp by the Little Sur River, and continues to the Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp.

Note: This is not a good place to go if you want to loudly reminisce with some long lost friends over cases of beer. The camp host who lives and works here is a notorious stickler.

DIRECTIONS: Drive Highway 1 11 miles south of Carmel and take a left on Palo Colorado Road. Follow Palo Colorado Road eight curvy miles until it ends at Bottchers Gap.

PRICE: $12 |  Info: (805) 434-1996 or (831) 385-5434


Ponderosa Camp, because it lies far from Big Sur’s most popular destinations, will most likely have some available spaces in its 23-unit campground, holiday weekends notwithstanding. Located on Nacimiento Road, Ponderosa is a twisty 10-mile mountainous drive to the ocean at Kirk Creek.

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The campground is fairly developed, with vault toilets and potable water. It also is situated on a pleasant creek and has a hiking trail leaving from the west side of the campground. But it will most likely be hot and buggy during the summer months.

Directions: From Monterey or Salinas, take Highway 101 and turn off on the Fort Hunter Liggett exit. Go 17.5 miles to the junction with Mission Road. Take Mission Road 3.2 miles and take a left onto Nacimiento-Ferguson Road. Drive Nacimiento-Ferguson Road 12 miles to Ponderosa Camp.

Price: $15 | Info: (805) 434-1996 or (831) 385-5434


With Southwestern looking sandstone rock formations and the the great Arroyo Seco River, the Indians region in the Los Padres National Forest is one of Monterey County’s best finds. Unfortunately, during the summer months, the area is often over 100 degrees and inundated with all sorts of flies. I would suggest bringing a snorkel and a bunch of canned domestic beer with the thought of spending almost all of your time here in the water, most of it underwater, surfacing only to chug a beer every once in a while.

There are eight designated campsites at Santa Lucia Memorial Park with vault toilets, fire rings and picnic tables. Also, people are allowed to do dispersed camping in the open fields on the way into Memorial Park. The Forest Service simply asks that you use existing fire pits and only set up camp in areas that have already been used by campers.

Directions: From Monterey and Salinas, take Highway 101 south and exit on Jolon Road. Jolon Road turns onto Mission Road. Take Mission Road to Del Venturi Road. Drive Del Venturi eight miles to Santa Lucia Memorial Park.

Price: Free. | Info: (831) 385-5434

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