An Ocean at Your Doorstep

Julia Pfeiffer BurnsWalk-In Camps
Wrack and debris on the beach at Big Sur.
Where sea meets land

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, off Highway 1 near Big Sur

There are two state parks in Big Sur within 10 miles of each other, bearing similar names, similar addresses, and similar scenery, and many people get them confused. Julia Pfeiffer Burns is the small, little-developed state park with great hiking trails, big redwoods, and the famous waterfall that drops to the beach, McWay Falls. Pfeiffer Big Sur is the much larger state park with a campground, lodge, and restaurant, plus great hiking trails, big redwoods, and a small inland waterfall, Pfeiffer Falls.

They're easy to confuse, but if you're traveling north on Highway 1 from San Simeon, you reach Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park 10 miles before you reach larger Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. After you reach the first park, you might not want to go anywhere else. Luckily, even though Julia Pfeiffer Burns is small and doesn't have the range of accommodations that Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park has, it has something that may appeal to you more: two walk-in, environmental campsites.

The Hike to Camp

An environmental campsite is one that you must reach by hiking. This isn't car camping; everything must be carried in on foot, including your drinking water. It's just like backpacking except that the distance is short; you only need to hike a half mile from where you park your car. This makes your camping trip foolproof; if you forget anything in your car, you just walk back and fetch it. If your six-year-old decides he isn't going to carry his own sleeping bag, and your pack is full, you can make more than one trip.

What makes environmental camping at Julia Pfeiffer Burns extra special is the location of the campsites. They are placed so that they offer spectacular views of the rugged Big Sur Coast, but because they are in a grove of sturdy cypress trees, they are mostly protected from the wind. Plus, there are only two sites, so you won't be sharing the natural beauty of the land with hundreds of other campers.


Each site has a storage cabinet for keeping your food away from the local critters, a vault toilet, and a fire pit for cooking. Unless you're pretty handy with a campfire, you might want to bring your backpacking stove, or resign yourself to eating hot dogs and marshmallows off sharpened sticks. Also, be sure to bring plenty of warm clothes, because the weather can be foggy, damp, or chilly at any time of year — even in July. Park rules say you may have as many as eight people at your campsite, but this place is so special and serene that you'll probably want your group to be smaller. While you're at Julia Pfeiffer Burns, of course you will visit its famous waterfall, McWay Falls, which plunges dramatically to the sea. You can't see the falls from your campsite, but they are only a short walk away. In addition, be sure to hike the park's Ewoldsen Trail, my favorite trail in Big Sur, for a good aerobic climb with gorgeous redwoods, streams, and ferns.

Partington Point

Another excellent trip is to drive north on Highway 1 for about two miles to a curve in the highway and a trail sign for Partington Point and the Tan Bark Trail. Park in the pullout alongside the highway, then hike the short dirt road down to the ocean at Partington Point. Experienced scuba divers enter the waters here to explore the diversity of caves, canyons, and natural undersea bridges. An entry permit is required for scuba diving; hikers can just walk down the road, find a rock to sit on, and enjoy the above-the-water spectacle.

Facilities, reservations, fees: There are two walk-in campsites at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. No water is available; you must pack in bottled water. Campfires are permitted. Reservations are required; call Parknet at (800) 444-7275. There is a fee to use the campsites. Pets are not permitted.

Maps for backpacking: A map of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is available for $1 at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, nine miles north on Highway 1. For a topographic map of the area, ask for Partington Ridge from the USGS.

Who to contact: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park c/o Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Big Sur, CA 93920; (831) 667-2315.

Season: Open year-round.

Directions: From San Luis Obispo, drive north on U.S. 101 for 24 miles to the Highway 46 West exit near Templeton. Turn west on Highway 46 and drive 23 miles to Highway 1. Turn north on Highway 1 and drive 70 miles to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park on the right. (Plan on nearly two hours for those last 70 miles.)

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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