Photographer’s Guide to Big Sur

Welcome to The Photographer’s Guide to Big Sur. Big Sur, located on the Central Coast of California, is one of the most dramatic and magical landscapes in the United States. Its magnificent beauty attracts well over three million visitors a year and has been an inspiration to numerous photographers and other artists the world over.

This guide is intended to help the photographer visiting Big Sur for the first time as well as those who have been here before. It provides information on where to go and what to expect from well-known and lesser-known locations. Although there are many photo opportunities from roadside pullouts all along the Big Sur coast as described throughout this guide, just a short walk or hike often leads to coves, beaches and coastline that are hidden from view. Travel inland provides access to canyons, redwood groves, creeks, waterfalls, and views of the mountains which also are described here.

Locations are described as if traveling south. For each location, at least two distances are given: one distance from a point north of the location and one distance from a point south. A county mile-marker is provided if available (see below). At least one image representative of the particular location is included with the description. Other images of Big Sur can be viewed in my Big Sur galleries.

This guide is a work in progress and as such additional locations will be provided here once or twice a month. To be notified when new information has been uploaded please join the mailing list or check back periodically.

Links to the Guide sections are found to the right of this introductory text. I encourage you to read the information sections below which may be helpful to you when visiting and photographing Big Sur.

Where is Big Sur?

Big Sur is located on the western edge of the continental United States, where the Pacific Ocean meets land. More specifically, Big Sur is found on the Central Coast of California, with its north end approximately 130 miles south of San Francisco and its south end about 275 miles north of Los Angeles. It essentially consists of the Santa Lucia (pronounced San-ta Lew-see-ya) Mountain range, its headlands and marine terraces, as it has been affected over eons by geological forces and the Pacific Ocean. At its widest point, it stretches about 20 miles inland. Big Sur is part of the Los Padres National Forest and includes the Ventana and Silver Peak Wilderness areas. Within Big Sur are five California State Parks which are covered in the Guide. Although there is often disagreement as to where Big Sur begins and ends, for our purposes Big Sur extends approximately 75 miles from Garrapata State Park in the north (Monterey County) to San Carpoforo Creek (San Luis Obispo County) in the south as well as inland. Carmel is the closest city to the north of Big Sur and San Simeon is closest to the south. Here is an interactive Google map of Big Sur.

Highway 1

Image of Highway 1 by David GubernickHwy 1 (Cabrillo Hwy) provides the only access to the Big Sur coast. It is California’s first state scenic highway, and is a well-maintained two-lane cliff-hugging road, winding along the coastline. The Santa Lucia Mountains tower above it on the east side of the highway, and the pounding surf of the Pacific Ocean flank it on the west side. The road is very curvy in sections and for some people can be nerve wrecking to drive. Summer is the busiest season and on weekends traffic can be excruciatingly slow, so allow sufficient time to drive from one location to another. Please drive carefully and follow the posted speed limits. During the rainy season (typically November-March), Hwy 1 may experience road closures because of falling rock, mud slides, or washouts. Dirt roads are often impassable in wet weather. You can check on road conditions here.

Mile-Markers and Distances

Image of mile-markers along Highway 1 by David GubernickAt various points along both sides of Hwy 1 are county mile-markers. Each metal marker shows the county name (MON – Monterey County; SLO – San Luis Obispo County), the Highway number (here 1), and the distance in miles from the south end of that county. As such, the mile distances decrease as you drive south and increase as you drive north. The mileage indicated is in the form of miles and tenths or hundredths of a mile like this: 6532 which means that it is 65.32 miles from the south-county line. In the Guide, I provide the mile-marker nearest a location if available. Sometimes the markers are hidden by vegetation, so you may have to look carefully to find them. The county name may be missing on some of the older markers in Monterey County. You can also find unofficial mileages for various locations in Big Sur at this website and this one.

Seasons of Big Sur

Each season offers its own unique photographic opportunities and challenges. I enjoy photographing throughout the year and have grown to appreciate each season for what it provides. Part of my appreciation has come from letting go of my expectations of what I should or wanted to photograph, and exploring what each season provides. As a consequence, it has opened me to other photo possibilities.

Image of Summer time along the Big Sur coastSummer (June – August) is dry, often with cool, mild temperatures. Hillsides are typically a yellow or golden color from dried grasses. Along the marine terraces, summer wildflowers and scrubs bloom coloring the landscape with yellows, reds, blues, and purples. Coastal fog is often present and varies throughout the year with summer having the most and thickest fog. At times the fog is moody, mysterious and magical and at other times it is flat and lifeless. To get above the fog, seek higher elevations or try going inland into forested areas. Flat light can be good for close-ups and more intimate fill-the-frame types of images. The fog is very dynamic during the summer – it may rapidly roll in off the ocean and either stay on land or roll out again, or it may hang offshore as a large mass. Foggy days may be interspersed with beautiful sunny days. Many people are surprised to learn that the summer can be quite chilly when coastal fog is present. It’s a good idea to wear or bring layers of clothing. The area is particularly susceptible to fires in the summer.

Image of Fall along the Big Sur coast by David GubernickFall (September – November) offers some of the best weather, with warm to mild sunny days, often with wispy clouds. Although the summer fog may continue into autumn, it is often a less-dense, more gentle fog. Fall plant colors are typically subdued, with sycamore, maple and willow leaves turning a soft yellow to brown, and many flowering scrubs turning a rust color. Poison oak leaves can be intensely red and yellow. Sunsets can be quite colorful.

Image of Winter along the Big Sur coast by David Gubernick

Winter (December- February) is the rainy season, with occasional snow at higher elevations. If there is sufficient rain, the creeks and waterfalls will be at full flow and the hillsides begin to “green up” with new growth, especially grasses. You will find some of the best cloud formations and sunsets at this time of year. Forested areas are lush and early spring flowers begin to bloom. Rains can be sporadic or last for a few days, a week, or longer but are often interspersed with gorgeous days. Ocean waves and crashing surf can be quite high, especially during and after a storm. Sections of Hwy 1 may be closed because of mud and rock slides. Winter is the off-season for tourists and as a result, there is much less traffic.

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Image of Spring along the Big Sur coast by David Gubernick

Spring (March – May) offers mild, gorgeous clear sunny days with occasional rain early in the season. If there has been sufficient winter rain, the hills will still be green. By the end of Spring, the hillsides start to lose their color. Many wildflowers are blooming at sea level and higher up, but they are not usually found in large masses.

WeatherCam

There is a live camera on the back deck of Nepenthe Restaurant which is located a short distance south of the Big Sur Valley. The camera view is updated every 5 minutes and provides a look at the coastline south of Nepenthe. From the live cam page, there is a link to the current weather report. Weather forecasts can also be found here.

Additional Information About Big Sur

The Big Sur Chamber of Commerce website is an excellent resource for all sorts of information about Big Sur.

John Rabold offers an excellent and detailed visitor’s guide to Big Sur.

The Pelican Network run by local Big Sur resident Jack Ellwanger provides wonderful information with photos on various parks and hikes. It also offers community news, activities and a newsletter that you can sign up for to keep informed about Big Sur.

The Ventana Wilderness Alliance provides current trail conditions especially into the back country and has an active user forum of people who are passionate about Big Sur and the Ventana and Silver Peak Wilderness areas of Big Sur. For current conditions of popular Big Sur trails you can also call the Big Sur Ranger Station: 831 667-2315.

Additional historical, demographic, floral, and climate information can be found here.

Aerial photos of the entire Big Sur coastline can be found here. Although the names of the locations may not always be accurate, this website provides a valuable resource.

Sunrise/Sunset

Daily sunrise and sunset times for various areas in California can be generated for each month at this site. For the city, input Carmel-by-the-Sea. Moonrise and moonset are also provided. Because the sun must rise above the Santa Lucia Mountains before it shines on most areas in Big Sur, you will not get that early morning glow on the landscape except perhaps at higher elevations. The sunrise sky colors however can be softly colorful.

Tide Charts

Low tides and minus tides offer interesting photo opportunities at the beach and among rocks in the intertidal zone. Tide tables can be generated here. For the location, input Carmel.

Poison Oak

Image of Poison Oak taken along the Highway 1, Big Sur by David GubernickMany people, including myself, have an allergic reaction to contact with poison oak. Contact with any part of the plant may lead to a reaction, although most of the urushiol oils causing an allergic response are in the leaves. Secondary contact, e.g., by touching clothes, shoes, or pets exposed to poison oak, may lead to a reaction. Depending upon the extent of contact and the severity of reaction, your physical response may be in the form of small blisters or larger rashes which may show up on other parts of your body than the actual contact area. Severe reactions include rashes, blisters and/or swelling within 4-12 hours, in which case seek immediate medical attention. Poison oak is rampant along the coastal bluffs and is often intermingled with sage scrub and other bushes. It also is found among redwoods and in forested areas. It grows as a woody scrub or a bush primarily along the coast, and as individual shoots and even vines growing up trees inland.

Poison oak has three waxy leaflets per leafstalk, with one standing by itself at the tip of the leafstalk and one to each side forming a pair. The leaf edges are notched and look like small oak tree leaves. The adage “leaves of three, let them be” applies here. The leaves begin to sprout during the winter rainy season and are often a rusty brown color that turns green as the leaves mature. The berries of poison oak are white. It is virtually impossible to totally avoid contact with poison oak when walking along paths on marine terraces or coastal bluffs. To reduce contact, wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts. Generally I will raise my arms and equipment (i.e. tripod) above my head and turn sideways to reduce contact with the plant. If exposed to poison oak, wash the infected area with water as soon as possible, generally within 15 minutes. Usually I just rinse my hands and arms with a bottle of water. Some people use commercial products like Technu to remove the oils, but it needs to be applied soon after contact. Once blisters have appeared, you cannot spread the infection by scratching. Use of Caladryl, baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) or other drying agents may help reduce the itching and blistering.

Note: The devastating Big Sur Basin Complex fires which started in June 2008 burned over 200,000 acres. Although most of the state parks are open, there is limited access and some still remain closed. Many of the trails into the back country are now open. All areas on the ocean side of Highway 1 are open as are the Old Coast Road, Nacimiento-Ferguson Road, the road to Cone Peak, and the South Coast Ridge Road. The Los Padres National Forest and the Ventana Wilderness Area are open. All Big Sur businesses are open. Check with the Ventana Wilderness Alliance or the Monterey Ranger District of the US Forest Service (831 385-0628) for current conditions and access.

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