Off-Roading in Big Sur

With the pace of school and work beginning to gain momentum, it becomes difficult to find local things to do that don’t involve a lot of traveling or spending. However, if you’ve got a few hours to spend, no cash and an off -road capable vehicle, there’s a dirt road about 86 miles from campus that is as entertaining as it is cheap: South Coast Ridge Road in Big Sur, which snakes along California’s beautiful U.S. Highway 1. With no shortage of views, good weather, access to hiking/biking trails and plenty of wildlife, there’s an avenue of adventure for every type of outdoorsmen seeking a thrill.

What Should You Expect?
This trail isn’t exclusively for off-road vehicles, since it’s mainly used to access campgrounds (which is free since it’s in a National Forest – more information to come) so it’s mostly dry, rocky soil. Although, there are some parts that are fairly loose and silty. If your car isn’t 4X4 or AWD, it would be wise to bring a friend that could tow you out (or help push) should your car get stuck. Thankfully, there were only two spots where I encountered this. I saw plenty of Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas pass through it without incident, so with enough momentum, you should do fine. Just make sure there are no other cars coming your way, as it’s one lane the entire way through, sprinkled with blind corners. If you stick to the campground area, you’ll be done with the trail in about half an hour to an hour. If you head toward the south ridge, I strongly suggest bringing food and water, as it took me around four hours to complete the trail and connect back to the highway. Water and food is a good idea either way, since it does take about an hour to get to entrance of the trail.

The south ridge of this trail is not advisable for 2WD cars, since it’s isolated and contains several different types of terrain that appeal to the AWD/4X4 crowd. Steep inclines and declines are constantly testing your tires and off-road systems, so again, I suggest bringing a friend (it’s also a lot more fun with more people!) for safety precautions.

Also, when heading to this trail, you have to drive by McWay Falls, which is a spectacle people drive across the U.S. to see at least once. If you’re up to see the legendary waterfall, I highly suggest taking the time to do so. It may be a little crowded, but it’s worth sticking around to witness and/or get a really nice photo.

How Do I Get There?
You can Google Nacimiento-Ferguson Road, which climbs through more campgrounds and stays paved for about 2.76 miles. When you reach the top, you’ll be presented with three options: straight ahead, which will continue as a paved forest route; left, which is another unpaved forest route; or to the right, which is the trail I’m covering: South Coast Ridge Road. This trail, when including the south ridge portion, is about 15 miles long. When not including the south ridge, it is close to 8.5 miles. Should you take the south ridge section, look for Los Burros Road, which will lead you back to U.S. Highway 1. As a heads up, the trail heading to the south ridge is very narrow and surrounded by tall and untrimmed bushes, so if you’re concerned about maintaining your paint job, avoid this at all costs because your car will most certainly come out of that pinstriped.

Pinstripes along the passenger side after driving through tall brush. Photo by Kristen Finley.

If you’re using Google Maps, be aware – when you’re approaching Los Burros Road, you’ll approach a fork either going to the right or to the left. Google will tell you to take a left, but DO NOT go left, steer to the right, as it is what my road atlas suggested would take me back, as going to the left will bring you about four miles away and it leads to a dead end. Which, if you’re not on a full tank of gas, can be quite scary. The coordinates for this area are: (35.895940, -121.365688).

Cell phone reception is spotty, but it’s there for the most part along the south ridge and through the camp grounds. So, it would be wise to consult an atlas or download the surrounding area on your Google Maps offline so you’d be able to navigate without reception. Also, since there aren’t any gas stations nearby, it’s wise to top off before you get to Nacimiento-Ferguson Road.

Free Camping?
Yes! In California’s National Forests, you’re allowed to camp for free as long as you’re 100 feet from a main road, or any body of water. It’s also expected that you clean up after yourself, especially since that rule is currently being revisited by the council of California’s park rangers, due to the sheer amount of trash rangers are having to clean up from people camping in the woods. This was confirmed by a ranger I met when I stopped to admire a pair of wild condors, and asked that I bring this to any future camper’s attention.

Califonia Condor. Nicknamed “Moose,” by the condor tracker website. Photo by Kristen Finley.

What Should I Bring?
If you’re planning on camping/biking/hiking:

  • Bags for your trash
  • Food and water
  • Plenty of warm wear, since it gets cold and windy at night
  • Different pairs of shoes, depending on your planned activities – but I suggest high topped shoes/boots.
  • Camp fires are allowed (although that can change without notice), and there are no established fire pits, so be sure to bring fuel/firewood or a camping stove with propane should you need it. DO NOT leave any fire unattended, and do not leave it burning overnight. This is how forest fires happen.
  • Fire extinguisher. Never hurts to have that in your car anyway, but especially for camping.
  • Atlas.
  • Portable battery pack or jumper cables, because a dead battery will ruin just about everything.
  • First aid supplies
  • Flash light

As an Off-Roader (in addition to the items listed above):

  • Shovel, to help dig you out.
  • Never hurts to bring extra fluids (coolant especially), even more so if a skid plate isn’t part of your set up.
  • Full tank of gas.

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