If someone asked me what one of my favorite places to photograph elopements in CA was, I would have to say, Big Sur. It’s definitely on the top of my list among many others. Big Sur has everything a couple looking to marry in the great outdoors could dream of. Rugged coastlines, sandy beaches, spectacular forests, and endless horizons – it’s a destination that has never failed to impress my clients and continues to impress me.
As a Big Sur elopement photographer who has tremendous love for the outdoors and a passion for capturing special moments in breathtaking landscapes such as Big Sur, I’ve created this Big Sur Elopement Guide 2022 to help plan the perfect elopement in this gorgeous state park. Read more from this guide for an explanation on how to arrive at Big Sur, location recommendations, wedding cost, elopement permits, and fees, the best time of the year to elope, day-of timelines, and more!
This Big Sur Elopement Guide 2022 covers:
Table of Contents
How to get to Big Sur, California
California is so vast, and depending on where you are coming from traveling to Big Sur can be a very long drive, or even a plane ride away. As an elopement photographer in Big Sur, I’ve met many California residents and non-residents who decide to take their elopement as an opportunity to travel somewhere in a state they’ve never experienced before, or check off a big destination on their bucket list! Like a California road trip!
If you’re traveling from southern California, you can drive up the iconic Hwy 1 (voted the #1 scenic Hwy and also known as Pacific Coast Hwy). Pacific Coast Hwy or PCH never disappoints with the dozens of turnouts to pull into for beautiful photo opportunities and 65 miles of coastal views. For those that have never been to Big Sur, I recommend driving along Hwy 1 at least once. Hwy 101 is also another option. It’s faster and less curvy than Hwy 1. It’s very scenic with rolling hills as you will pass through towns like Paso Robles, considered part of wine country, and Carmel, a quaint seaside town that has endless charm. Hwy 5 is a third option coming from southern California, but I would avoid that Hwy as it is not scenic at all.
If you are coming from Northern California or flying in, you will want to fly into San Jose International Airport, rent a car and travel south on either the 101 or Hwy 1 to the town of Big Sur.
The best and most beneficial thing to do is to research before planning a trip to Big Sur. One of my favorite websites to find this information is https://www.bigsurcalifornia.org/map.html. Here you will find information on maps, directions, and transportation. When visiting Big Sur you also want to keep in mind that there may be road closures along Hwy 1/Pacific Coast Hwy due to rockslides or forest fires which you can also find on https://www.bigsurcalifornia.org/map.html or CalTrans, State of California department of transportation website, https://roads.dot.ca.gov/roadscell.php. As a Big Sur elopement photographer, it’s my job to keep up to date with this and let all my eloping couples know about road closures, however, since Hwy 1 along the Big Sur coast is vulnerable to mud and rock slides, it’s always good to keep checking the conditions.
Big Sur Elopement Locations
Big Sur Public Vs Private Land and State Parks
The Big Sur region surrounds 90 miles of Hwy 1 south of Carmel to just north of San Simeon and Hearst Castle. That’s a whole lot of land if you ask me! So it is very important to consider where you want to elope, if you want to cover multiple locations in your elopement day you will want to think about just how far each location is from each other and whether or not it is possible to cover it all in one day.
Big Sur consists of both public and private lands. Public land includes state parks, land trusts, wilderness areas, and national forests. If you are wanting to elope in a state park (there are over 10 of them), you will most definitely need a permit. Privately owned land is exactly how it sounds – it includes lodges, hotels, venues, etc. I like to utilize a mixture of both when it comes to elopements.
Big Sur Public Lands & State Parks
Big Sur is filled with public land from redwood forests, rocky coastlines, beautiful hillsides, to public beaches, although there are only a few public beaches that are easily and publicly accessible due to the rocky coastlines.
What’s so great about eloping on public land in Big Sur is that it is very inexpensive and can even be free! Not only that but what’s an elopement without a little adventure? There are so many gorgeous locations and breathtaking views on each public land in Big Sur you just have to find the right one for you. Exploring your location and finding your ceremony spot can be a special moment for you and your partner to connect with beautiful mother nature, one of the many reasons couples choose to elope.
Because Big Sur is such a massive area, there isn’t just one to apply for a wedding permit – which is the case for most national and state parks. The number to contact the Special Events Coordinator by phone is 831-624-3407.
Here are a few locations I believe to be the best places for a Big Sur elopement, and especially for the portrait session!
Garrapata State Park offers vast views out to the pacific via miles of rugged coastline and has two miles of beachfront. It provides coastal hiking where there is easy beach and coastal trail access directly off of Hwy 1 (This is also one of my favorite locations for beach and coastal portraits)! Garrapata State Park is the perfect spot for sunset shots. Most of my couples love to head here at the end of the day for a romantic ending but remember that permits are required for elopement ceremonies at this state park where you can only have 25 guests max on the coastal side of the park. There’s also a grove of redwood trees.
If you imagine yourself having your elopement on a beach, Pfeiffer Beach (not the state park) does NOT require any permits! But keep in mind that weddings and elopement ceremonies are not permitted from March 15 – Oct 15th. The entrance to Pfeiffer Beach is not well marked off of Hwy 1, but if you are paying attention to Google maps, you should have no problem finding where to exit.
The road is a narrow two-mile-long paved road. There’s a very short walk down to the beautiful beach where you can check out the focal point “Keyhole Arch”. The rock is known for its natural arch that allows waves and light to come through, (the sunray only shines through in the winter months). Pfeiffer Beach is also known for its purple sand. The further down the beach you go, the more purple sand you will find! This is one of my favorite spots for sunset photos!
Andrew Molera State Park has a gorgeous beach with an easy 1-mile hike (during fall and winter the footbridge on the trail is removed). It’s known for its beach, being one of the most surfable locations in Big Sur. It also has a campground for couples who want to stay overnight or have a cookout! At Andrew Molera State Park you can have up to 10 people for an elopement ceremony but don’t forget permits are required! This area is great if you want a beach that is more off the beaten path.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park because it’s home to the most iconic and most photographed areas of Big Sur: McWay Falls, the 80ft waterfall that falls off granite cliffs straight into the ocean. Btw, you cannot access the beach legally, or you will be fined. Although this is not a spot to say your vows due to its high volume of tourist traffic at the viewpoint and arduous permitting process, it’s worth mentioning because it’s definitely a place to visit and a site to see when you are there.
On the opposite side of the Hwy, there’s a beautiful grove of redwood trees. I’ve taken bridal portraits in the grove of Redwoods, but since then, the permitting process has become quite expensive and difficult to obtain a permit for a ceremony. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is only partially open and only certain trails are accessible due to the 2020 Dolan Fire. When planning your elopement always make sure to keep up to date on closures and wildfires at https://www.bigsurcalifornia.org.
Limekiln State Park is the furthest south of everything else I’ve mentioned and has the best of both worlds. It has one of the best views of Monterey Bay’s National Marine Sanctuary as well as the Big Sur coastline surrounded by gorgeous redwoods. Imagine having your ceremony directly under majestic historic redwoods while committing yourself to one another and later heading to the beach for sunset portraits to capture new beginnings. It truly is the best of both worlds. Keep in mind that due to the Dolan Fire all trails are closed at the moment.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, not to be confused with Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park or Pfeiffer Beach. In Big Sur, everything seems to be named “Pfeiffer” this and “Pfeiffer” that, so it’s important to know the differences between these areas. This area has magnificent redwoods to the Big Sur River. Remember that Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is not the beach so there is no beach or ocean access in the park.
Big Sur Private Land
When it comes to Big Sur, it’s a no-brainer to have your ceremony on private land, especially if you have a few guests in attendance with you. If you imagine yourself having your ceremony among the redwood trees then the private lands in Big Sur are perfect for you! Many of the areas you book for your stay accommodations have beautiful redwood groves on their property. Not only that but it’s a lot easier to have an elopement on private land in Big Sur because you don’t have to go through the process of getting a permit. Besides, it’s more convenient to have your ceremony on private land near the place you are staying. After that, you can go anywhere to do your creative portrait session!
Big Sur wedding venues can be a great option for couples to have their elopement as well! There are many to choose from that are surrounded by majestic redwoods, ocean and cliffside views, or the Big Sur River. A few things that couples love about having their elopements on private land compared to public is the privacy for moments like getting ready, easy access for guests (if you have guests), no permits required, and the possibility to involve more guests, depending on the ceremony package for the venue.
These are my top choices for stay accommodations in the Big Sur area that all have redwood groves on their property. As far as your ceremony is concerned, I highly recommend having your ceremony on the same property as your stay accommodations. Each one of these resorts listed below allows their eloping couples to have their ceremony among the beautiful redwood trees on their property. This eases the permitting process and also makes for a quieter and more intimate ceremony setting.
- 1. Glen Oaks ($-$$)
- 2. Ventana Big Sur – This is a higher-end resort, but they also have a really neat glamping section and campgrounds on the lower part of their property ($$-$$$)
- 3. Post Ranch Inn ($$$)
- 4. Tree Bones Resort ($$) – This resort is the furthest south. I recommend this resort only if you are eloping in the Limekiln State Park area.
- Loma Vista Gardens ($$-$$$) Appropriate for wedding parties 20+. Can accommodate up to 225 guests.
Big Sur Elopement Budget
Breakdown of Big Sur Elopement Cost
The cost of an elopement isn’t straightforward; it can vary depending on what you want to do for your day and where you stay. When you are picturing your wedding day, really think and ask yourself what’s important to you and what represents you as a couple. Want romantic views and breathtaking images? Want to go somewhere you have yet to explore? How about a luxurious getaway? Or perhaps to be just the two of you or do you want to have family and friends?
Another thing you want to ask yourself is if you want to stay in Big Sur or not. If not, just remember that the closest towns, Carmel and Monterey are about 30-45 minutes away so you might want to think about possibly staying at one of Big Sur’s hotels or lodges. If you decide to stay in the area it tends to be more than staying outside of Big Sur especially if you decide to stay at a venue or any private land for that matter. You also want to keep travel fees in mind when hiring vendors since Big Sur is considered a destination getaway. Typically a Big Sur Elopement can cost between $5,000 $10,000 all considering.
The following is a breakdown of Big Sur elopement cost (elopement meaning 4 or fewer people, the officiant, photographer, and the couple):
- Photographer: $5,000 -$9,000 +
- Planner: $1,000- $4,000 (unless you have me who is both the photographer and the elopement planner)
- Wedding Attire: $300- $3,000
- Stay accommodations: $250+ per night
- Hair and Makeup: $0 – $400 (optional)
- Officiant: $500+ (unless you have me who is both the photographer and able to sign as your officiant)
- Florist: $300 (optional)
- Food, drinks, etc: $40 – $300
- Travel: $100 – $1,500 (if you are flying from out of state the cost can vary)
There are many things to consider when planning your elopement so always make sure you do the research and ask yourself what truly matters to you.
Big Sur Elopement Permits and Fees
Big Sur Elopement Permits
When eloping in Big Sur’s state parks and public lands you are more than likely going to need to receive a permit. Whether it be a Big Sur elopement permit or a special event permit almost all the state parks require it. You can either apply for your own elopement permit or special event permit or have a wedding/event planner guide you in the right direction. Just remember that there are multiple state parks within Big Sur and they all have their own rules and regulations. For example, they only allow elopement Special Event Permits at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Andrew Molera State Park, and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Elopement permits aren’t available for Point Sur State Historic Park.
The following is how you determine if your event qualifies as an Elopement Wedding and if you will need a special event permit:
- Your event has more than 10 people which includes the photographer, wedding party, officiant, videographer, vendors, all and any guests that will be at the event, children included.
- If you have your event at a campsite and it has more than eight people which includes the photographer, wedding party, officiant, videographer, vendors, all and any guests that will be at the event, children included.
- Your elopement blocks access to a site or trail during any point of the event.
- The elopement wedding is at or close by a set special event site such as Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.
- Your event requires seating.
- The event has music or amplified sound
- The event has decorations other than one single-handed bouquet.
- If your event occurs outside of regular Big Sur day-use hours (Sunrise to sunset)
- If the event has vendors other than the officiant, wedding/event planner, or photographer.
- The event has a reception or food and drinks served.
Upon answering YES to any of these you are required to get a special event permit. If you answered NO you can qualify for an elopement permit. If you decide to apply on your own you can contact the Special Event Permit Office for Big Sur State Parks at BigSurEvents@parks.ca.gov or call 831-667-0507 or email@example.com for Garrapata State Park.
Big Sur Elopement Permit Fees
Big Sur’s standard elopement permits have a $25 Non-refundable filing fee which needs to be sent in with the applicant’s initial application no less than thirty days before the elopement date as well as a separate check for $275 for the standard permit (up to four hours) to be sent in with the special event permit after the application has been processed. This includes the site fee and non-refundable processing fee. If there is any additional time needed, more than four hours, additional fees will be required. For more information go to https://www.parks.ca.gov.
Big Sur Elopement Marriage License
Monterey County Marriage License
The only way to be legally married is by getting a marriage license. There are two types of marriage licenses, a Public Marriage License, and a Confidential Marriage License. A marriage license obtained in any county of California is valid throughout the whole state. The ceremony does NOT have to be performed in the same county the license was issued.
A Public Marriage License requires at least 1 witness to be present at the ceremony. As someone who is ordained, I could either sign as your officiant OR be your witness.
A Confidential Marriage License does not require a witness. It only requires the signature of an officiant. As for many elopements, I’m more than happy to sign as your officiant. For eloping couples, I highly recommend obtaining a confidential marriage license.
As for California residents, I highly recommend obtaining your California marriage license where you live and bring it with you. However, if you are out of state, the closest county clerk’s office is in Monterey county: 240 Church Street in Salinas. You can also find more information on how to obtain a marriage license on https://www.co.monterey.ca.us. Or at your local county’s website.
Big Sur Weather and Time of Year
There really is no answer to, “what is the best time of the year to visit Big Sur”. My favorite thing about Big Sur is that it’s gorgeous all year round! But there are perks to eloping in the off-season. Off-season in Big Sur includes November through February, it usually offers easier lodge reservations, more campsites and it’s the best time to avoid crowds. While eloping in Big Sur you want to keep in mind that the weather varies a lot from one day to the next and throughout the day as well. It can be sunny and cloudy on the same day and this can be any time of the year! Plus whenever you are closer to the coast and beach areas it is a lot windier and colder than it would be in the forest. I always tell my clients to bring a jacket just in case!
Another thing to consider is wildfires. Unfortunately, California has been experiencing major wildfires annually so you always want to keep an eye out to see what parts of Big Sur are open and which are not. You can look on Big Sur’s website for more information on current wildfires here https://www.bigsurcalifornia.org. Although wildfires don’t normally happen in Big Sur every year you want to be safe and do your research.
Best Months to have a Big Sur Elopement
The following are the months, their temperatures, and average precipitation in inches to better determine the best months to visit Big Sur:
Spring (April, May): Mid to high 60s °F – Low 70s °F, 3 in – 1.1 in of rain.
Summer (June, July, August): Mid 70s °F – High 70s °F, 0.5 in – 0.04 in of rain.
Fall (September, October): High 70s °F – Mid to Low 70s °F, 0.4 in – 2.1 in of rain.
Winter (November, December, January, February, March): Mid to Low 60s °F, 4.8 in – 9.2 in of rain
Big Sur Elopement Day Of Timeline
Whether you love intimate weddings or elopements there is no right or wrong way to have a wedding. There are literally no rules! The day is about you and so you can choose what you want to do whether it’s just you and your partner embracing each other while saying your vows surrounded by redwood trees or having an intimate ceremony with a couple of your closest loved ones. There are so many things you can do for your special day- from sharing a bottle of champagne on the beach while mustering up the courage to run into the ocean or camping and having a cookout with a few family and friends.
The following is an adventure elopement timeline to get you started:
Big Sur Elopement Timeline
(Full day elopement timeline with split-day coverage)
7:30 AM – Hair and Makeup arriving
9:00 AM – Begin Coverage, Arrive at Glen Oaks Cabin for Getting Ready Photos
9:30 AM – Done with hair and makeup
10:00 AM – First Look Outside of Cabin
10:30 AM – Ceremony
-Photos around Glen Oaks
-Marriage License paperwork
-Celebrate with Champagne
1:00 PM – Conclude morning Coverage
Break – (This break is one of my favorite parts. You will get 3.5 hours to spend together, just the two of you!)
4:30 PM – Meet at Creek Bridge
5:30 PM – Garrapata State Park Photos
7:00 PM – Garrapata State Beach
8:10 PM – Sunset Portraits
8:30 PM – Conclude Coverage
The following is an Intimate Wedding timeline to get you started:
Big Sur Intimate Wedding Timeline
(Includes several guests)
2:00 PM – Getting Ready Photos
3:30 PM – First Look Photos
4:30 PM – Ceremony
5:30 PM – Group Photos
6:00 PM – Sunset Portraits
7:30 PM – Head to Reception
7:45 PM – Reception
-Celebrate with Champagne
9:00 PM – Conclude Coverage
Big Sur Elopement Planning Tips
- Hire a Photographer familiar with the area. As an elopement photographer in California, I’m blessed with an abundance of stunning scenery to backdrop my couples against. But nowhere else makes my photographer heart aflutter more than Big Sur, a goldmine for the destination elopement couple. I love being able to provide my clients with breathtaking views that took multiple scouting trips to find. This wondrous stretch of coastline is home to beautiful seaside cliffs, epic forests filled with huge redwood trees, and many spots hidden, ones you wouldn’t be able to find without scouting out trails and finding the perfect spot for a Big Sur Elopement. It’s an oasis for couples who want to truly get off the beaten track, and find a space all of their own to tie the knot in.
- Wear appropriate shoes. You may be walking along rocks that can be sharp and/or slippery and trails that require better shoes than heels or sneakers. I would highly recommend wearing hiking boots since there’s poison oak in certain areas in the forested part. And sandals with treads on the bottom when going to the beach. I recommend wearing shoes sold at outfitters like Teva, Bogs, Keen. I’m confident you can find something stylish and comfortable while walking around these areas. If you choose to bring heals for the portraits, choose something that are easy to slip on and off so not much time is wasted taking them on and off through out the park.
- Be prepared to share the area. Most of the time several people are accessing the area for personal photos and engagement photos. It’s very unlikely you will have the place to yourselves, especially if you elope in the summer months.
- Consider doing your session in the winter months. As mentioned earlier the off-season is the best time to avoid crowds and access trails that wouldn’t normally be accessible during the summer months. It’s not bikini weather in the winter, but it can be a great time for sessions. The sunsets are more beautiful and the colors are more vivid in the winter as opposed to the summer. The earth’s tilt is one of the reasons because it doesn’t refract as many particles in the atmosphere!
- Recognize poison oak. Remember Big Sur is a wilderness area which means it’s home to many different plants and animals including poison oak. Always make sure to be aware and use extra caution when on trials. Poison oak can range in color from red to green and may have shiny leaves or may not. They also can grow on vines or grow as a bush. Make sure that you can identify poison oak so you avoid it. Poison oak may cause an itch that can last for weeks so if you come into contact with it wash it with cold soapy water and always wash your clothes and shoes when you get home as it can stay on clothing for months.
- Prepare to Unplug. There is virtually no cell service in Big Sur so you want to make sure you are saving all directions whether it be on google maps or written down. I like to use Google Maps Offline as well as Save Meeting Locations. This helps tremendously so you don’t get lost or flustered by not knowing where you are or where you are going.
- Keep in Mind the Weather. Big Sur can be windy by the ocean so you want to prepare for the weather. Pick hairstyles that hold your hair back at least a little and pack some extra hairpins and hairspray. Also, make sure to not pack anything that will blow away.
- Remember you are here for adventure! Go with the flow. Big Sur can be unpredictable with its weather conditions and crowds so let the day flow how it’s meant to. You’ve chosen to elope to be carefree and focus on one another. The day is about you two and no one else and I’m here to make sure the day flows smoothly exactly how you desire with weather conditions and all!
- If you are south of Andrew Molera State Park, Big Sur Health Center is the closest medical facility. They have limited resources. If you are north of Andrew Molera State Park, it’s worthwhile to head to MoGo Urgent Care located in Carmel-By-The-Sea
Big Sur Elopement Things to Do and See
One of the many things I love about Big Sur is the quaint little town of Big Sur. It’s straight out of a story book, and there are a few gems worth visiting. You can spend an entire weekend full of adventure at Big Sur and it’s not all hiking and looking at breathtaking views, although I would highly recommend that over anything else! I mean how could you not? Plus there are so many things around the Big Sur area! Why not make it a road trip? Here are a couple of things to do and see in Big Sur:
- Stop for a treat at Big Sur Bakery.
- Eat lunch at Big Sur Tap House. It’s one of the few spots that has gluten free menu items.
- Have second lunch at Fernwood Resort Bar & Grill.
- Feed your bookworm at the Henry Miller Library
- Snap a photo at a few Big Sur well-known spots, Bixby Bridge, McWay Falls, and Pfeiffer Beach Keyhole
- Stop for a drink at Nepenthe, everyone’s favorite Big Sur restaurant. The perfect place for a romantic dinner with a million dollar view. The best part about Nepenthe is that you can order an appetizer and still be seated in an area with an amazing view. Or you can go fancy and make a reservation for your wedding night dinner.
- Treat yourself to an unforgettable meal at Post Ranch Inn
- Watch California Sea Otters swim around in kelp forests.
Road Trip Things to Do and See:
- Drive or bike the World-Famous 17 mile drive in Pebble Beach. You won’t regret it!
- Visit the remarkable museum of Hearst Castle.
- Birdwatch at Carmel River State Beach.
- Swing by the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in California’s Pacific Grove in October to admire beautiful butterflies.
- Head to San Francisco and hike around the Golden Gate Bridge at the Presidio.
- Ride roller coasters and Santa Cruz Boardwalk while satisfying your sweet tooth.
- Visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Always Practice “Leave No Trace” in Big Sur
As an adventure elopement photographer “Leave No Trace” principles are imperative to me so if you choose to have your elopement and or ceremony on public lands please be responsible and do your part to preserve our beautiful earth. We all play a huge role in protecting national parks as well as our environment so it’s extremely important to be aware of our actions and how we impact the environment around us.
The following are just a few ways on how to practice “Leave No Trace” principles for your upcoming elopement or wedding:
- Plan ahead! Pack trash bags for things like petals from bouquets or trash in general.
- Prepare for the weather. If it’s windy don’t bring things that you won’t be able to hold onto and may get lost in the forest.
- Respect nature and wildlife. Keep a good distance from wildlife and do not follow or approach them. Don’t walk all over plant life, try to stay on man-made trails.
- Leave nature as you found it. Don’t take plants or rocks home and don’t build structures or dig trenches.
- Minimize wildfires! Don’t bring candles, sparklers or smoke bombs as these can easily cause wildfires.
- Be respectful of other visitors and their space.
These are just a few ways on how to practice “Leave No Trace” for more information check out this article on Leave No Trace Principles.
How to work with me
Let’s Plan your Big Sur Elopement!
If you finished this blog and you are still overwhelmed with planning your Big Sur elopement don’t worry that’s what I’m here for! As an adventure elopement photographer, I’m here to answer all your questions and put your mind at ease and most importantly plan an epic day for you! I like to plan elopements based on my favorite spots in the area, so that simplifies things.
The following are the steps on how to elope with me:
Reach out on my website by filling out the contact form. I can’t wait to meet you!
We’ll chat and get to know each other and discuss your vision, so you feel truly heard. Whether you are avid weekend hikers or not very outdoorsy at all, I will make sure to guide you to an appropriate elopement location that suits your personality and relationship. If you want to include a few family members and friends, we can discuss those options, too! I’ll give you all the information you need to know for booking.
Once you have chosen a date and general location for your elopement, I’ll send you an email through my booking site to make things official with a contract and deposit!
Remember, this isn’t standard wedding planning where you have to collect a hundred addresses for invitations and spend days putting together a table chart. This is SO MUCH BETTER! It’s time to start creating a timeline for new experiences you’ll have while saying, “I do!” I’ll provide you with unlimited correspondence, permit and marriage license assistance, vendor recommendations, and a personalized checklist.
The best day ever has finally arrived! You’ll get married exactly how you dreamt with incredible memories while I document it all so you won’t ever forget.
A few days after your wedding day, I will send you some sneaky peeks for social media and present your entire gallery on your one-month anniversary. You’ll have tangible memories to print and share with your loved ones. Forever relive your day through the art of your one-of-a-kind photographs.
Ready to have the Big Sur elopement of your dreams?