Dude, can you even believe Big Sur is a real place? I have travelled here many times for both personal trips and to photograph couples and with each visit I am just floored by its magnificence. In the course of just a few miles, you can see towering redwoods, rugged cliffs, and crystal blue waters. Truth be told, if I was going to plan our wedding all over again, I would definitely plan to elope in Big Sur instead.
Big Sur is a 150 mile stretch of coastline located on California’s central coast and it has some of the most beautiful and jaw dropping views in the country. It also has everything you could ever need to plan an absolutely perfect elopement in this maritime nature haven.
Okay so let me guess, you’re super in love with the idea of getting married in this gorgeous location, but you have no idea where to start, right? Well friend, I gotchu. We’re going to walk through this step by step, and by the end you’ll walk away with some tangible planning ideas for how to elope in Big Sur.
Sound good? Sweet! Let’s get into it!
1. Examples of Big Sur Elopement Photography
2. Where to Elope: The Best Big Sur Elopement Locations
3. How To Elope: Making Your Big Sur Elopement Legal
4. When To Elope: The Best Time of Year To Travel To Big Sur
5. Room and Board: Where To Stay And What To Eat
6. Make A Day Of It: Top Things To Do In Big Sur
7. Crucial Big Sur Elopement Planning Tips
Before we get too into the logistics of how to plan your Big Sur elopement, let’s take a moment and look at some inspo! The gallery below shows some photos from an elopement in Big Sur where the couple chose to get married in the redwoods (at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park). They also chose to do a day after couple’s session on the coast (at Garrapata State Park).
P.S. You can check out my blog post on their elopement here!
Alright! Let’s talk locations! Remember, this is your elopement and you’re free to break all those traditional wedding rules! So if you want to go to multiple locations, then go for it! For example, you could have your ceremony on the cliffs over the coast and then take couple’s photos in the redwoods or down on the beach. Just keep in mind that Big Sur is a vast area comprised of inland and coastal regions and it can take up to a couple of hours to drive from one end to the other, so be sure to factor that in if you’re going to different locations.
The Big Sur region is mostly made up of public land with some privately owned land sprinkled in. Below are some pros and cons to each type of location as well as some links for places to research!
Examples of public land would be state parks, protected wilderness areas, land trusts, etc. Getting married on public land usually comes with more policies and rules to follow, and you will almost definitely need to get a permit. However, public land is generally less expensive than getting married on a privately held site and the locations are absolutely breathtaking.
Here are a few amazing public land spots to look into!
Some examples of private land would be lodges, restaurants, Airbnb’s, glamping sites, wedding venues, etc. A major perk to private land is that you are guaranteed privacy because you are booking that venue specifically for your event. Private land also offers some helpful amenities like on site getting ready locations, accessibility for guests or pets, and fewer restrictions (i.e. you don’t have to worry about park closures!). The downside is that eloping on private land will usually be more expensive than public land.
Here are a few amazing private land spots to look into!
Big Sur House (Airbnb)
Big Sur Oceanview Getaway (Airbnb)
Okay! So that was a lot of info about locations. What should your first steps be? My advice is to think about what type of landscape inspires you the most. What are you most drawn to? What feels most like the two of you? Then I suggest researching some of the options above and narrowing down your list based on other factors like your budget, your guest count (if any), or your desired amount of privacy.
First, something I want to clarify is that the day you elope and the day you legally get married don’t have to be the same. For example, the couple in the photo gallery above chose to legally get married and deal with all of the paperwork prior to their trip to Big Sur. But the day that they consider their wedding day, the day that they will celebrate each year to come, is the day that they said their vows to each other in Big Sur. (Fun fact, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle did the EXACT same thing! They eloped three days before their big ginormous legal wedding).
Okay, so let’s say you want to legally get married in Big Sur. How do you do it? In order to get legally married in the state of California, you will need to apply for and obtain a marriage license. There are two types of marriage licenses: public (the most common) or confidential. You can read more about the differences between each of them here.
You will also need to have an independent officiant to preside over the ceremony or you can have anyone over the age of 18 who has gone through the proper steps to become ordained in the state of California. Also, depending on the type of license you choose, you may need to have a witness present (FYI I can happily sign as a witness!).
Good news! Big Sur is absolutely beautiful year round! The weather is relatively mild and sunny most months out of the year. Below are some pros and cons to each time of year:
Winter (December – February): Way fewer crowds (if any!), potential for discounts on lodging, and lower temperatures. However you are likely to encounter rain, potential road closures, and in recent years, landslides. BUT! This is also when you can watch the gray whale migration!
Spring (March – May): A true shoulder season. You may still encounter some rain and have more crowds than the winter, but this is also wildflower season in California and Big Sur does not disappoint. Great weather, great views, and all round a great time to go.
Summer (June – August): Phenomenal weather during this season(though it can get hot and humid especially inland), though it does come with a bit of a trade off. This is the peak season for Big Sur, so you will encounter crowds and higher prices. The typical California “June Gloom” also lasts through most of the summer season, so you will encounter a marine layer of fog in the morning that will (likely) burn off in the afternoon.
Fall (September – November): Another great shoulder season! By September the weather has started to cool down and the crowds have thinned out (October and November are particularly wonderful!). These months are usually dry, temperate, and stunning. The only drawback is of course, the possibility of wildfires.
There you have it! A brief breakdown of each season in Big Sur. For more information on each time of year, you can browse this U.S. News Travel Guide.
Let’s talk food! I would be crazy if I didn’t mention Nepenthe. This restaurant has INCREDIBLE views and delicious food. If you are having an elopement that includes guests, you can rent their veranda (the best spot!) for up to 20 people. I also highly recommend the Big Sur Bakery. They have an intimate reception space and food that is just so yum. It’s absolutely perfect for a chill meal with your favorite people after your elopement!
Lodging: If you’re not getting married at a location that already has lodging, there are some truly amazing options. One thing to keep in mind is that because 100% of the land in Big Sur is either privately owned or is protected public land, reservations for places to stay are limited and can fill up quickly. That being said there is such a variety of types of lodging to choose from. Whether you decide on a campground, a glampground, a lodge, or an Airbnb, you’re bound to be surrounded by some awe inspiring nature.
Below are some great places that you can start looking into!
Ventana camping, glamping, lodge rooms, and suites
Glen Oaks Big Sur lodge rooms as well as private cottages
Treebones Resort yurts and campsites
Post Ranch Inn ultra luxe; hotel style rooms, suites, and private cottages
Fun and memorable ways to celebrate before and after your elopement. Simply put, my philosophy on elopements is that this is a time to indulge and to celebrate! And in Big Sur there’s definitely no shortage of things to do. Below are just a few things that you can do before and after your elopement in Big Sur!
Ewoldsen Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: This five mile hike takes you through a forest of redwood trees, up through a canyon, and then out to a vista with gorgeous ocean views. It’s basically all of Big Sur in one hike.
McWay Falls Trail at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: This is a very short and flat trail that ends with views of a waterfall that cascades directly onto the beach. I mean come on. You can’t even make that up. It’s magical and gorgeous and so worth the stop. One word of advice–go in the morning. This trail is a can’t miss, but it is extremely popular especially in the summer months.
Refuge: Ahhhh the spa. After any hiking that you want to do, treat yourself to a massage or a day pass at this beautiful spa.
Discovery Whale Watching: If your elopement will be during one of the whale migration seasons, then this trip out of Monterey is entirely worth it.
Cell Phone Service: There virtually is none. Make sure that you’ve downloaded everything you need to download and consider bringing walkie talkies if you think you’ll need them.
Poison Oak: It’s everywhere, but very avoidable if you stay on trails (which we all need to do anyways!). Look up what it looks like before you go, so that you can keep an eye out for it!
Hire A Photographer Who Is Familiar With The Area: Oh heyyy, that’s me! In all seriousness though, this one cannot be overstated. It’s so important to hire a photographer who is familiar with all of the hidden spots along the 150 miles of Highway 1. Additionally, it’s always helpful to hire someone who is familiar with the rules in the state parks and can guide you through the process of acquiring a permit and planning your elopement. I have spent countless hours exploring the Big Sur region and guiding couples through the elopement process!
Be A Good Steward of Nature: In short, leave no trace. Big Sur is a stunning natural beauty that in recent years has become more and more populated. It’s so important that if you’re planning an elopement in Big Sur that you do your very best to leave the area as untouched as possible. This includes obtaining permits where they’re required, staying on trails, being careful not to tread on plant life, and packing out any and all trash (including things that seem natural like flower petals, rice, or things labeled as biodegradable).
That’s it! I hope that this guide has helped you learn how to plan an elopement in Big Sur, or at the very least has given you a solid launch point! I truly cannot praise Big Sur enough. It’s my very favorite spot in California for a reason, and I highly recommend it to any couples looking for a beautiful place to elope.
Are you getting married or eloping in Big Sur? I would LOVE to help plan your amazing adventure and document your day! Slide into my inbox to get this thing started and let’s make it happen!
I'm Brittany Bender. A wedding, elopement, & couples photographer who specializes in capturing candid, natural, emotion-packed photos. I'm based in the local San Diego area, and I serve couples throughout the entire Southern California region and am available for travel worldwide.