Where and How to Elope in Big Sur:
A guide to ceremony locations, elopement advice, regional information and vendor recommendations
Why Elope in Big Sur?
Welcome to my guide about where and how to elope in Big Sur! Big Sur is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous region of rugged coastline just south of Monterey, California. Redwood forests and sage-scented grasslands meet steeply cliffed shores of the Pacific ocean. Even a simple drive through Big Sur on Highway 1 is worth the journey to get there, because there are countless easy turnoffs offering incredible views. When you’re there, you can feel a sense of peace that comes with being in the middle of nowhere. Except, you’re really not *that* far away from civilization because Monterey and Carmel are less than an hour’s drive away. This is what makes Big Sur an excellent destination for an elopement. Peace. Quiet. Nature. Far away from craziness of everyday life, but still very accessible.
This blog post is meant to help you plan your Big Sur elopement so that you don’t feel lost, digging around the internet for clues! I have gathered all of this information from a combination of extensive experience in Big Sur and hours of research. You will find information about where to stay, where to hold your ceremony, when to elope, vendors I recommend hiring, what the deal is with permits, how to be a good steward of the environment when you elope, and other miscellaneous tips from all my experience photographing elopements and weddings in Big Sur! This post doesn’t cover everything though. Couples who choose to work with me receive the benefit of an even deeper well of knowledge to help navigate their elopement plans. That is why working with a Monterey Bay local is a huge perk!
One thing to keep in mind: Big Sur has become much more popular to tourists in recent years. Please respect the land and the locals when you visit so that this wonderful place can stay beautiful and accessible!
Please note: I am NOT being compensated by any person or business listed in this blog. All recommendations come from my honest opinions based purely on experience.
- When to Elope in Big Sur
- How to Elope (Legally tying the Knot)
- Choosing Private Land vs Public Land For Your Ceremony Location
- My Favorite Places for Elopement Ceremonies
- Where to Get Married on Public Land
- Permits for State Parks
- Vendor Recommendations
- Lodging Options in Big Sur
- Why elope with Melissa
When to elope in Big Sur
Weather and Time of Year
Big Sur has a mild climate that makes it easy to visit most of the year. Big Sur is pretty nice any time between April to November, with chances of rain on either end of that visiting season. Many people say that fall is the best time to visit for dry, warm weather and clear skies. Much like San Francisco, Big Sur can get foggy in summer months. Don’t let the marine layer deter you though, the fog is beautiful in person and in your photographs. Just bring layers!
Even though coastal California has relatively mild winters, I do not necessarily recommend eloping in Big Sur during the winter season (December-February). In recent years, a combination of fires and major rainfall have been known to cause treacherous road conditions and closures. Landslides and sinkholes have plagued some of the smaller roads and even the main highway for a time. That said, rain during the late spring and late fall can be mild and beautiful. The scent of the redwood forest really comes alive in the rain! If you have chosen an easily accessible ceremony site you will have fewer troubles in bad weather.
Day of the Week Matters
The best time to elope in Big Sur is on a Monday-Thursday. Read on to find out why!
Most importantly, there are far more crowds in the scenic areas and on the highway on weekends. Big Sur is a popular tourist destination, so it can even feel crowded during the week sometimes. On weekends you are more likely to have trouble finding parking at various locations in Big Sur. There are more people on the trails, and you might be contending with several other people who want an impressive photo in the same location as you. You may even find this disrupting in a private location like a lodge, since many others will be trying to enjoy the same amenities onsite (river access, trails, restaurants, etc).
Another important reason to consider eloping on a Monday-Thursday date is that the Big Sur Sector State Parks only issue elopement permits (special event permits) for those specific weekdays. That may not matter to you if you choose not to get married in a state park, but keep in mind when choosing a location that a large amount of public land in coastal Big Sur lies within state park boundaries.
Lastly, eloping on a Monday-Thursday date will make it more likely to book your top picks for vendors and locations. Wedding vendors and venues often book up far in advance for weekend dates (one year or more), usually for larger “classic” weddings. Many vendors choose to reserve weekend dates for those larger weddings, since they rely on a certain number of bigger weddings annually to make ends meet. This applies to photographers, videographers, planners, venues, florists, hair & makeup artists, and officiants.
How to Elope
You can plan your elopement in SO many different ways. The great thing about eloping is the freedom to get married exactly the way you want to, and in the place you want to. When you elope, you are relieved of the pressure of performing certain traditions for the sake of family and friends. Eloping is intimate, relatively easy, and can be full of adventure or very straightforward.
Legally Tying the Knot:
There are three ways to legally marry your partner in California:
- You may go to the county courthouse or city hall and have an official marriage commissioner preside over your wedding
- You may hire an independent wedding officiant to preside over your marriage ceremony in the location of your choice (this could be a judge, justice, clergy member/religious leader, magistrate or Marriage Commissioner)
- Any individual over the age of 18 may legally preside over your ceremony in California if they take the steps to become authorized. An individual can attain a “commissioner for a day” authorization from the county, or they may become ordained by a religious organization. I have been ordained by American Marriage Ministries and can legally sign as your officiant on your marriage license (but I generally encourage couples to think about hiring or bringing someone who can craft a meaningful ceremony in addition to signing!)
Some couples decide to legally marry each other at the county courthouse and then later exchange vows in a meaningful, symbolic ceremony in their dream location. This could make sense for couples who are traveling internationally for their elopement, or who prefer the simplicity of having fewer people present during their symbolic ceremony. This could also make sense for couples going deep into the backcountry for their elopement ceremony, such as on an overnight trek.
If you plan to hold your legal ceremony outside the county courthouse, I’d recommend hiring an independent officiant who can craft a beautiful, custom ceremony for you. They will take care of the paperwork and submit your marriage license back to the county clerk within a few days of your ceremony. You will find my recommendations for officiants near the end of this post!
In order to be legally married you will need to secure a marriage license. There are different types of marriage licenses available depending on your state. In California, you can either get a Public Marriage License or a Confidential Marriage License.
A Public Marriage License is the most common type of marriage license. This license enables you to hold your official wedding ceremony outside the county where you applied for the license. It requires 1-2 witnesses and an officiant who is authorized to preside over a wedding. As your photographer, I am happy to sign as a witness.
A Confidential Marriage License does not require a witness in addition to an officiant. However, you must hold your wedding ceremony within the same county that you applied for the license. The difference between this license and a public license is that your records cannot be accessed by members of the public without permission.
the basics for planning your ceremony location in Big Sur
The Big Sur region is extremely large. Most people think of the coastal area, but there is also a very large inland region sitting just above and behind the Santa Lucia mountains. It can take a couple of hours just to drive the coastal section of Big Sur from north to south, so bear this in mind if you are considering incorporating multiple locations into your elopement day.
The whole Big Sur region is divided up into a few regions of protected public land (including state parks, land trusts, wilderness areas and national forest), interspersed with privately owned land. You can get married in one of the state parks, on national forest land, or at one of the established lodges or venues in the area. There are definite pros and cons to each type of location. No matter what type of place you choose, you’ll be surrounded by beautiful nature. Almost everywhere I’ve gone in Big Sur is either surrounded by beautiful trees, next to the river, or near ocean views.
About Private Land
Private venues (lodges, wedding venues, restaurants etc) can be a great choice for elopements in Big Sur. There are plenty of beautiful options nestled in the redwoods of Big Sur, or among coastal views. No matter where you stay, you can pretty much depend on being able to walk out the door and very quickly be surrounded by gorgeous nature.
There are fewer and fewer accessible public lands where ceremonies may be held in Big Sur (especially in the redwoods) due to overuse and irresponsible visitors. As a result, some of the best locations to get married are in private locations. Later on in this post I will list and link a few options!
Benefits of holding an elopement ceremony on private land:
- Guaranteed privacy
- Generally easy to access, especially if you have a few guests or a pet attending
- Many private options offer a place to get ready onsite
- No need to worry about permit applications or park closures
About Public Lands
There is a lot of protected public land in Big Sur. Each different area comes with different policies and requirements around elopements and weddings.
Most of the protected public land in Big Sur encompasses forests, steep grassy hillsides, and rocky coastlines. There are only a few publicly accessible beaches in Big Sur. In part, that is because the coastline is extremely steep, so the shore is not easily accessed in general. However, there are incredible, sweeping views of the coast from trails and vista points within the parks as well as from turnoffs on Highway 1.
Benefits of holding an elopement ceremony on public land:
- Certain locations offer couples an adventurous experience built into the process of getting to the chosen ceremony spot
- It is either free or relatively inexpensive to elope on public land
- Eloping in the wilderness or an undeveloped natural location can emphasize the feelings of spontaneity and connection with nature that many couples associate with the spirit of eloping
Outdoor Ethics for Public Lands
If you hold your ceremony on public lands, please do so responsibly to preserve the environment around you. “Leave No Trace” principles are very important to me as an elopement photographer and avid outdoor adventurer. Big Sur has been loved to death in many ways over the last several years, so please do your part to keep this place stunning and accessible!
Here are a few ways to minimize impact on the environment: pack out your trash (including fallen petals from a bouquet), stay on durable surfaces (like hard-packed clearings, trails, rocks, sand and gravel), do not walk over plant life, and respect the other visitors around you. Please do not throw confetti, rice or something similar, even if it is labeled as “biodegradable”. Do not use sparklers or smoke bombs, as these can easily cause wildfires (a huge problem in California!). If you want to do a dramatic champagne spray for a celebratory photo, please use bubbly water instead for the photo and save the champagne for drinking so that you minimize impact on the local wildlife (the spilled champagne will attract wildlife and can habituate them to humans, among other things). These are just a few ways to respect and preserve the environment. For more, check out this guide to Leave No Trace principles.
Where to Elope in Big Sur: My favorite locations
The following locations are some of the best places to elope, in my humble opinion! They are in no particular order. Couples who work with me benefit from learning about even more great public and private locations that this guide doesn’t cover!
1. Glen Oaks Big Sur
★ Also great for tiny weddings and larger weddings!
The very best private redwood grove in all of Big Sur, hands down. Glen Oaks is a lodge and event venue that is spread across both sides of Highway 1 in Big Sur. This location offers the most beautiful forest environment of any of the private lands within Big Sur. The cabins look woodsy on the outside, but on the inside they are modern, chic and comfortable. These cabins are nestled under tall redwoods along a beautiful, mellow river. You can plan an elopement here or even a full on wedding with up to 100 guests. Or, you can simply stay overnight here and elope somewhere else!
What I love about Glen Oaks is that you can walk right out of your cabin and find yourself a beautiful ceremony site nearby. There are lots of places for gorgeous portraits as well. Glen Oaks allows registered guests to hold a small elopement ceremony (4 people total or fewer) for free around their beautiful trails. But, you can also reserve a special ceremony site for a fee. Call them to find more details about those reservable sites.
2. Ventana Big Sur
★ Also great for tiny weddings and large weddings!
Ventana Big Sur is a luxurious resort that offers both high end hotel rooms and the hippest glamping sites you’ve ever seen. There is also a regular ol’ tent camping area! One of the cool advantages of this venue is that you can bask in sunshine and enjoy the ocean views by the pool, or walk 2 minutes and be on a trail shaded by a stunning redwood forest. Not a lot of Big Sur venues offer both types of scenery. This venue is accommodates small elopements and big weddings. They have a few different reservable ceremony sites in the redwoods or overlooking the ocean. My favorite ceremony site is called the “Redwood Circle of Life”, pictured below.
Update: I understand that Ventana is now offering all-inclusive packages for elopements, meaning you may not be able to choose your vendors or photographer.
3. Loma Vista Gardens
★ Also great for tiny weddings and larger weddings!
Okaaaayyy this is one of my absolute favorites! Loma Vista has recently been undergoing some exciting changes, allowing couples to choose from two different sites for elopements and weddings with guests. They have a newly available ocean view site that is *stunning* and perfect for couples wanting a completely private spot in a scenic location. This ocean view site is located on a gorgeous, peaceful ridge that makes you feel like you’re on top of the world. Loma Vista’s original garden location is in the midst of major renovations slated to be operational for 2021 weddings, but the ocean view site is available now!
4. Henry Miller Memorial Library
★ Also great for tiny weddings and larger weddings!
This quirky venue is home to a bookshop and lots of ever-evolving art installation exhibits. Couples may rent this venue for elopements or bigger weddings. There is a stunning canyon full of redwoods tucked right behind the main building and lawn of the Henry Miller Library. I love this venue because of it’s whimsical, super laid back vibe and beautiful natural setting. This venue is perfect for couples who want a private space in nature while avoiding the upscale, expensive venues.
5. Garrapata State Park
Garrapata State Park offers a stunning beach and dramatic views from trails along the rocky coastline. Located in the northern region of Big Sur, it is one of the first areas with beach access when driving south from Monterey. There are multiple access points. One of my favorite places here is Soberanes Point. Many couples decide to come to Garrapata for sunset portraits at the end of the day instead of doing their full elopement here. This location requires a permit to hold an elopement ceremony. Please note: due to COVID-19, the California State Parks are temporarily limiting regular elopement permits until further notice. Currently, only couples who are planning to elope on or after November 11th 2020 may apply for a special event permit for the Big Sur sector of CA state parks. Otherwise, couples must work with a planner who has a special annual permit for gatherings in state parks, like Coastside Couture.
Where you can get married on Public Land
The state parks in the Big Sur region include (from north to south):
COVID-19 UPDATE: Please note that due to COVID-19, the California State Parks have limited regular elopement permits. Some State Parks and other public lands do not require permits. Only couples who want to hold a ceremony on or after November 11th, 2020 in a Big Sur sector State Park may apply for a special event permit. Couples looking to elope before then must work with a planner who has a special annual permit for gatherings in state parks, like Coastside Couture. Read on for more information.
- Garrapata State Park
- Has easy beach and costal trail access directly off of Highway 1 (my favorite location for beach/coastal portraits)
- Known for it’s beaches, coastal trails and coastal views
- Permit required for elopements
- My opinion: This is my favorite coastal location in all of Big Sur!
- Andrew Molera State Park
- Has access to a gorgeous beach with an easy 1 mile hike
- Known for its beach, being one of the most surf-able locations in Big Sur, and possessing the oldest historic structure in Big Sur
- Has campground
- Permit required for elopements
- My opinion: This is great if you want a beach that is more off the beaten path. There is also a large tent camping area here with picnic tables.
- Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
- NO beach/ocean access
- Known for its redwood groves and the trail to Pfeiffer Falls (The trail to Pfeiffer Falls is currently closed until further notice)
- Highly developed park with a lodge and campground
- Permit required for elopements
- My opinion: This park is very developed, crowded and not ideal for elopements or portraiture. There is plenty of camping though, and a really wonderful river to play in!
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (Fall 2020 update: This park is closed indefinitely due to the Dolan Fire)
- NO beach access, but has access to an ocean vista and Mcway Falls
- Known for McWay Falls and its redwood groves
- Has beautiful trails through forest land, encompasses lots of the iconic type of scenery most people associate with Big Sur
- Permit required for elopements
- My opinion: This park is wonderful for redwoods and the view of McWay Falls. A must-see park in Big Sur.
- Limekiln State Park (Fall 2020 update: This park is closed indefinitely due to the Dolan Fire)
- Has access to a small rocky beach (not the most impressive beach, compared to others)
- Known for its trails through lush redwood groves, Limekiln Falls, and historic limekilns
- NO PERMIT required for elopements/weddings! This is the only state park in the region that does not require a permit
- My opinion: I love this park and it’s easy trails through the redwoods. Parking is extremely challenging, so reserve a campsite for a guaranteed spot or get there super early! (No walk-ins are allowed currently, as of summer 2020)
Other public land:
- Los Padres National Forest (USFS trails and roads in Los Padres National Forest are closed until further notice due to the Dolan Fire. Some day use locations are open.)
- There are lots of trails and land open to public use on National Forest land. Depending where you are, you do not need a permit to elope. This national forest is HUGE. Couples who work with me benefit from my knowledge about great options on National Forest land. The locations on National Forest land are for the truly adventurous.
- My opinion: National forest lands will forever be my favorite because you can really get away from the crowds who flock to state parks.
- Pfeiffer Beach
- There is no permit required for elopements at this locations. However, weddings and elopements are not permitted from March 15-October 15th. PLEASE BE AWARE: the road leading to Pfeiffer beach can be flooded by a seasonal creek in the rainy season, making it inaccessible at times. If you want to elope here, I’d recommend doing it closer to October 15th to avoid the possibility of flooding (rains generally pick up in November and get heavier December-March).
- This location is famous for the huge “keyhole” rock formation
- My opinion: I love this iconic beach, especially since it’s the closest accessible beach in central Big Sur. Beware of the potentially strong, sandy winds though!
Permits for Big Sur state parks
Most of the state parks in the Big Sur region require couples to apply for a permit in order to elope. Limekiln State Park is the only exception in the region. Couples may also secure a permit through an event planner who has a special annual event permit for small gatherings.
COVID-19 UPDATE: Please note that due to COVID-19, the California State Parks have limited regular elopement permits. Some State Parks and other public lands do not require permits. Only couples who want to hold a ceremony on or after November 11th, 2020 in a Big Sur sector State Park may apply for a special event permit. Couples looking to elope before then must work with a planner who has a special annual permit for gatherings in state parks, like Coastside Couture.
★ To apply for a permit, contact the Special Event Permit Office at BigSurEvents@parks.ca.gov or call 831-667-0507
Quick and dirty facts about permits:
- According to the state park website, elopement permits are “for very small, simple weddings without decorations in unconventional locations that must be hiked in to. All locations are outdoors, without any coverings.”
- The state park system allows for only one elopement per day in the Big Sur sector
- Permit applications can be submitted up to 6 months in advance of your elopement day
To qualify for an elopement permit:
- You must have 10 or fewer people present, including vendors and children
- You must not block or hinder any park visitor’s access to a site or trail
- You must not require seating
- You must not have any music (acoustic or amplified) or any other amplified sound
- You must not have any decorations other than “one single hand-held bouquet”
- Your elopement must occur during regular day-use hours, usually only on Mondays-Thursdays (sunrise-sunset)
- You must not not have any other vendors besides an officiant, a planner and one photographer
- You must not serve food or drink
Big Sur Vendor Recommendations
I am NOT being compensated by any person or business listed in this blog. All recommendations come from my honest opinions based purely on experience.
- Coastside Couture (Working with a planner who has an Annual Permit for special use events could enable you to bypass the permit application process for ceremonies in California State Parks)
Hair and Makeup:
- Me! I absolutely love photographing elopements in Big Sur and would love to provide you with more information on my approach and pricing. Shoot me an email!
Lodging & Camping in Big Sur
- Ventana Big Sur (Hotel style rooms, tent camping and glamping tent cabins)
- Glen Oaks Big Sur (My favorite!)
- Post Ranch Inn
- Big Sur River Inn
- Fernwood Resort (Camping and cabins)
- Big Sur Campground and Cabins
- Tree Bones Resort (Yurts and camping)
- Big Sur Lodge (inside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park)
- Lucia Lodge
- Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn (Update: This lodge is currently closed until further notice as of August 2020. Let’s hope this wonderful lodge opens their doors again soon!)
Bring warm layers, shoes you can comfortably walk with on steep trails, and a bottle of champagne! Stilettos are not ideal for most locations in Big Sur. Also consider bringing a small blue tooth speaker you can use if you want to have your first dance out in the wild or wherever you choose to elope.
Please do not bring confetti, rice, glitter or anything similar for tossing, even if it is labeled biodegradable. Unfortunately it is harmful to the environment and wildlife, stays put for a long time and leaves a big mess! Also, do not bring smoke bombs or sparklers. These can easily ignite wildfires! In order to keep nature pristine and accessible for future visitors, we need to be careful of how we impact the land on your elopement day.
Not much! Be prepared to be largely without cell service. Certain areas do get service (I always get ATT service from the parking lot of the restaurant at Ventana Big Sur). Plug in your destinations on your gps app before you head into Big Sur. If you’re planning to hike to a ceremony spot in a state park with guests present, consider bringing two-way radios to keep everyone in communication.
First and foremost, plan out a couple hours to drive down/up the coast on highway 1. The views from the road are unreal, and there are about a million turnoffs where you can quickly stop to soak in the view.
Take a hike! Big Sur has old growth redwoods, waterfalls, rivers and creeks, and secluded beaches and coves to enjoy. Some of my favorite hikes are in Julia Pfeiffer State Park and Limekiln State Park.
Pack a picnic and take it to a beach! Garrapata Beach, Pfeiffer Beach and Sand Dollar Beach are all great options.
There are many ways to make your elopement day feel special and memorable. Some things to consider: writing personalized vows, planning a first dance, having a musician present (maybe you’re the musician!), cutting and eating a cake, popping champagne, exchanging letters or gifts before your ceremony, going to a special restaurant for dinner afterward, having a catered picnic, and collecting items from your elopement to put into a time capsule (like dried or pressed flowers from your bouquet/boutonniere, or a sprig of redwood needles from the ground at your ceremony location).
Please be sure to obtain the proper permits for any public location you choose for you ceremony. Respect the land by staying on trails and using durable surfaces for ceremonies (such as a pre–existing hard-packed clearing with no plant life). If you are in an area where certain places are roped off, do not cross beyond those boundaries. Usually this is in place to restore plant life from previous visitors, or to protect visitors from eroding cliffs. Pack out all your trash and leave the area better than you found it. Please do not trespass onto private property bordering public areas. As mentioned earlier, please do not plan on tossing confetti, glitter, rice or using smoke bombs and sparklers. Thank you for caring about preserving nature and future accessibility to it!
Your elopement day will involve a little more distance than usual between you and your vendors (photographer, hair and makeup artist, etc). I will keep my mask on all day and sanitize my hands whenever possible in order to protect your health. You may find that there are fewer restaurants at which to eat, and fewer open parks to roam. Instead of driving you myself to any off-site locations like I usually do, we will caravan to any secondary locations that may be planned for your day. Ultimately, your overall experience of Big Sur will likely feel just as wondrous as pre-covid days.
WHY ELOPE WITH MELISSA?
I love helping couples plan and create meaningful experiences for their elopement or wedding day in addition to documenting it. I love all weddings, but something about elopements feels extra special because they allow couples to live out their wedding day EXACTLY how they want to, without the pressures from family or society. These intimate experiences will be treasured for a long time, and it is an honor to be invited into that experience as a photographer. That said, I offer a lot more than simple photography when it comes to elopements. I recognize that many couples want guidance in planning their elopement day because the limitless possibilities can sometimes feel overwhelming. That, and many couples choose to elope in new places they are unfamiliar with. In order to help couples plan their dream elopement day, I have spent years finding the most beautiful, inspiring locations for elopements in Big Sur and Santa Cruz county. However, there is more to an elopement day than a beautiful location for stunning portraits. Couples who work with me get a photographer who brings the focus back to creating a memorable experience, not just pretty photos. Couples who work with me also benefit from having a photographer who has lots of knowledge about and experience with the Big Sur region .
Reach out to me about photography if you’re considering an elopement in Big Sur, Santa Cruz, Tahoe or anywhere else in California. I would love to give you detailed information about my photography services and help you navigate your elopement adventure! I specialize in guiding and documenting adventurous elopements in the outdoors.