Where and How to Elope in Big Sur:
A comprehensive guide to locations and vendor recommendations
Why Big Sur?
Big Sur is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous region of rugged coastline just south of Monterey, California. Redwood forests meet steeply cliffed shores of the Pacific. 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. I’m going to give you information about where to stay, where to hold your ceremony, when to elope, vendors I recommend hiring, what the deal is with permits, 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!
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)
- The Basics for Planning Your Ceremony Location (what you need to know about private land, public land, and permit requirements)
- Where to Elope (recommendations for the best venues and public land locations)
- Where to Have a Tiny Wedding in Big Sur (25ish or fewer guests)
- Vendor Recommendations
- Lodging Options in Big Sur
- Why elope with Melissa
When to elope in Big Sur
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 August, September and October are the best months to visit for dry, warm weather. Much like San Francisco, Big Sur can get foggy in warm months. Don’t let the marine layer deter you though, it is as gorgeous in photographs as it is in person.
Even though coastal California has relatively mild winters, I do not necessarily recommend eloping in Big Sur during the winter season (December-March). In recent years, major rainfall has been known to cause treacherous road conditions and closures. Landslides and sinkholes have plagued some of the smaller roads and even the main highway. That said, rain during the late spring and 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.
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 if they take the steps to get 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
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 Lucia mountains. It can take a couple 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, at certain airbnb rentals, 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.
Privately owned land (lodges, venues, air bnbs, etc) can be a great choice for elopements because you have guaranteed privacy and you won’t have to fuss with permits. There are plenty of beautiful options nestled in the redwoods of Big Sur, or with 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. Later on in this post I will list and link some options!
State Parks, National Forest & Other Public Lands
Much of the protected wilderness area in Big Sur is known as Ventana Wilderness, which is part of the Los Padres National Forest. This region contains a variety of state parks within it. Depending on what park or region you are in, there are different rules and regulations regarding elopements. The most easily accessible parts of Big Sur are in the northern part of the region, and are mostly contained within state parks land. State parks generally pose the most rules and restrictions for eloping couples.
Most of the protected public land in Big Sur encompasses forests, grasslands and hillsides. 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 vista points within the parks and from turnoffs on Highway 1.
State parks and other public lands offer iconically gorgeous environments for a wedding ceremony. After all, there is a reason that those particular regions are protected and preserved! However, don’t forget that many other people will be around to enjoy the sights as well. Maybe this won’t bother you, but you’ll definitely want to consider how lack of privacy might affect your experience of the ceremony. You can always visit these areas for portraits if you decide not to hold your ceremony on public land.
The state parks in the Big Sur region include (from north to south):
- 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
- Andrew Molera State Park
- Has access to a gorgeous beach with an easy 1 mile hike
- Known for its beach, being the most surf-able location in Big Sur, and possessing the oldest historic structure in Big Sur
- Has campground
- Permit required for elopements
- Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
- NO beach/ocean access
- Known for its redwood groves and the trail to Pfeiffer Falls
- Highly developed park with a lodge and campground
- Permit required for elopements
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
- 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
- Limekiln State Park
- Has access to a very small rocky beach (not an 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
Other public land run by the Forest Service:
- Los Padres National Forest
- 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. 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.
- Pfeiffer Beach
- NO PERMIT required for eloping, but weddings 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 as close to October 15th as possible to avoid the possibility of flooding (late October or early-mid November).
- This location is famous for the huge “keyhole” rock formation
Permits for 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 (more on that later!).
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 (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
If there is a special spot in one of these parks that requires a permit, it may very well be worth the small amount of paperwork to secure your elopement plans. But if all this business about permits conflicts with your plans or turns you off, don’t worry! I’ll walk you through alternative options. And remember, you can always visit any of these parks to take portraits without a permit!
Where to Elope: My favorite locations
The following locations are some of the best places to elope, in my humble opinion! Most of them are private land. 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!
Glen Oaks is a lodge and event venue that is spread out into many little cabins and rooms on both sides of Highway 1 in Big Sur. The river runs right through it. Take a hike through the Glen Oaks property and you’ll feel like you’re really in the woods. It’s a powerful feeling, especially since it’s so easy to access. The cabins look rustic on the outside, but on the inside they are modern, chic and comfortable. 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. But, you can also reserve a special ceremony site through Glen Oaks. Call them to find more details about those reservable sites.
2. Ventana Big Sur
★ Also great for tiny 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 three different reservable ceremony sites specifically for intimate weddings (two in the redwoods, and one on a sunny patio overlooking the ocean). My favorite ceremony site is called the “Redwood Circle of Life”, pictured below. The folks at Ventana Big Sur offer friendly, top notch service.
3. Loma Vista Gardens
Loma Vista has recently undergone some exciting changes, allowing couples to choose from two different sites for elopements and small weddings. They have a newly acquired ocean view site that is perfect for couples wanting a completely private location in a gorgeous location.
4. Limekiln State Park
★ Also great for tiny weddings!
Limekiln is the only state park in the Big Sur region that doesn’t require a permit for elopements. Not only does that make it easier to plan your wedding date, but it means that there are fewer rules. No, it doesn’t mean you should trample the ferns and set up a sound system, but it DOES mean you can bring more than 10 people with you. There is a great clearing for ceremonies off the trail within a 5 minute walk of the main trailhead. Finding a natural clearing is important for preserving the plant life in the forest, so please keep this in mind as you scout out your perfect location within any forest or wild area.
Jack and Dana (pictured below) brought a couple dozen of their closest family and friends with them to their tiny wedding ceremony in Limekiln State Park. They reserved two or three campsites to ensure parking spaces for their guests in the otherwise limited space.
5. Garrapata State Park
Garrapata State Park offers some stunning beaches and coastal views. 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 to the beach. There is also an awesome coastal trail within the park located at Soberanes Point. Many couples decide to come here for sunset portraits at the end of the day instead of doing their full elopement here.
More great venues for Tiny Weddings in Big Sur
Are you bringing along a small group of guests? As previously described in this post, Glen Oaks Big Sur and Ventana Big Sur are both great places to hold wedding ceremonies and receptions with guests. Below are even more venue options that are great for tiny weddings in Big Sur!
1. Loma Vista Gardens
Loma Vista Gardens is a small venue with a bohemian feel directly next to Big Sur Bakery. You may hold your ceremony and reception entirely onsite of this gorgeous little outdoor venue. Or you can hold your ceremony under the sculptural arch and walk a few feet next door to hold your dinner reception on the terrace of Big Sur Bakery.
2. Big Sur Bakery
Big Sur Bakery has a romantic little terrace off to the side of their main facility that can be reserved for private wedding receptions. The terrace is rustic, cozy and lit with classic bistro lights. It makes a great reception location for couples who have small guest counts, as in 30-ish or fewer. One thing I love about this venue is their incredible food!
As I mentioned earlier in this post, Big Sur Bakery is adjacent to another venue called Loma Vista Gardens. They pair well if you’d like to hold your ceremony in a more spacious location and then walk through a garden right over to your reception!
3. Point 16
Point 16 offers a full service wedding venue with amazing coastal views! Aside from the iconic views, this venue is known for its high quality catering. Book this epic location if you’re looking to be wowed and to wow your guests too!
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.
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 in Big Sur
- Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn
- Ventana Big Sur (Hotel style rooms and Glamping)
- Glen Oaks Big Sur
- Post Ranch Inn
- Big Sur River Inn
- Wind and Sea Estate (Air BnB that is also a small wedding venue)
- Tree Bones Resort (Glamping)
- Big Sur Lodge (inside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park)
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.
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 in one of the state parks! Big Sur has old growth redwoods, waterfalls, rivers and creeks, and secluded beaches and coves to enjoy.
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!), popping champagne, exchanging letters or gifts before your ceremony, going to a special restaurant for dinner afterward, 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 your ceremony location).
WHY ELOPE WITH MELISSA?
I adore documenting couple’s on their elopement day because I love helping people create meaningful experiences. 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 Santa Cruz county and Big Sur. 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 learning even more about the public and private location options open to them that I have scouted over the years.
Reach out to me about photography if you’re considering an elopement in Big Sur 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.
Still not sure about where to elope? Check out this other blog post about places to elope in Santa Cruz county!