Big Sur may be the crown jewel of the California coast—thanks to its dramatic cliffs, sweeping Pacific views, and towering redwood forests—but for years it’s been nearly impossible to book a spot at one of the more than a dozen campgrounds there. Situated along the popular Highway 1 coastal route, Big Sur is extremely popular with vacationing road-trippers as well as with weekend warriors from both San Francisco and Los Angeles, and campsites regularly sell out as soon as they become available.
But in 2022, a brand-new campground will open just an hour north of this beloved area in the little-known Fort Ord Dunes State Park. Better still—it’s oceanfront.
Of course, one 98-site campground won’t take much strain off Big Sur, but it will give campers in the know a new option. And Fort Ord has coastal charms all its own. The 837-acre state park, which was added to the California State Parks system in 1994 and opened for public day use in 2009, overlooks Monterey Bay and includes four miles of beach and plenty of pristine dune habitat. It’s already a favorite spot for local hikers and wildlife enthusiasts, who keep their eyes peeled for pelicans, egrets, and the gray and humpback whales that migrate up and down the coast.
In addition to giving future campers one heck of a view—imagine watching the sunset over the Pacific while you sit around a campfire!—the new campground will fill a void for public camping opportunities along the coast of Monterey Bay. It will be the only campsite for more than 60 miles on the coast between southern Santa Cruz County and Big Sur.
The new campground, which will mostly be out of view of nearby Highway 1, will be located immediately adjacent to the bunkers on this former military base. It will include 45 RV campsites with electrical and water hookups, 43 traditional tent campsites, and 10 walk-in sites that will be accessible from the 50-mile Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail for backpackers and bikepackers. Four of the RV campsites and six traditional campsites (including two double family campsites) will be wheelchair accessible. The campsites will be equipped with picnic tables, fire rings, and tent areas, and the new facilities include four restroom buildings with showers and a modern campfire center/amphitheater with full audiovisual equipment.
Currently, Fort Ord has minimal facilities and draws about 100,000 people per year, according to the San Jose Mercury News. But the new campsite is just one part of a plan to improve the entire park. The project also includes the construction of two overlooks—one in the heart of the campground at the crest of the dunes overlooking the ocean, and the other near an old guard tower—a beach access walkway with interpretive displays that will allow visitors to access the waves without damaging the delicate dunes and a community building with an indoor/outdoor fireplace and a concession area. And 2 of the 12 existing storage bunkers will be repurposed; one will be modified as an interpretive display explaining the history of this fort, where more than 2 million men and women served between 1917 and 1994, and the other will be used for park operations. Plans also include a 200-foot wildlife corridor to reduce the area’s impact on the landscape.
But although it’s sure to be a popular spot—all of California’s parks are—Fort Ord will likely still feel less frenetic than some of the state’s best-known campgrounds. There is no direct turnoff into the park from Highway 1, so those who take the time to wind around and over the freeway to the entrance are doing so intentionally. And the 14,000-acre Fort Ord National Monument, designated by President Obama in 2012, is just across the road, sharing the burden of day-use visitors and hikers, with its additional 86 miles of old roads and trails.
Construction is expected to start in fall of 2020. While you’ll have to wait to roll out your sleeping bag, you can visit both Fort Ord Dunes State Park and the national monument now.