UPDATE March 2021: Campgrounds and dispersed camping are closed per Forest Order due to the Dolan Fire. Be sure to check the US Forestry website for updates. Large fines are imposed for camping in closed areas.
The Indians Ranch area in Big Sur’s Ventana Wilderness is a great place for dispersed camping. Early spring is a great time to see the blooming wildflowers, majestic rock formations and rushing water in the rivers after the recent rains.
Springs were oozing water right out of the rock walls. Recovering from the long drought, you can feel the earth rejoicing as its springs, creeks, and large streams have gushed back to life.
Sights and sounds
We camped to the sound of a gurgling stream, among budding trees, with a view of towering rocky pinnacles. We found this place just past the closed gate for the Arroyo Seco Trail, as you drive past the Memorial Campground sign.
Red salamanders played in the stream and wildflowers made splashes of vibrant colors in the fresh green grass.
Bright red poison oak was plentiful among the brush and trees. Be on the lookout as a brush with this plant can produce terrible itchy blisters on your skin. The irritating oil from its foliage can cling to your shoes, clothing, and dogs, from which you can later contract a painful rash.
We once got it from our friends burning wood that had been in poison oak. Our eyes were nearly swollen shut the next morning and it took a month to recover. A local firefighter told us we were lucky not to have gotten it in our lungs. If your skin comes in contact with poison oak, wash immediately with grease-cutting dish soap.
In late March the weather was warm enough to hike without a heavy jacket and cool enough that insects (especially mosquitoes) were not pesky.
Cattle roam this area and frequently cross the main road. It was fun to see the young calves frolic nearby their mother cows with bulging bags of milk.
If you are a shutterbug, this vibrant place has no end of beautiful, interesting photos to shoot! I have posted pictures I took from this trip at the end of this article, for you to get an idea of the wild beauty of this area.
Using my cell phone camera is nice and lightweight for hiking and takes decent photos. However, I love my Panasonic Lumix FZ300 digital camera for its great zoom lens to see wildlife up close without spooking them. It also takes nice macro shots of flowers and insects.
Where is The Indians camp area?
The Indians are located along the rugged California coastal ranges, on the southeastern side of the Big Sur Ventana Wilderness Area designated as the Milpitas Special Interest Area. Camping is located inside the Los Padres National Forest bordering the Fort Hunter Liggett military base.
Sound confusing? We use a detailed map of the Monterey & Santa Lucia Ranger Districts by the U.S. Forest Service. Order your map to know how to get there as well as other beautiful camping in this vast, rugged area.
Del Venturi Road (County Route #4050) is the main access road to drive into The Indians camping area. However, we discovered a gate closing the road halfway there. We backtracked to the fort, driving past Mission San Antonio to Mission Creek Road.
This dirt road winds over the low mountains to reach the other side of the closed gate to continue on to The Indians area. You are driving over military land here and we came across troops and military vehicles exercising training maneuvers.
A gate closed off the muddy road and stream crossing just past The Memorial Campground area too. Most likely the road will be reopened during the drier summer months to gain access to more camping.
Traveling on a military base
Strict warning signs are posted for no public use off the roads due to live fire and military use along Mission Creek Road. Civilians are subject to provide valid identification (like your driver’s license), proof of insurance, and search of your vehicle while anywhere on base.
At one point we were guided through a barricaded area by a soldier with a nice smile, serving from Virginia. We thanked him for his service to our country. My husband worked at Ft. Hunter Liggett as a civilian for 12 years and enjoyed his time there.
Despite the many campgrounds that are closed off due to heavy rain, there are lots of options for dispersed camping. The green meadows dotted with graceful, ancient oak trees, offer a camper’s paradise in areas marked by short white numbered 4×4 post markers. Check out my photo gallery below, for pictures of these markers and their corresponding camp areas.
The best camping can be found driving the sections marked 2, and 4 through 8. My favorite is the loop of sections 4 to 5, where you can overlook and hear the nearby river. Most of these campsites along the dirt roads can be driven with a high clearance vehicle. We encountered several muddy places and deep ruts but did not have to use our 4 wheel drive. Expect stream crossings in some areas.
Equestrians are welcome to ride and camp here, with numerous trails to explore. Sections 2 and 7 seemed especially horse camping friendly with room to park horse trailers. Area 7 ends at pipe fencing with openings to allow hikers and horseback riders through. The number 2 area has wide open spaces littered with massive fallen trees and ends at a barbed-wire fence. There are easy places to turn a trailer around to park and camp. Remember to leave to trace!
The Earth laughs in flowers.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
The rock formations are especially interesting in this area of the Los Padres National Forest. Tall pinnacles with pine trees clinging and growing out of the large cracks form sheer walls, deep ravines, and crags to the south.
A yellow trail sign, simply named “Trail” is posted across from a red house, near the Memorial Park Campground. This trail offers a beautiful hike through meadows and over streams to explore the fascinating rock formations there. Lichen, deep holes and cave-like depressions grace these rocky outcroppings. No bicycles are allowed on this particular trail, but hikers and horseback riders are welcome.
Here is a shout out to the wonderful volunteers who work to maintain the trails in the park. Read about their mission, find other hikes and get trip planning tips, online at the Ventana Wilderness Alliance.
There is no cell reception in most places here, so being that our trip was a spur of the moment, we did not check ahead of time for road closures. However, you can check the most Los Padres National Forest current conditions or use the Allstays Santa Lucia Memorial Campground link. These websites also offer current weather links for the general area. We had rain showers on this trip but they did not dampen our fun. We are thrilled the drought is over for now.
Rattlesnakes are more active here in summer but can be found at any time of year. Read my Rattlesnake savvy post to learn more about sharing space with these shy reptiles. It is especially important to train your children and dogs to avoid rattlers. Ticks, mosquitoes, poison oak, and mountain lions are also hazards for which to be alert.
Summer is the busiest season for this area with folks playing in the nearby streams and rivers. The bugs are pesky at this time of year and the temperatures soar into the high 90s and low 100s. We have camped here during the peak Memorial Day Weekend. However, I much prefer to camp here during the cooler seasons.
Mission San Antonio is a wonderful respite to explore on your way to and from The Indians. This remote oasis in the mountains was built in 1771 and offers the modern-day traveler a museum and gift shop.
Directly across from Mission San Antonio, you can also check out the historic Hacienda for lunch or hotel accommodations on base at Fort Hunter Liggett. This beautiful structure was built in 1930 by William Randolph Hearst for his Milpitas Ranch house as part of his vast holdings along the California coast.
The world-famous Hearst Castle is a worthy day trip along Highway 1. From The Indians area, you can reach Highway 1 over the mountainous Nacimiento Fergusson Road, making it about a 2-hour drive to reach the castle.
Photos of our trip to The Indians area. Look for pics of the numbered road markers that are grouped by area to check out for your own dispersed camping.
Be sure to check out my post of camping at The Indians to find the Wagon Wheel Cave and some great hiking trails. For more info on what to see in Big Sur, check out this guide by OutsideHow for area campgrounds, restaurants and hiking trails.