How to Elope in Big Sur - 2021 - Seeking Venture Photo

How to Elope in Big Sur – 2021

Why Elope in Big Sur?

There are so many great reasons to elope in Big Sur. The often romanticized coastline along Highway 1 is something that visitors from all around the world come to witness. Big Sur has been growing in popularity exponentially as millions of people discover its beauty for the first time on social media and television shows like Big Little Lies and Ratched. It’s easy to see why–the landscape is one of the most breathtaking in the entire world and one of the most photogenic as well. From towering redwoods to rocky cliffs, the long stretch of Highway 1 in Big Sur can offer something to literally anyone.

It is home to rugged individualists living in solitary cabins and multi-millionaires alike; Ted Turner and David Packard have made it their home. Anne Hathaway was married here. Celebrities frequently visit for fancy retreats in the wilderness and families from all over the country come to spend a few nights camping as well. The unrivaled grandeur, however, isn’t just for the rich and famous. Big Sur is for everyone. Be sure to check out our other in-depth guide that covers everything about the area in general!

Who Should Elope in Big Sur?

A wedding in Big Sur might be for you if you:
▶ love adventure
▶ want to say your vows in dreamy scenery
▶ appreciate nature
▶ can ‘go with the flow’
▶ enjoy road tripping

A wedding in Big Sur might not be for you if you:
▶ plan on inviting everyone you know
▶ don’t like surprises
▶ expect total privacy
▶ aren’t a “nature person”

How to Elope in Big Sur:

A sun flare casts on a couple who wed in Big Sur.

Marriage Licenses & Self Uniting

The majority of Big Sur lies within Monterey County. However, the bottom tip reaches a few miles south into San Luis Obispo County from Ragged Point Inn down. The process for a marriage license is different in the two counties. California residents can get their license in any county and use it statewide for 90 days. Marriage licenses from Monterey County can be obtained at the County Clerk’s office in the town of Salinas and online. However, both partners must appear in person with appropriate identification to complete the registration and pay $85 within 2 weeks of starting the application online.

In San Luis Obispo county, couples can also get a head-start by filling out their registration online, but they still must appear in person to present identification before finalizing the process. The cost there is $100.

Any individual over 18 years of age can be an officiant at a wedding in California by becoming ordained online or obtaining a “commissioner for a day” permit from the proper county. This is great if you have friends or family that you’d prefer as your officiant.

There must also be one witness present over the age of 18 to sign the marriage certificate, your photographer can fulfill this role.

Self-union

Self-Union–or self-solemnization ceremonies–allow a couple to get married without the presence of a third-party officiant. You simply sign the marriage certificate yourself and turn it back into the state when you’re done! California allows couples to choose this option if they subscribe to a “non-clergy belief system” such as atheism or agnosticism. There is a separate marriage license application that goes along with it. You will need to have two adult witnesses present, however.

Get Legit- Permits

A couple almost kisses during their elopement in Big Sur.

This is no doubt the hardest part of the entire process of trying to elope in Big Sur. The last thing you should worry about on your wedding day is being cited by a ranger. Obtaining a permit is non-negotiable when we are your photographers. We wish for all our couples to have the best day possible and no one should have to worry. Getting disrupted by a ranger is bad enough, and there are also hefty fines and/or park bans otherwise! You do not want to get caught having an illegal event. It’s better to go through the proper channels and support the parks system.

As your photographer, we include all photography-related permit costs in our packages; one less thing to worry about! Please be aware certain locations may require a Special Event permit as well if you are having a ceremony at a particular location.

Special Event Permits

Some parks, including Andrew Molera State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park limit groups to 10 people and set a 4-hour time limit. A Special Event permit will cost $275.00. There’s a $25 non-refundable filing fee, $100 if reserved less than 30 days prior to your event. You will also have to pay a $400 – $1500 Damage Deposit, depending on the park. The same permit for Garrapata State Park is a bit more. It costs $400 for 1 hour with up to 25 guests. You must submit your permit 60 days before your elopement, or you will be charged an extra processing fee. The sooner you apply, the better! Don’t to get stuck without a permit because you waited too long to file!

Big Sur is not the place for a huge party, unless you are going to be at an established venue. Most parks limit how many people in a group can be on a trail at a given time. Also, larger parties could have trouble reaching their objective together as the terrain and weather are variable and often challenging.

Where to Go, Permit Free!

Limekiln State Park

Limekiln State Park has a lot to offer and does not require any special permits for small ceremonies. Unfortunately, most it’s trails and facilities are closed due to damage from the Dolan fire, but Limekiln Beach is currently open and accessible.

Pfeiffer Beach

Between October 15 to March 15, Pfeiffer beach offers free access for couples that wish to have small ceremonies. Timing is critical because the weather during these months can be stormy with cloud cover, high winds and fog can roll in at a moment’s notice. Also, Sycamore Canyon Road can be prone to flooding after rain, so low-set cars may have trouble accessing the beach at all. The wind can be pretty strong here as well, so keep that in mind if you have a flowy veil or long hair!

How to Get to Big Sur:

Big Sur is accessible by air from the north and the south. The fastest way to do so is to fly into Monterey Regional Airport (MRY) and drive 20 miles south on beautiful Highway 1. If you don’t mind a longer drive, you can land at San Luis Obispo Regional Airport (SLO) and then drive north, or San Francisco International (SFO) and drive south, either of the two drives will take about 2.5 hours to complete in addition to the flight. Big Sur is only directly accessible via Highway 1. To a lesser extent, Nacimiento-Fergusson Road leads to the area from the east when the road is clear. Nacimiento-Fergusson Road is currently closed due to damage from the Dolan fire and subsequent flooding that took place in the winter of 2020.

Have a Plan for the Day + Timelines

There is barely cell reception in Big Sur, unless you are near one small spot by the post office. Make sure you know when and where you’ll be stopping beforehand! There is a mile-marker system in case you get lost, but it only really helps if you know what to look for before you start your trip.

Why We Don’t Allow Short Photography Coverage


If you hire a photographer for 1-to-2 hours only to cover your ceremony and maybe a few portraits, you end up missing out on so much! This is your wedding day, you deserve more than just ‘quick pics’. Our shortest package has 4 hours of coverage. We feel that this is the minimum necessary to really tell the story of your unique wedding day in Big Sur.  

It’s important for us to have a real connection to our couples. We wish to actually get to know you and still have a relationship with you long after your day ends. One-hour sessions are not conducive to that kind of mutual relationship!

Timeline

The timeline for your elopement or small wedding day in Big Sur is something we help you with during the planning stages. It is important to always have more time built into the day when going to each location, as traffic & parking in Big Sur is not always easy. Things can go wrong, which is why it’s important to have a great attitude and backup plan set in place as well!

Check out our Big Sur timeline examples below. This will give you an idea of what we want for our clients!

Activities

Having a ceremony & saying your vows shouldn’t be the only thing on your to-do list the day you get married. Our couples mostly love to have hiking elopements, but your day can consist of literally anything and this is not a requirement to book with us. If you are looking for something more laid back, let’s just cruise around Big Sur and stop in several different areas!

Food: Do you imagine having a sweet picnic together on the beach or would you like to stop for a sit-down meal? If you are renting an Airbnb, consider having a private chef coming to you for a truly special meal!

Guest Count: There really aren’t a whole lot of venues that can accommodate a huge group within Big Sur. If you are thinking of sharing your vows in one of the parks, this number gets even smaller. Big Sur might not be the best option for you if you would like to invite everyone you know. However, there are many options to choose from if you plan on having a larger guest count that aren’t far away. Let us know if you need recommendations for other locations! We discuss more about traditional venues below, so don’t be discouraged.

When to Elope in Big Sur:

Consider the Weather

Big Sur has beautiful weather all year with a short wet season between November and February. Temperatures generally stay between 50-70 for the year. Winter rains do happen and this is usually the only time of year where the weather can interfere with plans. Mudslides can occur during heavy rainfalls, also. There are even wildfires, but they’re uncommon, so be sure to check the Forest Service website before your visit. The best time to plan a wedding is in the fall. Really, any time between March and October will make for pleasant weather. As your photographers, we will discuss detailed backup plans with you, just in case!

Weekdays Are Way Less Crowded!

Since the area is a major tourist destination, we strongly recommend that you have a weekday event. If your plans involve parking numerous vehicles at a trailhead or skipping around between venues with several groups of people, this can save you a lot of hassle. You will also have a better chance of privacy in a lot of outdoor places, especially in the off-season!

Where to Elope in Big Sur:

Location, Location, Location

Venues for a More Traditional Wedding:

Big Sur has a bunch of options that would suit your elopement or small wedding. There is a lot to think about when choosing your venue. What kind of scenery do you want to be married in? What kind of experience are you looking for–laid back or adventurous, maybe both? Will you have a handful of guests? Will they need a place to stay? If you are planning a larger gathering, we suggest you first check with these well-established and well-loved venues listed below.

Glen Oaks Big Sur

Luxurious standalone cabins and towering redwood trees. Contact them directly for pricing and additional information about your event.

The Big Sur Lodge

A great way to say your vows under the redwood trees in the heart of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. They have an on-site coordinator for weddings and friendly pricing. Events start at $60 per guest for events up to 120 guests. They have no shortage of options for your big day, including 62 cabins that can all be booked for everyone attending.

Ventana Resort

Ventana is a high-end venue with five-star accommodations for guests to the area and to wedding parties alike. This is where Anne Hathaway had her wedding a few years ago–shut up! They have a 12,000 square-foot event space with both redwood and ocean views. There is even a menu for your dog! Inquire on their website for current pricing. All-inclusive small weddings for up to 30 guests can be booked for $20,000. Lodging is separate.

Big Sur River Inn

This 86-year old venue along the beautiful Big Sur river has 20 guest houses and many options. Their pricing is comparable to the nearby Big Sur lodge with events starting at $70 per guest.

The Henry Miller Library

This ultra-cool bookstore/venue sits in a gully between two redwood-lined ridges on an inland bend along the highway. As the name suggests, it is dedicated to the late Henry Miller, an author who called Big Sur home. Many major artists have had intimate concerts here and it’s a Big Sur icon/must see! Elopements start at $1200, events up to 100 guests are $5000. Over 100 guests cost $6000.

Loma Vista Gardens

Private wedding venue that has beautiful grounds, spectacular mountain views and many complimentary services that take the stress away for couples in the planning process. Small weddings up to 25 guests start at $5200, full-day packages for larger parties up to 100 guests start at $10,400.

Big Sur Grange

The Big Sur Grange is a small event hall in the redwoods that is available for rent. Couples must adhere to current Covid-19 safety protocols in order to rent the space.

Best Spots for Adventure Elopements:

If you have a small party or no party besides the two of you, an adventure elopement might be the best thing for you! There are also lots of important questions to answer before settling on a location. Are you early birds or would you rather have a more evening-based day? Do you enjoy long hikes or would you like to stay near the highway? Lots of parks are happy to host you, and many of the above-listed venues have packages for smaller parties. More options can be seen below:

Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park

This park has numerous redwood trails as well as access to the Big Sur River. There is a restaurant and lodge with cabins that you can stay in once everything is all said and done! The Big Sur Lodge can help you with reservations if you are interested.

Pfeiffer Beach

As mentioned earlier, Pfeiffer Beach is an excellent location for a small ceremony! There are stipulations and blackout dates, but if you are planning on an off-season date, Pfeiffer Beach is hard to beat. The keyhole rock formation is an excellent place for some epic photos! Fun fact: the kissing scene in “From Here to Eternity” was filmed on Pfeiffer Beach in 1953.

Garrapata State Park

This park has a little bit of everything. Towering redwoods, mountain hikes, a jagged coastline and great views in every direction! If you get there between March and June, there are also wildflowers that bloom at different intervals all over the park and you will have a colorful show for your photos. It also has the advantage of being a short distance from the Monterey Airport and Carmel-by-the-Sea, since there are no campsites in the park.

Andrew Molera State Park

This park has miles of coastline with a sandy beach as well as coastal bluff trails that make for great sunset photos! Easy access in the summertime is provided with a seasonal footbridge, but between October and April, the bridge is removed and you’ll have to cross the knee-deep water yourself! It’s not dangerous, but it can be a pain to walk around with wet shoes.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Home to McWay Falls and Partington Cove as well as some of the more strenuous hikes in the area. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is for experienced hikers and those who don’t mind putting in a bit of work for a spectacular view. The good news is that when you get up into the hills above the highway, the crowds disappear and you will get a bit more privacy!

Our Favorite Hidden Gems

We live in the area full time, and we get out to explore every chance we get. Over the years, we’ve found plenty of scenic spots and hidden gems scattered around the area. Many don’t fall within park boundaries, and we reserve these for clients only! Contact us for more information.

Where to Stay

If you are looking for the most luxurious accommodations you can find, there are many options. Aside from some of the most majestic properties in the country that are available on VRBO and AirBNB, you can find private homes for rent as well as resort stays that are top of the line.

Wild Bird Big Sur

This reservable private residence is one of the most beautiful pieces of property in the entire country. Its majestic views and historic structure can be yours to explore for between $8,000 and $12,000 per day. Designed by Nathaniel Owings in the 50s, you won’t run out of things to marvel over.

The Post Ranch Inn

A high-end, five-star resort with beautiful ocean-view cabins and fine dining on-site. Rooms are in the $1,000 per night range, but you get what you pay for. They also accommodate weddings and elopements, check their website for more details.

Treebones Resort

With reasonably-priced “glamping” in standalone yurts with ocean views, Treebones is one of our favorite places to stay on the south end of Big Sur. They also have a delicious restaurant and sushi bar on the property.

Deetjens Big Sur Inn

Another reasonably priced Big Sur mainstay, Deetjens has quiet, comfortable rooms and no digital connection whatsoever to the outside world. They also have a restaurant that serves breakfast and dinner, and they are well-known throughout the area for their fare.

Ventana Campground

If you are looking to have an outdoorsy experience in a beautiful redwood forest, and not pay an arm and a leg to do it, the Ventana Campground might be your best bet. Tent campsites start at $80 a night, high-end glamping setups start at $240. They have a small concession stand on sight that sells s’mores supplies, snacks and firewood too.

Ragged Point Inn

Located at the southern end of the region, the Ragged Point Inn has everything you’ll need. Well-appointed rooms, a shop, restaurants, snack stand, and gas station are all available. There is also a beautiful (but risky) hiking trail down to the ocean. They even make their grounds available for wedding parties! It’s a one-stop destination, and a great place to either enter the area from the south or refuel and turnaround for a trip back north.

Remember: We cover literally every option available in our other Big Sur blog!

Prepare to get a little dirty while venturing in Big Sur!

How to Leave No Trace During Your Big Sur Wedding

A pink sunset in Big Sur for this eloping couple.

Big Sur has had issues with visitors causing lasting damage recently. The Soberanes fire in 2017 destroyed almost 140,000 acres, destroyed 57 homes, and killed a bulldozer operator who was attempting to help. The Dolan fire of 2020 burned over 150,000 acres, destroyed dozens of structures and parks, and caused incredible devastation to the fragile ecosystem. Both of these blazes were caused by individuals with unauthorized fires. We do our best to make sure we leave the area better than we found it. All couples that book with us will receive our Leave No Trace guide, which outlines everything they need to know about leaving Big Sur and other locations better than they found them as well.

Another fun fact: Every couple that books with Seeking Venture Photo will have trees planted in their honor to help give back to nature!

What We Recommend

A groom helps carry his bride in Big Sur.

We have an extensive list of local vendors that we can recommend to help everything along. We also recommend you consider celebrating your wedding on a weekday to avoid crowds, even during the off-season. Prepare your mind to ‘go with the flow’ as sometimes Big Sur can be unpredictable. Have a backup plan! That unpredictability can put a damper on things really quickly, but it’s all part of the Big Sur charm!

Safety first: Wear sturdy hiking shoes (they also look kickass with a wedding dress), beware of poison oak & ticks and bring layers in case the weather changes!

Of course, information constantly changes. Road closures, park closures, wildfires, open campgrounds and trails are all important to know when planning a trip to Big Sur. It’s critical to possess the most up-to-date research on these locations. When booking us as your photographers, we take a lot of pain out of planning and will explain your best options in detail. We got you!

Big Sur Photography Packages

We would love to help you plan your trip into Big Sur as well as your adventure elopement or small wedding! We’re flexible with our options, and they range from simple, couple-only packages to full-sized wedding parties (up to 75 guests). We know the area extremely well and would love to be your guide! Our basic Big Sur package includes:

•Coverage starting up to 4 hours
•Any photographer travel costs 
•Personalized Planning Assistance: wedding planning & Leave No Trace guides, questionnaires, location scouting & permit assistance (photo permit covered by us), vendor recommendations, personalized timelines & unlimited help
•Trees planted in your honor
•Unlimited photos delivered 
•Coverage by either Heather, Mike, or both! Including high-res files edited in our SVP style, sneak peeks, a full digital gallery with unlimited downloads to view your epic photos, print release + printing options

Big Sur Photo Packages starting at $2800

A groom holds the bride while she goofs off during sunset in Big Sur.

Don’t forget to visit our other blog about all things Big Sur!

Everyone deserves great photos: Along with elopements, we also capture adventure & other photography sessions in Big Sur. Check out this link to see how we can make any occasion special for you & your partner!

Please follow and like us:
  1. […] thrilled to guide you through the area to your dream wedding. Don’t forget to check out our Big Sur Elopement Guide for more […]

  2. Sienna says:

    It’s no wonder that Big Sur is such a destination for weddings in California! Thank you so much for all of this super helpful information for couples looking to tie the knot in this stunning area of the central coast.

  3. Amy Isacson says:

    What a fantastic resource!! I love how clearly outlined you made it and will definitely refer back to this! Your photos are wonderful!!!

  4. Adriana says:

    This is a great guide, Big Sur is seriously amazing! There is so much opportunity for gorgeous photos and adventures!

  5. Stacie Struble says:

    This is a very comprehensive and helpful guide for eloping in Big Sur! I love the addition of the photos to illustrate what you’re talking about and the infographics are a nice touch!

  6. Leo says:

    Talk about THE most useful guide to eloping in Big Sur. Love the photos and advice for choosing a location…thanks for sharing!

  7. Sarah says:

    This is such an awesome and comprehensive guide for how to elope in Big Sur, I’ll definitely be referencing it later on! Big Sur is so beautiful and I love all the images you captured there!!

  8. Wow! So much information packed into this resource! Thank you so much for cultivating all of this to make planning easier for non-locals to plan.

  9. Thijsiena says:

    wow this is so detailed and wonderful! love your editing stil

  10. Kayla Altman says:

    Thank you for this resource! IT IS SO VALUABLE. Also im dying over the picture of the milky way and the arch. #OBSESSED

  11. Holly says:

    This is so helpful, thank you so much for posting!! I absolutely love that you give your couples a ‘leave no trace’ guide, it’s so important to leave these natural places exactly how we find them!

  12. Rita says:

    Big Sur looks incredible and so full of choices! Probably that’s why it’s so appreciated by many people. Love your guide, it’s so helpful!

  13. Jenn says:

    Wow, this is packed with great information!!

  14. Jessica says:

    This is SO informative and well written!

  15. Dezerae Jobe says:

    Your information is DAMN GIRL GOOD and so informative… I love all the info .

  16. Oh my goodness – THANK YOU so much for putting this together. There is so much to consider when eloping and this guide is so thorough on how to make it happen in Big Sur. (Side note: all your images are so dreamy as well!!)

  17. Big Sur….for those who are planning an elopement in California….such a great resource….Big Sur steals my heart every time I adventure those shorelines!

  18. Natalie says:

    This is such a fantastic guide to eloping in Big Sur! Seriously, the location info alone is unparalleled! Love your “pick two” chart as well — so true!

  19. Kelly Shoul says:

    big sur would be a great spot for an elopement. what a great guide for your couples!

  20. Ann Marie says:

    WOW! What an incredible guide, and beautiful photos! Makes me want to hop on a plane and go there right now! 🙂 Also – I had no idea that CA had a self-union marriage option or how different each county is for obtaining licenses. Super interesting! Super valuable info! Love this!

  21. Marla Manes says:

    Wow, what a thorough guide! Everything I didn’t know I wanted to know about Big Sur 🙂

  22. Yara says:

    So beautiful, I want to visit Big Sur so bad! Thanks for such an informative blog 🙂

  23. Aly says:

    Wow!! This article was so well written and very informative! I love that you went in-depth and also included different image as well! 🙂

  24. Allie says:

    This is PACKED with so much useful info! Beautiful photographs

  25. Kat says:

    Such a thorough, informative article. I miss all the wildflowers…so pretty. But most importantly, where did you take that long night exposure over the hole in the rock?!

  26. I have never seen as comprehensive a plan as you have provided here – awesome stuff! I feel so prepared to visit, let alone get married at Big Sur. Thank you so much!

  27. Kira says:

    This is SO in-depth and perfect! Seriously a beautiful resource that you’ve put together for couples, wow. I’ve never been to the California coast but you make it look so STUNNING.

  28. […] some epic location inspiration for your future elopement? Check out our Big Sur, Oahu or Alberta […]

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