On California’s Central Coast is a mountainous region known as Big Sur. The Santa Lucia Mountains here are breathtaking, and you’d love the opportunity to take your drone deeper into the mountains.
Are you legally permitted to fly a drone in Big Sur?
Drones are prohibited from much of Big Sur per federal, state, and local laws. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Forest Service, California State Parks, and Monterey County all have rules discouraging the activity.
This guide will explore in much more depth the rules about operating a drone in Big Sur. Before you plan your trip out this way, make sure you check out the information ahead!
Is it legal to fly a drone in Big Sur?
While whizzing your drone around Big Sur is a bucket-list moment for many, the activity is strongly frowned upon. Various federal organizations and state and local rules outlaw or restrict drone usage around Big Sur.
Let’s take a look at the various rules now.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA for short might not seem like the type of organization to step in about drone rules.
It doesn’t, at least not directly. Rather, NOAA enacts regulated overflight zones or NROZs for short.
An NROZ is a designated flight area, and a discrete one at that, around national marine sanctuaries on the west coast.
In these sanctuaries, operating a motorized vehicle at a certain altitude could disturb the wildlife that lives there.
You would then violate NOAA’s wildlife protection regulations, so drones and other motorized vehicles are usually outlawed from operating in NROZes.
This NROZ map from NOAA clearly shows which areas are considered NROZes. Those areas include the entirety of the coastline of Monterey County, which is the same county that Big Sur is located in.
If you were looking for a loophole and thinking that maybe you could fly your drone over Big Sur’s oceans, you can’t!
Big Sur also has not one but two designated Wilderness Areas.
The first is the Silver Peak Wilderness Area, which is right on the coastline of Big Sur in the Monterey Ranger District’s southwestern portion.
The second Wilderness Area is the Ventana Wilderness on the Santa Lucia Range.
If you read our post about flying a drone in a Wilderness Area, you should know that the act is strictly prohibited.
Wilderness Areas exist to minimize contact between people and animals so that threatened and endangered species (as well as species at risk of becoming so) have a safe, reliable place to live out their days.
Motorized vehicles of almost any kind are not allowed according to the Wilderness Act, and the few exceptions over the years have never applied to drones.
California Department of Parks and Recreation
The overseeing entity of state parks in the Golden State is the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
According to the Department’s rules, “State Park regulations prohibit the use of motorized equipment (including UASs) within wilderness areas, cultural preserves, and natural preserves.”
This reinforces the point from before, that flying in a Wilderness Area is illegal, but we’re presenting this information to you for more than that reason.
You see, Big Sur also happens to feature a natural preserve known as the John Little State Natural Reserve.
This piece of land is located between the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and State Highway 1.
Although only 21 acres, John Little State Natural Reserve is yet another area around Big Sur where drone use is prohibited.
Monterey County Film Commission
The Monterey County Film Commission now defers to the California Film Commission. While the California Film Commission does allow drones to film footage around the state, that’s only with permission first.
Those drones have to obey all relevant Federal Aviation Administration guidelines such as the Operations Over People rule.
Pilots are also expected to study UAS Facility Maps ahead of the flight and only request permission to fly in permitted airspace.
Further, commercial pilots must have a current Remote Pilot Certificate, which is only obtainable by taking and passing the FAA’s Part 107 exam.
You’d have to steer clear of “No Drone Zones,” which the California Film Commission says can be established locally according to municipal codes.
There’s more still! You also need “a certificate of insurance evidencing coverage of General Liability, Workers Compensation, and Automobile Liability” if you’re a production entity filming in California.
Per the California Drone Commission website, “If the production’s proposed activities include the use of a small UAS, additional aerial coverage must be provided by the UAS operator.
The additional requirements are as follows:
- “Proof of Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) coverage (listing the specific aircraft to be used) with a limit of at least $2,000,000. This can be submitted in one of two ways:
If UAS coverage is being added to a general liability policy, there must be a separate endorsement showing proof of UAS coverage.
If the coverage is coming from an aviation-specific insurance carrier (such as Global Aerospace), a separate policy endorsement is not necessary, as the entire policy represents the UAS coverage.
A separate endorsement naming the State of California, its officers, agents and employees as Additional Insured.
- Please note that all separate endorsements must be submitted as separate attachments (not included in the body of the certificate of insurance.)”
If you need additional approvals outside of those by the California Film Commission, then you must have those approvals as well as your permit before you begin using your drone.
“If a production is found to be operating a small UAS without the proper permit, the assigned Fire Safety officer or law enforcement official may immediately suspend the small UAS activities and/or the production may be subject to a fine,” says the California Film Commission.
Are there exceptions to the rules about operating a drone in Big Sur?
Since there are a collection of rules about drone usage in and around Big Sur rather than just one rule, it makes plenty of sense that indeed, exceptions would exist.
Let’s take a look at some areas in which drone activities in Big Sur might be allowed.
You have a permit
Besides the film permits that are usually required by the California Film Commission, depending on the governing body you go through, you might need further permissions and permits still.
Keep in mind that no matter who it’s from, obtaining a permit is going to be a lengthy process.
Request your permit earlier than you’ll need it so you’re not waiting on pins and needles for your approval.
Be sure to carry your permit as well as your commercial drone license on your person the entire time you’re using your UAV in Big Sur.
You’re an agency drone pilot
Agency drone pilots such as police officers or firefighters will sometimes use drones in areas such as hazardous materials spills, fires, and search and rescue operations.
These pilots, while compliance with FAA guidelines is required, have far more leeway to operate drones than the average civilian. That may include flying in and around Big Sur.
You have permission from a landowner
People live around Big Sur, and so flying your drone freely in this mountainous region could constitute an invasion of privacy.
By obtaining permission from the landowner to fly your drone, you can do so legally.
You have flight authorization
Obtaining a flight authorization is another way to ensure you’re in the clear when flying around Big Sur.
That’s not to say that these authorizations are freely granted. If you’re trying to fly your drone in a part of Big Sur where you should not be, then you will not receive authorization.
Big Sur is a large mountainous region in California that is subject to laws and rules by a variety of entities and organizations on a federal, state, and local level.
If you don’t have permission or a permit, then you cannot fly your UAV in Big Sur. Fortunately, California has plenty of other gorgeous sights that you can capture footage of instead.