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Big Sur: A breathtaking, costly isolation

The approach to Bixby Bridge in Big Sur along California Highway 1. (Photo: Jingjits Photography)

It takes a lot more effort these days to enjoy the magnificent scenery of the Big Sur coastline.

The stunning region was slammed by storms last winter resulting in multiple landslides and a bridge failure that have largely isolated the region for six months.

“Highway 1 is a comfortable highway to walk on now. The experience itself is becoming an attraction.” — Kirk Gafill

Now there are just two ways in south of where the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge was demolished — take a rugged half-mile trail in, then take a shuttle or rent an electric bike, or make a lengthy detour in from U.S Highway 101.

But for those who accept those challenges, there are significant rewards, including basically getting one of the natural wonders of the state to themselves. Only a fraction of the normal hordes of tourists are visiting the area these days.

“It’s kind of a destination in itself,” said Kirk Gafill, co-owner of the famous Big Sur restaurant Nepenthe and president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce. “People have seen it as a great hiking opportunity. Highway 1 is a comfortable highway to walk on now. The experience itself is becoming an attraction.”

It is unknown how long it will take for Highway 1 to be fully open and back to normal. The latest estimates have the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge reopening in October but there is no timeline yet at when the Mud Creek slide 36 miles south of the bridge will be cleared.

For the first five- to six weeks, supplies, including nonperishable food, diapers and soap, had to be airlifted into the region by helicopter.

It has been rough going for the 450 or so residents who live in Big Sur as they have faced a huge loss of income and struggled to get in supplies like groceries and propane.

The troubles started in February when Caltrans decided to close the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge because it was damaged beyond repair. That cut off residents from getting in and out and kids from going to school.  Esalen Institute, a famous Big Sur consciousness-raising retreat, had to helicopter out stranded guests.

For the first five- to six weeks, supplies, including nonperishable food, diapers and soap, had to be airlifted into the region by helicopter.  Then, community residents and state parks employees hastily built the Pfeiffer Canyon trail in March so they could at least get walking access to the other side of the downed bridge.  But at first, the trail was only open to local residents because it didn’t meet safety standards necessary for the public. Parents began walking their small children to school over the trail and residents became able to get groceries and then pack them in backpacks on their hike back.

But this didn’t help the problem of resuming business in Big Sur. Employees had to file for unemployment benefits and some businesses applied for emergency Small Business Administration loans to repair their storm-damaged properties.

“We had so much water this winter, so much rain,” said Susana Cruz, a Caltrans spokesperson. “Our hillside was not able to really deal with it.”

The first glimmer of light in the economy came in late April when the luxury Post Ranch in decided to fly in guests to stay in its rooms, which start at $1,225 a night. Nepenthe Restaurant and Hawthorne Gallery re-opened at the same time.

For the next couple of months, Nepenthe served 30-40 meals a day, which was about 1 percent of normal, Gafill said. “We were on a micro-skeletal operation,” he said. “It was keeping our engines warm but it was not sustainable.”

But more trouble happened when two landslides in a row crashed over parts of Highway 1 in May – first at Mud Creek about 36 miles south of the failed Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and then at Paul’s Slide about 23 miles south of the bridge.

“We had so much water this winter, so much rain,” said Susana Cruz, a Caltrans spokesperson. “Our hillside was not able to really deal with it.”

Paul’s Slide was cleared in July, which allows access to Highway 1 through a long, curvy detour from Highway 101 on Nacimiento-Fergusson Road.

Some people say the hiking trail is easier and less of a hassle than taking the long detour on Nacimiento-Fergusson Road.

The detour route takes much longer than the old direct way through Highway 1. As an example, it used to take about an hour to drive from the famous Nepenthe restaurant to Monterey. Now it takes 3 1/2 hours.  Officials recommend that people drive it only during the daytime.

“Keep in mind it is a remote road with no cell phone service and no services,” said Jessica Keener, communications manager at the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau.  “Exercise caution when driving along the road.”

The Mud Creek slide is still covering the highway and Caltrans is determining how to clean up the mess. There is no timeline for the project yet although one is supposed to be announced soon.

The cost for Mud Creek and Paul’s Slide cleanup was initially estimated at $12 million but is expected to go higher, Cruz said.

Since July, the Pfeiffer Canyon Hiking Trail has been open to the public, which has allowed more people to walk in the area. Some people say the hiking trail is easier and less of a hassle than taking the long detour on Nacimiento-Fergusson Road.

Just last week, Caltrans pulled the new Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge up across the 300-foot canyon span. The bridge is supposed to be back open for public use in October, Cruz said. The cost for replacement of the bridge is estimated at $24 million.

Cruz said some locals have told Caltrans not to hurry with repairs because they are enjoying the quieter pace of life.

“There are certain residents who are reveling in this,” Gafill said. “It is an amazing experience. No matter how much money you’re losing, it’s remarkable to be in this extraordinary setting and feel like you’re back in the 1940s.”

 

 

 

 

 


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