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Iconic American Destination Virtually Isolated for Rest of Year

By: Christopher C. Burt, 4:47 AM GMT on March 24, 2017

Half of the village of Big Sur, on the coast of central California, has lost its only access to the north following the demolition of the flood-damaged Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge along State Route 1 (also Rt. 1 or SR 1) on March 19. Although Rt. 1 to the south of Big Sur has reopened to traffic (after mud and rock slides were cleared) it is a long 70-mile journey along the windy but spectacular highway to Cambria, the next town of any significance where supplies can be had. CalTrans (California Department of Transportation) estimates it will take 6-9 months to rebuild a new bridge over the canyon.

Looking south at the Big Sur coastline and Highway 1 from the vantage point of Julia Pfeiffer Park just south of where the now-demolished Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge used to be. Residents south of the bridge must now drive 70 miles along this shoreline to Cambria for supplies, almost a three hour journey. Image credit: Joseph Plotz/Wikimedia Commons.
Big Sur is a world-famous destination as outlined in these excerpts from its Wikipedia entry:

The coast is the "longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the continental United States.” The Big Sur region has been described as a "national treasure that demands extraordinary procedures to protect it from development." The New York Times described it as "one of the most stunning meetings of land and sea in the world.” The Washington Times described it as "one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world, an isolated stretch of road, mythic in reputation." State Route 1 was named the most popular drive in California in 2014 by the American Automobile Association. The section of Rt. 1 running through Big Sur is widely considered as one of the most scenic driving routes in the United States, if not the world.

A map of the Big Sur coastline and Rt. 1. The location of the demolished Pfieffer Canyon Bridge is shown in yellow. The next significant town south of the "Village of Big Sur" is Cambria (not shown on map) where Rt. 46 connects Rt. 1 to Hwy 101. There is a very narrow winding paved road (the Nacimiento-Fergusson Rd.) just south of Lucia that also crosses the mountains and connects to King City, but it is an exceptionally time-consuming route and also often closed by rock slides or mud flows.
"Big Sur" is actually a region rather than a specific town. However, the actual populated village of "Big Sur" rests at the northern end of what is known as the Big Sur coastline along which Rt. 1 traverses. The village of Big Sur consists of a number of stores, gas stations, and most famously a handful of upscale resorts, retreats, and restaurants such as The Post Ranch, Nepenthe, Ventana, and the Esalen Institute. There are approximately 800 to 900 permanent residents in the village. Of these, some 400 live in the southern portion of the town south of where the bridge failure occurred and it is these residents and businesses that have become isolated (including all the above mentioned resort destinations).

A close-up view of the Big Sur coastline and its attractions along Rt. 1. The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge is near where "Pfeiffer Beach" is indicated.
This winter has been the wettest in Big Sur since the big El Nino season of 1997-1998 (POR for precipitation at Big Sur goes back to 1915). As of March 22, 66.16" of rain has been measured since the precipitation season began July 1, 2016. The average total seasonal precipitation for the site (July-June) is 44.88". As of now, this year ranks as the 6th wettest on record and almost certainly will end up as at least the 4th wettest by the end of the season (June 30th):
July-June Seasonal Precipitation Records for Big Sur
1. 85.21" 1982-1983
2. 80.34" 1997-1998
3. 77.53" 1940-1941
4. 68.03" 1994-1995
5. 66.43" 1977-1978
6. 66.16" 2016-2017 and counting as of March 22nd
The two-month period of January-February this year saw an amazing 44.16" (25.49" in January and 18.67" in February). This is the 3rd greatest for the two-month period on record, and that just by a hair:
January-February Precipitation Records for Big Sur
1. 44.94" 1998
2. 44.50" 1940 (this is not a typo re: the 1940-1941 season listed above, these were two extreme back-to-back seasons)
3. 44.16" 2017
4. 41.11" 1969
5. 38.29" 2000
By the way, a RAWS site, Mining Ridge, just 18 miles southeast of Big Sur measured 69.05" during Jan-Feb this year).
Wettest Single Month on Record for Big Sur
1. 27.21" December 1955
2. 26.47" January 1995
3. 25.49" January 2017
4. 24.30" February 1998
5. 22.39" February 1940
So we can see from the above statistics that it is not surprising that the Big Sur Coast portion of Rt. 1 has been severely compromised this winter. The highway’s construction (the portion between Carmel and San Simeon that includes Big Sur) was completed in 1937 and its maintenance ever since has been a regular, virtually annual, chore of clearing mud and rock slides, repairing bridges, and shoring up roadside cliffs.

A small obstacle blocks Rt. 1 south of Big Sur following a storm during the winter of 1994-1995, the 4th-wettest season on record. Glad I wasn’t exactly there at the moment this occurred. Image credit: Caltrans, via Wikimedia Commons.
With the demolition of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, and a six- to nine-month period of reconstruction, it is hard to imagine how the residents and business south of the construction site will be able to cope. The Sacramento Bee sent two journalists to the site on March 20, and they reported: “”East of the bridge, a 2-foot-wide trail is under construction to allow people who live south of the damaged span to bypass it by walking about 30 minutes each way through steep terrain. Fire brigade escorts will bring them back and forth in the morning and evening. ‘It's a godsend compared to what we have now, which is nothing,’ said Big Sur Chamber of Commerce President Kirk Gafill, owner of the historic Nepenthe Restaurant. ‘People are going to be in the best shape of their lives.’”

The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in Big Sur was demolished by Caltrans on March 19. Caltrans estimates it will take perhaps to the end of this year to rebuild it. A two-foot wide zigzagging trail is being constructed so residents can reach the other side of the canyon for shopping and school.
An estimated three to four million tourists visit the Big Sur Coast every year and the Village of Big Sur is financially dependent on this traffic. It remains unclear how the village of Big Sur will endure for the rest of the year without this stream of income from tourism. The Post Ranch Resort alone generates an estimated $12 million in revenue. In fact, businesses all along Rt. 1 from Carmel to Cambria will be affected by the bridge closure.
The truly spectacular portion of the route actually begins just south of the bridge (which is why the most famous and upscale resorts in the Big Sur area are located there). From that point on down to Gorda (a gas station and camp ground) the Santa Lucia Mountain Range rise dramatically above the ocean: the summit of the highest mountain, Cone Peak (elevation 5,155 feet) is just three miles from the shoreline above Lucia. This is the most stunning portion of the entire route.

A spectacular view of Cone Peak (elevation 5,155") looking north along Rt. 1 from Pacific Valley. Photo by Jill Homer from her blog about climbing the mountain back in 2014. See more great images by Jill of this area here.
So the only way to visit this section of the coast (and the resorts in the south part of Big Sur Village) is to drive up Rt. 1 from the south—a 70-mile, three-hour journey from Cambria—and then turn around and head back the same way. Needless to say, 90% of the tourist traffic visiting Big Sur coming from the south normally would see the Village of Big Sur as a stop over on their way to Monterey and the San Francisco Bay Area. Likewise, 90% of tourists wanting to visit Big Sur coming from the north (i.e. Monterey and the San Francisco Bay Area) will not be able to access the most scenic part of the route and its resorts beyond the bridge closure. In other words, I can envision that very few tourists will be visiting anywhere along Rt. 1 between Carmel/Monterey to the north and San Simeon/Cambria to the south for the rest of the year.
I cannot recall an instance previous to this when a significant U.S. tourist destination will have been essentially shut down as a result of a weather event for such a long period of time.
KUDOS: Thanks to Jan Null (Golden Gate Weather Services) for the Big Sur precipitation statistics.
Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

Reader Comments

I live in Monterey. We travel to Sur often, to eat at Post Ranch and Nepenthe. The 50 minute drive is now 5 hours, each way. I feel so sorry for these wonderful folks who got dealt a bad hand. This is a stellar part of the world. Crowd funding should be considered to keep this iconic part of Cali alive.
My wife and I plus 2 teen-age kids did a trip to this area in 1985. Beautiful scenery, great people, wonderful food...lots to see and do. I hope they get the bridge repaired soon. Everybody should go there at least once,
There are still some slides being cleared south of the ex-bridge so there is no easy access to Cambria yet. CalTrans updates can be found here: http://quickmap.dot.ca.gov/?z=10&ll=35.0984,-120.4 507
May 1st is expected opening date. As a cyclist I plan to enjoy some virtually traffic free rides in the next few months. Normally this is not a very bike friendly route since there is generally no shoulder and many of the cars and RV's act like this is a normal freeway.
Old English word of the day: wæfer-geornness - eagerness to see sights. Pronounced "WAV-er-YAY-orn-ness".

Taking our Ducatis up Route 1 is on our to-do list :) After it is cleared of course. Hope the highway is cleared soon for the sake of the people in Big Sur.
I fell in love with Big Sur when I was only 2-3 years old. I remember the experience from a photograph of my grandfather holding me on a cliff just south of Garrapata bridge. The crashing of the waves and the exotic smell of the air were permanently embedded in my memories so that when I finally returned at the age of 27, I knew I had been there before.

I could never get enough of Big Sur. Many weekends, I slept in a cabin on the Little Sur river with a boyfriend who had a key to the place because it belonged to a friend of his. We couldn't hear the surf, but the tinkle of the river was magnetic. Until we fell asleep, we listened to the Midnight Mystery Hour from Los Angeles.

Some years later, my husband and I frequently drove from our home in San Francisco and stayed at Lucia Lodge, setting our alarm for 3 am so that, as simple members of the public rather than Esalen's hallowed guests, we could visit the sulfur baths. Once there, I was transfixed by the hollows in the cliffs, lit by yellow incandescence, which led to the baths. Once we had the tiny outer pool of the baths completely to ourselves. As my husband was a big guy, no one else dared. The surf below was high enough to splash our faces with cold salt water. (Those of you who know the place will recognize my description as the original baths at Esalen before they were destroyed -- I believe by a landslide.)

I was working as a reporter for a radio station in Salinas when lightning ignited two of Big Sur's peaks. The ensuing fires merged to be called the "Marble Cone Fire." In the Spring, the Forest Service gave me a plane ride over the Santa Lucia peaks so that I could see they had planted new grass seedlings among the firestruck trees. On that trip, when it began to hail between the peaks at either side of the aircraft, the pilot declared that to be the end of my tour.

My final memories are camping at the outcrop of the campground where Ferguson-Nacimiento road meets Highway One. I have taken that road, and yes, it is a bumpy ride which ends at Arroyo-Seco (meaning dry canyon). In those days, the canyon offered an occasional pool, but the place had a reputation for roughneck parties. Once, three teenagers were murdered there by an itinerant worker, Steve Hammond. By now, he may be out of prison.

Sorry, but I don't feel sorry for anyone who lives at Big Sur, tough as the trek for provisions may be. As a reporter, I also covered the local hearings where Monterey county supervisors were tasked with applying the acts of the Coastal Commisson to Big Sur. As far as I know, they did a good job. The Inn at Ventana Canyon and Post Ranch were allowed to come into being. Nice places, which I hope will stay in business. If not, Mother Nature has declared a sabbatical for Big Sur.
Thanks for another terrific article! Indeed, these are historic times.

As an avid tent-camper for 40 years I've been in dozens of state parks, and several national parks. From the Florida Keys to Maine, the Gulf Coast, and up the Pacific Coast, the coasts of the Great Lakes, and throughout the great interior of our nation, they are all special places. Yet... there IS something about Big Sur. One of my best ideas came to fruition one January15 years or so ago. While residing in Minnesota (avg Jan hi=24, avg lo=4!), the wife and I flew into LAX, rented a car and headed up the PCH. We camped at the parks on the coast. Intended to get to San Fran area. Got as far as Big Sur, became transfixed, and stayed for 2 weeks! Camped at the base of giant redwoods, hiked the shoreline, climbed huge rocks at low tide to become almost stranded as the tide came in, etc. As it was sooooo cold (40s - 50s ha!!!), we only saw maybe a dozen people in the wild places. Course this was way back in the day. Now the outdoors is more popular, especially with the loud, proud and uncowed crowd. Oh yes, I was one of them, too. This is one of the lessons I've learned sharing the hand of Mother Nature along the way these last 12 years. She has much to teach us. Leave No Trace is not only a dare, a great idea, and a way of life. It is a law of nature. Ignorance, disobedience and trespass of the law will certainly not save us from the perils of violating it. You know, it's not a personal thing. It's simply the way things are put together.(Oh yes, I am aware of the carbon footprint of flying halfway across the nation and driving all over the place like possessed maniacs! We haven't done that in 8 years. Now that we're well into our 50s. And having done all of that. And tire more easily. Yes I know I know. How convenient. Reminds me of a line from one of my favorite Twin Cities bookstores: "Live local, read large." And BTW, the wife and I are working on retirement soon on the Pacific Coast. Where we promise to sit quietly, only venturing out to walk or bicycle, when absolutely necessary. Meanwhile, as Minnesota author Bill Holm suggests in the title of one of his books, "The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere On Earth". So there.) Anyway, hope the folks of Big Sur have enough in their rainy day funds to tide them over. Just imagine... 6-9 months in Big Sur - or anywhere for that matter! - with no thru traffic. Oh my!!!
"I cannot recall an instance previous to this when a significant U.S. tourist destination will have been essentially shut down as a result of a weather event for such a long period of time."

Not to be crass, but Atlantic hurricanes destroy U.S. tourist destinations all the time, and many of those are shut down for well over a year, if not years. Take a look at the Jersey Shore after Sandy or the Gulf Coast after Katrina.
Quoting 1. wmself:

I live in Monterey. We travel to Sur often, to eat at Post Ranch and Nepenthe. The 50 minute drive is now 5 hours, each way. I feel so sorry for these wonderful folks who got dealt a bad hand. This is a stellar part of the world. Crowd funding should be considered to keep this iconic part of Cali alive.

Big Sur is alive and well. In fact, it will thrive this year unlike it has in many decades. The ecology of Big Sur will be given a near total respite from the assault of humanity. Finite resources will be saved and not squandered, vehicles and their pollution will be all but eliminated, and the disruption to wildlife caused by the noise and light pollution of hundreds of thousands will be gone.

This is a blessing for Big Sur. Anyone who truly loves and respects our natural world can see that
Full of Good Informations
used to live just south of big sur. went camping at limekiln and would drive up to monterey and carmel whenever i could. oh god, i miss CA.
Its just what you would expect from the state of California. Why spend money on infrastructure like roads, bridges and dams.They are way to busy spending one on a train to nowhere and social engineering projects!
Arrived there at the salmon creek falls in 1978 , invited to grow the purple holy weed with others in the national forest. Grew to love the the area and lived out in the Los Padres forest. Now is a good time to focus on creating a bumper year in that finest of places.
    • Quoting 7. dunkelza:

      "I cannot recall an instance previous to this when a significant U.S. tourist destination will have been essentially shut down as a result of a weather event for such a long period of time."

      Not to be crass, but Atlantic hurricanes destroy U.S. tourist destinations all the time, and many of those are shut down for well over a year, if not years. Take a look at the Jersey Shore after Sandy or the Gulf Coast after Katrina.