Iconic American Destination Virtually Isolated for Rest of Year
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
The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.