Big Sur back in business after landslide-choked roads reopen

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The Mud Creek Slide buried a quarter-mile stretch of Highway 1, effectively closing off the Big Sur region to the south.
The Mud Creek Slide buried a quarter-mile stretch of Highway 1, effectively closing off the Big Sur region to the south.

BIG SUR, Calif. — On a recent holiday weekend in this legendary California region, it was hard to imagine what a difficult year it has been for the businesses that line Highway 1 along this stretch of coastline.



Road-tripping hipsters, vacationing families and foreign visitors were hitting the region's well-known hiking trails, the restaurants were welcoming patrons and hotels were close to capacity.

But until October, the tourism industry here had been almost completely cut off from its customers for eight long months.

The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge was demolished in March after a main support column collapsed in a landslide triggered by heavy rainfall. That cut off access to Big Sur via Highway 1 from the north until the bridge was rebuilt and reopened in October.

A couple of months after the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge demolition, one of the largest landslides in California's history, now called the Mud Creek Slide, buried a quarter-mile stretch of Highway 1 and sent more than 5 million cubic yards of rock and dirt onto the roadway and into the ocean, cutting off access to the region from the south and creating what some locals began referring to as "Big Sur Island."

Residents survived by creating hiking trails that enabled people to bypass the highway closures by foot, and those courageous enough to drive could take on Nacimiento-Fergusson Road with its hairpin turns and steep drops. It crosses the Santa Lucia Range and connects the Big Sur coast with U.S. Route 101 farther inland. Given the challenges, several tourism businesses simply closed up shop for the summer.

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) recently reported that it aims to have Highway 1 open to traffic at Mud Creek by late summer, a project with an estimated price tag of $40 million that involves completely rebuilding the road on top of the landslide.

"We understand how much this road closure has impacted the counties of San Luis Obispo and Monterey, and we appreciate everyone's patience and support as we work to open the highway," Caltrans District 5 director Tim Gubbins said in a statement.

"Caltrans is committed to restoring this vital link to and from Big Sur as quickly and safely as possible."

A sign alerts drivers to closed roads along Highway 1.
A sign alerts drivers to closed roads along Highway 1.

Rob O'Keefe, vice president and chief marketing officer for the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that the destination marketing organization doesn't have any precise visitor data yet but that, anecdotally, the impact has been felt across the region. It ranges from Big Sur businesses that had to close for several months (though none have shuttered permanently) to a dip in travelers to surrounding communities such as Monterey and Carmel, who were deterred by the fact that they could not drive the length of Highway 1 to and through Big Sur.

O'Keefe said that the region isn't out of the woods yet.

"With the road closure still in the south, it definitely has been and will continue to be a negative impact for some businesses," he said, noting that some Big Sur businesses reported that they were down to less than half of what their normal business would be for the year.

The luxury Big Sur property Post Ranch Inn even offered to bring clients in by helicopter during Big Sur's eight-month seclusion.

Even so, owner Mike Freed said the hotel experienced an average occupancy of just 60% while the Pfeiffer Bridge was down. That jumped to 80% as soon as the bridge reopened, he said.

Freed said that business won't be back to normal until the southern route reopens, because while many patrons come from the north — Big Sur is much closer to San Francisco and the Bay Area than it is to Los Angeles — there are some visitors, especially those coming from farther afield, who want to do the complete Highway 1 central coast drive.

Tourists take in Big Sur attractions over Thanksgiving weekend.
Tourists take in Big Sur attractions over Thanksgiving weekend.

Nevertheless, the reopening of the Pfeiffer Bridge has enabled travelers from the north to rediscover the road to Big Sur. During Thanksgiving weekend, ample amounts of visitors were enjoying one of the most popular scenic overlooks in Big Sur: McWay Falls, a cascade that drops from a cliff into the Pacific.

The wait for a coveted oceanview table for lunchtime at the Nepenthe restaurant was an hour.

Friends and families were filling up the tables at the Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant, and the creekside Big Sur River Inn hotel and restaurant was hopping, as well.

In Monterey, one of the area's top attractions for families, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, was packed with visitors the day after Thanksgiving, making it hard to get a glimpse of some exhibits.

The chic and intimate hotel property Glen Oaks Big Sur, which also owns the restaurant Big Sur Roadhouse, reported that it experienced a 50% drop in business while the Pfeiffer Bridge was out, despite the fact that Glen Oaks is north of the bridge and could still be accessed easily. However, the property reported that it was nearly sold out for Christmas and New Year's.

The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, demolished after being damaged in a separate landslide, reopened in October.
The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, demolished after being damaged in a separate landslide, reopened in October.

Challenges remain, but it's only a matter of time before business returns to Big Sur. The combination of a jaw-dropping coastline, forested trails and a quirky community that gives Big Sur its unique charm is the recipe that has made it such a quintessential California destination.

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