Big Sur, California’s most scenic coast, reopens – to hikers only | Travel


The coastal drive along Highway 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles is one of the world’s great, classic trips. Anyone planning on doing it anytime soon, however, is missing a vital piece of information: you can’t. Around 35 miles of the highway’s best-loved stretch, Big Sur, have been closed since February, after winter rains caused the Pfeiffer Canyon bridge to the north to collaspe and swept large parts of the road into the ocean to the south.

Big Sur map

With the only road in or out cut off, residents have been stranded in the middle, and the only tourists getting in were the mega-rich who could afford a helicopter. But Big Sur has finally found a way to reopen to everyone – if you don’t mind a bit of adventure.

To help those marooned, an emergency hiking trail was dug into surrounding woodland so residents could at least buy groceries; unauthorised hikers were subject to fines. But since 1 July, it’s also been a way for tourists to get in. The trail’s purpose has expanded to include helping the economy, which is losing thousands of dollars every day.



Sur thing … Hiking trails at Pfeiffer Big Sur state park, California. Photograph: Alamy

It was a perfect summer day when I hit the trail, which entails a steep half-mile climb up a hillside. Signs at the trailhead warn of rattlesnakes. Still, this is how the kids get to school, so no excuses. And though I spent half an hour plodding up switchbacks, the towering redwoods and green Santa Lucia Mountains rewarded the effort.

I emerged on to a silent highway, right where the bridge is being rebuilt. It’s usually a route for hundreds of thousands of people a week, but today you’re more likely to meet a deer than a car. Locals recently spotted a mountain lion wandering the road.

Pfeiffer Canyon in high summer



Pfeiffer Canyon in high summer

Helping visitors get to the emergency trail is a dedicated shuttle bus, run by a local operator. Trying to book gives you a measure of Big Sur’s remoteness: phone reception is limited. You fill in an online form and can expect a reply within 72 hours. This may be California, but it’s not Silicon Valley.

Make the effort, though, and you’ll be rewarded. Nepenthe, a cliffside restaurant known for its bohemian scene and two-hour waits, went from serving 1,000 people a day to 30 when it was totally isolated. It sees 250 a day now the trail is open. “It really is a unique and special time to see Big Sur in all its beautiful glory,” said third-generation owner Kirk Gafill. “If you want a once-in-a-lifetime experience, take advantage now.”

Kirk is also president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, and estimates that about 450 tourists a day are using the trail. But not all businesses are benefiting: the historic Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn remains closed, unconvinced people will hike their luggage over.

Henry Miller Memorial Library



Henry Miller Memorial Library

The Henry Miller Memorial Library, dedicated to the risque author who put the region on the map, is usually “like a little United Nations”, its director Magnus Toren told me. People from all over the world hang out on the lawn, drinking coffee, playing music, reading books. Now, with a smaller number of people to tempt through the doors, its future feels uncertain. “The majority of people don’t spend too much time worrying about the culture of the area and some dead author,” Toren shrugged.

But there are more reasons to return to Big Sur, with two star attractions reopening. The popular campground at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park reopened on 1 July, following the opening of some of its smaller trails in May. The park, loved for its redwood groves and rushing rivers, was closed for a year after this winter’s rainfall and last summer’s massive Soberanes fire wreaked havoc . (“We’re hoping famine and pestilence aren’t next,” quipped Rob O’Keefe, from the tourist board of Monterey County.) The campground is already near capacity every night. Wildly photogenic Pfeiffer Beach, also cut off by landslides, will be accessible by August.

Ragged Point, close to the Pfeiffer Canyon bridge.



Ragged Point, close to the Pfeiffer Canyon bridge. Photograph: Alamy

Early signs suggest the crowds will return: particularly once the Pfeiffer Canyon bridge restores northern access in September. The time frame for reopening the south, however, is anyone’s guess, entirely at the mercy of the landslides.

While the rare stillness and hushed highway are great reasons to visit, perhaps the most compelling is simply that, for now, you can get in. As Toren admitted: “You don’t want to jinx your future by predicting bad things. But if we get a bad winter again, on top of this one, all bets are off.”

The Big Sur Shuttle service costs $5 each way. The Henry Miller Memorial Library also has a temporary satellite location open in Carmel. For information on inland diversions between San Francisco and LA, see visitcalifornia.com/big-sur



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