Big Sur is a rugged and mountainous section of the Central Coast of the U.S. state of California between Carmel Highlands and San Simeon, where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. It is frequently praised for its dramatic scenery. Big Sur has been called the "longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the contiguous United States," a "national treasure that demands extraordinary procedures to protect it from development" and "one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world, an isolated stretch of road, mythic in reputation." The stunning views, redwood forests, hiking, beaches, and other recreational opportunities have made Big Sur a popular destination for tourists from across the world. The region receives about the same number of visitors as Yosemite National Park, which often leads to lengthy traffic back-ups and parking issues, especially during summer vacation periods and holiday weekends.
The unincorporated region encompassing Big Sur does not have specific boundaries, but is generally considered to include the 71-mile (114 km) segment of California State Route 1 between Malpaso Creek near Carmel Highlands in the north and San Carpóforo Creek near San Simeon in the south, as well as the entire Santa Lucia range between these creeks. The interior region is mostly uninhabited, while the coast remains relatively isolated and sparsely populated, with about 2,500 and 3,000 year-round residents and relatively few visitor accommodations scattered among four small settlements. The region remained one of the most inaccessible areas of California and the entire United States until, after 18 years of construction, the Carmel–San Simeon Highway (now signed as part of State Route 1) was completed in 1937. Along with the ocean views, this winding, narrow road, often cut into the face of towering seaside cliffs, dominates the visitor's experience of Big Sur. The highway has been closed more than 55 times by landslides, and in May 2017, a 2,000,000-cubic-foot (57,000 m3) slide blocked the highway at Mud Creek, north of Salmon Creek near the San Luis Obispo County line, to just south of Gorda. The road was reopened on July 18, 2018.
The region is protected by the Big Sur Local Coastal Plan, which preserves it as "open space, a small residential community, and agricultural ranching." Approved in 1986, the plan is one of the most restrictive local-use programs in the state, and is widely regarded as one of the most restrictive documents of its kind anywhere. The program protects viewsheds from the highway and many vantage points, and severely restricts the density of development. About 60% of the coastal region is owned by governmental or private agencies which do not allow any development. The majority of the interior region is part of the Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness, Silver Peak Wilderness or Fort Hunter Liggett.
The original Spanish-language name for the mountainous terrain south of Monterey was el país grande del sur, which means "the big country of the south." The name el Sud (also meaning "the south") was first used in the Rancho El Sur land grant made in 1834. In 1915, English-speaking settlers formally adopted "Big Sur" as the name for their post office.
|Big Sur, California|
|Region of California|
The Big Sur coast
Approximate boundaries of the Big Sur region
|Counties||Monterey, San Luis Obispo|
Big Sur is not an incorporated town but instead refers to an area without formal boundaries in California's Central Coast region. Visitors may identify Big Sur with the small community of buildings and services 26 miles (42 km) south of Carmel in the Big Sur River valley, known to locals as Big Sur Village.
The various informal boundaries applied to the region have gradually expanded north and south over time. Esther Pfeiffer Ewoldson, who was born in 1904 and was a granddaughter of Big Sur pioneers Micheal and Barbara Pfeiffer, wrote that the region extended from the Little Sur River 23 miles (37 km) south to Slates Hot Springs. Members of the Harlen family, who homesteaded the Lucia region 9 miles (14 km) south of Slates Hot Springs, said that Big Sur was "miles and miles to the north of us.":6 Prior to the construction of Highway 1, residents on the south coast had little contact with residents to the north of them.
Most current descriptions of the area refer to Malpaso Creek 4.5 miles (7.2 km) south of the Carmel River as the northern border. The southern border is generally accepted to be San Carpóforo Creek in San Luis Obispo County.
The vast majority of visitors only see Big Sur's dramatic coastline and consider the Big Sur region to include only the coastal flanks of the Santa Lucia Mountains, which at various points extend from 3 to 12 miles (5 to 19 km) inland.
Others will place the eastern border at the boundaries of the vast inland areas comprising the Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness, and Silver Peak Wilderness, or the unpopulated regions all the way to the eastern foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Author and local historian Jeff Norman considered Big Sur to extend inland to include the watersheds that drain into the Pacific Ocean. Author Lillian Ross described Big Sur as "not a place at all but a state of mind."
The name "Big Sur" has its origins in the area's early Spanish history. While the Portolá expedition was exploring Alta California, they arrived at San Carpóforo Canyon near present-day San Simeon on September 13, 1769. Unable to penetrate the difficult terrain along the coast, they detoured inland through the San Antonio and Salinas Valleys before arriving at Monterey Bay, where they founded Monterey and named it the provincial capital.
The Spanish referred to the vast and relatively unexplored coastal region to the south of Monterey as el país grande del sur, meaning "the big country of the south". This was often shortened to el sur grande. The two major rivers draining this portion of the coast were named El Rio Grande del Sur and El Rio Chiquito del Sur.:7
The first recorded use of the name "el Sud" (meaning "the South") was on a map of the Rancho El Sur land grant given by Governor José Figueroa to Juan Bautista Alvarado on July 30, 1834. The first American use of the name "Sur" was by the U.S. Coast Survey in 1851, which renamed a point of land that looked like an island and was shaped like a trumpet, known to the Spanish as "Morro de la Trompa" and "Punta que Parece Isla", to Point Sur. A post office bearing the name "Sur" was established on October 30, 1889. The English-speaking homesteaders petitioned the United States Post Office in Washington D.C. to change the name of their post office from Arbolado to Big Sur, and the rubber stamp using that name was returned on March 6, 1915, cementing the name in place.:8:7
Big Sur is renowned worldwide for its natural features and relatively pristine scenery. The Big Sur coast has been called the "longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the [contiguous] United States." The region has been described as a "national treasure that demands extraordinary procedures to protect it from development." The New York Times wrote that it is "one of the most stunning meetings of land and sea in the world." The Washington Times stated that it is "one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world, an isolated stretch of road, mythic in reputation." Condé Nast Traveler named State Route 1 through Big Sur one of the top 10 world-famous streets, comparable to Broadway in New York City and the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
Writers have compared Big Sur to other natural wonders like the Grand Canyon. Novelist Herbert Gold described it as "one of the grand American retreats for those who nourish themselves with wilderness."
Big Sur is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked at from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.
The section of Highway 1 running through Big Sur is widely considered one of the most scenic driving routes in the United States, if not the world. The views are one reason that Big Sur was ranked second among all United States destinations in TripAdvisor's 2008 Travelers' Choice Destination Awards. The unblemished natural scenery owes much of its preservation to the highly restrictive development plans enforced in Big Sur; no billboards or advertisements are permitted along the highway and signage for businesses must be modestly scaled and of a rural nature conforming to the Big Sur region. The state of California designated the 72-mile (116 km) section of the highway from Cambria to Carmel Highlands as the first California Scenic Highway in 1965. In 1966, First Lady Lady Bird Johnson led the official scenic road designation ceremony at Bixby Creek Bridge. In 1996, the road became one of the first designated by the federal government as an "All-American Road" under the National Scenic Byways Program.
The drive along Highway 1 has been described as "one of the best drives on Earth", and is considered one of the top 10 motorcycle rides in the United States. Highway 1 was named the most popular drive in California in 2014 by the American Automobile Association. Most of the 4 to 5 million tourists who currently visit Big Sur each year never leave Highway 1, because the adjacent Santa Lucia Range is one of the largest roadless coastal areas in the entire United States; Highway 1 offers the only paved access into and out of the region.
The beauty of the scenery along the narrow, two-lane road attracts enormous crowds during summer vacation periods and holiday weekends, and traffic is frequently slow. Visitors have reported to the California Highway Patrol hours-long stop-and-go traffic from Rocky Creek Bridge to Rio Road in Carmel during the Memorial Day weekend. The highway winds along the western flank of the mountains mostly within sight of the Pacific Ocean, varying from near sea level up to a 1,000-foot (300 m) sheer drop to the water. Most of the highway is extremely narrow, with tight curves, steep shoulders and blind turns. The route offers few or no passing lanes and, along some stretches, very few pullouts. The sides are occasionally so steep that the shoulders are virtually non-existent.
Despite and because of its popularity, the region is heavily protected to preserve the rural and natural character of the land. The Big Sur Local Coastal Plan, approved by Monterey County Supervisors in 1981, states that the region is meant to be an experience that visitors transit through, not a destination. For that reason, development of all kinds is severely restricted.
Besides sightseeing from the highway, Big Sur offers hiking and outdoor activities. There are a large number of state and federal lands and parks, including McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, one of only two waterfalls on the Pacific Coast that plunge directly into the ocean. The waterfall is located near the foundation of a grand stone cliffside house built in 1940 by Lathrop and Hélène Hooper Brown that was the region's first electrified home. However, parking is very limited and usually unavailable on summer weekends and holidays.
The Ventana Wildlife Center near Andrew Molera State Park features a free Discovery Center that enables visitors to learn about the California Condor recovery program and other wildlife.
The Henry Miller Memorial Library is a nonprofit bookstore and arts center that opened in 1981 as a tribute to the legendary writer. It is a gathering place for locals and has become the focal point of individuals with a literary mind, a cultural center devoted to Miller's life and work, and a popular attraction for tourists.
There are a few small, scenic beaches that are accessible to the public and popular for walking, but usually unsuitable for swimming because of unpredictable currents, frigid temperatures and dangerous surf. The beach at Garrapata State Park is sometimes rated as the best beach in Big Sur. Depending on the season, visitors can view sea otters, sea lions, seals and migrating whales from the beach. The beach is barely visible from Highway 1.
Pfeiffer Beach is very popular but is only accessible via narrow 2 miles (3.2 km) road. The parking lot at the beach only accommodates 60 vehicles and is usually full on summer and holiday weekends. The wide sandy expanse offers views of a scenic arch rock offshore. It is sometimes confused with the beach at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to the south.
In the south, Sand Dollar Beach is the longest stretch of beach in Big Sur. It is popular with hikers and photographers for its views of nearby bluffs. The beach is 25 miles (40 km) south of the Big Sur village on Highway 1. A steep staircase leads down to the beach from the highway. Jade Cove 2 miles (3.2 km) south of Sand Dollar Beach is also sometimes popular with visitors.
Two beaches are surrounded by private land owned by the El Sur Ranch and are inaccessible to the public. The first is the beach at the mouth of the Little Sur River. Another is Point Sur Beach, a long sandy beach located below and to the north of Point Sur Lighthouse. Fences around the beaches are posted with "Private Property" and "No Trespassing" signs.
Three other beaches are inaccessible to the public. Swiss Canyon Beach is north of Andrew Molera State Park. The beach at the foot of McWay falls is not accessible from the shore. And to the south near the county line, Gamboa Point Beach is also closed to the public.
The Pine Ridge Trail (USFS 3E06) has been a popular hiking route beginning at the Big Sur Station. Currently closed, hikers could use it to access the Ventana Wilderness and many campsites in the back country, including Ventana Camp, Terrace Creek, Barlow Flats, Sykes, and Redwood camps. The trail and the campsites along its route were closed during the Soberanes Fire in June 2017. They were damaged by the fire itself and further damaged by the heavy rains during the following winter. As of August 2017, the trail was blocked by four major washouts and more than 100 fallen trees across the path. Reopening the trail will require an environmental assessment and perhaps re-routing the trail entirely. The trail is closed indefinitely.
The Mt. Manuel Trail (USFS 2E06) begins within Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. It follows a northeasterly route up the slopes of Mt. Manuel. Hikers following this route can access Vado, Launtz Creek, and Tin House camp sites. It connects to the Little Sur trail that provides access to the Little Sur River watershed. The trail is not maintained.
The North Coast Ridge Road (USFS 20S05) is accessible from the road to the Ventana Inn and indirectly from the south via Limekiln State Park. Parking is available in the north at Cadillac Flat near the Ventana Inn. From Ventana Inn, the trail climbs steeply to the crest of the coast ridge and south about 30 miles (48 km) to near Cone Peak. There are wide views in all directions for almost the entire hike. It connects to a number of trails over its length, including Terrace Creek Trail (closed as of January 2018), Boronda Trail, DeAngulo Trail, Big Sur Trail, Marble Peak Trail, Bee Camp Trail, Lost Valley Connector Trail, Rodeo Flat Trail, and the Arroyo Seco Trail. It provides access to Timber Top and Cold Spring Camp. It passes near the summit of Anderson Peak (4,099 feet (1,249 m)) and Marble Peak (4,031 feet (1,229 m)), and through to the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road and connects to the Cone Peak Road. It is not open to vehicular traffic or bicycles. As of January 2018, the trail is closed.
Garrapata State Park, Andrew Molera State Park, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park all contain short hiking trails. As of January 2018, almost all trails on the east side of Highway 1 in these parks are closed due to the Soberanes Fire and damage sustained during heavy rains the following winter. Some trails west of Highway 1 are open.
Among the places that draw visitors are the formerly counterculture but now upscale Esalen Institute. Esalen hosted many figures of the nascent "New Age" and, in the 1960s, played an important role in popularizing Eastern philosophies, the "Human Potential Movement" and Gestalt therapy in the United States. Far from the coast within the Los Padres National Forest, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, accessible via a steep, narrow, 12-mile (19 km) dirt road, is only open to guests during the summer months. Esalen is named after the Native Americans who congregated there at the natural hot springs possibly for thousands of years.
Big Sur is also the location of a Catholic monastery, the New Camaldoli Hermitage. The Hermitage in Big Sur was founded in 1957. The Hermitage rents a few simple rooms for visitors who would like to engage in silent meditation and contemplation. Normally all retreats are silent and undirected.
The Big Sur International Marathon is an annual marathon that begins south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and ends at the Crossroads Shopping Center in Carmel-by-the-Sea. The marathon was established in 1986 and attracts about 4,500 participants annually.
Civic leaders in Big Sur stage a run each year in October to raise funds for the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade and the Big Sur Health Center. Since the race, known as the Big Sur River Run, was founded in 1971, more than $1,025,104 has been donated to the two organizations. The run through the redwoods was cancelled in 2016 due to the Soberanes Fire and in 2017 due to winter storms.
The Big Sur Folk Festival was held from 1964 to 1971. It began unintentionally when Nancy Carlen, a friend of singer Joan Baez, organized a weekend seminar at the Esalen Institute in June 1964 titled "The New Folk Music". On Sunday afternoon, they invited all the neighbors for a free, open performance. This became the first festival. The festival was held yearly on the grounds of the Esalen Institute, except for 1970, when it was held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds. Even when then well-known acts like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or the Beach Boys performed, the event was purposefully kept small with no more than a few thousand in attendance.
Due to the remoteness of the region, there is limited or no mobile phone service along much of the highway. There is service at Point Sur Lighthouse Station and vicinity as well as a repeater for Northern California State Parks System.
As of January 2018, some trails and campsites within the following areas are closed due to damage caused by the 2016 Soberanes Fire and the following winter's rains.
During most summer weekends and on all major holidays, Big Sur is overwhelmingly crowded. Although some Big Sur residents catered to adventurous travelers in the early twentieth century,:10 the modern tourist economy began when Highway 1 opened the region to automobiles in 1937, but only took off after World War II-era gasoline rationing and a ban on pleasure driving ended in August 1945. Big Sur has become a destination for travelers both within the United States and internationally.
The owner of the Nepenthe restaurant estimated in 2017 that the number of visitors had increased by 40% since 2011. Big Sur residents and business owners are concerned about the impact visitors are having on the region. Traffic and parking is constantly bad during summer and holidays weekends and some visitors don't obey the laws.:6
One of the reasons for Big Sur's popularity is that is only a one-day drive for about 7 million people. With the advent of social media, hashtags like "#sykeshotsprings" and "#pineridgetrail", two popular destinations within Big Sur, encourage more visitors. An estimated four to five million individuals visited Big Sur during 2014 and 2015, comparable to or greater than the number of visitors to Yosemite National Park. In 1980, about 3 million visitors are estimated to have visited the Big Sur Coast. In 1978, that number was about 1.5 million visitors.
Unlike Yosemite, which is managed by a single federal entity, about one-quarter of the land in Big Sur is privately owned and the remainder is managed by a conglomeration of federal, state, local, and private agencies. Yosemite offers 5,400 parking spots and a free, daily, park-wide bus service. In Big Sur, there is only a single shuttle van during the summer that runs on Thursday through Sunday from the Big Sur Station to Pfeiffer Beach. Visitors must pay $15 for a parking spot at a trailhead parking lot and take a 14 passenger van to Pfeiffer Beach.:6
Since the introduction of smart phones and social media, the popularity of certain Big Sur attractions like Bixby Creek Bridge, Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls, and the Pine Ridge Trail have dramatically increased. During holiday weekends and most summer vacation periods, traffic congestion and parking in these areas can be extremely difficult. Some locations have limited parking, and visitors park on the shoulder of Highway 1, sometimes leaving inadequate space for passing vehicles. At Bixby Creek Bridge, visitors sometimes park on the nearby Old Coast Road, blocking the road and residents' access to their homes. Highway 1 is often congested with traffic backed up behind slow drivers. There are a large number of unpaved pull outs along the highway, but there are only three paved road-side vista points allowing motorists to stop and admire the landscape. Due to the large number of visitors, congestion and slow traffic between Carmel and Posts is becoming the norm. There have been reports of tourists leaving their vehicle in the middle of Highway 1 to stop and take pictures.
In 2016, the average daily vehicle counts at the Big Sur River Bridge (milepost 46.595) were 6,500, a 13% increase from 5,700 in 2011. An average daily vehicle count of 6,500 translates to 2.3 million vehicles per year. Counts up to 14,200 were obtained from measurements at the northern and southern boundaries of the region. The lowest number was found at the border of the Monterey and San Luis Obispo County lines.
When the highway opened in 1937, average daily vehicle traffic was over 2,500, but dropped to 1,462 the next year. It rose somewhat until December 1, 1942, when mandatory gas rationing was instituted during World War II. The rationing program and a ban on pleasure driving extremely limited the number of visitors who made the trip to Big Sur. On August 15, 1945, World War II gas rationing was ended on the West Coast of the United States. The number of vehicles rose dramatically in 1946 and increased steadily. Tourism and travel boomed along the coast. When Hearst Castle opened in 1958, a huge number of tourists also flowed through Big Sur.
Visitors continued to increase during the 1960s, due in part to the opening of several major attractions in the area, especially the Esalen Institute. The filming of The Sandpiper in 1964 and its release in 1965 dramatically increased public awareness of the region. In 1970, the average daily vehicle count was 3,700, and as of 2008, reached about 4,500.
Residents are especially concerned about traffic along single-lane Sycamore Canyon Road to Pfeiffer Beach. The beach has been owned by the U.S. Forest Service since 1906, and they own an easement along the road. About 80 homes are situated along Sycamore Canyon Road. About 600 vehicles a day use the road, but there are only 65 parking spaces at the beach itself, so some tourists park on the highway and walk the 2 miles (3.2 km) road to the beach, which is illegal because the road is so narrow. On Sunday of Memorial Day weekend in 2018, the parking lot was full all day. Parks Management Company, which manages the day-use parking lot at Pfeiffer Beach, turned away more than 1,000 cars from the entrance to Sycamore Canyon Road. Visitors were redirected to the parking lot the Big Sur Station, a nearby multi-agency facility, where for $15 they could park and take a newly introduced shuttle service to the beach. The Coast Property Owners Association had been pressuring the Forest Service for a shuttle service for more than a year.
Public transportation is available to and from Monterey on Monterey–Salinas Transit. The summer schedule operates from Memorial Day to Labor Day three times a day, while the winter schedule only offers bus service on weekends. The route is subject to interruption due to wind and severe inclement weather.
There are only four gas stations along Highway 1 in Big Sur, and three of them are in the north near Big Sur Valley and Posts. The filling station in Gorda has one of the highest prices in the United States, as it is far from the electrical grid and part of the cost of auto fuel is used to support operation of a Diesel generator.
It’s a 'scenic highway' with piles of shit up and down the highway.— Butch Kronlund, Coast Property Owners Association Executive Director
The number of visitors exceeds the available restrooms, and restrooms are not available in many locations where tourists visit. The television series Big Little Lies which is filmed in the Monterey and Big Sur area draws a number of visitors. But these visitors can't find restrooms, and often resort to defecating in the bushes near locations like the Bixby Creek Bridge. There are only 17 public bathrooms including porta-potties along the entire coast. Some restrooms are found within the state parks or U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, at parks, and at some of the beaches. But they are usually not visible from Highway 1, and visitors can drive by without even knowing they’re there. But visitors don't know where the bathrooms are in part because signs along Highway 1 have been removed for aesthetic reasons.
Businesses report that the large number of visitors using their bathroom has overwhelmed their septic systems. Residents complain that visitors regularly defecate along Highway 1. Toilet paper and trash litter the roadsides. Local residents have taken it upon themselves to clean up after visitors. The California Department of Transportation, which cleans the roadside areas about once a week, finds human waste during every cleanup. Butch Kronlund, Executive Director of the Coast Property Owners Association, criticized the lack of rest rooms. He says, "It’s a 'scenic highway' with piles of shit up and down the highway."
The land use restrictions that preserve Big Sur's natural beauty also mean that visitor accommodations are limited, often expensive, and places to stay fill up quickly during the busy summer season.
There are no urban areas, just three small clusters of restaurants, gas stations, motels, and camp grounds: Posts in the Big Sur River valley, Lucia, near Limekiln State Park, and Gorda, on the southern coast. Scattered among these distant settlements are nine small grocery stores, a few gift shops, and no chain hotels, supermarkets, or fast-food outlets, and no plans to add facilities or shopping. Among the places to stay and eat are the luxury Ventana Inn, Post Ranch, and the Nepenthe restaurant, built around the cabin Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth impulsively bought.
There are fewer than 300 hotel rooms on the entire 90-mile (140 km) stretch of Highway 1 between San Simeon and Carmel. Lodging include a few cabins, motels, and campgrounds, and higher-end resorts. There are some short-term rentals, but their legality is still being determined.
Some social media sites report the availability of free camping on the side of roads, but camping of any sort along highways and secondary roads is illegal and subject to fines. Casual campers have turned every wide spot along the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road into a campsite, although there are no bathrooms or fire pits. Residents complain about the campers building illegal camp fires and defecating along the road without using proper sanitation. Camping is only permitted within designated private and state or federal park campsites or within USFS lands. On July 22, 2016, an illegal campfire within Garrapata State Park, where camping is not permitted, got out of control. The resulting Soberanes Fire burned 132,127 acres (53,470 ha), 57 homes and 11 outbuildings, and killed a bulldozer operator. It took almost three months to extinguish and cost about $236 million to suppress. In October, 2017, a visitor from Florida was arrested for starting an illegal campfire that grew out of control.
The arrival of Bay Area artists in Carmel-by-the-Sea beginning in 1904 was the beginning of a literary and artistic colony on the northern edge of Big Sur. Robinson Jeffers moved to Carmel in September 1914, and over his lifetime wrote many evocative poems about the isolation and natural beauty of Big Sur. Beginning in the 1920s, his poetry introduced the romantic idea of Big Sur's wild, untamed spaces to a national audience, which encouraged many of the later visitors.
Henry Miller moved to Big Sur at the invitation of the Greco-French artist Jean Varda, uncle of filmmaker Agnès Varda. He lived in Big Sur for 20 years, from 1944 to 1962. When he first arrived, he was broke and novelist Lynda Sargent was renting a cabin from a local riding club. She allowed Miller to live rent free for a while. But when the cabin was sold to Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth in 1945, Miller moved several miles south to a wood cabin on Partington Ridge that had been owned by his friend Emil White.
While in Big Sur, Miller, avant-garde musician Harry Partch and Jean Varda were part of a local group of bohemians known as the Anderson Creek Gang, many of whom lived at the former highway work camp near the mouth of Anderson Creek. Miller lived in a shack there during 1946 before moving back to the cabin on Partington Ridge in 1947. In his 1957 essay/memoir/novel Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Miller described the joys and hardships that came from escaping the "air conditioned nightmare" of modern life.
Hunter S. Thompson worked as a security guard and caretaker at a resort in Big Sur Hot Springs for eight months in 1961, just before the Esalen Institute was founded at that location. While there, he published his first feature story in the nationally distributed men's magazine Rogue about Big Sur's artisan and Bohemian culture. In the article, he described how the Bohemian image attracted people who annoyed residents:
Every weekend Dick Hartford, owner of the local Village Store, is plagued by people looking for "sex orgies," "wild drinking brawls," or "the road to Henry Miller's house" as if once they found Miller everything else would be take care of...
Time was when this place was as lonely and isolated as any spot in America. But no longer, Inevitably, Big Sur has been "discovered." Life called it a "Rugged, Romantic World Apart," and presented nine pages of pictures to prove it. After that there was no hope...
And on some weekends it seems like all seven million of them are right here, bubbling over with questions: "Where's the art colony man? I've come all the way from Tennessee to join it." "Say, fella, where do I find this nudist colony?" ... Or the one that drove Miller half-crazy: "Ah ha! So you're Henry Miller! Well my name is Claude Fink and I've come to join the cult of sex and anarchy.
Other writers and artists were also attracted by Big Sur, including Edward Weston, Richard Brautigan, Emile Norman and Jack Kerouac. Big Sur acquired a bohemian reputation with these newcomers. Kerouac followed Miller to Big Sur and included the rugged coast in large parts of two of his novels. He spent a few days in early 1960 at fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin in Bixby Canyon and based his novel Big Sur on his time there.
Well-known individuals have called Big Sur home, including diplomats Nicholas Roosevelt, famed architects Nathaniel A. Owings and Philip Johnson, Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, show business celebrities Kim Novak and Allen Funt, and business executives Ted Turner and David Packard. Other former residents include:
Monterey County gained national attention for its early conservation efforts. The Monterey County Planning Commission passed a zoning ordinance seven years before the road was completed that banned billboards along the highway. A gas station owner on the highway 15 miles (24 km) south of Monterey went to court over the ordinance in 1936. Monterey County Superior Court Judge Maurice Dooling ruled for the county in 1941. Another ordinance enjoining specific kinds of off-premises signs was passed in 1955. It was challenged by the National Advertising Co. in a case that eventually went before the California Supreme Court. It affirmed in 1962 the county's right to ban billboards and other signs and advertising along Highway 1. The case secured to local government the right to use its police power for aesthetic purposes.
The first master plan for the Big Sur coast was written beginning in 1959 and completed in 1962. Monterey county involved local residents and consultants to develop the master plan. The Monterey County Coast Master Plan was recognized as an innovative and far reaching plan and was supported by the coast residents. Architect and part-time local resident Nathaniel A. Owings helped write the plan.
When voters passed Proposition 20, the California Coastal Conservation Initiative in 1972, it established the California Coastal Commission. At the same time, Congress passed the Coastal Zone Management Act which the California Coastal Commission was put in charge of administering. To implement terms of the California proposition, the county began working on a comprehensive plan and in 1977 they appointed a small group of local Big Sur residents to the Big Sur Citizens’ Advisory Committee. The committee sought to develop a plan that would conserve scenic views and the unparalleled beauty of the area. Committee members met with Big Sur residents, county administrators, and California Coastal Commission staff to write a new land use plan. The planning effort included several months of public hearings and discussion, including considerable input from the residents of Big Sur. The county solicited input with virtually every agency with an important role on the coast. The years-long debate bitterly divided the 1,400 residents of Big Sur.
The resulting Big Sur Local Coastal Plan (LCP) provides detailed policy guidance that attempts to balance the development needs of the land and home owners and the local community while protecting local resources. The local land use plan was initially approved by the Monterey County Board of Supervisors in 1981, but was rejected by the California Coastal Commission, which wanted closer obedience to the Coastal Act priorities. They approved the amended plan on April 10, 1986.:61
The plan bans all development west of Highway 1 with the exception of the Big Sur Valley. It also restricts any development that can be seen from the highway and key vantage points including beaches, parks, campgrounds, and major trails, with a few exceptions. The plan states the following goals:
To preserve for posterity the incomparable beauty of the Big Sur country, its special cultural and natural resources, its landforms and seascapes and inspirational vistas. To this end, all development must harmonize with and be subordinate to the wild and natural character of the land.
Recognizing the Big Sur coast's outstanding scenic beauty and its great benefit to the people of the State and the Nation, it is the County's objective to preserve these scenic resources in perpetuity and to promote, wherever possible, the restoration of the natural beauty of visually degraded areas.
The county's basic policy is to prohibit all future public or private development visible from Highway 1 and major public viewing areas.
The restrictions also protect views from the Old Coast Road.
The provision of the Big Sur Local Coastal Plan that generated the most controversy set density requirements for future building. In areas west of Highway 1, any subdivision of an existing parcels must be at least 40 acres (16 ha). For parcels east of Highway 1, the plan limited parcel size based on slope. Most land is limited to a minimum subdivision of 320 acres (130 ha), although parcels with minimal slope may be subdivided to 40 acres (16 ha). Based on these rules, a coastal commission staff person calculated that only about 12 new parcels could be subdivided within the entire 234 square miles (610 km2) Big Sur coastal planning area.
The plan bans large hotels, condominium projects, and similar major developments. It allows construction of about 300 more visitor's rooms, but only in clusters of 30 or fewer units in four rural communities — Big Sur Valley, Lucia, Pacific Valley, and Gorda.
For dwellings, the limit in tourist areas is one living unit per acre. West of Highway 1, density is limited to one unit per 2.5 acres (1.0 ha), and east of the highway to one unit per 5 acres (2.0 ha). In established communities like Palo Colorado and the Big Sur Valley, only one living unit per 2.5 acres (1.0 ha) is permitted. South of Big Sur Valley, the limit is set to one unit per 5 acres (2.0 ha), and in the far south of the region, only one unit per 10 acres (4.0 ha) is allowed.
The plan states that region is to be preserved as "open space, a small residential community, and agricultural ranching." The plan was approved in 1981 and is one of the most restrictive local use programs in the state, and is widely regarded as one of the most restrictive documents of its kind anywhere.
John Harlan, a fourth-generation Big Sur resident whose family owns large amounts of land in the region, criticised the plan when it was under consideration. He said "flatlanders who live 90 miles from where I sit" who were trying to control the area's future, including the plan's prohibition on new construction in the viewshed defined by the plan. He said, "Big Sur is going to either become a playground for the very wealthy or it will eventually be federalized because the plan won't work."
Some opponents have criticized the actions of conservation groups like the Big Sur Land Trust as having "turned the buyout of Big Sur into a business, making millions of dollars buying private land and selling it to government agencies." Based on figures developed by Monterey County in 2004, at that time 84% or 255,000 acres (103,000 ha) within the Big Sur Planning Area was restricted from development. Only 45,000 acres (18,000 ha) might be built on, but some of that property is owned by land trusts that also prohibit development.
During development of the land use plan, the Coast Property Owners Association stated that the mandates of the Coastal Act have led to increased costs for planning and permits. They believe the land is becoming so expensive that only wealthy individuals can afford to buy property. They objected to proposed view shed restrictions they believe are threatening Big Sur's alternative reputation and social fabric, leading to a community of millionaires, a few remaining long-term residents, and single residents working in the local hospitality industry who are forced to live in barracks or similar kinds of employee housing.:162
Mike Caplin, a representative of the Coastal Property Owners Association, said that some coastal residents are concerned about the steady growth of public lands. "When I look out over Big Sur now, I don't just see beauty.... I see my community being dismantled, one parcel at a time."
To motivate landowners to give up development rights in preferred areas like those near the ocean, the plan includes a controversial element that allows landowners who lose the right to build on one property to trade it for the right to develop two other sites where building is permitted. To take advantage of the transfer of development rights ordinance, the owner must dedicate a permanent, irrevocable scenic easement to the county that prohibits residential and commercial use of their property. To encourage adoption of the land use policy, the county offered landowners a two-for-one transfer ratio. Planners recognize that a view of the ocean is worth twice an inland view. For each buildable parcel given up by an owner, they receive the right to transfer their credit to two locations, as long as the usage meets the land use policy restrictions such as density. As of 2014, eight impacted parcels have been leveraged into 16 transfer rights, and nine of those have been used since the program was implemented in 1988.
Due to development restrictions and the limited number of parcels available for development, real estate and rental prices are high. As of 2016, the median price of property is $1,813,846, more than three times the state's median price,:6:6 and more than six times the national price. The average price is $3,942,371, more than 10 times the national average price of $390,400. The average home sold is 1,580 square feet (147 m2) and has 2.39 bedrooms. The median lot size is 436,086 square feet (40,513.7 m2), or just over 10 acres (4.0 ha). About one-quarter of the land along the coast is privately owned.:6 The remainder is part of the federal or state park systems or owned by other agencies, while the interior is largely part of the Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness, Silver Peak Wilderness, and Fort Hunter Liggett.
In 2007 and 2017, the New York Times reported that "more than half the homes in the region are owned by part-time residents who live mainly in Los Angeles or around San Francisco Bay," "fund managers and dot-commers coming in who want to buy a slice of heaven." They found that many of the simple cabins and modest bungalows that once comprised most of the housing along Sycamore Canyon Road were being replaced by "sculptural modernistic dwellings that range in value from $2.5 million to $6 million." During preparation of the Big Sur Local Use Plan, the county conducted a mid-decade census in 1976 which found about 800 housing units. About 600 of these were permanent single family dwellings and about 136 or 17% were second homes and vacant. As of 1985, when the Big Sur Land Use Plan was approved, there were about 1,100 private land parcels on the Big Sur Coast. These were from less than an acre to several thousands of acres in size. Approximately 700 parcels were undeveloped, and 370 parcels were occupied.
Getting a building permit is a lengthy, multi-year process. From buying a property to beginning construction can require multiple visits to the Monterey County Resource Management Agency. Jay Auburn, a specialist in obtaining building permits, said, "You have to factor in an additional 5 to 10 percent of construction costs just for getting over the regulations." Before construction can begin, the builder must erect flags outlining the physical presence of the proposed building so that regulators can view the proposed construction and determine its visual impact. Homeowners have to mitigate any impact on the environment. County Planning Commissioner Martha Diehl said in 2007 that "The only people who can go through the process are people who can afford it, and that brings social costs."
About 76% of the local population is dependent on the hospitality industry. Due to the shortage of housing and the high cost of rents, some employees cannot afford to live in the area and commute 50 miles (80 km) or more to their work. Michelle Rizzolo, the owner of the Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, told the Times that she can't find places for her employees to live. "In fact, when we started this place, we all had to sleep on the floor of the bakery."
Many of the developed parcels have more than one residence or commercial building on them. Residential areas include Otter Cove, Garrapata Ridge and the adjacent Rocky Point, Garrapata and Palo Colorado Canyons, Bixby Canyon, Pfeiffer Ridge and Sycamore Canyon, Coastlands, Partington Ridge, Burns Creek, Buck Creek to Lime Creek, Plaskett Ridge, and Redwood Gulch. The plan allows about 800 additional homes to be built, but only in locations where they cannot be seen.
The areas that have the greatest number of developed parcels, usually 2.5 acres (1.0 ha) or less, are generally located near the highway, including Palo Colorado Canyon, Garrapata Redwood, Rocky Point, Big Sur Valley, Coastlands and Partington Ridge.
In 2015, Monterey County began considering how to deal with the issue of short-term rentals brought on by services such as Airbnb. They agreed to allow rentals as long as the owners paid the Transient Occupancy Tax. In 1990, there were about 800 housing units in Big Sur, about 600 of which were single family dwellings. There are currently an estimated 100 short-term rentals available.
Many residents of Big Sur object to the rentals. On July 13, 2016, the Monterey County Planning Commission held a workshop on short-term rentals. Many residents complained about their impact on scarce rental properties. One resident stated that there are "almost 100 short-term rentals out of 200 to 300 rentals. That’s nearly half of our rental population."
During a fire in 2013, 21 long-term renters lost their homes and were unable to find replacement housing. Planning commissioner Keith Vandevere said there is a "huge daily migration" of workers who drive between the Salinas Valley and the Monterey Peninsula.
They claim short-term rentals violate the Big Sur Local Use Plan which prohibits establishing facilities that attract destination traffic. Short-term rentals also remove scarce residences from the rental market and are likely to drive up demand and the cost of housing. About half of the residents of Big Sur rent their residences.
The Big Sur coastal land use plan states:
The significance of the residential areas for planning purposes is that they have the capacity, to some extent, to accommodate additional residential demand. Unlike the larger properties or commercial centers, they are not well suited for commercial agriculture, commercial, or visitor uses; use of these areas, to the extent consistent with resource protection, should continue to be for residential purposes.
As of December 2017, the county was conducting hearings and gathering input towards making a decision about short-term rentals on the Big Sur coast. Susan Craig, Central Coast District Manager of the California Coastal Commission, provided the opinion that short-term rentals are appropriate within Big Sur.
The majority of the Big Sur coast and interior are owned by the California State Department of Parks and Recreation, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, the Big Sur Land Trust, and the University of California. Approximately two-thirds of the Big Sur coastal area, totaling about 500,000 acres (200,000 ha), extending from Malpaso Creek in the north to San Carpóforo Canyon in the south, are preserved under various federal, state, county, and private arrangements.
As of 2016, if public acquisitions now contemplated or in progress are completed, approximately 60% of the land west of the coastal ridge would be publicly owned, although not necessarily open to the public. For example, the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve is owned and managed by the University of California Natural Reserve System and the University of California, Santa Cruz. The reserve is only available for research or educational purposes except for a single day each year in May when it is open to the public. Reservations must be made in advance. The Big Sur Land Trust owns several parcels of land such as the Glen Deven Ranch and Notley's Landing that are closed to the public or only open to its members.
In 1972, California voters passed Proposition 20, calling for establishing a coastal trail system. It stipulated that "a hiking, bicycle, and equestrian trails system be established along or near the coast" and that "ideally the trails system should be continuous and located near the shoreline." The California Coastal Act of 1976 requires local jurisdictions to identify an alignment for the California Coastal Trail in their Local Coastal Programs. In 2001, California legislators passed SB 908 which gave the Coastal Conservancy responsibility for completing the trail.
In Monterey County, the trail is being developed in two sections: the Big Sur Trail and the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Trail. In 2007, the Coastal Conservancy began to develop a master plan for the 75 miles (121 km) stretch of coast through Big Sur from near Ragged Point in San Luis Obispo County to the Carmel River. A coalition of Big Sur residents began developing a master plan to accommodate the interests and concerns of coastal residents, but progress on an official trail stalled.
The coastal trail plan is intended to be respectful of the private landowner's rights. One of the largest private land holdings along the coast is El Sur Ranch. It extends about 6 miles (9.7 km) along Highway 1, from near the mouth of the Little Sur River at Hurricane Point to Andrew Molera State Park, and it reaches 2.5 miles (4.0 km) up the Little Sur valley to the border of the Los Padre National Forest. The landowner Jim Hill supports the trail, but his land is already crossed by two public routes, Highway 1 and the Old Coast Highway. He is opposed to another public right-of-way through the ranch. In 2008, Representative Sam Farr from Carmel told attendees at a meeting in Big Sur that "I don't think you're going to see an end-to-end trail anytime in the near future." He said, "The regulatory hassle is unbelievable. It's like we're building an interstate freeway." Within Monterey County, about 20 miles (32 km) of the trail would cross private lands.
The acquisition of lands by the Big Sur Land Trust and others has created a 70 miles (110 km) long wildland corridor that begins at the Carmel River and extends southward to the Hearst Ranch in San Luis Obispo County. From the north, the wild land corridor is continuous through Palo Corona Ranch, Point Lobos Ranch, Garrapata State Park, Joshua Creek Ecological Preserve, Mittledorf Preserve, Glen Deven Ranch, Brazil Ranch, Los Padres National Forest, and the Ventana Wilderness. Many of these lands are distant from the coast, and the coastal trail plan calls for placing the trail, "Wherever feasible, ... within sight, sound, or at least the scent of the sea. The traveler should have a persisting awareness of the Pacific Ocean. It is the presence of the ocean that distinguishes the seaside trail from other visitor destinations."
As an alternative to the trail called for by the act, hikers have adopted a route that utilizes existing roads and inland trails. The trail currently follows State Highway One and the Old Coast Road from Bixby Bridge. The trail south of Bixby Creek enters Brazil Ranch, which requires permission to enter. From Brazil Ranch the trail drops back to Highway One at Andrew Molera State Park. From Highway One, the trail then follows the Coast Ridge Road from the Ventana Inn area to Kirk Creek Campground. The trail then moves inland and follows the Cruikshank and Buckeye trails on the Santa Lucia Mountain ridges to the San Luis Obispo County line. As of January 2018, the Old Coast Road is closed to through traffic due to damage from winter rains following the Soberanes fire.
Several proposals for federal administration of Big Sur have emerged in the past. All of these have been strongly opposed by county officials, local residents, and property owners. Alan Perlmutter, owner of the Big Sur River Inn in 2004, visited U.S. Representative Phillip Burton in Washington D.C. during the late 1970s to discuss federal legislation. Burton was then considered the national "park czar." Perlmutter said that Burton told him and others present, "If you think you're going to get that [expletive] turf, you're out of your mind. That [expletive] turf belongs to me."
In January 1980, while the local leaders worked on their local use plan, U.S. Senator Alan Cranston and U.S. Representative Leon Panetta introduced S.2551 that would create the Big Sur National Scenic Area. The bill would create a 700,000 acres (280,000 ha) scenic area administered by the U.S. Forest Service and budgeted $100 million to buy land from private land owners, up to $30 million for easements and management programs, and enforce a state plan for a zone about 75 miles (121 km) long and 5 miles (8.0 km) wide. The bill was strongly supported by photographer and Carmel Highlands, California resident Ansel Adams, but it was opposed by Senator S. I. Hayakawa and development interests. In February 1980, the Wilderness Society announced its backing for a National Scenic Area in Big Sur. Both the legislation and Wilderness Society proposal were opposed by Big Sur residents and the legislation did not reach a vote. Big Sur residents mocked the plan as 'Panetta's Pave 'n' Save,' and raised a fund of more than $100,000 to lobby against the proposal. It failed to garner enough support and died in Congress.
In March 1986 California Senator Pete Wilson announced that he planned to introduce federal legislation that would preserve 144,000 acres (58,000 ha) of Big Sur as a National Forest Scenic Area. His plan would have created a Big Sur-based land trust funded by private donations to purchase private property. It was opposed by local residents and politicians who preferred local control. It failed to garner enough votes for consideration.
In 2004, Senator Sam Farr asked the U.S. Forest Service to study how a Big Sur National Forest could be created. They explored options including the Hearst Ranch and Ft. Hunter Liggett if it was the subject of a base closure.
Farr did not act on the Forest Service report until 2011, when he introduced H.R. 4040, the "Big Sur Management Unit Act". It would have created a sub-unit of the Los Padres National Forest. Big Sur residents opposed the legislation in part because when land is designated for wilderness, firefighters must obtain the permission of the Regional Forester to operate heavy equipment such as bulldozers within the wilderness. They contend this bureaucratic chain-of-command slows firefighters' ability to build fire breaks, which they contend occurred during the 2008 Basin Complex Fire. They also expressed concern that federal government doesn't have the resources to manage land it already oversees. They were also distrustful of federal oversight of their local lands.
Mount Pico Blanco is topped by a distinctive white limestone cap, visible from California's California State Route 1.:155 The Granite Rock Company of Watsonville, California has since 1963 owned the mineral rights to 2,800 acres (1,100 ha), or all of section 36, which sits astride and surrounds the summit of Pico Blanco Mountain. Limestone is a key ingredient in concrete and Pico Blanco contains a particularly high grade deposit, reportedly the largest in California, and the largest west of the Rocky Mountains.:323 In 1980 Granite Rock applied for a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to begin excavating a 5-acre (2.0 ha) quarry on the south face of Pico Blanco within the National Forest boundary.
After the Forest Service granted the permit, the California Coastal Commission required Graniterock to apply for a coastal development permit in accordance with the requirements of the California Coastal Act. Granite Rock filed suit, claiming that the Coastal Commission permit requirement was preempted by the Forest Service review. When Granite Rock prevailed in the lower courts, the Coastal Commission appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which in a historic 5–4 decision in 1987, found in favor of the commission.
By this time Granite Rock's permit had expired. In 2010, the company's president stated that he believed that at some point the company would be allowed to extract the limestone in a way that doesn't harm the environment. As of 2017, they still own the land, which is zoned WSC/40-D(CZ) for Watershed and Scenic Conservation.
There are oil and gas reserves off the coast, but exploration has not been permitted. In 1982, Interior Secretary James G. Watt proposed opening the Central California coast outer continental shelf to oil and gas exploration. California residents and politicians strongly opposed the proposal and it was defeated. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush used an obscure 1953 law to permanently ban oil and gas development in California’s Monterey Bay. In November, 2017, President Obama used the same law to ban oil exploration from Hearst Castle to Point Arena in Mendocino County, California.
In July 2017, under the direction of Executive Order 13795 from President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Commerce began re-evaluating the protected status of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which includes the Davidson Seamount off the coast of Big Sur. The seamount, at 23 nmi (43 km; 26 mi) long, 7 nmi (13 km; 8.1 mi) wide, and 7,480 feet (2,280 m) high, is one of the largest in the world. Opening the area to oil and gas exploration was opposed by many environmentalists and residents.
Three tribes of Native Americans — the Ohlone, Esselen, and Salinan — are the first known people to have inhabited the area. The Ohlone, also known as the Costanoans, are believed to have lived in the region from San Francisco to Point Sur. The Esselen lived in the area between Point Sur south to Big Creek, and inland including the upper tributaries of the Carmel River and Arroyo Seco watersheds. The Salinan lived from Big Creek south to San Carpóforo Creek. Archaeological evidence shows that the Esselen lived in Big Sur as early as 3500 BC, leading a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence.
The aboriginal people inhabited fixed village locations, and followed food sources seasonally, living near the coast in winter to harvest rich stocks of otter, mussels, abalone, and other sea life. In the summer and fall, they traveled inland to gather acorns and hunt deer. The native people hollowed mortar holes into large exposed rocks or boulders which they used to grind the acorns into flour. These can be found throughout the region. Arrows were of made of cane and pointed with hardwood foreshafts. The tribes also used controlled burning techniques to increase tree growth and food production.: 269–270
The population was limited as the Santa Lucia Mountains made the area relatively inaccessible and long-term habitation a challenge. The population of the Esselen who lived in the Big Sur area are estimated from a few hundred to a thousand or more.
The first Europeans to see Big Sur were Spanish mariners led by Juan Cabrillo in 1542, who sailed up the coast without landing. When Cabrillo sailed by, he described the coastal range as "mountains which seem to reach the heavens, and the sea beats on them; sailing along close to land, it appears as though they would fall on the ships.":272
Two centuries passed before the Spaniards attempted to colonize the area. On September 13, 1769, an expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá were the first Europeans to enter the Big Sur region when they arrived at San Carpóforo Canyon near Ragged Point.: 272 While camping there, they were visited by six indigenous people who offered pinole and fish and received beads in exchange. They explored the coast ahead and concluded it was impassable. They were forced to turn inland up the steep arroyo. The march through the mountains was one of the most difficult portions of the expedition's journey. The Spanish were forced to "make a road with crowbar and pickaxe". Crespi wrote, "The mountains which enclose it are perilously steep, and all are inaccessible, not only for men but also for goats and deer." From a high peak near the San Antonio River, they could see nothing but mountains in every direction.:190 They reached Monterey on October 1. When they attempted to explore further south, the scouts found their way blocked by "the same cliff that had forced us back from the shore and obliged us to travel through the mountains.":205
After the Spanish established the California missions in 1770, they baptized and forced the native population to labor at the missions. While living at the missions, the aboriginal population was exposed to diseases unknown to them, like smallpox and measles, for which they had no immunity, devastating the Native American population and their culture. Many of the remaining Native Americans assimilated with Spanish and Mexican ranchers in the nineteenth century.: 264–267
In 1909, forest supervisors reported that three Indian families still lived within what was then known as the Monterey National Forest. The Encinale family of 16 members and the Quintana family with three members lived in the vicinity of The Indians (now known as Santa Lucia Memorial Park west of Ft. Hunger Liggett). The Mora family consisting of three members was living to the south along the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road.
Along with the rest of Alta California, Big Sur became part of Mexico when it gained independence from Spain in 1821. But, due to its inaccessibility, only a few small portions of the Big Sur region were included in land grants given by Mexican governors José Figueroa and Juan Bautista Alvarado.:8
Rancho Milpitas was a 43,281-acre (17,515 ha) land grant given in 1838 by governor Juan Alvarado to Ygnacio Pastor. The grant encompassed present day Jolon and land to the west. When Pastor obtained title from the Public Land Commission in 1875, Faxon Atherton immediately purchased the land. By 1880, the James Brown Cattle Company owned and operated Rancho Milpitas and neighboring Rancho Los Ojitos. William Randolph Hearst's Piedmont Land and Cattle Company acquired the rancho in 1925. In 1940, in anticipation of the increased forces required in World War II, the U.S. War Department purchased the land from Hearst to create a troop training facility known as the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation.
On July 30, 1834, Figueroa granted Rancho El Sur, two square leagues of land totalling 8,949-acres (3,622 ha), to Juan Bautista Alvarado.:21 The grant extended between the Little Sur River and what is now called Cooper Point. Alvarado later traded Rancho El Sur for the more accessible Rancho Bolsa del Potrero y Moro Cojo in the northern Salinas Valley, owned by his uncle by marriage, Captain John B. R. Cooper. Rancho El Sur is still an operating cattle ranch.
In 1839, Alvarado granted Rancho San Jose y Sur Chiquito, also about two square leagues of land totalling 8,876-acre (3,592 ha), to Marcelino Escobar, a prominent official of Monterey. The grant was bounded on the north by the Carmel River and on the south by Palo Colorado Canyon.
During the first survey of the coast conducted by the U.S. Coast Survey in 1886, the surveyor reported:
The country between the shore-line and the Coast Range of mountains, running parallel with the shore-line from San Carpojoro to Point Sur is probably the roughest piece of coast-line on the whole Pacific coast of the United States from San Diego to Cape Flattery.
The highest peaks of the crest of the coast range are located at an average distance from the coast of three and a half miles [5.6 km]. In this distance they rise to elevations of from three thousand six hundred to five thousand feet [1,100 to 1,500 m] above the sea-level. From San Carpoforo Creek to Pfeiffer's Point, a distance of 54 miles (87 km), the shore-line is iron-bound coast with no possible chance of getting from the hills to the shore-line and back except at the mouths of the creeks and at such places as Coxe's Hole and Slate's Hot Springs, where there are short stretches of sandy and rocky beaches from fifty to one hundred yards [meters] in length. In many places the sea bluffs are perpendicular, and rise from one thousand to one thousand five hundred feet [300 to 460 m] above the sea. The country is cut up by deep cañons [canyons], walled in with high and precipitous bluffs. These cañons are densely wooded with redwood, oak, and yellow and silver pine timber.
The redwood trees are from three to six feet [0.91 to 1.83 m] in diameter and from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet high [30 to 46 m]. The oaks and pines are of the same average dimensions. Beautiful streams of clear cold water, filled with an abundance of salmon or trout, are to be found in all the canyons. The spurs running from the summits of the range to the ocean bluffs are covered with a dense growth of brush and scattering clumps of oak and pine timber. The chaparral is very thick, and in many places grows to a height of ten or fifteen feet [3–5 m] ... The spurs, slopes, and canons are impenetrable ...
The first known European settler in Big Sur was George Davis, who in 1853 claimed a tract of land along the Big Sur River. He built a cabin near the present day site of the beginning of the Mount Manuel Trail.:326 In 1868, Native Americans Manual and Florence Innocenti bought Davis' cabin and land for $50. The second European settlers were the Pfeiffer family from France. Michael Pfeiffer and his wife and four children arrived in Big Sur in 1869 with the intention of settling on the south coast. After reaching Sycamore Canyon, they found it to their liking and decided to stay.:326
The Davis cabin was just above the location of a cabin later built for John Bautista Rogers Cooper. Born John Rogers Cooper, he was a Yankee born in the British Channel Islands who arrived in Monterey in 1823. He became a Mexican citizen, converted to Catholicism, and was given his Spanish name at his baptism. He married Native American Encarnacion Vallejo and acquired considerable land, including Rancho El Sur, on which he had a cabin built in April or May 1861. The Cooper Cabin is the oldest surviving structure in Big Sur. Other important pioneer-era historic resources are the Post House, built over several years in the 1860s and 1870s, and the Swetnam / Trotter House, a late 19th century dwelling located at the mouth of Palo Colorado Canyon. Further south, in Pacific Valley, is the Junge Cabin, a one-room redwood cabin built in 1920 by homesteader John Junge. John Little State Natural Reserve straddling the mouth of Lime Creek preserves the original 1917 cabin of conservationist Elizabeth K. Livermore.
After passage of the federal Homestead Act in 1862, a few hardy settlers were drawn by the promise of free 160-acre (65 ha) parcels. After the claimant filed for the land, they had gained full ownership after five years of residence or by paying $1.50 per acre within six months. Each claim was for 160 acres, a quarter section of free government land. The first to file a land patent was Micheal Pfeiffer on January 20, 1883, who claimed two sections of land he already resided on near and immediately north of the mouth of Sycamore Canyon. They had six more children later on. William Plaskett and his family settled in Pacific Valley in 1869. They established a saw mill and built several cabins.:38
Other settlers included William F. Notley, who homesteaded at the mouth of Palo Colorado Canyon in 1891. He began harvesting tanoak bark from the canyon, a lucrative source of income at the time. Notley's Landing is named after him. Isaac Swetnam worked for Notley and built a house at the mouth of Palo Colorado Canyon, which as of 2018 is still a residence. Sam Trotter, who also worked for Notley, later bought Swetnam's house. He married Adelaide Pfeiffer, the daughter of Micheal Pfeiffer, and they raised a family there from 1906 to 1923. Many other local sites retain names from settlers during this period: Bottcher, Gamboa, Anderson, Partington, Dani, Harlans, McQuades, Ross, and McWay are a few of the place names. Wilber Harlan, a native of Indiana, homesteaded near Lucia in 1885. His family descendants are as of 2017 still operating the Lucia Lodge.
Along with industries based on tanoak bark harvesting, gold mining, and limestone processing, the local economy provided more jobs and supported a larger population than it does today. From the 1860s through the start of the twentieth century, lumbermen cut down most of the readily accessible coast redwoods. Redwood harvesting further inland was always limited by the rugged terrain and difficulty in transporting the lumber to market. Pioneer William F. Notley was one of the first to harvest the bark of the Tanbark Oak from the Little Sur River canyon.
Tanbark was used to manufacture tannic acid, necessary to the growing leather tanning industry located in Santa Cruz, and to preserve fish nets. The tanbark was harvested from the isolated trees inland, left to dry, corded, and brought out on mules or hauled out on "go-devils". The go-devil was a wagon with two wheels on the front, while the rear had rails for pulling. Notley constructed a landing at the mouth of the Palo Colorado River like that at Bixby Landing to the south. The tanbark was loaded by cable onto waiting vessels anchored offshore. In 1889, as much as 50,000 cords of tanbark were hauled out from the Little Sur River and Big Sur River watersheds.:330 A small village grew up around Notley's Landing from 1898 to 1907. Near the start of the 20th century, the tan oak trees were becoming seriously depleted, which slowly led to the demise of the industries they had created.
A point on the Palo Colorado road is still nicknamed "The Hoist" because of the very steep road which required wagon-loads of tanbark and lumber to be hoisted by block and tackle hitched to oxen. The old block and tackle on a beam is still mounted between mailboxes.
In the 1880s, gold was found in the Los Burros District at Alder Creek in the mountains east of present-day Gorda. The gold rush town of Manchester at existed for a few short years. The town boasted a population of 200, four stores, a restaurant, five saloons, a dance hall, and a hotel, but it was abandoned soon after the start of the twentieth century and burned to the ground in 1909. Miners extracted about $150,000 in gold (about $4.41 million in 2017) during the mine's existence.:30
The 30 mi (48 km) trip from Monterey to the Pfeiffer Ranch could take three days by wagon. It was a rough road that ended in present-day Big Sur Village and could be impassible in winter. Local entrepreneurs built small boat landings like what is known today as Bixby Landing at a few coves along the coast from which supplies could be received and products could be shipped from schooners via a cable hoist. A steamer would make a trip from San Francisco to drop off supplies in Big Sur once a year. It stopped at the mouth of the Big Sur River and at Big Creek, north of Lucia. Only the stone foundations of some of these landings remain today.
In the late 1800s, the Ventana Power Company operated a sawmill near present-day Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. They began planning to build a dam on the Big Sur River just downstream of the confluence of Ventana Creek and the Big Sur River. They hoped to sell the electricity to the City of Monterey. They built a diversion channel along the Big Sur River, but the 1906 San Francisco earthquake bankrupted the company and they abandoned the project. The stonework from the diversion channel is still visible. Few other signs of this brief industrial period are visible. The rugged, isolated terrain kept out all but the sturdiest and most self-sufficient settlers. Travelers further south had to follow a horse trail that connected the various homesteaders along the coast.
Highway 1 is a dominant feature of the Big Sur coast, providing the primary means of access and transportation.
Prior to the construction of Highway 1, the California coast south of Carmel and north of San Simeon was one of the most remote regions in the state, rivaling at the time nearly any other region in the United States for its difficult access. It remained largely an untouched wilderness until early in the twentieth century. When the region was first settled by European immigrants in 1853, it was the United States' "last frontier."
After the brief industrial boom faded, the early decades of the twentieth century passed with few changes, and Big Sur remained a nearly inaccessible wilderness. As late as the 1920s, only two homes in the entire region had electricity, locally generated by water wheels and windmills.: 328:64 Most of the population lived without power until connections to the California electric grid were established in the early 1950s.
The region has always been relatively difficult to access and only the sturdiest and most self-sufficient settlers stayed. A rough trail from Carmel to Mill Creek (present-day Bixby Canyon) was in use by about 1855 when it was declared a public road by the county.:4–2,3
Charles Henry Bixby arrived in the Big Sur area in 1868. He built a sawmill on what was then called Mill Creek. Bixby tried to persuade the county to improve a road to his ranch, but they refused, replying that "no one would want to live there." It was impossible to build a wharf from the cliffs that dropped into the ocean, and he instead built a hoist that could be used to load goods on coastal schooners anchored slightly offshore. In 1870, he and his father hired men to improve the rough single-lane track and constructed the first wagon road, including 23 bridges, from the Carmel Mission to Bixby Creek.
In 1886 Bixby partnered with W. B. Post and they improved and realigned what became known as the Old Coast Road south to his ranch near Sycamore Canyon. At Bixby Creek, the road was necessarily built 11 miles (18 km) inland to circumvent the deep canyon. It also circumvented the wide canyon mouth of the Little Sur River. The road led to the Post family home, about 7 miles (11 km) south of the Molera Ranch on the former Rancho El Sur.:4–2,3 The 30 mi (48 km) trip from Carmel could take three days by wagon or stagecoach.:24 The single-lane road was closed in winter when it became impassable. Coast residents would occasionally receive supplies via a hazardous landing by boat from Monterey or San Francisco.:4–4
By around 1900, residents extended the road another 2.5 miles (4.0 km) south near Castro Canyon, near the present-day location of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. The Pfeiffer family's hospitality was enjoyed by friends and strangers alike for years. They finally began charging guests in 1910, naming it Pfeiffer's Ranch Resort, and it became one of the earliest places to stay. In July 1937, the California Highways and Public Works department described the journey. "There was a narrow, winding, steep road from Carmel south… approximately 35 miles to the Big Sur River. From that point south to San Simeon, it could only be traveled by horseback or on foot." The southern portion, which was for many years merely a foot and horse trail, became known as the "Coast Ridge Road." It used to begin near the Old Post Ranch. It is currently only accessible on foot from near the Ventana Inn. It passes through private land and connects with the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. It follows the crest of the coastal ridge south about 34 miles (55 km) to within a couple of miles of Cone Peak.:353 Both the Old Coast Road and the Coast Ridge Road are often unusable during and after winter storms.
Due to the limited access, settlement was primarily concentrated near the Big Sur River and present-day Lucia, and individual settlements along a 25 miles (40 km) stretch of coast between the two. The northern and southern regions of the coast were isolated from one another. The residents near Lucia conducted trade and business to King City and other communities in the southern Salinas Valley, while those who lived in the vicinity of the Big Sur River were connected with Monterey to the north.
During the 1890s, Dr. John L. D. Roberts, a physician and land speculator who had founded Seaside, California and resided on the Monterey Peninsula, was summoned on April 21, 1894 to assist treating survivors of the wreck of the 493 tons (447 t) S.S. Los Angeles (originally USRC Wayanda), which had run aground near the Point Sur Light Station about 25 miles (40 km) south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. The ride on his two-wheeled, horse-drawn cart took him 3 1⁄2 hours, a very fast trip for the day.
In 1897, he walked the entire stretch of rocky coast from Monterey to San Luis Obispo in five days and mapped out the course of the future road. He photographed the land and became the first surveyor of the route. He became convinced of the need for a road along the coast to San Simeon, which he believed could be built for $50,000 (equivalent to $877,323 in 2016). In 1915, he presented the results of his survey and photographic work to a joint session of the California legislature. Roberts initially promoted the coastal highway to allow access to a region of spectacular beauty, but failed to obtain funding.
California was booming during the 1920s, driven by rapidly expanding aviation, oil, and agricultural business. The number of state residents doubled between 1910 and 1930. This stimulated the rapid expansion of the state's road network. State Senator Elmer S. Rigdon from Cambria, at the southern end of the Big Sur region, embraced the necessity of building the road. He was a member of the California Senate Committee on Roads and Highways and promoted the military necessity of defending California's coast which persuaded the legislature to approve the project. In 1919, the legislature approved building Route 56, or the Carmel – San Simeon Highway, to connect Big Sur to the rest of California. A $1.5 million bond issue was approved by voters, but construction was delayed by World War I. Federal funds were appropriated and in 1921 voters approved additional state funds.
In 1918, state highway engineer Lester Gibson led a mule pack train along the Big Sur coast to complete an initial survey to locate the future Coast Highway. The first contract was awarded in 1921. The contractor Blake and Heaney built a prison labor camp for 120 prisoners and 20 paid laborers at Piedras Blancas Light Station. They began work on 12 miles (19 km) of road between Piedras Blancas Light Station near San Simeon and Salmon Creek. Most of the road lay within San Luis Obisbo County. As they progressed, the work camp was moved 9 miles (14 km) north to Willow Creek and then another 10 miles (16 km) north to Kirk Creek. When the section to Salmon Creek was completed, the crew began work on the road north towards Big Creek.
Contractor George Pollock Company of Sacramento started construction next on one of the most remote segments, a 13 miles (21 km) stretch between Anderson Canyon and Big Sur in September, 1922. The region was so remote and access so poor that the company brought most of its supplies and equipment in by barge at a sheltered cove near the middle of the project. Machines were hoisted to the road level using steam-powdered donkey engines.
Construction required extensive excavation utilizing steam shovels and explosives on the extremely steep slopes. The work was dangerous, and accidents and earth slides were common. One or more accidents were reported nearly every week. Equipment was frequently damaged and lost. In one incident, a steam shovel fell more than 500 feet (150 m) into the ocean and was destroyed.
Overcoming all the difficulties, the crews completed two portions of the highway in October, 1924, the southern section from San Simeon to Salmon Creek and a second segment from the Big Sur Village south to Anderson Creek. When these sections were completed, the contractor had used up all of the available funds and work was halted.
California Governor Friend William Richardson felt the state could not afford to complete the 30 miles (48 km) remaining, including the most difficult section remaining between Salmon Creek and Anderson Canyon.
The California state legislature passed a law in 1915 that allowed the state to use convict labor under the control of the State Board of Prison Directors and prison guards. When the law was revised in 1921, it gave control of the convicts and camps to the Division of Highways, although control and discipline remained with the State Board of Prison Directors and guards. The law helped the contractors who had a difficult time attracting labor to work in remote regions of the state. In March, 1928, work was renewed. Convicts were paid $2.10 per day but the cost of clothing, food, medical attention, toilet articles, transportation to the camp, construction tools, and even their guards was deducted from their pay. Actual wages were just under $0.34 per day. If a convict escaped, the law provided for a reward of $200 for their capture and return. The reward was automatically deducted from the all other convict's pay.
San Quentin State Prison set up three temporary prison camps to provide unskilled convict labor to help with road construction. The first was built in March, 1928 near Salmon Creek for 120 prisoners and 20 free men. They worked north towards Big Creek, about 46 miles (74 km) south of Carmel.
In July, 1928, a second camp was built near the mouth of the Little Sur River on the El Sur Ranch about 18 miles (29 km) south of Carmel. They worked on an 8 miles (13 km) section of the highway from 9 miles (14 km) to the south, to Rocky Creek, about 4 miles (6.4 km) to the north. When the completed this portion, the contractor moved the work camp south to Anderson Creek. From this camp, they built the road south 7 miles (11 km) south to Big Creek. When this task was finished, the workers reconstructed and realigned the portion of the road from Anderson Creek to Big Sur which had originally been completed in 1924.
Two and three shifts of convicts and free men worked every day, using four large steam shovels. Locals, including writer John Steinbeck, also worked on the road. The laborers used tons of dynamite and blasted large amounts of earth and rock debris over the edge of the road and often into the ocean. Many members of the original families were upset by the damage to the environment caused by the construction.
Road construction necessitated construction of 29 bridges, the most difficult of which was the bridge over Bixby Creek, about 13 miles (21 km) south of Carmel. Upon completion, the Bixby Creek Bridge was 714 feet (218 m) long, 24 feet (7.3 m) wide, 260 feet (79 m) above the creek bed below, and had a main span of 360 feet (110 m). The bridge was designed to support more than six times its intended load. When it was completed on October 15, 1932, Bixby Creek Bridge was the largest arched highway structure in the Western states. Five more reinforced concrete bridges were built at Rocky, Granite, Garapata, Malpaso, and Wildcat Creeks. But the entire highway was not completed for another five years. All of the concrete arch bridges were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. They were also included in the California Register of Historic Resources in 1992.
The contractor built a large bridge of Redwood with a span of 514 feet (157 m) at Dolan Creek because of the considerable distance required to haul concrete. They also built wood bridges at Lime Creek, Prewitt Creek, Wild Cattle Creek and Torre Canyon. Steel bridges were built at Burns Creek, San Simeon Creek, Pico Creek, Castro Canyon, Mill Creek and Little Pico Creek. The timber and steel bridges, with the exception of Castro Canyon and Mill Creek, were all replaced with concrete bridges later on.
To provide water to thirsty travelers, the Civilian Conservation Corps built between 1933 and 1937 six hand-crafted stone drinking fountains at Soda Springs, Big Redwood, Willow Creek/Seven Stairs, Lucia, and Rigdon. The crews built masonry stone walls around local springs at each location. One of the fountains is believed to have been lost due to one of the many landslides. Some of them are still operational.
After 18 years of construction, aided by New Deal funds during the Great Depression, the paved two-lane road was completed and opened on June 17, 1937. About 70,000 pounds (32,000 kg) of dynamite was used to help blast more than 10,000,000 cubic yards (7,600,000 m3) of granite, marble and sandstone. Bixby Bridge alone required 300,000 board feet of Douglas fir, 6,600 cubic yards (5,000 m3) of concrete, and 600,000 pounds (270,000 kg) of reinforcing steel.
On June 27, 1937, Governor Frank Merriam led a caravan from the Cambria Pines Lodge to San Simeon, where dedication ceremonies began. The wife of the late Senator Elmer Rigdon, who had promoted the bridge and obtained funding, dedicated a silver fir to her husband's memory. A water fountain in a turnout between Vicente Creek Bridge and Big Creek Bridge, four miles north of Lucia, was dedicated as the Elmer Rigdon Memorial Drinking Fountain. The Native Sons of the Golden West dedicated two redwood trees. The caravan then drove north to Pfeiffer Redwoods State Park, where a larger dedication ceremony was held. The initial $1.5 million bond measure wasn't enough. The final cost when the road was completed 18 years later was $19 million (equivalent to $357.49 million in 2017).
The road was initially called the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, but was better known as the Roosevelt Highway, honoring then-current President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The road was not paved and was frequently closed for extended periods during the winter, making it a seasonal route. During 1941, 160 inches (410 cm) of rain fell on Big Sur, and the state considered abandoning the route. Slides were so common that gates were used to close the road to visitors at the northern and southern ends during the winter. During World War II, nighttime blackouts along the coast were ordered as a precaution against Japanese attack.
The opening of Highway 1 in 1937 dramatically altered the local economy. Before the highway was completed, a developer who wanted to build a subdivision offered to buy the Pfeiffer Ranch from John and Florence Pfeiffer for $210,000 ($3.08 million in 2017). John was the son of Big Sur pioneers Michael Pfeiffer and Barbara Laquet. Pfeiffer wanted the land preserved and he sold 680 acres (2.8 km2) to the state of California in 1933. This became the foundation of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The Civilian Conservation Corps built campgrounds, buildings, fences, a footbridge, and trails in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. They used redwood lumber and river rocks as building materials to create a wood and stone "park rustic" style. They also fought fires and removed poison oak. A relative of the Pfeiffer family built the Big Sur River Inn in 1934.
Land values rose. Some residents regretted the access provided by the highway. Jaime de Angulo, who first arrived in Big Sur in 1915, wrote:
But my coast is gone, you see. It will be an altogether different affair. I don't know what to think of it, on the whole. My first reaction of course was one of intense sorrow and horror. My Coast had been defiled and raped. The spirits would depart. And as I travelled with Mr. Farmer (the stage man) past Castro's place, past Grimes' cañon, and contemplated the fearful gashes cut into the mountain, and the dirt sliding down, right down into the water in avalanches, my heart bled.
Deetjen's Big Sur Inn was opened in 1936. The region's economy and population growth was driven by a change to a tourist-oriented economy and the construction of permanent and summer homes. Many visitor facilities were constructed. The agricultural and industrial economy was quickly supplanted by a tourism-oriented economy.
The route was incorporated into the state highway system and re-designated as Highway 1 in 1939. In 1940, the state contracted for "the largest installation of guard rail ever placed on a California state highway", calling for 12 miles (19 km) of steel guard rail and 3,649 guide posts along 46.6 miles (75.0 km) of the road. During the 1970s, highway engineers and others advocating turning the two-lane road into a four-lane freeway. In 1976, the state legislature limited the road along the Big Sur coast to two lanes.:157
Highway 1 has been at capacity for many years. As early as 1977, the U.S. Forest Service noted in its environmental impact statement, "Highway 1 has reached its design capacity during peak-use periods." It is currently at or near capacity much of the year. The primary transportation objective of the Big Sur Coastal Land Use plan is to maintain Highway 1 as a scenic two-lane road and to reserve most remaining capacity for the priority uses of the act.
Due to the extreme slopes and condition of the rock, the California Department of Transportation has had to make many repairs to the road. Highway 1 has been closed on more than 55 occasions due to damage from landslides, mudslides, erosion, and fire.:2–2 Aside from Highway 1, the only access to Big Sur is via the winding, narrow, 24.5 miles (39.4 km) long Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which from Highway 1 south of Lucia passes east through Fort Hunter Liggett to Mission Road in Jolon. It's about a 50 miles (80 km) and hour-and-a-half drive to Highway 101.
On January 15, 1952, the highway was closed 7 miles (11 km) north of San Simeon to Big Sur due to "numerous heavy slides." December 1955 was the fifth wettest since 1872. At the Big Sur Maintenance Station, 8.45 inches of rain was recorded in one 24-hour period on December 23.
torrential rains caused flood conditions throughout Monterey County and Highway 1 in Big Sur was closed in numerous locations due to slides.
A series of storms in the winter of 1983 caused four major road-closing slides between January and April, including a large 963 feet (294 m) high landslide slide near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and McWay Falls that buried Highway 1 with 4,000,000 cubic yards (3,100,000 m3) of rocks and dirt. Twenty-six bulldozers worked for 22 weeks to clear the highway. The repair crews pushed the slide into the ocean which ended up creating a beach inside McWay Cove that didn't exist before. It was up to that date the largest earth-moving project ever undertaken by CalTrans.:157 CalTrans routinely pushed slide debris into the ocean shore until the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was created, which made dumping material into the ocean illegal. Highway 1 was closed for 14 months.:2–10
In 1998, about 40 different locations on the road were damaged by El Niño storms, including a major slide 2 miles (3.2 km) south of Gorda that closed the road for almost three months. The Associated Press described the damage as "the most extensive destruction in the 60-year history of the world famous scenic route."
In March 2011, a 40 feet (12 m) section of Highway 1 just south of the Rocky Creek Bridge collapsed, closing the road for several months until a single lane bypass could be built. The state replaced that section of road with a viaduct that wraps around the unstable hillside. On January 16, 2016, the road was closed for portions of a day due to a mudslide near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
In January 2014, CalTrans completed construction of a new bridge and rock shelter at Pitkins Curve in Big Sur, one of the ongoing trouble spots on Highway 1 near Limekiln State Park.
One individual was killed while repairing the road. In 1983, Skinner Pierce died while clearing the slide near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park when the bulldozer he was operating fell down the slide into the ocean. His body was never recovered.:157
During the summer of 2016, the road was closed on several occasions due to the Soberanes Fire. During the following winter, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park received more than 60 inches of rain, and in early February 2017, several mudslides blocked the road in more than half a dozen locations.
Just south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, shifting earth damaged a pier supporting a bridge over the 320 feet (98 m) deep Pfeiffer Canyon. CalTrans immediately closed the highway and announced the next day that the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge was damaged beyond repair and would have to be replaced. Highway 1 remained closed. CalTrans immediately began planning to replace the bridge and contracted with XKT Engineering on Mare Island to construct a replacement single-span steel girder bridge. The new roadway was designed without support piers. The rebuilt bridge opened on October 13, 2017 at a cost of $24 million.
To the south, a slide totalling about 2,000,000 cubic yards (1,500,000 m3) million closed Highway 1 in February at a perennial problem point known as Paul's Slide, north of the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road. Businesses and residents were isolated between the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and Paul's Slide. For about two weeks supplies and residents were ferried in and out by helicopter. CalTrans contractors finally opened the road for residents and delivery trucks to limited one-way controlled traffic.
On May 20, the largest slide in the highway's history at Mud Creek blocked the road 1 mile (1.6 km) southeast of Gorda or about 60 miles (97 km) south of Monterey. The slide began 1,100 feet (340 m) up the side of the mountain and dumped more than eight million tons of dirt on the road and more than 250 feet (76 m) into the ocean. The slide was national and worldwide news. Larger than the slide that blocked the highway in 1983 at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State park, it covered one-quarter-mile (.40 km) of the highway and buried it up to 80 feet (24 m) deep in some places. On August 2, 2017, CalTrans announced it would rebuild the highway over the slide instead of clearing it. In June 2018 it announced they expect to finish repairs at Mud Creek more than a month early. The road was reopened on July 18, 2018 at a cost of $54 million.
The Santa Lucia Mountain Range, which dominates the Big Sur region, is 140 miles (230 km) long, extending from Carmel in the north to the Cuyama River in San Luis Obispo County. The Santa Lucia Mountains are characterized by extremely steep slopes, all associated with watersheds flowing directly or indirectly into the Pacific Ocean. The range is of recent tectonic origin, and is rugged, steep and dissected by deep stream canyons. The general trend of the range is northwest-southeast, paralleling the numerous faults that transect the area. Big Sur's Cone Peak, at an elevation of 5,155 feet (1,571 m), is only 3 miles (4.8 km) from the ocean and is the tallest coastal mountain in the contiguous United States.
The topography is complex, however, reflecting active uplift and deformation, a variety of lithological types, rapidly incising stream networks and highly unstable slopes. Stream channels and hill slopes are very steep, with average hill slope gradients exceeding 60% in some interior watersheds. The coastal side of the range rises directly from the shoreline, with oceanfront ridges rising directly 4,000 to 5,000 feet (1,200 to 1,500 m) to the crest of the coastal range. The basement rocks of the Santa Lucia Range contain Mesozoic Franciscan and Salinian Block rocks.
The Franciscan complex is composed of greywacke sandstone and greenstone, with serpentinite bodies and other Ultramafic rocks present. Small areas of marble and limestone lenses form resistant outcrops that are prominent landscape features, often white to light gray in color. The Salinian block is made up of highly fractured, and deeply weathered meta-sediments, especially biotite schist and gneiss, intruded by plutonic (granitic) rocks such as quartz diorite and granodiorite. Both formations have been disrupted and tectonically slivered by motion on the San Andreas and associated fault systems. The Palo Colorado and Church Creek faults are prominent features influencing the linear northwest-southeast alignment of primary drainages.
The Palo Colorado-San Gregorio fault system transitions onshore at Doud Creek, about 7 miles (11 km) south of Point Lobos, exposing the western edge of the Salinian block. Stream canyons frequently follow the north-westerly trending fault lines, rather than descending directly to the coast. The Salinian block is immediately south of the Monterey Submarine Canyon, one of the largest submarine canyon systems in the world, which is believed to have been an ancient outlet for the Colorado River.:14
The region is also traversed by the Sur-Hill fault, which is noticeable at Pfeiffer Falls in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The 40 feet (12 m) waterfall were formed when the stream flowed over the hard gneiss of the Salinian block and encountered the softer Santa Margarita Sandstone. The falls were formed when the softer sandstone was worn away.:325 The interior canyons are typically deep and narrow, and even in the summer sunshine only reaches many of the canyon bottoms for a few hours. The land is mostly steep, rocky, semi-arid except for the narrow canyons, and inaccessible. The Little Sur River canyon is characteristic of the Ventana Wilderness region: steep-sided, sharp-crested ridges separating valleys. At the mouth of the Little Sur river are some of the largest sand dunes on the Big Sur coast.:355
About 50 streams flow out of the mountains into the sea. A few of them, including the Big Sur and Little Sur Rivers, Big Creek, Garrapata Creek, and Salmon Creek, are large enough to support anadromous and resident fish.:5
Along with much of the central and northern California coast, Big Sur frequently has dense fog in summer. The summer fog and summer drought have the same underlying cause: a massive, stable seasonal high pressure system that forms over the north Pacific Ocean. The high pressure cell inhibits rainfall and generates northwesterly air flow. These prevailing summer winds from the northwest drive the ocean surface water slightly offshore (through the Ekman effect) which generates an upwelling of colder sub surface water. The water vapor in the air contacting this cold water condenses into fog.: 33–35 The fog usually moves out to sea during the day and closes in at night, but sometimes heavy fog blankets the coast all day. Fog is an essential summer water source for many Big Sur coastal plants. While few plants can take water directly out of the air, water condensation on leaf surfaces slowly precipitates into the ground like rain.
Fire plays a key role in the ecology of the upper slopes of the Big Sur region's mountains where chaparral dominates the landscape. It's known that Native Americans burned chaparral to promote grasslands for textiles and food, but little is known about the natural frequency of fire in the Santa Lucia Mountains. During the Spanish and Mexican era there were a number of reports of local Native Americans setting fires, especially in coastal and valley grasslands.
Since the late 1800s, there have been a number of very large fires in the Big Sur area. In 1894, a fire burned for weeks through the upper watersheds of all of the major streams in the Big Sur region. Another large fire in 1898 burned without any effort by the few local residents to put it out, except to save their buildings. In 1903, a fire started by an untended campfire near Chews Ridge burned a path 6 miles (9.7 km) wide to the coast over three months. In 1906, a fire that began in Palo Colorado Canyon from the embers of a campfire burned 150,000 acres (61,000 ha) over 35 days and was finally extinguished by the first rainfall of the season. The number of fires declined when the U.S. Forest Service began managing the land in 1907. A study of fire scars on sugar pines on Junipero Serra Peak found that at least six fires had burned the region between 1790 and 1901.
In recent history, the area was struck by the Molera Fire in 1972, which resulted in flooding and mud flows in the Big Sur River valley that buried portions of several buildings the following winter. The area was burned by Marble Cone Fire in 1977, the Rat Creek Gorda Complex Fire in 1985, the Kirk Complex Fire in 1999, the Basin Complex Fire in 2008, and the Soberanes Fire in 2016.
The Basin Complex Fire forced an eight-day evacuation of Big Sur and the closure of Highway 1, beginning just before the July 4, 2008 holiday weekend. The fire, which burned over 130,000 acres (53,000 ha), represented the largest of many lightning-caused wildfires that had broken out throughout California during the same period. Although the fire caused no loss of life, it destroyed 27 homes, and the tourist-dependent economy lost about a third of its expected summer revenue. The Pfeiffer Fire that occurred from December 17 to 20, 2013 only burned 917 acres (371 ha), but destroyed 34 homes in an area near Pfeiffer Ridge Road and Sycamore Canyon Road.
In the lower elevations and canyons, the California Redwood is often found. Its thick bark, along with foliage that starts high above the ground, protect the species from both fire and insect damage, contributing to the coast redwood's longevity. Fire appears to benefit redwoods by removing competitive species. A 2010 study compared post-wildfire survival and regeneration of redwood and associated species. It concluded that fires of all severity increase the relative abundance of redwood and higher-severity fires provide the greatest benefit.
The July 2016 Soberanes Fire was caused by unknown individuals who started and lost control of an illegal campfire in the Garrapata Creek watershed. After it burned 57 homes in the Garrapata and Palo Colorado Canyon areas, fire fighters were able to build lines around parts of the Big Sur community. A bulldozer operator was killed when his equipment overturned during night operations in Palo Colorado Canyon.
Coast residents east of Highway 1 were required to evacuate for short periods, and Highway 1 was shut down at intervals over several days to allow firefighters to conduct backfire operations. Visitors avoided the area and tourism revenue was impacted for several weeks.
Big Sur typically enjoys a mild climate year-round, with a sunny, dry summer and fall, and a cool, wet winter. Coastal temperatures range from the 50s at night to the 70s by day (Fahrenheit) from June through October, and in the 40s to 60s from November through May. Farther inland, away from the ocean's moderating influence, temperatures are much more variable. The weather varies widely due to the influence of the jagged topography, creating many microclimates.
The record maximum temperature was 102 °F (38.9 °C) on June 20, 2008, and the record low was 27 °F (−2.8 °C), recorded on December 21, 1998, and January 13, 2007.
During the winter, Big Sur experiences some of the heaviest rainfall in California. More than 70 percent of the rain falls from December through March. The summer is generally dry. The Santa Lucia range rises to more than 5,800 ft (1760 m), and the amount of rainfall greatly increases as the elevation rises and cools the air, but rainfall amounts decrease sharply in the rain shadow of the coastal mountains. Scientists estimate that about 90 in. (230 cm) falls on average near the ridge tops. But actual totals vary considerably. Snowfall is rare on the coast, but is common in the winter months on the higher ridges of the Santa Lucia Range.
Monterey County maintains a remote rain gauge for flood prediction on Mining Ridge at 4,000 ft (1200 m) about 4 miles (6.4 km) north-east of Cone Peak. The gauge frequently receives more rain than any gauge in the Monterey and San Francisco Bay Areas. The wettest winter season was 1982–1983, when it rained more than 178 in. (452 cm) but the total is unknown because the rain gauge failed at that point. The wettest calendar year on record was 1983, when it rained 88.85 inches (2,257 mm).
The month with the greatest rain fall total was January 1995 it rained a record 26.47 inches (672 mm). At Pfeiffer–Big Sur State Park on the coast, rainfall averaged about 43 in. (109 cm) annually from 1914 to 1987. In 1975–1976, it rained only 15 in. (39 cm) at the park, compared to 85 in. (216 cm) in 1982–1983.
|Climate data for Big Sur|
|Record high °F (°C)||81
|Average high °F (°C)||59.7
|Average low °F (°C)||42.9
|Record low °F (°C)||27
|Average precipitation inches (mm)||9.10
|Average precipitation days (≥ 0.01 in)||10.3||11.2||10.3||6.5||3.7||1.1||0.3||0.4||1.3||3.5||7.5||10.3||66.4|
The many climates of Big Sur result in a great biodiversity, including many rare and endangered species such as the wild orchid Piperia yadonii, which is found only on the Monterey Peninsula and on Rocky Ridge in the Los Padres forest. Arid, dusty chaparral-covered hills exist within easy walking distance of lush riparian woodland. Fort Hunter-Liggett is host to about one-fourth of all Tule elk found in California, and provides roosting places for and bald eagles and endangered condors. It also is home to some of the healthiest stands of live valley and blue oaks.
The high coastal mountains trap moisture from the clouds: fog in summer, rain and snow in winter, creating a favorable environment for the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) trees found in the Big Sur region. They are found near the ocean in canyon bottoms or in inland canyons alongside creeks and in other areas that meet its requirements for cooler temperatures and moisture. Due to drier conditions, trees in the Big Sur region only grow about 200 feet (61 m) tall, smaller than specimens found to the north.
The redwood trees in Big Sur are the remnant of much larger groves. Many old-growth trees were cut by the Ventana Power Company which operated a sawmill near present-day Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park from the late 1800s through 1906, when its operations were bankrupted by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. When John and Florence Pfeiffer opened Pffeifer's Ranch Resort in 1910, they built guest cabins from lumber cut using the mill. The mill was resurrected when Highway 1 was constructed during the 1920s. It supplied lumber for housing built for workers.
While many trees were harvested, a number of inaccessible locations were never logged. A large grove of trees are found along the north fork of the Little Sur River. William Randolph Hearst was interested in preserving the uncut redwood forest, and on November 18, 1921, he purchased about 1,445 acres (585 ha) from the Eberhard and Kron Tanning Company of Santa Cruz for about $50,000. He later donated the land to the Monterey Bay Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America, who completed construction of Camp Pico Blanco in 1954.
In 2008, scientist J. Michael Fay published a map of the old growth redwoods based on his transect of the entire redwood range. The southernmost naturally occurring grove of redwoods is found within the Big Sur region in the Southern Redwood Botanical Area, a 17 acres (6.9 ha) reserve located in the Little Redwood Gulch watershed adjacent to the Silver Peak Wilderness. It is just north of the Salmon Creek trailhead. The southernmost tree is about 15 feet (4.6 m) from Highway 1 at the approximate coordinates 35°49'42 N 121°23'14 W.
The rare Santa Lucia fir (Abies bracteata) is found only in the Santa Lucia mountains. A common "foreign" species is the Monterey pine (Pinus radiata), which was uncommon in Big Sur until the late nineteenth century, though its major native habitat is only a few miles upwind on the Monterey Peninsula, when many homeowners began to plant the quick-growing tree as a windbreak. There are many broadleaved trees as well, such as the tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus), coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), and California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica). In the rain shadow, the forests disappear and the vegetation becomes open oak woodland, then transitions into the more familiar fire-tolerant California chaparral scrub.
The Big Sur River watershed provides habitat for mountain lion, deer, fox, coyotes and non-native wild boars. The boars, of Russian stock, were introduced in the 1920s by George Gordon Moore, the owner of Rancho San Carlos. Because most of the upper reaches of the Big Sur River watershed are within the Los Padres National Forest and the Ventana Wilderness, much of the river is in pristine condition.
The region was historically populated by grizzly bears. During the Spanish period of California history, the Spaniards rarely entered the area, except to capture runaway Mission Indians or to hunt grizzly bears that ate their livestock. The Mexican settlers captured bears for Monterey’s bear and bull fights, and they also sold their skins for 6 to 10 pesos to trading ships that visited Monterey. Bear Trap Canyon near Bixby Creek was one of their favorite sites for trapping grizzly bears.
European settlers paid bounties on the bears who regularly preyed on livestock until the early 20th century.:4 Absolom (Rocky) Beasley hunted grizzly bears throughout the Santa Lucia Range and claimed to have killed 139 bears in his lifetime. The Pfeiffer family would fill a bait ball of swine entrails with strychnine and hang it from a tree. The last grizzly bear in Monterey County was seen in 1941 on the Cooper Ranch near the mouth of the Little Sur River. :21
Since about 1980, American black bears have been sighted in the area, likely expanding their range from southern California and filling in the ecological niche left when the grizzly bear was exterminated.:261
The California Department of Fish and Game says the Little Sur River is the "most important spawning stream for Steelhead" distinct population segment on the Central Coast, where the fish is listed as threatened. and that it "is one of the best steelhead streams in the county.":166 The Big Sur River is also a key habitat for the steelhead.
A US fisheries service report estimates that the number of trout in the entire south-central coast area—including the Pajaro River, Salinas River, Carmel River, Big Sur River, and Little Sur River—have dwindled from about 4,750 fish in 1965 to about 800 in 2005.
The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is a critically endangered species that was near extinction when the remaining wild birds were captured. A captive breeding program was begun in 1987. The Ventana Wildlife Society acquired 80 acres near Anderson Canyon that it used for a captive breeding program. After some success, a few birds were released in 1991 and 1992 in Big Sur, and again in 1996 in Arizona near the Grand Canyon.
In 1997, the Ventana Wildlife Society began releasing captive-bred California Condors in Big Sur. The birds take six years to mature before they can produce offspring, and a nest was discovered in a redwood tree in 2006. This was the first time in more than 100 years in which a pair of California condors had been seen nesting in Northern California. The repopulation effort has been successful in part because a significant portion of the birds' diet includes carcasses of large sea creatures that have washed ashore, which are unlikely to be contaminated with lead, the principal cause of the bird's mortality.
As of July 2014, the Ventana Wildlife Society managed 34 free-flying condors. There were part of a total population of 437 condors spread over California, Baja California and Arizona, of which 232 are wild birds and 205 are in captivity.
The off-shore region of the Big Sur Coast is protected by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Within that sanctuary are other conservation areas and parks. The onshore topography that drops abruptly into the Pacific continues offshore where a narrow continental shelf drops to the continental slope in only a few miles. The ocean reaches a depth of more than 12,000 feet (3,700 m) just 50 mi (80 km) offshore. Two deep submarine canyons cut into the shelf near the Big Sur coast: the Sur Submarine Canyon, reaching a depth of 3,000 ft (910 m) just 8 mi (13 km) south of Point Sur, and Partington Submarine Canyon, which reaches a similar depth of 6.8 mi (10.9 km) offshore of Grimes Canyon.
Like underwater parks, these marine protected areas help conserve ocean wildlife and marine ecosystems.
Big Sur is sparsely populated. There are about 1,000 to 2,000 year-round residents, about the same number of residents found there in 1900. Big Sur residents include descendants of the original ranching families, artists and writers, service staff, along with home-owners. The mountainous terrain, restrictions imposed by the Big Sur Coastal Use Plan, limited availability of property than can be developed, and the expense required to build on available land have kept Big Sur relatively undeveloped. According to the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, about half the businesses derive their income from the hospitality industry, and they in turn produce about 90 percent of the local economy.
The United States does not define a census-designated place called Big Sur, but it does define a ZIP Code Tabulation Area (ZCTA), 93920. Because most of Big Sur is contained roughly within this ZIP Code Tabulation Area, it is possible to obtain census data for most of the region, even though data for a community named "Big Sur" does not exist.
According to the 2000 United States Census, there were 996 people, 884 households, and 666 housing units in the 93920 ZCTA. The population estimates exclude the sizeable number of residents who live in Palo Colorado Canyon, who are included in the Carmel Valley Zip Code Tabulation Area. As of 2004, there were about 300 households in the Palo Colorado Canyon area. Other estimates put the regional population at around 2,00 to 3,000. In 1990, Monterey County Census Tract 115, which comprises nearly the entire Big Sur coastline, had a population of 1,391 people.
The racial makeup of this area was 87.6% White, 1.1% African American, 1.3% Native American, 2.4% Asian, 0.0% Pacific Islander, 5.5% from other races, and 3.0% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 9.6% of the population. In the 93920 ZCTA, the population age was widely distributed, with 20.2% under the age of 20, 4.5% from 20 to 24, 26.9% from 25 to 44, 37.0% from 45 to 64, and 11.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 43.2 years. The median income in 2000 for a household in 93920 ZCTA was $41,304, and the median income for a family was $65,083.
In the California State Assembly, Big Sur is in the 17th Senate District, represented by Democrat Bill Monning, and in the 30th Assembly District, represented by Democrat Anna Caballero. In the United States House of Representatives, Big Sur is in California's 20th congressional district, represented by Democrat Jimmy Panetta.
Existing settlements in the Big Sur region, between Carmel Highlands and the San Carpoforo Creek, include:
The area's increasing popularity and incredible beauty has attracted the attention of movie and television personalities for many years. Orson Welles and his wife at the time, Rita Hayworth, bought a Big Sur cabin on an impulse during a trip down the coast in 1944. They never spent a single night there, and the property is now the location of a popular restaurant, Nepenthe.
A number of well-known films are set in Big Sur, including The Sandpiper (1965), starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Eva Marie Saint and Charles Bronson. The 1974 film Zandy's Bride, starring Gene Hackman and Liv Ullmann, was also based in the region. In 2013, Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Kate Bosworth and directed by the actress’ husband, Michael Polish. As of 2017, 19 movies had been filmed in the Big Sur region, beginning with Suspicion in 1941.
Richard Brautigan refers to Miller in his book A Confederate General at Big Sur, in which a pair of young men attempt the idyllic Big Sur life in small shacks and are variously plagued by flies, low ceilings, visiting businessmen with nervous breakdowns and 2,452 tiny frogs whose loud singing keeps everyone awake.
In 1995, prominent environmentalist David Brower published Not Man Apart: Photographs of the Big Sur Coast, featuring Jeffers' poetry and photography of the Big Sur coast. In the posthumously published 2002 book Stones of the Sur, Carmel landscape photographer Morley Baer combined his classical black-and-white photographs of Big Sur with some of Jeffers' poetry.
Songs From Big Sur (2004) by Bobby Darin, released posthumously.
Big Sur by Alanis Morissette.
a letter from George Gordon Moore to Stuyvesant Fish
This article incorporates public domain content from United States and California government sources.