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Big Sur residents, state parks try to rebound from winter's impacts to Highway 1 

At this time of year, head of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce Stan Russell is usually gearing up for the summer rush—for the flood of visitors from every corner of the world flocking to get a taste of an iconic stretch of California coast and wilderness.

In truth, Russell says that Big Sur’s popularity reached a level that was beginning to stretch locals thin.

“It was getting to a point where it was hard to manage it,” Russell told New Times. “Everyone was running at 99 percent, occupancy was at 100 percent, and everything was just packed at the seams.”

Once dealing with a burden of riches, this summer, following a historically wet winter that destabilized Highway 1, Russell is finding himself pleading for people to come.

In recent days, jaw-dropping images of a May 20 landslide at Mud Creek have been plastered across local and national newspapers. A quarter-mile stretch of Highway 1 is submerged under 1.5 million tons of rock and mud. There’s no telling how long it will take to get to the bottom of the mound, much less reopen the road.

Compounding the crisis, several miles north of Mud Creek, road crews continue to work on “Paul’s Slide,” a major mudslide that hit the highway back in February. Another 20 miles north on Highway 1 is the giant gap where the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge used to be. Caltrans had to demolish it in April, after the bridge columns collapsed due to shaky soil.

With so much of Highway 1 in Big Sur in peril, Russell is fighting an uphill battle to get the word out that not all of Big Sur is under rubble. Hotels and businesses north of Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge are open and seeking patrons, but he said business is down by as much 50 percent due to the perception that all of Big Sur is inaccessible.

“[The impact] is very quantifiable,” Russell said. “People are canceling their reservations when they see that huge slide. They’re a little bit wigged out about it.”

North of Pfeiffer Canyon, Garrapata State Beach, Point Sur, and Point Lobos are all still open. In addition, a sliver of Big Sur between the two landslides is accessible through Nacimiento-Ferguson Road via Highway 101. Limekiln State Park, Kirk Creek Campground, Plaskett Creek Campground, and Sand Dollar Beach are still open.

“It’s a great time to visit Big Sur,” Russell noted. “You can have an experience that harkens back to quite a while ago when you could show up without a reservation and get a campground.”

But the popular Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, California’s 11th highest revenue-grossing park ($3.2 million in 2014-15), is currently hampered, with only 50 campsites open on a first come first serve basis*. Pfeiffer Big Sur has been heavily impacted by closures in 2016-17, first due to the Soberanes Wildfire and then the bridge collapse. Andrew Molera State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Pfeiffer Beach are all closed. State parks officials could not be reached to offer estimates on lost revenue to the agency.

Businesses within the Highway 1 closure zone are heavily impacted by the events. Some people are migrating out of the area to pick up new jobs, Russell said. Markets like the Big Sur Deli, only getting business from 25 to 30 local residents daily, have stayed open to “try to continue some sense of normalcy.”

“Obviously they’re losing money, but they’re doing it because their position in the community is to have a local market,” Russell said.

Hotels in the closure zone are getting very creative. The Post Ranch Inn is leasing out helicopters and offering to fly their guests into Big Sur.

It’s not just tourism that’s impacted. Big Sur residents inside of the closure zone are struggling to meet basic needs, like sending their kids to schools. State parks built an emergency hiking trail that meanders around the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge for locals to traverse. Children are hiking it every day to reach their school bus.

Russell said most Big Sur residents understand these crises come with the territory of living on the rugged, remote coast.

“I think people are keeping their spirits up,” he said. “Living on the coast of Big Sur is challenging even when the roads are open.”

Contact Staff Writer Peter Johnson at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

* CORRECTION: This story was corrected to state that Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park is currently partially open.JUNE 1, 2017.

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