Big Sur, Californias most scenic coast, reopens to hikers only

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The picturesque highway from San Francisco to LA was battered by floods last winter, but an emergency walking route for residents is now a tempting trail for hikers too

The coastal drive along Highway 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles is one of the worlds great, classic trips. Anyone planning on doing it anytime soon, however, is missing a vital piece of information: you cant. Around 35 miles of the highways best-loved stretch, Big Sur, have been closed since February, after winter rains caused the Pfeiffer Canyon bridge to the north to collaspe and swept large parts of the road into the ocean to the south.

Big Sur map

With the only road in or out cut off, residents have been stranded in the middle, and the only tourists getting in were the mega-rich who could afford a helicopter. But Big Sur has finally found a way to reopen to everyone if you dont mind a bit of adventure.

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

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

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

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

Pfeiffer
Pfeiffer Canyon in high summer

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

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

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

Henry
Henry Miller Memorial Library

The Henry Miller Memorial Library, dedicated to the risque author who put the region on the map, is usually like a little United Nations, its director Magnus Toren told me. People from all over the world hang out on the lawn, drinking coffee, playing music, reading books. Now, with a smaller number of people to tempt through the doors, its future feels uncertain. The majority of people dont spend too much time worrying about the culture of the area and some dead author, Toren shrugged.

But there are more reasons to return to Big Sur, with two star attractions reopening. The popular campground at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park reopened on 1 July, following the opening of some of its smaller trails in May. The park, loved for its redwood groves and rushing rivers, was closed for a year after this winters rainfall and last summers massive Soberanes fire wreaked havoc . (Were hoping famine and pestilence arent next, quipped Rob OKeefe, from the tourist board of Monterey County.) The campground is already near capacity every night. Wildly photogenic Pfeiffer Beach, also cut off by landslides, will be accessible by August.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2017/jul/27/big-sur-reopens-after-floods-hiking-trail