Months ago, I had planned a trip to Big Sur when my parents would be visiting me in Santa Barbara. Our daughter and a friend were coming too. Nature had other ideas. With one of the wettest winters on record (over 80″ of rain) and five years of drought, the damage was severe. Mudslides, rockslides, and the loss of Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge cut a major part of the beautiful Highway 1 and Big Sur off from the rest of the world.
I was constantly in touch with the new caretakers of my brother in law’s ranch to find out about the conditions. Highway 1 was effectively closed from Ragged Point in the South all the way to Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in the North. Esalan, Nepenthe, Deetjens Big Sur Inn, Ventana, Big Sur Bakery,Post Ranch Inn, and most everything in between was closed.
In early April, the Nacimiento Fergusson Road was reopened to the public allowing access to Gorda, Limekiln State Park, and a small stretch of Highway 1. Mud Creek to the South and Paul’s Slide to the North were open only to locals and limited to two half hour windows during the day…5:30 am- 6:00 am and 7:00pm-7:30 pm with slightly longer windows on Fridays for deliveries. Additionally, there are no emergency services. After much debate, we decided to go. My brother in law is considered a local since he owns property in the area, so with a letter in hand from him and enough food for five people for three days, we took off from Santa Barbara on a beautiful April day.
Our window for Friday was 5:00pm-7:00pm so we took our time making stops in Los Alamos, Avila Beach, and Paso Robles, because after that there would be little in the way of food or facilities. If you’ve never driven over the Lucia mountains via Nacimiento Fergusson Road, you are in for an adventure. It’s beautiful, but I was too busy concentrating on staying on the narrow road, full of hair pin turns, and praying no one would be coming around the bend from the other direction! We were told there may be some traffic as Friday was the only day for deliveries, but we saw only a handful of cars.
I was more than relived when we were off that road and had time to stop in Gorda where the small general store was open. We talked to a local who filled us in on how difficult things had been, but said they would get through it just like they had many times before. Big Sur locals are nothing if not resilient!
We took a drive to Sand Dollar Beach and were amazed at how blue the water was…
A few other photo stops, and it was time to line up at Paul’s slide. I had no idea what to expect and decided to let my dad do this part of the drive. Slide is an accurate description. There is only one lane of dirt and debris (we were told to come in an SUV and now I realized why) but there was only one truck in front of us and after a quick conversation with a very nice guy named Mike who was in charge of letting locals through, we were on our way.
To say it was eerie, to see no cars on Highway 1 on a gorgeous Friday in late April, would be an understatement. Except for a few trucks on the sides of the road, Big Sur appeared deserted, but stunning as always.
We arrived at the ranch with time to unpack and cook the lemon ricotta lasagne we had brought with us. But the highlight of the evening was the sunset!
The next morning we decided to hike to the top of the property. It was encouraging to see everything green again, but with the long grass came a multitude of ticks. Do not wear light colored pants as my dad found out. He attracted dozens of ticks! However, the sheer beauty of the vistas and wildflowers more than made up for the pesky insects!
As we neared the top, we came upon this…
The slide was a lot bigger and wider than it looks in this photo, and we decided to turn back. We never reached the top and the incredible vistas you can see from there. We decided to have lunch and then head under Highway 1 (there is a tunnel) to the other side of the property and down to the ocean. It was pure magic and the finding of so many beautiful whole abalone shells was icing on the cake!
Saturday evening brought another magical sunset…
The next morning brought the promise of yet another beautiful day.
We learned that we could drive Highway 1 up to where the bridge was gone, which is about 45 minutes north. While checking on these facts via the Internet, my daughter learned that Post Ranch Inn was open for guests by helicoptering them in. It mentioned that Nepenthe was now open. Nepenthe is our favorite spot for a casual meal and we couldn’t believe our luck!
The drive up the coast was extraordinary. No cars, no motorcycles, and very few humans. It really was like going back to a quieter simpler time. We took our time and stopped to take photos of the beauty all around us.
We arrived early for lunch, so drove to the furthest point we could reach and could see first hand some of the damage.
We stopped at the Big Sur Deli which remained open for locals throughout the devastating closures. We ran into the owners who park on the other side of the now non existent bridge and walk the 45 minute half mile long foot path with over 100 steps (so no carts) to deliver newspapers and supplies to the store. They were happy to chat with us and taking it all in stride as so many in this community do. But they pointed out that Sundays were the most difficult because of how heavy the Sunday papers were! With a wave and a smile, they set off to walk the trail back to the other side.
At last we reached Nepenthe. All you needed to do was look at the parking lot to know something was very different.
We climbed the steps to the famous restaurant and were greeted by Aengus who was blowing leaves off the patio. He assured us that they were really open and escorted us to our favorite table on the back patio. The view was stunning as always, but it was the quiet that was so surreal. We had the entire restaurant to ourselves for over an hour!
If you’ve never had the Ambrosia Burger at Nepenthe, I advise you to put it on your bucket list. Family, wine and burgers at Nepenthe, and a sublime day added up to sheer happiness for all of us!
Feeling full and satisfied, sweet Aengus took a photo of us to remember this incredible day.
We had one more gorgeous evening at the ranch filled with wine and laughter.
The window to leave was between 5:30 and 6:00am the following day, so it was early to bed and dreams of this magical encounter in Big Sur…
The Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge is slated to be rebuilt and open September 30, 2017 and the slides to the south are hopefully to reopen sometime in June, but time will tell. The Community Foundation of Monterey County – Big Sur Relief Fund has been set up to help all of the displaced employees and others directly affected by the disaster.
A few more random pics…