In February, winter storms and heavy landslides hit the coast of Big Sur. A vital bridge, the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, collapsed and about 35 miles of highway were closed. Another landslide on May 20 created 13 acres of new coastline. According to the California Department of Transportation, about a quarter-mile of the state’s iconic Highway 1 remains buried under rock and dirt.
Big Sur, which is three hours south of San Francisco and the backdrop for HBO’s Big Little Lies, is spread out over 90 miles of California coast. It was made famous by Beat writers of the ’60s — both Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller have books titled Big Sur. I traveled to Big Sur in June with the tourism board, which covered my travel and lodging costs. The two landslides this year virtually shut down the 25 miles south of Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. As roads closed for renovations, so did businesses, restaurants and hotels.
Why you should visit Big Sur now
With some major attractions remaining closed, Big Sur is currently operating under capacity — which may be why, against all apparent logic, it’s the ideal time to visit. Businesses are offering a handful of unique experiences, from helicopter rides to bike tours, that will disappear when roads reopen later this year.
Although some visitors may opt to wait until construction on Highway 1 has been completed, there is some impetus to go while things are still quiet. Big Sur Adventures rents out electric bikes to visitors and takes them on either private or self-guided tours ($50 for a half-day rental) along the stretch of Highway 1 that is currently closed to vehicular traffic — something that would never be possible if the roads were operating as usual.
Joaquin Sullivan, owner of Big Sur Adventures, said via email that today’s Big Sur is the closest visitors can get to reliving the calm that “drew artists and poets and those who just wanted to get away from the rat race” in the 1960s. “People are exhilarated to be on the coast when they can hear the waves, hear the trees, hear the sea lions, hear the streams, smell the sagebrush and be all by themselves,” he said.
The California Department of Transportation projects a completion date of Sept. 30 for the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge.
How to get around
In order to circumnavigate the bridge collapse, local volunteers and state employees built a half-mile foot trail through Pfeiffer Canyon State Park. On July 1, Pfeiffer Canyon Trail opened to the public. It’s a steep ascent uphill one way and a leisurely downhill stroll on the return. Those who take the path every day can do it in about 20 minutes, although it may take a more casual hiker about double the time. A shuttle ($5 per day, cash only) transports visitors from the trail to restaurants and hotels in Big Sur North. Another shuttle on the south end will bring guests to popular restaurant Nepenthe.
In a typical season, Nepenthe has a two-hour wait for its famous ambrosia burgers. But this season the restaurant is sparsely populated, and the waits have disappeared. Take this chance to play a game of ping-pong on the table where Henry Miller used to spar well into the wee hours of the morning.
Where to stay
If you’re looking for a high-end experience, forgo the hike and shuttle and fly in to Big Sur. Post Ranch Inn, a 40-room luxury resort frequented by celebrities like Natalie Portman and Drew Barrymore, is providing helicopter rides to transport its well-heeled clientele (rooms start at $875 per night in low season) from the Monterey Regional Airport to the hotel’s grounds. It’s a limited time offer until the bridge reopens this fall.
Travelers with more realistic budgets still have lodging options on either side of the trail. Glen Oaks Big Sur (starting at $175 per night in low season) has secluded cabins among the redwoods. Instead of televisions, the hotel provides Buddha Boards, yoga mats and s’mores making kits. (Don’t worry; there’s Wi-Fi, too.) Guests at Glen Oaks can also take advantage of the on-site restaurant Big Sur Roadhouse, which specializes in seasonal California cuisine for breakfast and lunch, like huevos rancheros or chorizo tacos.
The Big Sur River Inn (from $150 per night) has rustic lodgings overlooking the river. Once the river starts to flow more heavily in the summer, the hotel puts Adirondack chairs in the water where guests can enjoy a drink while dipping their toes in the stream.
How to camp in Big Sur
For travelers who prefer to take in nature, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park reopened its campground and four day-use lots on July 1.
Other state parks worth visiting include Garrapata (where visitors can spot a staircase originally built for an episode of Big Little Lies) and Point Lobos, considered by many to be the crown jewel of the California State Park system.
What to know if you’re driving
Big Sur is an iconic landmark on the California coastline road trip itinerary. And while it’s still possible to road trip up to the town, Highway 1 remains closed in two places.
The biggest closure starts at the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and extends almost 25 miles down to Limekiln State Park. Using a detour road, visitors can still access the southern section of Big Sur (from Limekiln to Gorda). A spokesperson for the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau said via email that visitors should exercise caution while driving this road “as it is narrow and very windy and should only be traveled during daylight hours.” There is neither cell service nor gas stations along the road.
A second closure extends about six miles further south until just about where Monterey County turns into San Luis Obispo County.
With less people visiting Big Sur, travelers will find more opportunities to meet locals. Everyone has a fantastic story about the close-knit community and its former famous Beat-era residents. After all, what makes a destination memorable is getting to know the people who live there — no matter the condition of the roads that get you there.