Highway 1 in Big Sur: Washout, repair, repeat

On Jan. 29, a chunk of Highway 1 washed away into the ocean. The event, while dramatic enough to make national news, is hardly new or surprising to locals who are familiar with the history of the stretch of road from Carmel to Cambria.

Over the course of the decades since the section of the highway that stretches from Monterey to San Luis Obispo County opened in 1937, the scenic coastal highway has been subject to landslide after landslide.

A section of Highway 1 at Rat Creek along the Big Sur Coast collapsed following a heavy rainstorm on Jan. 29. (Courtesy Caltrans) 

So how can these events be prevented? Gary Griggs, a professor of Earth Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, says they can’t be.

“I would call it a wicked problem. It’s not solvable.”

Open road, good business

For people who live in Big Sur, Highway 1 is essential. There’s no other major route available in and out.

“Living in Big Sur and operating a business in Big Sur is entirely reliant — except for, you know, somebody who is truly almost a survivalist — on access to Highway 1,” says Kirk Gafill, the president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce. He says he understands the history of the route as both a lifelong resident and a business operator.

According to the Cambria Historical Society, the idea for the highway was conceived of by Dr. John L.D. Roberts in 1897 when he made the trip from Monterey to San Simeon on foot and realized the scenic and tourist potential a road into the region could hold.

Vehicles get trapped in a mudslide on Highway 1 about 3 miles south of Esalen Feb. 13, 1987. (Monterey Herald archive) 

And since then, it has brought along millions of tourists, mainly from the north. Gafill says when Highway 1 is closed south of Big Sur, as it is currently, visitor traffic goes down by about a third. Because tourism makes up a significant portion of the area’s revenue, frequent closures can hurt.

The Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau recently announced that despite the most recent slide, Big Sur businesses remain “open and accessible” to visitors coming from the north. Visitors from the south have been urged to use Highway 101 to travel north to Monterey County and then head to Big Sur by connecting to Highway 1 and heading south.

The geology problem

To understand why Highway 1 is so prone to falling rocks and road closures, it is necessary to look at the geology of the region itself.

“The geology of Big Sur is exceedingly complex — unstable slopes, countless landslides,” says Griggs. “I would say it’s sort of a geologist’s nightmare.”

Being on a tectonic plate boundary has shaped California — literally. Millions of years ago, there was a trench along the coast, which accumulated sediment. Over time it experienced being thrust into the Earth’s crust and squeezed back up, undergoing temperature changes and metamorphosis, which has left the coast with what Griggs calls a “hodgepodge mixture of rocks.”

Along Highway 1 there are a …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment


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