As you know a sizeable section of Highway One along the Big Sur coast has been closed to traffic due to massive winter landslides and the destruction of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. Last Thursday we went down to Big Sur to ride Highway One before everything opens and the full onslaught of traffic hits what is now a strangely placid tourist zone. The reconstruction of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge is the northern closure. To the south Paul’s Slide near Lucia and the Mud Slide near Gorda are the southern closures. We were hoping to go before Paul’s Slide was cleared, resulting in the opening of the southern end of the Big Sur area to traffic coming over Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. Caltrans originally planned to have it open by the end of July; then it was moved to July 20. But they managed to have it open two days earlier! We were pretty sure that despite this good news that there wouldn’t be much car traffic coming from the south and it turned out we were right.
We had to get up pretty early to make the drive—almost three hours from the East Bay—and avoid the South Bay commute madness. Traffic was light until we got to Monterey, whose commute hour we managed to hit. We decided to go on a weekday because we surmised that the weekend would, despite the closure, bring out a horde of visitors to enjoy the scenic coast. Nonetheless we were only mildly surprised when we encountered a fair amount of car traffic heading south out of Carmel. Where could they all be going except Big Sur? There’s not much else south of Carmel Highlands. Despite a winter that brought no less than four major slides to Highway One, Big Sur is still a busy area—it’s just the busyness is confined to Highway One only so far as Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where the bridge is out. A quick scan of license plates showed that some of them were definitely from out of state. But so many tourists have rental cars, that having a CA plate is no guarantee it’s being driven by a local. By the time we got to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park traffic had mostly petered out. However the crowd must have been there because the Park campground was completely sold out.
We weren’t exactly sure where the Community Bypass Trail started. But a visit to the Big Sur Station Visitor Center, which is conveniently right where the road closure starts, quickly answered that question: it starts not at the road closure but inside the State Park. We were able to park the car by the side of Highway One and ride into the Park to the trailhead.
The trail is about a half-mile long and it’s almost entirely a series of switchbacks up a steep hillside. It’s hard to believe that locals were hiking up and down the trail with groceries and goods for months before the State Park improved the trail. It’s now fairly safe to walk even with your bike: it’s wider, has a level surface for the most part, and has steps and rails. We started up the trail at about 9:30 a.m. and we encountered little foot traffic. We did however run into a couple of cyclists from Santa Cruz whose intent was exactly the same as ours. After about 200 vertical feet of ascent you’re back on Highway One where the construction is taking place; two large cranes were at work and lots of cars were parked there, no doubt belonging to the Caltrans crew. Were they really driving all the way around over Nacimiento-Fergusson Road? That’s a long commute!
We headed south and were immediately struck by the quiet; Big Sur is a different experience when there are almost no cars and you have the entire road to yourself. In the summer time Highway One is a non-stop parade of tourists zooming down the road, a mixture of RVs, rental convertibles, and pickup trucks. It’s not exactly conducive to a peaceful bike ride but perhaps more in line with a near-religious experience as one contemplates being edged off the cliff by yet another punishment pass. But this time was entirely different: the only cars were an occasional local, Caltrans vehicles, and a few who apparently came over Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. That isn’t to say things are fine and dandy: one pickup came zooming up the road at 70 mph, and one car seemed to think it had the road all to himself as it strode up the middle of the road.
But overall it was a glorious ride. The day was sunny and clear, a bit of wind but not too strong, about 70 degrees. The Pacific was placid—no white caps and just the rhythmic waves coming from the horizon. It was quiet enough to hear the elephant seals barking far down on the rocks. Caltrans had taken the opportunity to do a host of minor repairs to the roadway. The repairs weren’t the typical fill-a-pothole type but substantial repaving of sections, making the roadway rideable along sections that no doubt were damaged by winter rains. That section of Highway One will probably never be in such good shape again! There are plenty of vista points to pull over and take in the view and a few snapshots. Without the terror of riding next to cars, the lack of exhaust fumes and the incessant drone of engines, riding in Big Sur was a joy!
Not that everything is easy-peasy: Highway One rolls up and down all the way down the coast with only a couple of “flat” sections. None of the ramps is especially steep but there are plenty in the 7-9% range, none of them too long. By the end of the day we had about 4,700 feet of vertical from riding down to Lucia and back (about 50 miles altogether). About 200 of that was from walking up the Bypass Trail. The uphills may have been challenging but those downhill sections were awesome!
Things To Know About Riding Big Sur
Once the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge is completed—currently expected at the end of September—the opportunity to ride your bike down Big Sur mostly free of car traffic will almost certainly end. At that point car traffic will be able to flow south and over Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. So set aside a day to go there before it’s too late.
The Community Bypass Trail. The trail starts in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, in Campground 4 near campsite 31. The trail is about a half-mile long and ascends about 200 vertical feet over a series of switchbacks to Highway One. The trail is dirt but has been improved to a Class I trail, i.e. flat surface, steps, and railing when necessary. To find the trail, enter the park and go straight past the entrance kiosk (do not go left or right at the first intersection inside the park—go straight). If you’re driving in, you will have to pay a day parking fee of $10 to park in one of the lots (if you can find a space). The entrance kiosk also has directions to the trailhead. Take the bridge on the right across the Big Sur River and enter the campgrounds. At the T-intersection, go left to Campground 4 and look for site 31 on the right. There should be a trail sign there. Dismount and walk up the trail. Depending on the time of day you may run into trail traffic. Early morning the trail seems rather deserted. But as the day progresses more people get up and decide to check out Nepenthe. The shuttle service from Andrew Molera State Park also drops off groups at the trailhead. In the afternoon workers are dropped off at the top of the trail to walk down and take the shuttle back to their cars. Although the trail is improved, it can still get tight with walkers passing each other. Be sure to step aside when possible to let those faster pass you and your bike. If you have a regular road bike, you won’t have any problems getting it up the trail. You can roll it on the ramps but you’ll have to lift it up the steps. If your bike is heavy—let’s say you decided to bring your e-bike—then you are in for a workout. We got Roger’s 40-pound e-bike up the hill but we were both pretty sweaty! You may not want to walk up the trail in your cycling shoes. If you’ve got MTB shoes, they’ll work fine. However I brought tennis shoes and simply switched shoes for the hiking portion. Another cyclist did the same and he was even brighter: he stashed his shoes in his daypack at the top so he didn’t have to ride all day with a pack on.
Where to Park. Day parking in the State Park is $10 per vehicle. On weekends it is likely to fill up before noon. You can park on the sides of Highway One as long as your car is not in the roadway, and then enter the park by bike and avoid the fee too. But on weekends you will probably not find much parking by the road unless you arrive early. The safest bet is to park at Andrew Molera State Park. The shuttle to the Community Bypass Trail uses the Molera parking lot even though the park itself is closed. I’m not sure if there is a parking fee (but there probably is). From Andrew Molera it’s about a 4-5 mile ride to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and the trailhead.
Bikes on the Trail. Technically bikes in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park are allowed only on the roads and not the trails. And this may be the belief of many passersby. However Big Sur Station clearly stated to me that bikes ARE allowed on the Community Bypass Trail as long as they are walked and not ridden. Do NOT ride your bike on the trail even at the beginning where it is flatter!
Services. Once you are south of the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge construction site there will be very few services. As time goes by and the word gets out that Paul’s Slide is gone, more businesses south of the bridge may open especially on weekends. Of note: Nepenthe is indeed open for business! Uncharacteristically it was not crowded and therefore made for a truly pleasant lunch. The inns south of the bridge and their associated restaurants do not appear to be open at least during the week. The only place we found to get a snack is Lucia, which is just before Paul’s Slide, at the Lucia Lodge store, 23 miles after the bridge. Note that there isn’t anywhere to get water before Lucia—Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is closed—so bring all you’re going to need.
Cars. There should be very few cars. The few that you will see are likely to be locals going back and forth. But the word is getting out and some tourists are braving Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to get to the coast. There is also some truck traffic related to the bridge construction but it is infrequent. So the good news is that you have all of Highway One mostly to yourself. I say “mostly” because the fact that there is little traffic means that some idiots in cars think they have the road “mostly” to themselves. Like the numbskull who passed us in his pickup doing over 70 mph. And then there was the bright bulb in a SUV who drove down the middle of Highway One, clearly relishing his moment of anarchy and freedom from the Man. Speaking of the Man, it seemed there aren’t any police or fire stations let alone towns, so you are unlikely to get assistance of the legal or EMT kind if you should have a run-in with one of the aforementioned harebrains. So exercise caution!
Nepenthe. Nepenthe is the logical, if sole, place to get a meal on the south side. Before the bridge went out, a typical weekend lunch at Nepenthe would perhaps mean having to wait a while for a table and the tables on the outside deck overlooking the cliffs were bound to be full. With the bridge gone, the clientele was much reduced and we were able to get a table on the deck immediately. Keep in mind we were there on a weekday. There did seem to be foot traffic from the Bypass Trail, which is only two miles north of Nepenthe. There is also a shuttle that ferries people to the trail and back. The food is as good as ever—and as expensive as ever: remember you’re paying for the ambience, and now you’re paying for their high cost of getting supplies. Keep in mind that Nepenthe, like all the other businesses along the Big Sur coast, has taken a huge economic hit with the closure of Highway One. People parked and locked their bikes in the lot. But we saw a couple of cyclists park their bikes on the restaurant level within easy eyesight. The restaurant staff didn’t seem to mind but it also wasn’t packed with a crowd either. There is also a handicap access parking lot in the back and it is possible to park your bike there where it is out of sight and less likely to be nicked.
What if you don’t want to bring your bike? The prospect of schlepping a bike up the hill can be daunting. It’s really not that hard. But if you don’t want to bring your bike yet still want to ride, you can instead rent an e-bike at Big Sur Adventures, which is just south of the bridge closure. We saw plenty of folks riding them down the coast. And they make going up the rolls much easier. What a cool way to explore Big Sur!
Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. You might be tempted to ride down Big Sur and go up Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. In other times this would be a great if challenging ride. But the characteristics that make this road most excellent for cycling are now a liability—it is narrow, steep in sections, isolated, and has plenty of curves. Heavy trucks bringing construction earth and supplies for the bridge repair are using the road. Tourists are starting to come over because it’s the only way to access the Big Sur coast due to the Mud Slide near Gorda. If it is not obvious, this is a dangerous mixture and I would not recommend it: more car traffic, heavy trucks, crazed tourists not paying attention to the road, very narrow road—you be the judge! Nacimiento-Fergusson Road is unlikely to return to its quiet isolation until after the Mud Slide is cleared and Highway One fully reopened from Cambria to Carmel. The Mud Slide is so massive that the current Caltrans estimate for reopening is summer 2018, presuming that it is not worsened by another horrific winter. David Gaus’s already long-delayed tour down Big Sur and over Nacimiento-Fergusson now looks to be postponed yet another year. Sigh.