Travelers will be able to reach Big Sur from San Luis Obispo County by the end of July, Caltrans announced Tuesday, when scenic Highway 1 reopens at the Mud Creek Slide site.
The crucial road segment north of Ragged Point has been closed for more than a year due to a massive landslide and was projected to open in mid-September.
The $54 million project is building a new road on top of the landslide material.
The news is a big development for North Coast tourism, and reopening the highway in time for the second half of the summer could make a huge difference for local businesses like hotels, shops and restaurants.
Mel McColloch, president of the Cambria Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday morning that those businesses, especially the small ones hit hard by the road closure, “will have a better chance of surviving” once the road reopens. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand,” he said.
“This is very important for all the coast,” McColloch said, adding that the earlier reopening means that six to eight weeks of heightened tourism in the area will save a lot of businesses that might not have survived otherwise. “Caltrans has done a remarkable job with a very difficult project.”
The Mud Creek Slide
About a year ago on May 20, 2017, more than 5 million cubic yards of dirt, rocks and other debris slid onto a quarter-mile stretch of the roadway north of Salmon Creek, burying and destroying the pavement and creating 15 new acres of coastline.
The hillside continued to slide for months, but crews have been working hard dawn to dusk, seven days a week, to reopen the scenic stretch of Highway 1.
Caltrans representative Susana Cruz said Tuesday that there will still be a lot of work on the stretch of road that’s a bit further inland (east) than it used to be, and that work could continue for more than a year “as it will take two winters for it to really settle down where it’s going to stay.”
She said the road would be open for two-lane traffic, but with one-way traffic control “as needed.”
Cruz said as many as 35 people a day are working with 25 pieces of heavy machinery.
As the news spread, reactions were understandably upbeat.
Bob and Evelyn Morales, owners of El Chorlito Mexican restaurant in San Simeon, just celebrated the 39th anniversary of their opening. When Evelyn Morales heard about the earlier road-opening date, she was nearly speechless for a time.
“I’m feeling chills. This is fabulous. I’m on the verge of tears and I want to do a dance. … Now, maybe we will make it to the 40th” anniversary," she said.
The end-of-July opening “is going to keep us in business,” she added. “It’s been awful. You save up the summer money to get you through the winter. We lost two summers, first with the fires (Soberanes and Chimney in 2016), then the bridge (Highway 1’s Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge destroyed, 46 miles north of the county line) and then the landslides. If we’d lost another whole summer, I don’t know if we’d have made it.”
The restaurant’s good reputation and amenities such as a dog-friendly patio have kept it going, but it’s been tough, she said.
“What keeps us alive” is summertime tourist trade, with “people going to see Hearst Castle, having dinner, staying overnight and leaving the next morning to go through Big Sur and on to Carmel and Monterey. Now, if the tourists are going to Hearst Castle, they usually leave to drive around” on Highway 101. “They don’t spend the night, eat in the restaurants and shop.”
Castle ready to ramp up
The Castle itself is ready for the increased influx of tourists that is the likely result of an earlier-than-expected reopening of Highway 1, according to Dan Falat, superintendent of the State Parks district that includes the historic-house museum and state monument.
Falat learned about the end-of-July projection while on his way to a Sacramento meeting.
“That’s exciting!” he said. The earlier reopening “would provide a huge advantage to visitors — in San Luis Obispo County and in Monterey and Big Sur — to not only enjoy some of the most wonderful state parks but all the rest of what the Central Coast has to offer.”
He said Castle schedulers expected that, with the highway closed, there would be fewer visitors this summer, but had provided “a full suite of tours anyway,” just in case. In other words, he said, they planned for full capacity of about 860,000 visitors in fiscal 2018-19 but were prepared to reduce the number of tours offered on a day-by-day basis, based on response.
Falat said 10 percent fewer people took Castle tours over the Memorial Day weekend, compared to 2017, which was itself down about 10 percent from the year before.
At the other end of the closure, Kate Novoa, known online as "Big Sur Kate," appreciated the news of the opening with a humorous observation: “You know we have lived with this closure too long when you write it will open end of July, and your son writes back, ‘This July?'”