The days of haphazard parking along Estero Bluffs State Park north of Cayucos are over, now that Caltrans and its partners have completed a $1.4 million, 41.7-acre parking pullout and native plant restoration project along 3 miles of Highway 1.
Highway 1 from San Luis Obispo to Carmel is an official National Scenic Byway and All American Road, the highest designations under the National Scenic Byways Program, which honor roadways that are themselves destinations. The project stretched along the highway’s west side from Ocean Avenue in Cayucos to just south of Villa Creek Road.
Officials gathered Tuesday morning to officially declare the project done, just in time for the crush of Independence Day parkers that customarily line up along Highway 1 to watch the Cayucos fireworks show at the pier.
To the casual onlooker, the project’s effects may not be immediately obvious. The 5.9-acre habitat restoration areas blend into the marine terrace because that’s what the work was designed to do, according to Tim Gubbins, director of Caltrans District 5, and Dennis Reeves, the district’s landscape architect. They said the project is helping State Parks restore the rare coastal prairie environment that stretches to the ocean bluff. Invasive fennel, mustard and other weeds have been replaced with native plants.
The end result “is incredible,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said at the dedication ceremony as he thanked the various participants in the project. “It enhances the habitat and access to an extraordinary piece of land.”
Gubbins said that, so far, people seem to be respecting the boundary set by a modest 3-foot-tall fence that protects the newly seeded and planted areas, but is low enough not to interfere with the beautiful views of the coastline and the ocean.
The six enhanced, informal, graveled pull-out parking areas on 3.7 acres comprise only 9 percent of the project area, but are likely to have the most impact for most people, especially bicyclists pedaling past. Before the project, the rainy season turned the roadside strip into a sea of mud. When drivers parked there and then left, their vehicles dragged that mud onto the shoulder and bike-lane areas. That, in turn, made biking conditions really ugly.
As part of the recently completed project, those shoulder areas were widened, Gubbins said.
The pullout-restoration improvements were a “great example of two or three groups starting a project with two or three different visions,” but winding up with a cohesive result, a great cooperation between participants and everybody pleased with the outcome, according to Greg Bettencourt of the Cayucos Land Conservancy. “We really feel that we got what we wanted,” he added, a sentiment echoed Tuesday by representatives of the project’s other partners.
The concept grew out of a rainy-season landslide onto Highway 1 in the late 1990s, Gubbins recalled. Caltrans hauled the extra dirt and rocks to the west side, where it lurked for years, eventually turning into “a muddy quagmire” in winter and a weed-covered eyesore the rest of the year.
“About 2005, the Cayucos Land Conservancy approached us, saying there was an opportunity here” to use that situation to a highway advantage, Gubbins said.
Caltrans landscape architect Laurie Cummings wrote a grant application for federal Transportation Enhancement Act funds, which were used to draft the plans (based in part on sketches done originally by artist Woody Dyke, according to Bettencourt, who dedicated Tuesday’s ceremony to the former Cayucan).
Supervisor Bruce Gibson noted that the project’s visual benefits had been enhanced earlier in the process when PG&E and other firms undergrounded the utility lines that had been on the west side of the highway.
Among other agencies and groups that helped in the project were: State Parks, the Cayucos Advisory Council and the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, which funnels federal and state funding to transportation projects countywide.