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Highway 1 closure creates a remote escape for campers in Big Sur

Soar over the Central Coast in this breathtaking drone video

Take in the beauty of the Central Coast with these aerial views of Big Sur, Pacific Grove, Pebble Beach, San Simeon and Moonstone Beach in Cambria, filmed in May 2016.
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Take in the beauty of the Central Coast with these aerial views of Big Sur, Pacific Grove, Pebble Beach, San Simeon and Moonstone Beach in Cambria, filmed in May 2016.

In the middle of the Big Sur coast, persistent closures on Highway 1 have created a scenic, 12-mile cul-de-sac accessible only via a mountainous east-west road, leaving often-busy campgrounds quiet and a tiny schoolhouse cut off from some of its students.

For some, that might be an ideal vacation. For others, it can be quite an inconvenience.

Normally, three campgrounds along that stretch of road from Lucia south to Gorda are way stations for travelers headed north and south along Highway 1.

Not so this year.

These days, visitors to Limekiln State Park, Plaskett Creek Campground and Kirk Creek Campground can only travel a short distance in either direction on Highway 1 once they reach the end of Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which winds across the Santa Lucia range and connects Highway 101 to the coast.

It’s now the only way in, with Highway 1 closed by the Mud Creek Slide to the south and Paul’s Slide to the north.

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Highway 1 at Mud Creek in Big Sur remains closed as “significant” amounts of dirt and rock continue to slide down the slope from above. This video taken from a Monterey County Sheriff's Office airplane shows the massive slide, which "went from bad

Access to the area via Highway 1 is only available to local traffic at Paul’s Slide for half an hour each morning and evening six days a week (and 90 minutes twice a day on Friday). Farther north, the road is cut off altogether by the failure of the now-demolished Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge. There is no access south in either direction, even for local traffic.

According to a Caltrans update Friday morning, the Mud Creek Slide has three major issues: One lane is partially missing; the roadway is sloping at an angle; and significant slide material is still coming down.

All of this means those campgrounds are a little harder to reach and, as a result, less crowded than usual at this time of year.

Normally, the popular stop-overs would be filled all week, said Gina Corrales, one of the owners of Parks Management Co., the concessionaire that runs the three campgrounds along with several others. She estimated that campground use was down about 50 percent as a result of the closure.

Take a look at the debris left behind after much of Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in Big Sur was demolished and plummeted to the canyon below on Saturday, March 18, 2017. The bridge cracked and shifted during recent rains, and officials declared the brid

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They’re still 80 percent full on the weekends, and it’s best to have a reservation if you want to claim a spot on Saturday, she said, but “if people want to come in during the week, first-come, first-served, they are available.”

Corrales, a Templeton resident, said she’s seeing fewer campers from out of state — those who might normally fly into San Francisco, rent an RV and drive down the coast. They can’t do that now.

“If they’re not from here, they don’t understand that a bridge fell into the ocean and there’s not another way,” she said. As a result, “you’re basically getting more of the hardcore campers who love Big Sur.”

She expects the slowdown to continue through the summer.

HIGHWAY 1 SLIDESv2

Initially, hopes were to reopen Highway 1 from the south by June, but complications from the Mud Creek Slide have forced Caltrans to shelve that timetable. Full access through to Monterey on the north won’t happen until the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge is replaced, now planned for a September completion.

“I think we’ll see less visitors than in previous years,” she said. “I think people will probably choose other areas to go to. Some people are uncomfortable driving Nacimiento-Fergusson. It’s a mountain, winding road, so if you’re not used to it,” it can seem daunting.

For a traveler from San Luis Obispo, a trip up Highway 101 and across the route takes two and a half hours.

The three campgrounds in the cutoff area aren’t large: Corrales said Plaskett Creek has 44 spaces, Limekiln 27 and Kirk Creek, which she said is the most popular, 33. The cost for an overnight stay is $25.

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At the south end, Gorda is still open for food and gas, a phone call to the General Store there confirmed Thursday, but you can’t get up to the famed Nepenthe restaurant, for example, Corrales said.

Visitors can still hike various trails and visit places like Sand Dollar Beach, just north of the Plaskett Creek Campground, but Corrales said some people might want to shift their travel plans to other areas for the time being.

Other stretches of the Central Coast, she said, are just as spectacular: “The other areas of the (Los Padres National) forest are beautiful right now because there’s been so much rain,” she said. “All the rivers are running; all the streams. So maybe visit some of the other areas this summer and come back during the fall.”

School challenges

Campers aren’t the only ones inconvenienced by the Highway 1 closure. Students and staff in the tiny Pacific Valley School — right next to Plaskett Creek Campground — face challenges of their own.

“This is my 39th year in education and my 37th in administration, and it’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Gordon Piffero, principal of the 14-student school.

The school, classified by the state as a “necessary small school,” only exists because the few students in the area are so far away from everywhere else. It would take them an hour or more to get to Cambria and about as long to get to Carmel or King City, Piffero said — and that’s without a road closure.

Kirk Creek 3
An overview of Kirk Creek Campground, which has seen fewer visitors this spring with the closure of Highway 1. Courtesy photo

With the closure, things get even tougher. Two students south of the Mud Creek Slide have to be homeschooled, said Lisa Gering, the school secretary and a classroom aide.

Meanwhile, six students north of Paul’s Slide only attend school twice a week and have to deal with a 10-hour day Friday between the morning and evening road access windows allowed by Caltrans.

Two Cambria residents — teacher Karen Beecher and administrative assistant Susan Perry — have a long trek to get to the school by taking Highway 46 east, U.S. 101 north and Nacimiento-Fergusson back west.

“It takes them about two hours, and they just spend the week up here on blow-up mattresses,” Gering said.

Gering said it looks like Pacific Valley will have to continue improvising the rest of the school year.

Despite the Mud Creek difficulties, Corrales, the campground concessionaire, said Caltrans workers deserve kudos for their efforts.

“We really appreciate all that Caltrans is doing,” she said. “It’s not easy, what they do. Just to get the material up there is two hours.”

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Stephen H. Provost: 805-927-8896, @sproauthor

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