Long-isolated “Big Sur Island” is once again open for business.
A public hiking trail opened Saturday that links Monterey County to retreats such as Nepenthe and the Big Sur Taphouse, cut off since February by a collapsed bridge on the north and a landslide on the south.
Sweaty, winded-but-happy tourists traversed the half-mile route across a canyon, then thrilled to a sight not seen for decades — an empty Highway 1.
“We’ve been dying to get here and spend some money, support the local businesses,” said Mike Patton of Carmel, who with his wife, Lynn, were among the first to hit the trail at 9:30 a.m.
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Randy and Donna Antosiak of Los Altos, hiking to the world-famous restaurant Nepenthe for a celebratory brunch of eggs benedict, marveled at the view.
“It’s the Fourth of July weekend — and we have the whole place to ourselves,” Donna Antosiak said.
A daily shuttle picks up visitors at Andrew Molera State Park, then carries them to the trailhead at newly re-opened Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Some parking is also available at the park for $10. The round-trip shuttle costs $5 for those 13 and older.
The trail meanders past a river and through redwoods and ferns, then winds up switchbacks to the other side as it gains 500 feet of elevation.
On the south side, another shuttle picks up visitors and delivers them to points along Highway 1. The “Survice Shuttle,” as it’s called, offers education about Big Sur’s history and environment, with a “Passbook” that features maps, trail information, a “locals story” and guidelines on treading lightly on the fragile coast.
Many visitors chose to walk instead, striding down the center of a once-hectic coastal highway, serenaded by birds, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Santa Lucia Mountains on the other.
“This is an experience that will not be replicated in most people’s lives,” said Kirk Gafill, manager of Nepenthe and president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, who helped propel the trail construction effort. “It’s akin to the 1940s or ’50s — what Big Sur was like for my grandparents.”
Until now, the trail has been for locals only. State Parks built the trail for the lone purpose of circumventing the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, which was demolished last spring after landslides damaged its piers. The new bridge won’t be finished until late September.
Carved out of Pfeiffer Canyon in late March, the trail was narrow, rugged and slippery. Residents needed to sign a waiver of liability and carry a “trail pass.”
The isolated stretch of Big Sur has been losing $300,000 in revenues every day, according to Gafill. San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties could lose more than $500 million in revenue because of the closures, according to a recent study by Visit California, which promotes tourism. The economic impact could ripple out further if visitors cancel summer plans to the Golden State.
“We are looking forward to having some people back,” said Shelby Hawthorne, whose family owns Hawthorne Gallery, which has been open to appointment only.
One big question loomed: If you build it, will they come?
Spirits were buoyed by Saturday’s visitors. By afternoon, the deck of Nepenthe was beginning to fill, and the kitchen was busy. Thirsty hikers gathered at the Big Sur Taphouse for a cold beer.
“It’s the best betting game in town, to see how many people will come over the trail,” Gafill said. “Think about the usual summer traffic here. It’s like Capri, or Martha’s Vineyard, or the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Now,” he said, “you’re getting Big Sur to all to yourself.”
‘Survice’ Shuttle timetable
Last inbound shuttle from Andrew Molera State Park leaves at 5 p.m.
Last outbound shuttle from Nepenthe leaves at 7 p.m.
Cost of shuttle: $5 round-trip. Cash only. Free for children 12 and younger. Parking at Andrew Molera is $10.
There is not yet a formal schedule, and the driver doesn’t have cell service. There are two vans on the north side and one van on the south side. Try not to wait for the last shuttle at Nepenthe because one shuttle can’t fit everyone.
For information about the shuttle service, visit surtransportation.com.
For information about Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, visit parks.ca.gov.