Headlights glowed in the Big Sur fog on Highway 1 on Wednesday morning — the first day in a year and a half the road has been completely open.
Starting at 9:45 a.m., vehicles traveled on a freshly paved road around the enormous mudslide that closed the highway in May 2017 and permanently reshaped one of coastal California’s most famous drives.
A very rainy winter — which brought more precipitation than the area had seen in five years — shifted 6 million cubic yards of dirt and rock near Mud Creek, 34 miles north of Cambria.
The mudslide covered the old stretch of road to such an extent that Caltrans opted to build a new path over the land mass it created.
John Madonna Construction built the new $54 million road — completing the project two months earlier than expected.
Susanna Cruz, a Caltrans District 5 spokeswoman, called the project “really Herculean efforts.”
“It’s massive,” she said. “It’s the biggest slide event in all of Big Sur history.”
On Wednesday, Cruz and other Caltrans employees waved vehicles through the now-open road. Cars speeding by honked and passengers waved in celebration.
So far, more southbound vehicles have driven through the area, with “kind of a trickle” of northbound traffic, Cruz said.
Traffic continued to pick up throughout the day, with many travelers stopping near the side of the road to take photos of the route’s unique ocean views.
“Maybe this weekend, it won’t be as many,” she said. “But next weekend, it’ll really hit ‘em.”
Big Sur fans rejoice
Some Big Sur lovers who’d been counting the days until the road was open made special trips to visit the area.
While construction was taking place, motorists traveling north to Big Sur through San Luis Obispo County were forced to take Nacimiento-Fergusson Road — a route that cuts inland and intersects with Highway 1 north of the slide area.
Another, equally inconvenient option was taking Highway 101 into Monterey County and then Highway 1 south into Big Sur.
That’s the route Bob Field of Santa Ynez drove when he traveled to the area during the construction.
“It turned a two-and-a-half hour trip into a five-hour trip,” he said.
This week, Field went camping in San Simeon just to come check out the slide area. He said he’s been camping in the Big Sur area for 49 years, and has never seen anything like the mountains of earth overlooking the road.
Staring up at the slide, Field said he was even tempted to climb up and have a look.
“I thought I knew how big it was — before I got here,” he said.
Typically, Field and his wife camp in a couple of trailers, but this week, he traveled solo and stayed in a tent. Field’s brother lived in Cambria but died a couple of months before the road was finished.
“We’d be here together right now,” he said.
Steve Mack and his two dogs, Sadie and Scooter, also made the trip up to see the new road.
“I’ve been waiting 14 months for this,” he said.
Mack, who lives in Los Angeles, was visiting friends in Avila Beach when he heard Highway 1 was reopening. So, he drove his motor home up the coast to visit one of his favorite places.
Once he was allowed into the area, Mack parked his motor home and walked along the road with his dogs to take a selfie near the slide. He said he’s battling cancer and has always found Big Sur to be a healing place: “I always feel better when I’m up here.”
“I’m very happy I made it this long,” Mack said. “Big Sur is a special place.”
Businesses anticipate the return of tourists
Businesses near the slide area celebrated the return of tourist traffic, which was sorely missed during the road construction.
The Gorda General Store and Whale Watchers Café, located just north of the Mud Creek area, suffered during the road closure, said Leonardo Vargas, who manages the businesses.
Things got especially bad when Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge in Monterey County — another crucial piece of Highway 1 — was also closed for eight months in 2017 due to storm damage.
Gorda was isolated, and business shrank to 25 percent of normal, Vargas said.
“At the beginning, I thought (the store) was just closing,” he said.
But John Madonna Construction workers stayed in the 13 cabins behind the store and ate in the cafe while they were working on the project, which allowed the establishments to remain open, Vargas said.
He and another employee were also cut off from their houses on Gorda Mountain Road, forcing them to drive all the way around the slide or walk to get back home.
After the bridge was fixed, business climbed back up to 45 to 50 percent of normal. Now, Vargas is happy the road is open again, just in time for peak summer tourist season.
“I’m very excited, because we made it,” Vargas said.