It was a little over a year ago (that’s back in early 2017 depending on when you’ve stumbled on this post) that a series of winter storms wrecked havoc on stretch of Northern California’s Highway 1 around Big Sur. All told, something like a million tons of dirt and rock came down destroying bridges, road ways, and entirely altering the coast. Early on there were several slides and road closures but most of those have since been cleared with some incredible repairs made. All that is except for the big slide, the million tons of earth dubbed Mud Creek.
Amazingly that’s slated to open late this summer but for now highway 1 remains split in two with the detour point something like 70 miles to the north in Monterey (don’t trust a blog to be updated, here’s where you can get the official conditions.) Watching the initial story and subsequent progress updates has been a fascinating story and undoubtedly a major impact to the surrounding communities so naturally, I had to go check out what it was like to head to the end of the road for myself…
The Drive to Big Sur
Heading down the 1 beyond Monterey it should be impossible to miss the signs of the impact far ahead but I suppose the incredible coast views have enough distracting force that this is not always the case. When we made our trip down, I guessed we would run into at least one car at the end of the road who missed the news (and the literally dozens of signs for it!)… turns out I was wrong, almost everyone we met had missed it!
With an early morning start, cool weather and great views, we cruised right on down the coast with few stops along the way save for a final gas fill up in Carmel by the Sea. This would prove to be a wise decision as prices do not get cheap on closed roads. Monterey (yes, go to the Aquarium and yes, chowder on the wharf) and Carmel by the Sea are incredible enough on their own but the sights manage to step up even further from there. There’s Rocky Point, the Big Sur Lighthouse, Pfeiffer Beach and then the town its self. Big Sur isn’t huge but it has enough: camping, cabins and a few motels, gas, several restaurants and a few shops to warrant a visit (though I did not make one to share photos of this trip.)
Heading South out of town, the traffic began to thin out though we were not alone in the idea and certainly not the only ones to head to Big Sur, the lights coming back took the better of an hour to get through! It’s strange to drive from a busy area to empty and back in a day…
Beyond Big Sur to Mud Creek & The Road’s End
It’s about 20 miles from Big Sur’s US-1 exit to what was our first proper stop of the day at McWay Falls. Located just across the road from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, this is an incredibley iconic and popular spot though in the morning hours parking was not too bad just a little ways down the road.
Unfortunately, storms or some other force have wrecked much of the trail around the area but it’s still possible to walk out a short ways to a view point of the cove and waterfall. How many other places can you say that you’ve seen a waterfall entering the ocean? Not many I bet! (Hint: if you take the fire road south of the viewpoint, you’ll find yourself at a campground with a few restrooms and a nice coast view though no signs of the waterfall.)
There’s another 30+ miles from the falls to the end of the line and for many of our fellow travelers, this was their turn around spot. While I can see the futility in driving to a road that ends and one that can feel the same at times, it’s not without its charm so we kept going as much to see what was beyond as anything else.
We passed plenty of turn offs and rocky views into the ocean, wide pullouts where camper vans had setup for the day and access points with small stair cases leading to fun trails towards the coast. There are few signs of civilization on this stretch save for the occasional side road and pointer to a remote house or inn. Crowds remained light though when we turned to Limekiln State Park, we found it full up and missed exploring the falls there.
There are plenty of sights to see, plenty of coast stops to make, even some exciting road projects like the Big Sur Rock Shed covering which was put in place for another slide back in 2014.
Finally, after perhaps an hour of coast side we reached the end of the road as it stands currently. If you’re hoping for an epic view of the slide, sorry, you’ll have to check out the news articles below and their helicopter gathered footage. As it stands, all you get is a few road closure signs and chain link fence.
The road ends just a few yards beyond the Whale Watcher’s Cafe and Gorda By the Sea Market / Inn where we found a guard posted up insuring no tourists tried to jump around the barrier to keep on exploring but mainly he just explained the road was indeed closed and people had to go way, way back. I hope some of them intended to check out the road as well but most just seemed to have been expecting a way around much closer — yikes!
I can’t imagine businesses here have fared well without a through road so it seemed only fair to fork out $6 for a soda and Costco muffin in the small shop as we wandered around snapping photos of the road like the tourists we most certainly are. Gas however is not something you want to be in need of at this point as it was nearly $7 a gallon to fill up at the market but then again, supply, demand and one heck of a ride for their fuel truck.
After a few minutes wandering around it was of course time to head back the way we came. Driving north now, we spent time revisiting what we had breezed past, stopped to explore parks and the bridge, a side road behind it and more. Traffic picked up along the way as we left the desolate stretch beyond the falls, Big Sur and finally the cities. While I won’t say the end of the road was a photo for the books, the drive down to it is as incredible as ever and now with a touch of history to make it worth your own visit.
The detour: Making it South Beyond the Slide
Of course if you’re just trying to get south and don’t want to drive an extra 140 miles to catch the end of the road first (or plan to do so and then go south, either way), the detour via highway 101 is still plenty fun to see. To get there, cut over to route 68 out of Monterey and take that to the 101 by the town of Salinas (or a little earlier cutting over to G17). Ragged Point at the southern side of the closure has put together a guide of the various routes and sights to see along the way.