Big Sur

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Big Sur, California
Region of California
The Big Sur Coast
The Big Sur Coast
Map of Big Sur
Map of Big Sur
Country  United States
State   California

Big Sur is a lightly populated, unincorporated region on California's Central Coast where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. The coast is frequently praised for its rugged coastline and mountain views. As the "longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the [contiguous] United States," [1] it has been described as a "national treasure that demands extraordinary procedures to protect it from development" [2] and "one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world, an isolated stretch of road, mythic in reputation." [3] Big Sur's Cone Peak at 5,155 feet (1,571 m) is only 3 miles (5 km) from the ocean. [4] The stunning views make Big Sur a popular tourist destination.

The region does not have specific boundaries, but is generally considered to include the 71 miles (114 km) segment of California State Route 1 from Malpaso Creek near Carmel Highlands south to San Carpóforo Creek near San Simeon and the entire Santa Lucia range between the rivers. [4] The interior region is uninhabited, while the coast remains relatively isolated and sparsely populated with about 1,000 year-round residents and relatively few visitor accommodations.

The region is protected by the Big Sur Local Coastal Program which preserves the region as "open space, a small residential community, and agricultural ranching." [5] Approved in 1981, it is one of the most restrictive local use programs in the state, [6] and is widely regarded as one of the most restrictive documents of its kind anywhere. [7] The program protects viewsheds from the highway and many vantage points, and restricts the density of development to one unit per acre in tourist areas or one dwelling per 10 acres (4.0 ha) in the far south. About 60% of the coastal region is owned by a government or private agency that does not allow any development. The majority of the interior region is part of the Los Padres National Forest, the Ventana Wilderness, Silver Peak Wilderness, or Fort Hunter Liggett.

When the region was ceded by Mexico to the United States in 1848, it was the United States' "last frontier." [8] The region remained one of the most isolated areas of California and the United States until, after 18 years of construction, the Carmel–San Simeon Highway (now signed as part of State Route 1) was completed in 1937. The highway has been closed on numerous occasions due to weather and geological hazards and incidents, including a 2 million cubic foot landslide in 2017 that is not expected to be fixed until 2018.

The original Spanish-language name for the unexplored mountainous terrain south of Monterey, the capital of Alta California, was "el país grande del sur" meaning, "the big country of the south." [4] It was Anglicized by English-speaking settlers as Big Sur.


Big Sur is not an incorporated town, but an area without formal boundaries on the Central Coast of California. [9] The boundaries of the region have gradually expanded north and south over time. Esther Pfeiffer Ewoldson, who was born in 1904 and was a granddaughter of Big Sur pioneers Micheal and Barbara Pfeiffer, wrote that the region extended from the Little Sur River 23 miles (37 km) south to Slates Hot Springs. Members of the Harlen family who homesteaded the Lucia region 9 miles (14 km) south of Slates Hot Springs, said that Big Sur was "miles and miles to the north of us." [10]:6 Prior to the construction of Highway 1, the residents on the south coast had little contact with the residents to the north of them. [10] Later on the northern border was extended as far north as Malpaso Creek, 4.5 miles (7.2 km) south of Carmel River. Most current descriptions of the area refer to Malpaso Creek in Monterey County as the northern border. [11] The southern border is generally accepted to be San Carpóforo Creek in San Luis Obispo County. [12]

Because the vast majority of visitors only see Big Sur's dramatic coastline, some consider the eastern border of Big Sur to be the coastal flanks of the Santa Lucia Mountains, only 3 to 12 miles (5 to 19 km) inland. [13] Visitors sometimes mistakenly believe that Big Sur refers to the small community of buildings and services near Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, known to locals as Big Sur Village. [14] Author and Big Sur historian Jeff Norman considered Big Sur to extend inland to include the watersheds that drain into the Pacific Ocean. [15] Others include the vast inland areas comprising the Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness, Silver Peak Wilderness, and Fort Hunter Liggett about 20 miles (30 km) inland to the eastern foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains. [4]

The region is relatively difficult to access. Prior to 1937 when the coast highway was completed, the only way to travel the coast was a horse trail and wagon road, first built in about 1853 from Monterey to Palo Colorado Canyon. The "Old Coast Road" was later expanded south to the Post Ranch near Sycamore Canyon, and then expanded further south. The southern portion is known as the "Coast Ridge Road." [4] It is one of the few stretches of trail in the United States that was converted from a horse trail to a paved road without having first been a wagon road. Both coast roads were often unusable during and after winter storms. [16] When the region was first settled by European immigrants in 1853, it was the United States' "last frontier." [8]


Big Sur: rocky coast, fog and giant kelp.

The Portolá expedition who first explored the Spanish colony of Alta California were forced to bypass the inaccessible coast and travel around the region, inland through the San Antonio and Salinas Valleys before arriving at Monterey Bay, where they founded Monterey and named it their capital. [17] They referred to the vast, relatively unexplored, coastal region to the south as el país grande del sur, meaning "the big country of the south". This was often shortened to el sur grande. [18] [19] Other sources report that the region was simply called "el sur" (the south), and the two major rivers El Rio Grande del Sur and El Rio Chiquito del Sur. [15]:7

When English-speaking immigrants settled the region, they Anglicized the Spanish name to "Big Sur". The locals petitioned the United States Post Office in Washington D.C. to use the name Big Sur, and the rubber stamp was returned in 1915, cementing the name in place. [10]:8 [15]:7


Big Sur Coast looking north towards Bixby Creek Bridge

The coast is the "longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the [contiguous] United States." [1] The Big Sur region has been described as a "national treasure that demands extraordinary procedures to protect it from development." [2] The New York Times wrote that it is "one of the most stunning meetings of land and sea in the world." [20] The Washington Times stated that it is "one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world, an isolated stretch of road, mythic in reputation." [3]

Highway 1 was named the most popular drive in California in 2014 by American Automobile Association. The section of Highway 1 running through Big Sur is widely considered as one of the most scenic driving routes in the United States, if not the world. [21] [22]

The views are one reason that Big Sur was ranked second among all United States destinations in TripAdvisor's 2008 Travelers' Choice Destination Awards. [23] The Big Sur coast has attracted as residents notable bohemian writers and artists including Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Edward Weston, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, Emile Norman, and Jack Kerouac. Novelist Herbert Gold described Big Sur as "one of the grand American retreats for those who nourish themselves with wilderness." [24]

Despite and because of its popularity, the region is heavily protected to preserve the rural and natural character of the land. The Big Sur Local Coastal Program, approved by Monterey County Supervisors in 1981, states the region is meant to be an experience that visitors transit through, not a destination. For that reason, development of all kinds is severely restricted. [25]


Bixby Creek Bridge, shown here looking southwest, is a popular attraction in Big Sur
Bixby Creek Bridge at night

Although some Big Sur residents catered to adventurous travelers in the early twentieth century, [10]:10 the modern tourist economy began when Highway 1 opened the region to automobiles in 1937, but only took off after World War II-era gasoline rationing ended in the mid-1940s. In 1978, about 1.5 million visitors are estimated to have visited the Big Sur Coast. [26] In 1980, that number had grown to about 3 million visitors a year. [27] Most of the 3 to 4 million tourists who currently visit Big Sur each year never leave Highway 1, because the adjacent Santa Lucia Range is one of the largest roadless areas near a coast in the contiguous United States. The highway winds along the western flank of the mountains mostly within sight of the Pacific Ocean, varying from near sea level up to a thousand-foot sheer drop to the water. The highway includes a large number of vista points allowing motorists to stop and admire the landscape. [28]

Besides sightseeing from the highway, Big Sur offers hiking, mountain climbing, and other outdoor activities. There are a large number of state and federal lands and parks, including McWay Falls at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, one of only two waterfalls on the Pacific Coast that plunge directly into the ocean. The waterfall is located near the foundation of a grand stone cliffside house built in 1940 by Lathrop and Hélène Hooper Brown that was the region's first electrified home.

Another notable landmark is Point Sur Lightstation, the only complete nineteenth century lighthouse complex open to the public in California. [29]

Santa Lucia Range from Nepenthe restaurant.

Places of contemplation

Esalen, evening aerial view.

Among the places that draw visitors are the counter-culture Esalen Institute, the luxury Ventana Inn, the Nepenthe Restaurant, built around the house Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth bought to celebrate their six-month-long affair, and far from the coast in the Las Padres forest, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Esalen hosted many figures of the nascent " New Age", and in the 1960s, played an important role in popularizing Eastern philosophies, the " Human Potential Movement", and Gestalt therapy in the United States. [24]

Big Sur also is the location of a Catholic monastery, the New Camaldoli Hermitage. The Hermitage in Big Sur was founded in 1957. [30]

Historic menu cover from Nepenthe restaurant, a Big Sur icon since 1949. [31]
McWay Falls and Cove, Big Sur


There are a few small, scenic beaches that are accessible to the public and popular for walking, but usually unsuitable for swimming because of unpredictable currents, frigid temperatures, and dangerous surf. [32] The beach at Garrapata State Park is sometimes rated as the best beach in Big Sur. Depending on the season, visitors can view sea otters, sea lions, seals and migrating whales from the beach. The beach is barely visible from the Highway One. [32]

Pfeiffer Beach is accessible by driving 1.5 miles (2.4 km) south of the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on Highway 1, and turning west on the unmarked Sycamore Canyon Road. The beach is at the end of the road. The wide sandy expanse with views of a scenic arch rock offshore is a favorite among local residents. It is sometimes confused with the beach at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to the south. [32]

In the south, Sand Dollar Beach is the longest stretch of beach in Big Sur. It is popular with hikers and photographers for its views of nearby bluffs. The beach is 25 miles (40 km) south of the Big Sur village on Highway 1. A steep staircase leads down to the beach from the highway. [32]

Two beaches are surrounded by private land owned by the El Sur Ranch and are inaccessible to the public. The first is the beach at the mouth of the Little Sur River. Another is Point Sur Beach, a long sandy beach located below and to the north of Point Sur Lighthouse. Fences around the beaches are posted with “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs. [33]

Three other beaches are inaccessible to the public. Swiss Canyon Beach is north of Andrew Molera State Park. McWay Beach at the foot of McWay falls is not accessible from the shore. And to the south near the county line, Gamboa Point Beach is also closed to the public. [33]

Limited services

The land use restrictions that preserve Big Sur's natural beauty also mean that visitor accommodations are limited, often expensive, and places to stay fill up quickly during the busy summer season. There are no urban areas, just three small clusters of gas stations, restaurants, and motels: Posts in the Big Sur River valley, Lucia, near Limekiln State Park, and Gorda, on the southern coast. There are fewer than 300 hotel rooms on the entire 90-mile (140 km) stretch of Highway 1 between San Simeon and Carmel. Lodging include a few cabins, motels, and campgrounds, and higher-end resorts.

There are nine small grocery stores, three filling stations, a few gift shops, and no chain hotels, supermarkets, or fast-food outlets, and no plans to add facilities or shopping. [35] [36] [37] The filling station in Gorda has one of the highest prices in the United States, as it is far from the electrical grid and part of the cost of auto fuel is used to support operation of a Diesel generator. [38] [39] Depending on the carrier, there is mobile phone service along much of the highway, except for south of Lucia. [19]

Short term rental controversy

In 2015, Monterey County began considering how to deal with the issue of short term rentals brought on by services such as Airbnb. They agreed to allow rentals as long as the owners paid the Transient Occupancy Tax. In 1990, there were about 800 housing units in Big Sur, about 600 of which were single family dwellings. [36] [40] There are currently an estimated 100 short term rentals available. [41]

Many residents of Big Sur object to the rentals. They claim short term rentals violate the Big Sur Local Use Plan which prohibits establishing facilities that attract destination traffic. Short term rentals also remove scarce residences from the rental market and are likely to drive up demand and the cost of housing. About half of the residents of Big Sur rent their residences. [41]

The Big Sur coastal land use plan states:

The significance of the residential areas for planning purposes is that they have the capacity, to some extent, to accommodate additional residential demand. Unlike the larger properties or commercial centers, they are not well suited for commercial agriculture, commercial, or visitor uses (author’s emphasis); use of these areas, to the extent consistent with resource protection, should continue to be for residential purposes. [42]

As of 2016, the county was conducting hearings and gathering input towards making a decision about short-term rentals on the Big Sur coast. [43] Susan Craig, Central Coast District Manager of the California Coastal Commission, provided the opinion that short term rentals are appropriate within Big Sur. [44]

Flora and fauna

Big Sur Coast looking south near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

The many climates of Big Sur result in a great biodiversity, including many rare and endangered species such as the wild orchid Piperia yadonii, which is found only on the Monterey Peninsula and on Rocky Ridge in the Los Padres forest. Arid, dusty chaparral-covered hills exist within easy walking distance of lush riparian woodland. Fort Hunter-Liggett is host to about one-fourth of all Tule elk found in California, and provides roosting places for and bald eagles and endangered condors. It also is home to some of the healthiest stands of live valley and blue oaks. [45]

Southern limit of Redwood trees

The mountains trap most of the moisture out of the clouds; fog in summer, rain and snow in winter. This creates a favorable environment for coniferous forests, including the southernmost habitat of the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), which grows only on lower coastal slopes that are routinely fogged in at night. Some redwood trees were logged in the early twentieth century but many inaccessible locations were never logged, and in 2008 scientist J. Michael Fay published a map of the old growth redwoods based on his transect of the entire redwood range. [46] The southernmost naturally occurring grove is in the Southern Redwood Botanical Area, just north of the Los Padres National Forest's Salmon Creek trailhead. [47] The southernmost tree is about 15 feet from California State Route 1 at the approximate coordinates 35°49'42 N 121°23'14 W.

Rare species

The rare Santa Lucia fir ( Abies bracteata) is found only in the Santa Lucia mountains. A common "foreign" species is the Monterey pine ( Pinus radiata), which was uncommon in Big Sur until the late nineteenth century, though its major native habitat is only a few miles upwind on the Monterey Peninsula, when many homeowners began to plant the quick-growing tree as a windbreak. There are many broadleaved trees as well, such as the tanoak ( Lithocarpus densiflorus), coast live oak ( Quercus agrifolia), and California bay laurel ( Umbellularia californica). In the rain shadow, the forests disappear and the vegetation becomes open oak woodland, then transitions into the more familiar fire-tolerant California chaparral scrub.


A harbor seal on a Big Sur beach

The region was historically populated by grizzly bears who regularly preyed on livestock until the early 20th century. The European settlers payed bounties on them. [10]:4 The Pfeiffer family would fill a bait ball of swine entrails with strychnine and hang it from a tree. The last Grizzly Bear in Monterey County was seen in 1941 on the Cooper Ranch near the mouth of the Little Sur River. [48] :21 In the past 25 years, American black bears have been sighted in the area, likely expanding their range from southern California and filling in the ecological niche left when the Grizzly bear was exterminated. [4]:261

The Big Sur River watershed provides habitat for mountain lion, deer, fox, coyotes and non-native wild boars. The boars, of Russian stock, were introduced in the 1920s by George Gordon Moore, the owner of Rancho San Carlos. [49] The upstream river canyon is characteristic of the Ventana Wilderness region: steep-sided, sharp-crested ridges separating valleys. [50] Because most of the upper reaches of the Big Sur River watershed are within the Los Padres National Forest and the Ventana Wilderness, much of the river is in pristine condition.


The California Department of Fish and Game says the Little Sur River is the "most important spawning stream for Steelhead" distinct population segment on the Central Coast, where the fish is listed as threatened. [51] and that it "is one of the best steelhead streams in the county." [52]:166 The Big Sur River is also a key habitat for the steelhead. [53] [54]

A US fisheries service report estimates that the number of trout in the entire south-central coast area—including the Pajaro River, Salinas River, Carmel River, Big Sur River, and Little Sur River—have dwindled from about 4,750 fish in 1965 to about 800 in 2005.

Numerous fauna are found in the Big Sur region. Among amphibians the California giant salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus) is found here, which point marks the southern extent of its range. [55]

California Condor

The California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) is a critically endangered species that was near extinction when the remaining wild birds were captured. A captive breeding program was begun in 1987. After some success, a few birds were released in 1991 and 1992 in Big Sur, and again in 1996 in Arizona near the Grand Canyon. [56]

In 1997, the Ventana Wildlife Society began releasing captive-bred California Condors in Big Sur. The birds take six years to mature before they can produce offspring, and a nest was discovered in a redwood tree in 2006. [57] [58] This was the first time in more than 100 years in which a pair of California condors had been seen nesting in Northern California. [59] The repopulation effort has been successful in part because a significant portion of the birds' diet includes carcasses of large sea creatures that have washed ashore, which are unlikely to be contaminated with lead, the principal cause of the bird's mortality. [60]

As of July 2014, the Ventana Wildlife Society managed 34 free-flying condors. [61] There were part of a total population of 437 condors spread over California, Baja California and Arizona, of which 232 are wild birds and 205 are in captivity. [62]

Marine protected areas

The off-shore region of the Big Sur Coast is protected by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Within that sanctuary are other conservation areas and parks. The onshore topography that drops abruptly into the Pacific continues offshore where a narrow continental shelf drops to the continental slope in only a few miles. The ocean reaches a depth of more than 12,000 feet (3,700 m) just 50 miles (80 km) offshore. Two deep submarine canyons cut into the shelf near the Big Sur coast: the Sur Submarine Canyon, reaching a depth of 3000 ft (914 m) just 8 miles (13 km) south of Point Sur, and Partington Submarine Canyon, which reaches a similar depth of 6.8 miles (11 km) offshore of Grimes Canyon. [4]

Like underwater parks, these marine protected areas help conserve ocean wildlife and marine ecosystems.

Fire impact

FEMA team assesses wildfire damage after the Basin Fire, 2008

Fire plays a key role in the ecology of the upper slopes of the Big Sur region's mountains where chaparral dominates the landscape. [63] Native Americans burned chaparral to promote grasslands for textiles and food. [64] In the lower elevations and canyons, the California Redwood is often found. Its thick bark, along with foliage that starts high above the ground, protect the species from both fire and insect damage, contributing to the coast redwood's longevity. [65] Fire appears to benefit redwoods by removing competitive species. A 2010 study compared post-wildfire survival and regeneration of redwood and associated species. It concluded that fires of all severity increase the relative abundance of redwood and higher-severity fires provide the greatest benefit. [66]

In modern history, fires are known to have burned the Big Sur area multiple times. In 1885, 1894, and 1898 fires burned without any effort by the few local residents to put them out, except to save their buildings. [67] In 1903, a fire burned for three months, the result of an unextinguished campfire. In 1906, a fire that began in Palo Colorado Canyon from the embers of a campfire burned for 35 days, scorching an estimated 150,000 acres (61,000 ha), and was finally extinguished by the first rainfall of the season. [68]

In recent history, the area has been struck by the Marble Cone fire in 1977, the Rat Creek Gorda Complex fire in 1985, the Kirk Complex fire in 1999, the Basin Complex fire in 2008, and the Soberanes Fire in 2016. [69]

Basin Complex Fire
The 2016 Soberanes fire tops a ridge covered in fire retardant adjacent to the Pacific Ocean.

The Basin Complex Fire forced an eight-day evacuation of Big Sur and the closure of Highway 1, beginning just before the July 4, 2008 holiday weekend. [70] The fire, which burned over 130,000 acres (53,000 ha), represented the largest of many lightning-caused wildfires that had broken out throughout California during the same period. [71] Although the fire caused no loss of life, it destroyed 27 homes, and the tourist-dependent economy lost about a third of its expected summer revenue. [72] [73]

Soberanes Fire

The July 2016 Soberanes Fire was caused by unknown individuals who started and lost control of an illegal campfire in the Garrapata Creek watershed. After it burned 57 homes in the Garrapata and Palo Colorado Canyon areas, fire fighters were able to build lines around parts of the Big Sur community. A bulldozer operator was killed when his equipment overturned during night operations in Palo Colorado Canyon.

Coast residents east of Highway 1 were required to evacuate for short periods, and Highway 1 was shut down at intervals over several days to allow firefighters to conduct backfire operations. Visitors avoided the area and tourism revenue was impacted for several weeks. [74]

Highway 1


Bixby Creek Bridge under construction in 1932

During the 1890s, Dr. John L. D. Roberts, a physician and land speculator who had founded Seaside, California and resided on the Monterey Peninsula, was summoned on April 21, 1894 to assist treating survivors of the wreck of the S.S. Los Angeles (originally USRC Wayanda), [75] which had run aground near the Point Sur Light Station about 25 miles (40 km) south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. The ride on horseback took him 3 12 hours, and he became convinced of the need for a road along the coast to San Simeon, which he believed could be built for $50,000. [75]

In 1897, Roberts traveled the entire stretch of rocky coast from Carmel to San Simeon, and photographed the land, becoming the first surveyor of the route. [76] He initially promoted the road for allowing access to a region of spectacular beauty. Roberts was only successful in gaining attention to the project when State Senator Elmer S. Rigdon, a member of the California Senate Committee on Roads and Highways, promoted the military necessity of defending California's coast. [75] A $1.5 million bond issue was placed on the ballot, but construction was delayed by World War I.

Bixby Creek Bridge, May 2013

The state first approved building Route 56, or the Carmel – San Simeon Highway, [77] to connect Big Sur to the rest of California in 1919. Federal funds were appropriated and in 1921 voters approved additional state funds. San Quentin State Prison set up three temporary prison camps to provide unskilled convict labor to help with road construction. One was set up by Little Sur River, one at Kirk Creek and a third was later established in the south at Anderson Creek. Inmates were paid 35 cents per day and had their prison sentences reduced in return. Locals, including writer John Steinbeck, also worked on the road. [76] The road necessitated construction of 33 bridges, the largest of which was the Bixby Creek Bridge. Six more concrete arch bridges were built between Point Sur and Carmel, and all were listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. [75]

Construction required extensive excavation utilizing steam shovels and explosives, cutting into exposed promontories and filling canyons. Many members of the original families were upset by the damage to the environment caused by the construction. [42] Some construction debris were pushed downslope into the ocean. [78] Prior to the creation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, CalTrans routinely pushed slide debris into the nearshore littoral environment.


After 18 years of construction, aided by New Deal funds during the Great Depression, the paved two-lane road was completed and opened on June 17, 1937. [79] The road was initially called the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, but was better known as the Roosevelt Highway, honoring then-current President ( Franklin D. Roosevelt). Actual cost of the construction was around $10 million. The road was frequently closed for extended periods during the winter, making it a seasonal route. During 1941, 160 inches (4,100 mm) of rain fell on Big Sur, and the state considered abandoning the route. Slides were so common that gates were used to close the road to visitors at the northern and southern ends during the winter. [80] During World War II, nighttime blackouts along the coast were ordered as a precaution against Japanese attack. [81]


The route was incorporated into the state highway system and redesignated as Highway 1 in 1939. In 1940, the state contracted for "the largest installation of guard rail ever placed on a California state highway", calling for 12 miles (19 km) of steel guard rail and 3,649 guide posts along 46.6 miles (75.0 km) of the road. [81] After World War II and gas rationing ended, tourism and travel boomed along the coast. When Hearst Castle opened in 1958, a huge number of tourists also flowed through Big Sur. The road was declared the first State Scenic Highway in 1965. No billboards or advertisements are permitted along the highway. In 1966 first lady Lady Bird Johnson led the official scenic road designation ceremony at Bixby Creek Bridge. [81] The route was designated as an All American Road by the U.S. Government. [75]

Aside from Highway 1, the only access to Big Sur is via the winding, precipitous, 24.5 miles (39.4 km) long Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which passes through Fort Hunter Liggett and connects to Mission Road in Jolon. [13]

Transportation priority

Highway 1 is at or near capacity much of the year. The primary transportation objective of the Big Sur Coastal Land Use plan is to maintain Highway 1 as a scenic two-lane road and to reserve most remaining capacity for the priority uses of the act. [42]

Economic impacts

Rockslide on Highway 1 near San Luis Obispo County line on February 18, 1994.

The opening of Highway 1 dramatically altered the local economy. Monterey County gained national attention for its early conservation efforts when it successfully prevented construction of a service station billboard. The landmark court case before the California Supreme Court in 1962 affirmed the county's right to ban billboards and other visual distractions on Highway 1. [82] The case secured to local government the right to use its police power for aesthetic purposes. [83]

Highway 1 has been closed on more than 55 occasions due to damage due from landslides, mudslides, erosion, and fire. [84]:2–2 In April 1958, torrential rains caused flood conditions throughout Monterey County and Highway 1 in Big Sur was closed in numerous locations due to slides. [85] A series of storms in the winter of 1983 caused four major road-closing slides between January and April, including a large slide near Pfeiffer Burns State Park which closed the road for more than a year. [84]:2–10 In 1998, about 40 different locations on the road were damaged by El Niño storms, including a major slide 2 miles (3.2 km) south of Gorda that closed the road for almost three months. [78] In March 2011, a 40 feet (12 m) section of Highway 1 just south of the Rocky Creek Bridge collapsed, closing the road for several months until a single lane bypass could be built. [86] [87] The state replaced that section of road with a viaduct that wraps around the unstable hillside. [13] On January 16, 2016, the road was closed for portions of a day due to a mudslide near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. [88]

2016 and 2017 closures

During the summer of 2016, the road was closed on several occasions due to the Soberanes Fire. During the following winter, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park received more than 60 inches of rain, [89] and in early February 2017, several mudslides blocked the road in more than half a dozen locations.

The May 22, 2017 mud slide at Mud Creek covered Highway 1 for more than a quarter-mile.

Just south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, shifting earth damaged a pier supporting a bridge over the 320 feet (98 m) deep Pfeiffer Canyon. CalTrans immediately closed the highway and announced the next day that the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge was damaged beyond repair and would have to be replaced. [90] Highway 1 remained closed. [91] [92] CalTrans immediately began planning to replace the bridge and contracted with XKT Engineering on Mare Island to construct a replacement single-span steel girder bridge. The new roadway was designed without support piers. The rebuilt bridge opened on October 13, 2017 at a cost of $24 million. [93] [94]

To the south, a slide in February at Mud Creek blocked the road 1 mile (1.6 km) southeast of Gorda, about 60 miles (97 km) south of Monterey. When the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road was temporarily closed, many businesses like the Esalen Institute and residents were isolated between the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge and Mud Creek, and supplies and residents were ferried in and out by helicopter. [95] [96]

Repair work at Mud Creek enabled intermittent one-way traffic for residents and delivery trucks until May 22, when an extremely large slide beginning 1,100 feet (340 m) up the side of the mountain dumped more than one million tons of dirt on the road and more than 250 feet (76 m) into the ocean. It covered one-quarter-mile (.40 km) of the highway and buried it up to 80 feet (24 m) deep in some places. CalTrans estimated the road would take up to a year to repair. [97] [98] [99] On August 2, 2017, CalTrans announced it would rebuild the highway over the slide instead of clearing it. [100] They expect to finish repairs at Mud Creek and to reopen the road in June 2018. [101]

Public transportation

Public transportation is available to and from Monterey on Monterey–Salinas Transit. The summer schedule operates from Memorial Day to Labor Day three times a day, while the winter schedule only offers transport on weekends. The route is subject to interruption due to wind and severe inclement weather. [102]

Big Sur land use

Looking south from Carmel River mouth toward the Point Lobos Ranch and the Santa Lucia Mountains

The first master plan for the Big Sur coast was written in 1962 by architect and part-time local resident Nathaniel A. Owings. In 1977 a small group of local Big Sur residents were appointed by Monterey County to the Big Sur Citizens’ Advisory Committee. Committee members met with Big Sur residents and county administrators to draft a new land use plan. [9]

Local plan approved

The Big Sur Citizens’ Advisory Committee wrote the Big Sur Local Coastal Program with the goal to conserve scenic views and the unparalleled beauty of the area. They developed the plan over four years which included several months of public hearings and discussion, including considerable input from the residents of Big Sur. It states that region is to be preserved as "open space, a small residential community, and agricultural ranching." [5] The plan was approved in 1981 and is one of the most restrictive local use programs in the state, [6] [103] and is widely regarded as one of the most restrictive documents of its kind anywhere. [7]

The local land use plan was approved by the Coastal Commission in April 1986. The plan bans all development west of Highway 1 with the exception of the Big Sur Valley. The plan states,

Recognizing the Big Sur coast's outstanding scenic beauty and its great benefit to the people of the State and the Nation, it is the County's objective to preserve these scenic resources in perpetuity and to promote, wherever possible, the restoration of the natural beauty of visually degraded areas.

The County's basic policy is to prohibit all future public or private development visible from Highway 1 and major public viewing areas. [104]

Major public viewing areas include not only highways, but beaches, parks, campgrounds, and major trails, with a few exceptions. [6] It also protects views of Mount Pico Blanco from the Old Coast Road. [42] It allows limited amounts of additional commercial development, but only in four existing areas — Big Sur Valley, Lucia, Pacific Valley, and Gorda. [104] [2]

The key provisions of the Big Sur Local Coastal Program that generated the most controversy set density requirements for future building. In areas west of Highway 1, any subdivision of an existing parcels must be at least 40 acres (16 ha). For parcels east of Highway 1, the plan limited parcel size based on slope. Most land is limited to a minimum subdivision of 320 acres (130 ha), although parcels with minimal slope may be subdivided to 40 acres (16 ha). Based on these rules, a coastal commission staff person calculated that only about 12 new parcels could be subdivided within the entire 234 square miles (610 km2) Big Sur coastal planning area. [105]

For dwellings, the limit in tourist areas is one living unit per acre. West of Highway 1, density is limited to one unit per 2.5 acres (1.0 ha), and east of the highway to one unit per 5 acres (2.0 ha). In established communities like Palo Colorado and the Big Sur Valley, only one living unit per 2.5 acres (1.0 ha) is permitted. South of Big Sur Valley, the limit is set to one unit per 5 acres (2.0 ha), and in the far south of the region, only one unit per 10 acres (4.0 ha) is allowed. [9]

Transfer of development rights

To mitigate the impact on landowners who lost the right to build on their property due to the view shed restrictions, the county adopted an unusual transfer of development rights ordinance. It allows the owner of a property that cannot be developed to transfer that right to another piece of land where building is permitted. To take advantage of the transfer, the owner must dedicate a permanent, irrevocable scenic easement to the county that prohibits residential and commercial use of the property. To encourage adoption of the land use policy, the county offered landowners a two-for-one transfer ratio. Planners recognize that a view of the ocean is worth twice an inland view. [106] For each buildable parcel given up by an owner, they receive the right to transfer their credit to two locations, as long as the usage meets the land use policy restrictions such as density. [35] [107] As of 2014, eight impacted parcels have been leveraged into 16 transfer rights, and nine of those have been used since the program was implemented in 1988. [106]

Federal legislation proposed

Several proposals for federal administration of Big Sur have emerged in the past. All of these have been strongly opposed by county officials, local residents, and property owners.

Big Sur National Scenic Area

In January 1980, while the local leaders worked on their local use plan, U.S. Senator Alan Cranston and U.S. Representative Leon Panetta introduced S.2551 that would create the Big Sur National Scenic Area. The bill would create a 700,000 acres (280,000 ha) scenic area administered by the U.S. Forest Service and budgeted $100 million to buy land from private land owners. The bill was strongly supported by photographer and Carmel Highlands, California resident Ansel Adams, but it was opposed by Senator S. I. Hayakawa and development interests. On February 1980, the Wilderness Society announced its backing for a National Scenic Area in Big Sur. Both the legislation and Wilderness Society proposal were opposed by Big Sur Residents and the legislation did not reach a vote. [108] [109] [110]

National Forest Scenic Area

In March 1986 California Senator Pete Wilson announced that he planned to introduce federal legislation that would preserved 144,000 acres (58,000 ha) of Big Sur as a National Forest Scenic Area. His plan would have created a Big Sur-based land trust funded by private donations to purchase private property. It was opposed by local residents and politicians who preferred local control. It failed to garner enough votes for consideration. [111] [109]

Big Sur National Forest

In 2004, Senator Sam Farr asked the U.S. Forest Service to study how a Big Sur National Forest could be created. They explored options including the Hearst Ranch and Ft. Hunter Liggett if it was the subject of a base closure. [112] Farr did not act on their report until 2011, when he introduced H.R. 4040, the "Big Sur Management Unit Act". It would have created a sub-unit of the Los Padres National Forest. Big Sur residents opposed the legislation in part because when land is designated for wilderness, firefighters must obtain the permission of the Regional Forester to operate heavy equipment such as bulldozers within the wilderness. They contend this bureaucratic chain-of-command slows firefighters' ability to build fire breaks, which they contend occurred during the 2008 Basin Complex Fire. They also expressed concern that federal government doesn't have the resources to manage land it already oversees. They were also distrustful of federal oversight of their local lands. [113] [114]

Land ownership

The bay at the mouth of San Carpoforo Creek, considered to be the southern boundary of Big Sur.

The majority of the Big Sur coast and interior are owned by the California State Department of Parks and Recreation, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, the Big Sur Land Trust, and the University of California. Approximately two-thirds of the Big Sur coastal area, totaling about 500,000 acres (200,000 ha), extending from Malpaso Creek in the north to San Carpóforo Canyon in the south, are preserved under various federal, state, county, and private arrangements. [9] [36] [42]

As of 2016, if public acquisitions now contemplated or in progress are completed, approximately 60% of the land west of the coastal ridge would be publicly owned, although not necessarily open to the public. [36] [40] For example, the Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve is owned and managed by the University of California Natural Reserve System and the University of California, Santa Cruz. The reserve is only available for research or educational purposes. Reservations must be made in advance. [115] [116] The Big Sur Land Trust owns several parcels of land such as the Glen Deven Ranch and Notley's Landing that are closed to the public or only open to its members. [117]

Mining and oil exploration

Mount Pico Blanco is topped by a distinctive white limestone cap, visible from California's Highway One. [118] The Granite Rock Company of Watsonville, California has since 1963 owned the mineral rights to 2,800 acres (1,100 ha), or all of section 36, which sits astride and surrounds the summit of Pico Blanco Mountain. Limestone is a key ingredient in concrete and Pico Blanco contains a particularly high grade deposit, reportedly the largest in California, [119] and the largest west of the Rocky Mountains. [120] In 1980 Granite Rock applied for a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to begin excavating a 5-acre (2.0 ha) quarry on the south face of Pico Blanco within the National Forest boundary. [42]

After the Forest Service granted the permit, the California Coastal Commission required Graniterock to apply for a coastal development permit in accordance with the requirements of the California Coastal Act. Granite Rock filed suit, claiming that the Coastal Commission permit requirement was preempted by the Forest Service review. When Granite Rock prevailed in the lower courts, the Coastal Commission appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which in a historic 5–4 decision in 1987, found in favor of the commission. [121]

By this time Granite Rock's permit had expired. In 2010, the company's president stated that he believed that at some point the company would be allowed to extract the limestone in a way that doesn't harm the environment. [121] [122] As of 2017, they still own the land, which is zoned WSC/40-D(CZ) for Watershed and Scenic Conservation. [42]

There are oil and gas reserves off the coast, but exploration has not been permitted. In 1982, Interior Secretary James G. Watt proposed opening the Central California coast outer continental shelf to oil and gas exploration. [42] California residents and politicians strongly opposed the proposal and it was defeated. [123] In 1990, President George H. W. Bush used an obscure 1953 law to permanently ban oil and gas development in California’s Monterey Bay. In November, 2017, President Obama used the same law to ban oil exploration from Hearst Castle to Point Arena in Mendocino County, California. [124]

In July 2017, under the direction of Executive Order 13795 from President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Commerce began re-evaluating the protected status of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which includes the Davidson Seamount off the coast of Big Sur. The seamount, at 23 nmi (43 km; 26 mi) long, 7 nmi (13 km; 8.1 mi) wide, and 7,480 feet (2,280 m) high, is one of the largest in the world. Opening the area to oil and gas exploration was opposed by many environmentalists and residents. [125]

Real estate

Due to development restrictions, real estate prices are high. As of 2016, the median price of property is $1,813,846, and the average price is $3,942,371. The average home sold is 1,580 square feet (147 m2) and has 2.39 bedrooms. The median lot size is 436,086 square feet (40,513.7 m2), or just over 10 acres (4.0 ha). [126] Less than half of the land along the coast is privately owned. The remainder is part of the federal or state park systems or owned by other agencies, while the interior is largely part of the Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness, Silver Peak Wilderness, and Fort Hunter Liggett.

About 76% of the local population is dependent on the hospitality industry. Due to the shortage of housing and the high cost of rents, some of them have to move out of the area and commute 50 miles (80 km) or more to their work. [127]

As of 2016 there are about 1,100 private land parcels on the Big Sur Coast. These are from less than an acre to several thousands of acres. Approximately 790 parcels are undeveloped. Many of the developed parcels have more than one residence or commercial building on them. Residential areas include Otter Cove, Garrapata Ridge and the adjacent Rocky Point, Garrapata and Palo Colorado Canyons, Bixby Canyon, Pfeiffer Ridge and Sycamore Canyon, Coastlands, Partington Ridge, Burns Creek, Buck Creek to Lime Creek, Plaskett Ridge, and Redwood Gulch. [36]

Small parcels of 2.5 acres (1.0 ha) or less are generally located near the highway, including Palo Colorado Canyon, Garrapata Redwood, Rocky Point, Big Sur Valley, Coastlands and Partington. These areas have the greatest number of developed parcels. [36]

Coastal trail

In 1972, California voters passed Proposition 20, calling for establishing a coastal trail system. [128] It stipulated that "a hiking, bicycle, and equestrian trails system be established along or near the coast" and that "ideally the trails system should be continuous and located near the shoreline." The California Coastal Act of 1976 requires local jurisdictions to identify an alignment for the California Coastal Trail in their Local Coastal Programs. [129] In 2001, California legislators passed SB 908 which gave the Coastal Conservancy responsibility for completing the trail. [130]

In Monterey County, the trail is being developed in two sections: the Big Sur Trail and the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Trail. [128] In 2007, the Coastal Conservancy began to develop a master plan for the 75 miles (121 km) stretch of coast through Big Sur from near Ragged Point in San Luis Obispo County to the Carmel River. [131] A coalition of Big Sur residents began developing a master plan to accommodate the interests and concerns of coastal residents, [128] but progress on an official trail stalled.

The coastal trail plan is intended to be respectful of the private landowner's rights. [129] One of the largest private land holdings along the coast is El Sur Ranch. It extends about 6 miles (9.7 km) along Highway 1, from near the Point Sur Lighthouse to the mouth of the Little Sur River at Hurricane Point, and it reaches 2.5 miles (4.0 km) up the Little Sur valley to the border of the Los Padre National Forest. [132] The landowner Jim Hill supports the trail, but his land is already crossed by two public routes, Highway 1 and the Old Coast Highway. He is opposed to another public right-of-way through the ranch. [133] In 2008, Representative Sam Farr from Carmel told attendees at a meeting in Big Sur that "I don't think you're going to see an end-to-end trail anytime in the near future." He said, "The regulatory hassle is unbelievable. It's like we're building an interstate freeway." [128] Within Monterey County, about 20 miles (32 km) of the trail would cross private lands. [134]

The acquisition of lands by the Big Sur Land Trust and others has created a 70 miles (110 km) long wildland corridor that begins at the Carmel River and extends southward to the Hearst Ranch in San Luis Obispo County. From the north, the wild land corridor is continuous through Palo Corona Ranch, Point Lobos Ranch, Garrapata State Park, Joshua Creek Ecological Preserve, Mittledorf Preserve, Glen Deven Ranch, Brazil Ranch, Los Padres National Forest, and the Ventana Wilderness. [135] Many of these lands are distant from the coast, and the coastal trail plan calls for placing the trail, "Wherever feasible, ... within sight, sound, or at least the scent of the sea. The traveler should have a persisting awareness of the Pacific Ocean. It is the presence of the ocean that distinguishes the seaside trail from other visitor destinations." [129]

As an alternative to the trail called for by the act, hikers have adopted a route that utilizes existing roads and inland trails. The trail currently follows State Highway One and the Old Coast Road from Bixby Bridge. The trail south of Bixby Creek enters Brazil Ranch, which requires permission to enter. From Brazil Ranch the trail drops back to Highway One at Andrew Molera State Park. From Highway One, the trail then follows the Coast Ridge Road from the Ventana Inn area to Kirk Creek Campground. The trail then moves inland and follows the Cruikshank and Buckeye trails on the Santa Lucia Mountain ridges to the San Luis Obispo County line. [136] [137]

Special events

Big Sur Folk Festival

Nancy Carlen, a friend of singer Joan Baez, organized a weekend seminar at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur in June 1964 titled "The New Folk Music". Sunday afternoon they invited all the neighbors for a free, open performance. This became the first festival. [138]

The Big Sur Folk Festival featured a lineup of emerging and established artists, including Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, The Beach Boys, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Country Joe McDonald, John Sebastian, Arlo Guthrie, Dorothy Morrison & the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Julie Payne, and Richard and Mimi Fariña. The festival was held yearly on the grounds of the Esalen Institute, except for 1970, when it was held at the Monterey County Fairgrounds.

The concerts were small events emphasizing quality and atmosphere over publicity and commercial profit. Even when then well-known acts like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young or the Beach Boys performed, the event was purposefully kept small with no more than a few thousand in attendance. [139] The last festival was held in 1971.

Big Sur International Marathon

The Big Sur Marathon is an annual marathon that begins south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and ends at the Crossroads Shopping Center in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. The marathon was established in 1986 and attracts about 4,500 participants annually. [140]



Pictures taken on afternoons in March (upper) and October (lower). The October picture shows a typical fog bank nearly 1,000 feet (300 m) thick. Note the difference in vegetation between the winter rainy season and early fall.

Big Sur typically enjoys a mild climate year-round, with a sunny, dry summer and fall, and a cool, wet winter. Coastal temperatures range from the 50s at night to the 70s by day (Fahrenheit) from June through October, and in the 40s to 60s from November through May. Farther inland, away from the ocean's moderating influence, temperatures are much more variable. The weather varies widely due to the influence of the jagged topography, creating many microclimates. This is one of the few places on Earth where redwoods grow in close proximity to cacti.[ citation needed]

Big Sur Coast after a wet winter, photo taken April 1969


The record maximum temperature was 102 °F (38.9 °C) on June 20, 2008, and the record low was 27 °F (−2.8 °C), recorded on December 21, 1998, and January 13, 2007. Average annual precipitation at the state park headquarters is 41.94 inches (1,065 mm). The wettest calendar year on record was 1983, when it rained 88.85 inches (2,257 mm). The driest year on record is 1990, with only 17.90 inches (455 mm). In January 1995 it rained a record 26.47 inches (672 mm). More than 70 percent of the rain falls from December through March. The summer is generally dry. Snowfall is rare on the coast, but is common in the winter months on the higher ridges of the Santa Lucia Range. [141]


The Santa Lucia Mountains rise suddenly from the Pacific Ocean, creating a steep coastline. The mountains contain some of the most complex geology in California. The range is made up of rock originating in seafloor volcanoes, ancient mountains, stream beds, and seafloor sediment. The region is laced with a series of faults. Some geologists believe that the rock underlying the mountains was originally located 1,800 miles (2,900 km) to the south, near the southern end of the present-day Sierra Nevada Mountains, and may have been buried as deep as 14 miles (23 km) beneath the surface. [4]:7–8 The rock is believed to be from 15 to 21 million years old and had been moved north by transform motion along the San Andreas Fault system.

The Palo Colorado-San Gregorio fault system transitions onshore at Doud Creek, about 7 miles (11 km) south of Point Lobos, [142] exposing the western edge of the Salinian block. Stream canyons frequently follow the north-westerly trending fault lines, rather than descending directly to the coast. The Salinian block is immediately south of the Monterey Submarine Canyon, one of the largest submarine canyon systems in the world, which is believed to have been an ancient outlet for the Colorado River. [142]:14

The region is also traversed by the Sur-Hill fault, which is noticeable at Pfeiffer Falls in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The 40 feet (12 m) waterfall were formed when the stream flowed over the hard gneiss of the Salinian block and encountered the softer Santa Margarita Sandstone. The falls were formed when the softer sandstone was worn away. [4]:325 The interior canyons are typically deep and narrow, and even in the summer sunshine only reaches many of the canyon bottoms for a few hours. The land is mostly steep, rocky, semi-arid except for the narrow canyons, and inaccessible. The Little Sur River canyon is characteristic of the Ventana Wilderness region: steep-sided, sharp-crested ridges separating valleys. [50] At the mouth of the Little Sur river are some of the largest sand dunes on the Big Sur coast. [4]:355

Marine influence

Along with much of the central and northern California coast, Big Sur frequently has dense fog in summer. The summer fog and summer drought have the same underlying cause: a massive, stable seasonal high pressure system that forms over the north Pacific Ocean. The high pressure cell inhibits rainfall and generates northwesterly air flow. These prevailing summer winds from the northwest drive the ocean surface water slightly offshore (through the Ekman effect) which generates an upwelling of colder sub surface water. The water vapor in the air contacting this cold water condenses into fog. [4]: 33–35 The fog usually moves out to sea during the day and closes in at night, but sometimes heavy fog blankets the coast all day. Fog is an essential summer water source for many Big Sur coastal plants. While few plants can take water directly out of the air, water condensation on leaf surfaces slowly precipitates into the ground like rain.[ citation needed]


The Santa Lucia range rises to more than 5,800 ft (1760 m), and the amount of rainfall greatly increases as the elevation rises and cools the air. At Pfeiffer–Big Sur State Park on the coast, rainfall averaged about 43 in. (109 cm) annually from 1914 to 1987. Scientists estimate that about 90 in. (230 cm) falls on average near the ridge tops. But actual totals vary considerably. [4]

Monterey County maintains a remote rain gauge for flood prediction on Mining Ridge at 4,000 ft (1200 m) near Cone Peak. The gauge frequently receives more rain than any gauge in the San Francisco Bay Area. [4] [143] During the winter of 1982–1983, it rained more than 178 in. (452 cm) but the total is unknown because the rain gauge failed at that point. In 1975–1976, it rained only 15 in. (39 cm) at Pfeiffer–Big Sur State Park, compared to 85 in. (216 cm) in 1982–1983. Rainfall amounts decrease sharply inland away from the coast. [4]


Native Americans

Three tribes of Native Americans — the Ohlone, Esselen, and Salinan — are the first known people to have inhabited the area. The Ohlone, also known as the Costanoans, are believed to have lived in the region from San Francisco to Point Sur. The Esselen lived in the area between Point Sur south to Big Creek, and inland including the upper tributaries of the Carmel River and Arroyo Seco watersheds. The Salinan lived from Big Creek south to San Carpóforo Creek. [145] Archaeological evidence shows that the Esselen lived in Big Sur as early as 3500 BC, leading a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence. [146] [147]

The aboriginal people inhabited fixed village locations, and followed food sources seasonally, living near the coast in winter to harvest rich stocks of otter, mussels, abalone, and other sea life. In the summer and fall, they traveled inland to gather acorns and hunt deer. [148] The native people hollowed mortar holes into large exposed rocks or boulders which they used to grind the acorns into flour. These can be found throughout the region. Arrows were of made of cane and pointed with hardwood foreshafts. [148] The tribes also used controlled burning techniques to increase tree growth and food production. [4]: 269–270

The population was limited as the Santa Lucia Mountains made the area relatively inaccessible and long-term habitation a challenge. Their natives who lived in the Big Sur area are estimated from a few hundred to a thousand or more. [149] [150]

Spanish exploration and settlement

The first Europeans to see Big Sur were Spanish mariners led by Juan Cabrillo in 1542, who sailed up the coast without landing. Two centuries passed before the Spaniards attempted to colonize the area. On September 13, 1769, an expedition led by Gaspar de Portolà were the first Europeans to enter the Big Sur region when they arrived at San Carpóforo Canyon. [4]: 272 While camping there, they were visited by six indigenous people who offered pinole and fish and received beads in exchange. The Spanish elected to turn east, where they thought the saw a break in the mountains, and were forced to "make a road with crowbar and pickaxe". [151] [152] Thirteen days later they reached the Salinas Valley.

When the Spanish colonized the region beginning in 1770 and established the California missions, they baptized and forced the native population to labor at the missions. While living at the missions, the aboriginal population was exposed to unknown diseases like smallpox and measles for which they had no immunity, devastating the Native American population and their culture. Many of the remaining Native Americans assimilated with Spanish and Mexican ranchers in the nineteenth century. [4]: 264–267

In 1909, forest supervisors reported that three Indian families still lived within what was then known as the Monterey National Forest. The Encinale family of 16 members and the Quintana family with three members lived in the vicinity of The Indians (now known as Santa Lucia Memorial Park west of Ft. Hunger Liggett). The Mora family consisting of three members was living to the south along the Nacimiento-Ferguson Road. [153]

Spanish ranchos

Along with the rest of California, Big Sur became part of Mexico when it gained independence from Spain in 1821. Parts of the Big Sur region were included in land grants given by Mexican governors José Figueroa and Juan Bautista Alvarado.

Rancho Tularcitos

Rancho Tularcitos, 26,581-acre (10,757 ha) of land, was granted in 1834 by Governor José Figueroa to Rafael Goméz. [154] It was located in upper Carmel Valley along Tularcitos Creek. [155]

Rancho Milpitas

Rancho Milpitas was a 43,281-acre (17,515 ha) land grant given in 1838 by governor Juan Alvarado to Ygnacio Pastor. [156] The grant encompassed present day Jolon. [157] When Pastor obtained title from the Public Land Commission in 1875, Faxon Atherton immediately purchased the land. By 1880, the James Brown Cattle Company owned and operated Rancho Milpitas and neighboring Rancho Los Ojitos. William Randolph Hearst's Piedmont Land and Cattle Company acquired the rancho in 1925. [158] In 1940, in anticipation of the increased forces required in World War II, the U.S. War Department purchased the land from Hearst to create a troop training facility known as the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation. [159]

Rancho El Sur

On July 30, 1834, Figueroa granted Rancho El Sur, two square leagues of land totalling 8,949-acres (3,622 ha), to Juan Bautista Alvarado. [160]:21 [161] The grant extended between the Little Sur River and what is now called Cooper Point. [162] [163] Alvarado later traded Rancho El Sur for the more accessible Rancho Bolsa del Potrero y Moro Cojo in the northern Salinas Valley, owned by his uncle by marriage, Captain John B. R. Cooper. [164]

Rancho San Jose y Sur Chiquito

In 1839, Alvarado granted Rancho San Jose y Sur Chiquito, also about two square leagues of land totalling 8,876-acre (3,592 ha), to Marcelino Escobar, a prominent official of Monterey. [165] The grant was bounded on the north by the Carmel River and on the south by Palo Colorado Canyon. [166]

In 1848, two days after the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill, Mexico ceded California to the United States as a result of the Mexican–American War.

First survey

During the first survey of the coast conducted in 1886, the surveyor reported:

The country between the shore-line and the Coast Range of mountains, running parallel with the shore-line from San Carpojoro to Point Sur is probably the roughest piece of coast-line on the whole Pacific coast of the United States from San Diego to Cape Flattery.

The highest peaks of the crest of the coast range are located at an average distance from the coast of three and a half miles [5.6 km]. In this distance they rise to elevations of from three thousand six hundred to five thousand feet [1,100 to 1,500 m] above the sea-level. From San Carpoforo Creek to Pfeiffer's Point, a distance of 5 miles (8.0 km), the shore-line is iron-bound coast with no possible chance of getting from the hills to the shore-line and back except at the mouths of the creeks and at such places as Coxe's Hole and Slate's Hot Springs, where there are short stretches of sandy and rocky beaches from fifty to one hundred yards [meters] in length. In many places the sea bluffs are perpendicular, and rise from one thousand to one thousand five hundred feet [300 to 460 m] above the sea. The country is cut up by deep cañons [canyons], walled in with high and precipitous bluffs. These canyons are densely wooded with redwood, oak, and yellow and silver pine timber.

The redwood trees are from three to six feet [0.91 to 1.83 m] in diameter and from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet high [30 to 46 m]. The oaks and pines are of the same average dimensions. Beautiful streams of clear cold water, filled with an abundance of salmon or trout, are to be found in all the cartons. The spurs running from the summits of the range to the ocean bluffs are covered with a dense growth of brush and scattering clumps of oak and pine timber. The chaparral is very thick, and in many places grows to a height of ten or fifteen feet [3–5 m] ... The spurs, slopes, and canons are impenetrable ... [167] [168]


Joseph W. Post House, a historic structure built in 1877. William B. Post arrived in California in 1848, and homesteaded 640 acres (260 ha) in Big Sur in 1867. The Post House is on the grounds of the Ventana Inn resort.

The first known European settler in Big Sur was George Davis, who in 1853 claimed a tract of land along the Big Sur River. He built a cabin near the present day site of the beginning of the Mount Manuel Trail, [4]:326 just above the location of a cabin later built by John Bautista Rogers Cooper. Born John Rogers Cooper, he was a Yankee born in the British Channel Islands who arrived in Monterey in 1823. [169] To marry and obtain land, he became a Mexican citizen, converted to Catholicism, and was given a Spanish name at his baptism. He married Native American Encarnacion Vallejo and acquired considerable land, including Rancho El Sur, on which he built a cabin in April or May 1861. [170] The Cooper Cabin is the oldest surviving structure in Big Sur. [171] In 1868, Native Americans Manual and Florence Innocenti bought Davis' cabin and land for $50. The second European settlers were the Pfeiffer family from France. Michael Pfeiffer and his wife and four children arrived in Big Sur in 1869 with the intention of settling on the south coast. After reaching Sycamore Canyon, they found it to their liking and decided to stay. [4]:326

After passage of the federal Homestead Act in 1862, a few hardy settlers were drawn by the promise of free 160-acre (65 ha) parcels. After the claimant filed for the land, they had gained full ownership after five years of residence or by paying $1.50 per acre within six months. Each claim was for 160 acres, a quarter section of free government land. [153] The first to file a land patent was Micheal Pfeiffer on January 20, 1883, who claimed two sections of land he already resided on near and immediately north of the mouth of Sycamore Canyon. [172] They had six more children later on.

Other settlers included William F. Notley, who homesteaded at the mouth of Palo Colorado Canyon in 1891. He began harvesting tanoak bark from the canyon, a lucrative source of income at the time. Notley's Landing is named after him. Many other local sites retain names from settlers during this period: Bottcher, Swetnam, Gamboa, Pfeiffer, Post, Partington, Ross, and McWay are a few of the place names.

Industrial era and gold rush

A major forest product of Big Sur coast was the bark of Tanbark Oak.
Bixby Landing in 1911 was used to transport products to and from ships off shore.

Along with industries based on tanoak bark harvesting, gold mining, and limestone processing, the local economy provided more jobs and supported a larger population than it does today. From the 1860s through the start of the twentieth century, lumbermen cut down most of the readily accessible coast redwoods. Redwood harvesting further inland was always limited by the rugged terrain and difficulty in transporting the lumber to market. Pioneer William F. Notley was one of the first to harvest the bark of the Tanbark Oak from the Little Sur River canyon. [173]

Tanbark was used to manufacture tannic acid, necessary to the growing leather tanning industry located in Santa Cruz, and to preserve fish nets. [174] The tanbark was harvested from the isolated trees inland, left to dry, corded, and brought out on mules or hauled out on "go-devils". The go-devil was a wagon with two wheels on the front, while the rear had rails for pulling. Notley constructed a landing at the mouth of the Palo Colorado River like that at Bixby Landing to the south. The tanbark was loaded by cable onto waiting vessels anchored offshore at Notley's Landing. In 1889, as much as 50,000 cords of tanbark were hauled out from the Little Sur River and Big Sur River watersheds. [4]:330 A small village grew up around Notley's Landing from 1898 to 1907. [175] [176] Near the start of the 20th century, the tan oak trees were becoming seriously depleted, which slowly led to the demise of the industries they had created. [173]

A point on the Palo Colorado Road is still nicknamed "The Hoist" because of the very steep road which required wagon-loads of tanbark and lumber to be hoisted by block and tackle hitched to oxen. [177] The old block and tackle on a beam is still mounted between mailboxes. [178]

In the 1880s, gold was found in the Los Burros District at Alder Creek in the mountains east of present-day Gorda. The gold rush town of Manchester at 35°52′48″N 121°23′31″W / 35.880°N 121.392°W / 35.880; -121.392 existed for a few short years. [42] [179] [180] The town boasted a population of 200, four stores, a restaurant, five saloons, a dance hall, and a hotel, but it was abandoned soon after the start of the twentieth century and burned to the ground in 1909. [10] [181]

The 30-mile (48 km) trip from Monterey to the Pfeiffer Ranch could take three days by wagon. It was a rough road that ended in present-day Big Sur Village and could be impassible in winter. Local entrepreneurs built small boat landings like what is known today as Bixby Landing at a few coves along the coast from which supplies could be received and products could be shipped from schooners via a cable hoist. [182] None of these landings remain today, and few other signs of this brief industrial period are visible. The rugged, isolated terrain kept out all but the sturdiest and most self-sufficient settlers. [183] Travelers further south had to follow a horse trail that connected the various homesteaders along the coast. [81]

Before Highway 1

Prior to the construction of Highway 1, the California coast south of Carmel and north of San Simeon was one of the most remote regions in the state, rivaling at the time nearly any other region in the United States for its difficult access. [16] It remained largely an untouched wilderness until early in the twentieth century. [1]

After the brief industrial boom faded, the early decades of the twentieth century passed with few changes, and Big Sur remained a nearly inaccessible wilderness. As late as the 1920s, only two homes in the entire region had electricity, locally generated by water wheels and windmills. [4]: 328 [10]:64 Most of the population lived without power until connections to the California electric grid were established in the early 1950s. [16]

Before the Carmel-San Simeon Highway was completed, settlement was primarily concentrated near the Big Sur River and present-day Lucia, and individual settlements along a 25 miles (40 km) stretch of coast between the two. [16]


Big Sur is sparsely populated with about 1,000 year-round residents, according to the 2000 United States Census, about the same number of residents found there in 1900. [19] Big Sur residents include descendants of the original ranching families, artists and writers, service staff, along with wealthy home-owners. These wealthy homeowners, however, are usually only part-time residents of Big Sur.[ citation needed] The mountainous terrain, environmental restrictions imposed by the Big Sur Coastal Use Plan, [82] and lack of property and the expense required to develop available land, have kept Big Sur relatively unspoiled. The economy is almost completely based on service industries associated with tourism.[ citation needed]

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park after fire

Census data

93920 ZCTA for US 2000 Census

The United States does not define a census-designated place called Big Sur, but it does define a ZIP Code Tabulation Area (ZCTA), 93920. Because Big Sur is contained roughly within this ZIP Code Tabulation Area, it is possible to obtain Census data from the 2000 United States Census for the area, even though data for "Big Sur" is unavailable. [184]

According to the 2000 United States Census, there were 996 people, 884 households, and 666 housing units in the 93920 ZCTA. The racial makeup of this area was 87.6% White, 1.1% African American, 1.3% Native American, 2.4% Asian, 0.0% Pacific Islander, 5.5% from other races, and 3.0% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 9.6% of the population. [184]

In the 93920 ZCTA, the population age was widely distributed, with 20.2% under the age of 20, 4.5% from 20 to 24, 26.9% from 25 to 44, 37.0% from 45 to 64, and 11.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 43.2 years. [184]

The median income in 2000 for a household in 93920 ZCTA was $41,304, and the median income for a family was $65,083. [184] These estimates exclude the sizeable number of residents who live in Palo Colorado Canyon, who are included in the Carmel Valley Zip Code Tabulation Area. [185] As of 2004, there were about 300 households in the Palo Colorado Canyon area. [186]


View of Gorda, one of the small clusters of services in Big Sur

Existing settlements in the Big Sur region, between the Carmel River and the San Carpoforo Creek, include:

State and federal lands

State parks

Point Sur and light station from the north

From north to south, the following state parks are in use.

Federal wilderness

Points of interest


At the county level, Big Sur is represented on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors by Supervisor Dave Potter. [188]

In the California State Assembly, Big Sur is in the 17th Senate District, represented by Democrat Bill Monning, and in the 30th Assembly District, represented by Democrat Anna Caballero. [189]

In the United States House of Representatives, Big Sur is in California's 20th congressional district, represented by Democrat Jimmy Panetta. [190]

Notable residents

Henry Miller

The Henry Miller Memorial Library. Author Henry Miller lived in Big Sur from 1944–1962.

In the early to mid-twentieth century, Big Sur's relative isolation and natural beauty began to attract writers and artists, including Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller, Edward Weston, Richard Brautigan, Hunter S. Thompson, Emile Norman, and Jack Kerouac. Jeffers was the first, arriving in Big Sur with his bride Una in 1913. [191] Beginning in the 1920s, his poetry introduced the romantic idea of Big Sur's wild, untamed spaces to a national audience, which encouraged many of the later visitors. In the posthumously published book Stones of the Sur, Carmel landscape photographer Morley Baer later combined his classical black and white photographs of Big Sur with some of Jeffers' poetry.

Henry Miller lived in Big Sur for 20 years, from 1944 to 1962. His home was a wooden cabin that had been owned by his friend Emil White. His 1957 essay/memoir/novel Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch described the joys and hardships that came from escaping the "air conditioned nightmare" of modern life. The Henry Miller Memorial Library is a nonprofit bookstore and arts center that opened in 1981 as a tribute to the legendary writer. It is a gathering place for locals and has become the focal point of individuals with a literary mind, [192] a cultural center devoted to Miller's life and work, and a popular attraction for tourists. [193]

Other writers

Hunter S. Thompson worked as a security guard and caretaker at a resort in Big Sur Hot Springs for eight months in 1961, just before the Esalen Institute was founded at that location. While there, he published his first magazine feature in the nationally distributed Rogue (men's magazine), about Big Sur's artisan and Bohemian culture.[ citation needed]

Jack Kerouac spent a few days in Big Sur in early 1960 at fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's cabin in the woods, and wrote a novel, Big Sur, based on his experience there. Big Sur acquired a bohemian reputation with these newcomers. Henry Miller recounted that a traveler knocked on his door, looking for the "cult of sex and anarchy." [194] Apparently finding neither, the disappointed visitor returned home. Miller is referenced in Brautigan's A Confederate General at Big Sur, in which a pair of young men attempt the idyllic Big Sur life in small shacks and are variously plagued by flies, low ceilings, visiting businessmen with nervous breakdowns, and 2,452 tiny frogs whose loud singing keeps everyone awake.

A number of famous people have called Big Sur home, including diplomats Nicholas Roosevelt, famed architects Nathaniel A. Owings and Philip Johnson, Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, show business celebrities Kim Novak and Allen Funt, and business executives Ted Turner and David Packard. [195]

Other former residents include:

In popular culture

Film setting

The area's increasing popularity and incredible beauty has attracted the attention of Hollywood. Orson Welles and his wife at the time, Rita Hayworth, bought a Big Sur cabin on impulse during a trip down the coast in 1944. They never spent a single night there, and the property is now the location of a popular restaurant, Nepenthe. [196]

Among the well-known films located in Big Sur were The Sandpiper starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Eva Marie Saint and Charles Bronson. The 1974 film Zandy's Bride, starring Gene Hackman and Liv Ullmann, was based in Big Sur. [197] In 2013, Jack Kerouac’s novel Big Sur was adapted for the film of the same name, starring Kate Bosworth and directed by the actress’ husband, Michael Polish. As of 2017, 19 movies had been filmed in the Big Sur region, beginning with Suspicion in 1941. [198]


The Beach Boys' single " California Saga: California" on the band's 1973 album Holland is a nostalgic depiction of the rugged wilderness in the area and the culture of its inhabitants. The first part describes the region's environment, the second part is an adaption of the Robinson Jeffers poem The Beaks of Eagles, and the third part references local literary and musical figures. [199]It is also the namesake of the Live How You Live song from the studio album "The Venice Sessions".

American composer John Adams wrote an electric violin concerto titled The Dharma at Big Sur.


Big ... Sur ...



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