A mudslide on Jan 29th causes costly damage to California Highway 1 near Big Sur. Photo courtesy of CalTrans.

UPDATE: Mudslide at Big Sur Disrupts Tour Plans

Update – April 12, 2021. Work to repair damage caused by the January 29th mudslide at Big Sur is on track to complete two months early. The California Department of Transportation announced that the roadway will fully re-open on April 30th. Re-opening to traffic only three months after a major slide shows remarkable organization and hard work on the part of CalTrans for the benefit of the community and riders from all over the world. Work to wrap-up roadside landscaping, striping, and guardrails rails will continue into the summer bringing this $11.5 million project to a close.


On Friday January 29th 2021 a large part of the Santa Lucia hillside above California Highway 1 at Rat Creek near Big Sur broke loose, crashing into the ocean, and taking with it a section of the road below.  Consequently, locals and touring riders alike are now forced to take inland roads to connect with destinations to the north and south.

Map data ©2021 Google. The actual slide area is marked in the map above by the red pin; CA-1 is closed approximately 12 miles toward the slide area from each of the blue pins.

The area around Rat Creek was inundated with heavy rain for days, initially causing a 150 foot wide mudslide the day before on Thursday.  That slide left debris on the roadway and washed away one of the highway’s two lanes.  When California Department of Transportation crews arrived at the scene on Friday morning the 29th they discovered that the other lane had washed into the Pacific leaving a sprawling chasm where the road had been.

The Jan 29th slide left mud across damaged sections of Highway 1. Photo courtesy of CalTrans.

The California Department of Transportation reports that Highway 1 is now closed between a point 12 miles south of Big Sur (in Monterey County) and a point just under 13 miles north of Ragged Point (see the map nearby).  Riders planning to cover this famous route should rework their plan and keep an eye on the CalTrans website for regular updates on road repairs.

Not the First Slide at Big Sur

California Highway 1 is the longest highway in California, following the Pacific coastline for 656 miles from Dana Point to the south up to Leggit in Mendocino County to the north.  A good 71 of those miles lie between Malpaso Creek and San Carpoforo Creek, below the Santa Lucia mountains.  This is the area known as Big Sur. 

Pullouts on the Pacific Coast Highway offer stunning views.

The roadway itself is notched into the mountainside creating breathtaking views at every turn and sometimes the frightening illusion that Highway 1 disappears leaving only open space to the Pacific below.  While it may appear that engineers who designed the road in the 1930’s gave little thought to the potential for slides, modern day engineers have not called out road construction as a contributing factor.  Instead, geologists attribute slides to a combination of wildfires which weaken the vegetation that naturally holds the hill in place and topsoil burdened with extra weight from heavy rains.  Occasionally earthquakes in the area also play a role. 

In March 2016 an experienced CalTrans crew was caught off guard when a slide nearly pushed their truck into the ocean. Photo courtesy of CalTrans.

CalTrans will proactively close sections of Highway 1 in the winter during periods of sustained heavy rain when they anticipate conditions are likely to cause a slide.  Fortunately, because they had done just that days before this most recent slide there were no injuries.

Over the years, the Big Sur area has lived through many slides.  As recently as May 2017 a large mudslide closed the highway at Big Sur for over a year while repairs were made.  Crews used stabilizing methods, such as embankments and netting, in an effort to secure the hillside and get ahead of the on-going problem.  But CalTrans readily admits that the area is prone to rock falls and slides, and nature will always have its way with the road.

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Turn a Closure Into an Opportunity

Construction delays are common, but the views make up for the inconvenience.

Roadwork on CA-1 is common and seemingly non-stop.  No matter the season, expect delays.  It may at first be frustrating, but there is a silver lining if you look for it.  To begin with, a delay allows time for traffic ahead to clear out.  With those clear roads in mind, remember that lane splitting is allowed in California and its completely reasonable for motorcycles to move to the front of the line at a construction stop.  Once past, that leaves the motorcyclist with nothing but open road ahead.  Just make sure conditions are safe to move up.   

In those relatively rare instances when a section of the Highway is closed completely, like now at Big Sur, use the opportunity to get creative and make a new route plan through the area.  The obvious and logical thing to do is to head inland around the closed section.  But consider taking advantage of the closure by continuing on Highway 1 to the absolute last chance to turn around.  The stretch is sure to be less crowded than normal making picture stops more relaxing than ever. 

Map data ©2021 Google. The above map highlights a detour route taking US-101 around the damaged section of CA-1 at Big Sur.

Anyone traveling north or south on CA-1 will have to take a detour between Big Sur and Ragged Point.  The fastest route around is to take US101 north or south and then re-connect with CA-1 via CA-68 near Monterey or CA-46 near Paso Robles.  Of course, detouring bypasses about 24 miles of the very thing that drew you here in the first place.  Which is why if time permits, and backtracking is not a problem, we suggest staying on CA-1 for another 12 or so miles on either side of the slide area to take in more of the coast views with what should be minimal traffic. 

Still Worth the Ride

Most will agree the Pacific Coast Highway ranks as one of the best motorcycle roads in America, often in the top 10.  Sport tourers from all over the world make plans to ride as much of the coast as they can, but especially the Big Sur section.  When closures happen, and they will from time to time, don’t give up on the coast.  The communities in Big Sur work extra hard to welcome riders who make the best of delays and detours.  And to sweeten the pot just a bit, another point worth thinking about is that when a part of the road is closed odds are there will be fewer RVs crowding the road.  Better already right?

Resources

SiteLink
California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) highway updateshttps://roads.dot.ca.gov/
Big Sur tourist information http://bigsurcalifornia.org/
Big Sur weather information https://forecast.weather.gov/MapClick.php?site=MTR&textField1=36.2703&textField2=-121.806&e=0#.YBmryZeSkuU
US Geological Survey information about Big Sur mudslideshttps://www.usgs.gov/center-news/usgs-monitors-huge-landslides-californias-big-sur-coast-shares-information-california

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