Environment & Science

Massive slide buries stretch of iconic California highway

Caltrans says there is no estimate when a stretch of Highway 1 approximately 9 miles north of Monterey County line will re-open.
Caltrans says there is no estimate when a stretch of Highway 1 approximately 9 miles north of Monterey County line will re-open.
Caltrans

A massive landslide that went into the Pacific Ocean is the latest natural disaster to hit a California community that relies heavily on an iconic coastal highway and tourism to survive.

The weekend slide in Big Sur buried a portion of Highway 1 under a 40-foot layer of rock and dirt and changed the coastline below to include what now looks like a rounded skirt hem, Susana Cruz, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Transportation, said Tuesday.

More than 1 million tons of rock and dirt tumbled down the slope, which remained unstable. The slide is covering up about one-quarter of a mile of Highway 1.

"We haven't been able to go up there and assess. It's still moving," Cruz said. "We have geologists and engineers who are going to check it out this week to see how do we pick up the pieces."

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The state already had closed that part of Highway 1 to repair buckled pavement and remove debris after an earlier slide triggered by one of California's rainiest winters in decades.

Authorities removed work crews from the area last week after realizing that saturated soil in that area was increasingly unstable, Cruz said.

Narrow, windy Highway 1 through Big Sur is a major tourist draw, attracting visitors to serene groves of redwoods, beaches and the highway's dramatic oceanside scenery between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The rough winter has closed at least two other stretches of road in the area, forcing some resorts to shut down and others to use helicopters to ferry in supplies and guests.

Kirk Gafill, president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce and owner of the historic Nepenthe Restaurant, said people who make a living in the area have to contend with Mother Nature more so than global economic cycles.

"In our way of thinking and our way of planning, it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," he said. "You just hope they're dispersed far enough over the years so you can replenish your cash reserves."

Gafill said repairing this landslide is not as critical for business as the re-opening of Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, a span on Highway 1 that was damaged from heavy rain in January and February. The new span is scheduled to open in September.

Kurt Mayer, who owns Big Sur Tap House, was also taking news of the slide in stride. He said Tuesday he wouldn't trade in his work location for somewhere safer.

"We're all going to make it, I'm pretty sure," he said. "Big Sur can scare some people, and those people usually come and go pretty quickly. And those who can hang, they're still there and they'll continue to be there."