Highway 1 Along the Big Sur Coast, California Reopens 14-Months After a Huge Mudslide Destroyed It

Steven Agar |
big sur, reopened, highway 1, california
The first cars drive across the re-opened road on Wednesday morning. Credit: Mercury News

Fourteen months after a winter of fierce storms unleashed rocks and dirt that buried Highway 1, Caltrans will reopen the road by mid-morning, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. Visitors once again will be able to complete the legendary Big Sur drive, locals will be able to get to work or school hassle-free and the area’s tourist-driven economy will see a burden lifted.

“This has sort of been the history of this coast from the beginning,” said John Duffy, an engineering geologist in Pismo Beach (San Luis Obispo County) who consulted on the $54 million highway project. “It’s an emerging coastline geologically speaking, and it’s in a constant state of trying to come to some stability. All of the factors that have made it such a beautiful place also make it a challenging place to maintain a road.”

big sur, reopened, highway 1, california
Aerial picture of the mudslide that destroyed Highway 1. Credit: weather.com

On May 20, 2017, the whole mountainside came crashing down. Fortunately, it was during one of the times Caltrans had shut the road. More than 5 million cubic yards of dirt and rock was dumped into the sea, enough to fill about 1,600 Olympic-size swimming pools. A new 15-acre peninsula formed in the water below. About a quarter-mile of Highway 1 along Big Sur was gone.

Chris Martin, a security guard who has been enforcing the closure since the highway gave out last year, is looking forward to dropping his defenses. He said he’s seen a lot of desperate people trying to get through. Some have pleaded that they have emergencies. Others tried to bribe him. A few have offered to lift up their shirts.

“I had one guy sit right there and say he’d whoop my ass,” Martin recalled, standing at his post in the middle of the closed road. “A lot of people have been really upset.”

big sur, reopened, highway 1, california
Ariel image of the new and improved Highway 1 along the Big Sur coast. Credit: Courtesy of Big Sur Information

The rebuilt highway is as much as 250 feet west of where it used to run, owing to the new land that was created with the slide that obliterated the road last May. Caltrans says the new road is built to last. It consists of two 12-foot lanes with shoulders that are 4 to 6 feet wide. The soil is fortified with heavy-duty fabric to maximize its strength. Crews built a 2,000-foot revetment out of 8-ton boulders in the water to keep the coastline from being undercut. And they’ve flanked the inland side of the highway with ditches and defensible space so no new debris falls on the road.

“There is still some (slide) movement,” said Caltrans’ Erwin. “We don’t want to give the impression that this is a stable and static area. We’ll have the highway open, but we’ll still see movement.”

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