Big Sur

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Big Sur
Region of California
The Big Sur Coast
The Big Sur Coast
Map of Big Sur
Map of Big Sur
Big Sur is located in California
Big Sur
Big Sur
Location in California
Coordinates: 36°06′27″N 121°37′33″W / 36.1075°N 121.625833°W / 36.1075; -121.625833
Country United States
State California
McWay Falls and Cove, Big Sur

Big Sur is a lightly populated region of the Central Coast of California where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. The region remained one of the most isolated areas of California until, after 18 years of construction, the Carmel-San Simeon Highway was completed in 1937. The region does not have specific boundaries, but is generally considered to include the segment of California State Route 1 from the Carmel River south to San Carpoforo Creek near San Simeon and the entire Santa Lucia range between them. 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 name "Big Sur" is derived from the original Spanish-language "el sur grande," which literally means the great south, a generic term used to describe the unexplored mountainous terrain south of the city of Monterey, the original capital of Alta California. The terrain offers stunning views, making Big Sur a popular tourist destination. Big Sur's Cone Peak at 5,155 feet (1571 m), only 3 miles (5 km) from the ocean, is the highest coastal mountain in the contiguous 48 states.[1]

The name Big Sur is sometimes used to refer to any of the small settlements in the region, including Posts, Lucia and Gorda. Mail sent to most areas within the region must be addressed "Big Sur".[2]


Although it has no specific boundaries, many descriptions of the area refer to the 90 miles (140 km) of coastline from the Carmel River in Monterey County south to the San Carpoforo Creek in San Luis Obispo County.[3] 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.[4] Others include the vast inland areas comprising the Los Padres National Forest, Ventana Wilderness, and Silver Peak Wilderness, about 20 miles (30 km) inland to the eastern foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains.[1]


When Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portolá landed in Monterey Bay in 1770, he brought Father Junípero Serra with him. Serra helped found most of the missions in California, and established the town of Monterey, which became the capital of the Spanish colony Alta California. The Spaniards calling the inaccessible coastal region el país grande del sur meaning "the big south" or "the big country of the south" which was often shortened to el sur grande, because it was a vast, unexplored, and impenetrable land south of their capital at Monterey.[5]


The coast is the "longest and most scenic stretch of undeveloped coastline in the continental United States."[6] The Big Sur region has been described as a "national treasure that demands extraordinary procedures to protect it from development."[7] The New York Times described it as "one of the most stunning meetings of land and sea in the world."[8] The Washington Times described it as "one of the most beautiful coastlines anywhere in the world, an isolated stretch of road, mythic in reputation."[9] 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.[10][11]

The views are one reason that Big Sur was ranked second among all United States destinations in TripAdvisor's 2008 Travelers' Choice Destination Awards.[12] 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."[13]

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.[14]


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

Although some Big Sur residents catered to adventurous travelers in the early twentieth century,[15] the modern tourist economy began when Highway 1 opened the region to automobiles, and only took off after World War II-era gasoline rationing ended in the mid-1940s. Most of the 3 to 4 million tourists who visit Big Sur each year never leave Highway 1, because the adjacent Santa Lucia mountain 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. Because gazing at the views while driving is inadvisable, the highway features many vista points allowing motorists to stop and admire the landscape.

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.[13]

Local activities[edit]

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

Besides sightseeing from the highway, Big Sur offers hiking, mountain climbing, and other outdoor activities. There are a few small, scenic beaches that are popular for walking, but usually unsuitable for swimming because of unpredictable currents and frigid temperatures. There are a 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 ruins of a grand stone cliffside house that was the region's first electrified dwelling. Another notable landmark is Point Sur Lighthouse, the only complete nineteenth century lighthouse complex open to the public in California.[16]

Limited services[edit]

The land use restrictions that preserve Big Sur's natural beauty also mean that tourist accommodations are limited, often expensive, and fill up quickly during the busy summer season. There are no urban areas, although three small clusters of gas stations, restaurants, and motels are often marked on maps as "towns": 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 mi (140 km) stretch of Highway 1 between San Simeon and Carmel. Lodging include a few cabins, motels, and campgrounds, and higher-end resorts.

Most lodging and restaurants are clustered in the Big Sur River valley, where Highway 1 leaves the coast for a few miles and winds into a redwood forest, protected from the chill ocean breezes and summer fog. One of the places to stay, Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[17]

Nineteen eating places of various sizes are found along the highway, cumulatively seating about 1,100 people. [18] There are nine small grocery stores, three gas stations, a few gift shops, and no chain hotels, supermarkets, or fast-food outlets, and no plans to add facilities or shopping.[19] [20][21] The gas station in Gorda has one of the highest prices in the United States.[22][23]

Short term rental controversy[edit]

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 they 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.[20][24] There are currently an estimated 100 short term rentals available.[25]

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.[25]

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.[26]

As of 2016, the county was conducting hearings and gathering input towards making a decision about short-term rentals on the Big Sur coast.[27] Susan Craig, Central Coast District Manager of the California Coastal Commission, has offered her opinion that short term rentals are appropriate within Big Sur.[28]

Flora and fauna[edit]

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 has a highly restricted range of a total population of few individuals. Arid, dusty chaparral-covered hills exist within easy walking distance of lush riparian woodland.

Southern limit of Redwood trees[edit]

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 20th 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.[29]

Rare species[edit]

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 19th century, 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.


The Big Sur River watershed provides habitat for mountain lion, bear, deer, fox, coyotes and wild boars. The upstream river canyon is characteristic of the Ventana Wilderness region: steep-sided, sharp-crested ridges separating valleys.[30] 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.

Main article: steelhead

The California Department of Fish and Game says the river is the "most important spawning stream for steelhead" on the Central Coast.[31] and that it “is one of the best steelhead streams in the county.”[32]:166 The Big Sur River is a key habitat within the Central California Steelhead distinct population segment which is listed as threatened.[33][34]

A U.S. 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.[35]

California Condor
Main article: 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.[36]

In 1997, the Ventana Wildlife Society began releasing captive-bred California Condor 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.[37] This was the first time in more than 100 years in which a pair of California condors had been seen nesting in Northern California.[38] 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.[39]

As of July 2014, the Ventana Wildlife Society managed 34 free-flying condors.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.[40]

Marine protected areas[edit]

Point Sur State Marine Reserve and Marine Conservation Area and Big Creek State Marine Reserve and Big Creek State Marine Conservation Area are marine protected areas offshore from Big Sur. Like underwater parks, these marine protected areas help conserve ocean wildlife and marine ecosystems.

Fire impact[edit]

Fire plays a key role in the ecology of the upper slopes of the Big Sur region's mountains where chaparral dominates the landscape.[41] Native Americans burned chaparral to promote grasslands for textiles and food.[42] 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.[43] 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.[44]

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.[45] 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.[46]

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.[47]

Basin Complex Fire

The Basin Complex Fire forced an eight-day evacuation of Big Sur and the closure of Highway 1, beginning just before the July 4 holiday weekend.[48] The fire, which burned over 130,000 acres (53,000 ha), represented the largest of many wildfires that had broken out throughout California during the same period.[49] 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.[50][51]

Soberanes Fire

The Soberanes Fire, started by an illegal campfire in the Garrapata Creek watershed, burned around the Big Sur community. 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. As of 2016 it burned 57 homes in the Garrapata and Palo Colorado Canyon areas. A bulldozer operator was killed when his equipment overturned during night operations. Visitors avoided the area and tourism revenue was impacted for several weeks. [52]


Native Americans[edit]

Three tribes of Native Americans—the Ohlone, Esselen, and Salinan—are believed to have been the first people to inhabit 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 Carpoforo Creek.[53] Archaeological evidence shows that the Esselen lived in Big Sur as early as 3500 BC, leading a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence.[54][55]

The Santa Lucia Mountains were and still are very rugged, making the area relatively inaccessible, long-term habitation a challenge, and limiting the size of the population. Their natives who lived in the Big Sur area are estimated from a few hundred to a thousand or more.[56][57]

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 acorn and hunt deer.[58] 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.[58] The tribes also used controlled burning techniques to increase tree growth and food production.[1]: 269–270

Spanish exploration and settlement[edit]

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. In 1769, an expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá became the first Europeans known to have explored Big Sur when they entered the area in the south near San Carpoforo Canyon.[1]: 272 Daunted by the sheer cliffs and difficult topography, his party avoided the area and traveled far inland through 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 popularion 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.[1]: 264–267

Spanish Ranchos[edit]

Along with the rest of California, Big Sur became part of Mexico when it gained independence from Spain in 1821. On July 30, 1834, Mexican governor José Figueroa granted the 8,949-acre (3,622 ha) Rancho El Sur in northern Big Sur to Juan Bautista Alvarado.[59]:21[60] Alvarado later traded his Rancho El Sur to his uncle by marriage, Captain John B.R. Cooper, in exchange for Rancho Bolsa del Potrero y Moro Cojo.[61] 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[edit]

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 on-half miles. In this distance they rise to elevations of from three thousand six hundred to five, thousand feet 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 in length. In many places the sea are perpendicular, and rise from one thousand to fifteen hundred feet above the sea. The country is cut up by deep canons, walled in with high and precipitous bluffs. These canons are densely wooded with redwood, oak, and yellow and silver pine timber.

The redwood trees are from three to six feet in diameter and from one hundred to one hundred and fifty feet high. The oaks and pines are of the same average dimensions. Beautiful streams of clear cold water, filled with an abundance of salmon, 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... The spurs, slopes, and canons are impenetrable...[62]


After passage of the federal Homestead Act in 1862, a few pioneers filed land patents and built homes in the Big Sur area, drawn by the promise of free 160-acre (65 ha) parcels. The first Anglo-Americans to reside in Big Sur were Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer who arrived in 1869. They had four children when they arrived and had six more.

The Cooper Cabin built in 1861 on the Cooper ranch is the oldest surviving structure in Big Sur.[63]

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. Consistent with the Anglo-Hispanic heritage of the area, the new settlers mixed English and Spanish and began to call their new home "Big Sur".

Industrial era and gold rush[edit]

Bixby Landing in 1911 was used to transport products to and from ships off shore.

From the 1860s through the start of the 20th century, lumberers cut down most of the readily accessible coast redwoods.[citation needed] 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.

In the 1880s, a gold rush boom town named Manchester sprang up at Alder Creek in the mountains east of present-day Gorda.[64][65] 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 20th century and burned to the ground in 1909.[66][67]

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 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 offloaded to smaller boats and hoisted to shore.[68] 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.[69] Travelers further south had to follow a horse trail that connected the various homesteaders along the coast.[70]

Before Highway 1[edit]

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.[71] It remained largely an untouched wilderness until early in the twentieth century.[6]

After the brief industrial boom faded, the early decades of the 20th 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.[1]: 328[66]:64 Most of the population lived without power until connections to the California electric grid were established in the early 1950s.[71]

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.[71]

Highway 1[edit]

For more details on this topic, see California State Route 1.


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),[72] which had run aground near the Point Sur Light Station about 25 miles (40 km) south of Carmel. 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.[72]

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.[73] 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.[72] A $1.5 million bond issue was placed on the ballot, but construction was delayed by World War I.

Bixby Creek Bridge under construction in 1932
Bixby Creek Bridge, May 2013

The state first approved building Route 56, or the Carmel – San Simeon Highway,[74] 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 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.[73] The road necessitated 33 bridges constructed, 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.[72]


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.[75] The road was initially called the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, but was better known as the Roosevelt Highway, honoring the current President (Franklin Delano 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 World War II, night-time blackouts were ordered as a precaution against Japanese attack.[70]


Prior to the construction of Highway 1, the California coast south of Carmel and north of San Simeon was one of the most inaccessible regions in the state, rivaling nearly any other region in the United States for its remoteness.[71]

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.[70] After World War II 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, and in 1966 the first lady, Lady Bird Johnson, led the official designation ceremony at Bixby Creek Bridge.[70] The route was designated as an All American Road by the U.S. Government.[72]

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.[4]

Economic impacts[edit]

Big Sur Dinosaur Rock coast line and Bixby Creek Bridge in June, 1965

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.[76] The case secured to local government the right to use its police power for aesthetic purposes.[77]

Highway 1 has been closed on several occasions due to damage due from California landslides, mudslides, erosion, and fire. 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.[78][79] The state replaced that section of road with a viaduct that wraps around the unstable hillside.[4]

Transportation issues[edit]

The 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.[26]

Public Transportation is available to and from Monterey on Monterey-Salinas Transit (MST). Summer schedule resumes (Memorial Day to Labor Day). Winter schedule only offers transport on the weekends. Check their website for the the current schedule.

Artists and popular culture[edit]

Henry Miller[edit]

Esalen, evening aerial view.

In the early to mid-20th 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 among the first of these.[80] 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 from 1944 to 1962. 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,[81] a cultural center devoted to Miller's life and work, is a popular attraction for many tourists.

Other writers[edit]

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."[82] 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.

Places of contemplation[edit]

Big Sur also became home to centers of study and contemplation—a Catholic monastery, the New Camaldoli Hermitage in 1958, the Esalen Institute. 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.

Historic menu cover from Nepenthe restaurant, a Big Sur icon since 1949.[83]

Film setting[edit]

The area's increasing popularity and incredible beauty soon brought 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.[84] Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in the 1965 film The Sandpiper, featuring many location shots of Big Sur, and a dance party scene on a soundstage built to resemble Nepenthe.

The Sandpiper was one of the few major studio motion pictures filmed in Big Sur, and perhaps the only one to identify real Big Sur locales by name as part of the plot. A DVD, released in 2006, includes a Burton-narrated short film about Big Sur, quoting Robinson Jeffers poetry.

Another film based in Big Sur was the 1974 Zandy's Bride, starring Gene Hackman and Liv Ullman.[85] An adaptation of The Stranger in Big Sur by Lillian Bos Ross, the film portrayed the 1870s life of the Ross family and their Big Sur neighbors.

Big Sur Folk Festival [edit]

From 1964 to 1971, the Big Sur Folk Festival was held annually on the grounds of the Esalen Institute, with Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and Mimi Farina frequently performing. (Celebration at Big Sur is a documentary of the 1969 Big Sur festival.) The Beach Boys devoted the three parts of their "California Saga: California" on the band's 1973 album Holland to a nostalgic depiction of the rugged wilderness in the area and the culture of its inhabitants. The first part describes the outdoor environment of the region, the second part is an adaption of the Robinson Jeffers poem "The Beaks of Eagles", and the third part discusses local literary and musical figures.

Big Sur International Marathon[edit]

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, California. The marathon was established in 1986 and attracts about 4,500 participants annually.[86]


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 spring 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]


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 Mountains.[87]

Marine influence[edit]

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.[1]: 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. Most plants cannot take water directly out of the air, but the condensation on leaf surfaces slowly precipitates into the ground like rain.[citation needed]


The Santa Lucia range rise to more than 5,800 ft (1760 m), and the amount of rainfall greatly increase 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.[1]

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.[1][88] 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.[1]

Big Sur fog and bridge


Big Sur is sparsely populated with about 1,000 year-round residents, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Big Sur residents include descendants of the original ranching families, artists and writers, along with wealthy home-owners. These wealthy homeowners, however, are usually only part-time residents of Big Sur. The mountainous terrain, environmental restrictions imposed by the California Coastal Commission and Monterey County zoning,[76] and lack of property available for development, have kept Big Sur relatively unspoiled.

As a result, real estate prices are high, with land and home prices above $2 million.[citation needed] The economy is almost completely based on tourism. Much of the land along the coast is privately owned or has been donated to the state park system, while the vast Los Padres National Forest, the Ventana Wilderness, and Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation encompass most of the inland areas.

J.P. Burns After Fire

Census data[edit]

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 United States 2000 Census for the area even though data for "Big Sur" is unavailable.

According to the United States 2000 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.

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.

The median income in 2000 for a household in 93920 ZCTA was $41,304, and the median income for a family was $65,083.


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:


At the county level, Big Sur is represented on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors by Supervisor Dave Potter.[90]

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 Luis Alejo.[91]

In the United States House of Representatives, Big Sur is in California's 20th congressional district, represented by Democrat Sam Farr.[92]

Notable current and former residents[edit]

Big Sur land use[edit]

List of state parks (north to south)[edit]

Point Sur and light station from the north

Federal wilderness

Points of interest[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

Big Sur is also mentioned by the Red Hot Chili Peppers in their 2000 single "Road Trippin'." The song tells of a road trip in which lead singer Anthony Kiedis, guitarist John Frusciante, and bassist Flea surfed at Big Sur following John's return to the band.

Among other notable mentions of Big Sur in music are Charles Lloyd' album Notes from Big Sur, Buckethead's song "Big Sur Moon" on the album Colma, the song "Big Sur" by Irish indie band The Thrills from their album So Much for the City, Jason Aldean's "Texas Was You," and Siskiyou's song "Big Sur," the 7-minute-long penultimate track from their debut self-titled album. Death Cab for Cutie's song "Bixby Canyon Bridge" is about a bridge (Bixby Creek Bridge) near the cabin in which Jack Kerouac stayed. Singer Johnny Rivers' hit song "Going Back to Big Sur" in 1969, on his Realization album, was typical of the songs of that era praising the unique qualities of Big Sur.


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Further reading[edit]

  • Big Sur, Jack Kerouac, Penguin Books, Reprint edition (1962, reprinted 1992), 256 pages, ISBN 0-14-016812-5
  • Big Sur: A Battle for the Wilderness 1869 – 1981, John Woolfenden, The Boxwood Press (1981), 143 pages, ISBN 0-910286-87-6
  • Big Sur: Images of America, Jeff Norman, Big Sur Historical Society, Arcadia Publishing (2004), 128 pages, ISBN 0-7385-2913-3
  • Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Henry Miller, New Directions Publishing Corp (1957), 404 pages, ISBN 0-8112-0107-4
  • Hiking & Backpacking Big Sur, Analise Elliott, Wilderness Press (2005), 322 pages, ISBN 0-89997-326-4
  • The Natural History of Big Sur, Paul Henson and Donald J. Usner, University of California Press (1993), 416 pages, ISBN 0-520-20510-3
  • A Wild Coast and Lonely: Big Sur Pioneers, Rosalind Sharpe Wall, Wide World Publishing, (1989, reprinted April 1992), 264 pages, ISBN 0-933174-83-7

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 36°06′27″N 121°37′33″W / 36.10750°N 121.62583°W / 36.10750; -121.62583