When news began to spread on January 25 of yet another cataclysm in Big Sur, people shook their heads in disbelief. Sparked by epic rain, a debris flow from the burn scar left behind by the Dolan Fire sent a 150-foot section of Highway 1 crashing into the Pacific. Once again, Big Sur was effectively cut in half at the aptly named Rat Creek turnout.
For this beloved but isolated stretch of California coastline, tourism is the lifeblood of the community. Its recent history of unbelievably bad luck also includes a little thing called a global pandemic. With hotels and restaurants shuttered during most of 2020, starting 2021 with yet another devastating mudslide seemed downright Darwinian.
In that spirit, survival of the fittest is perhaps itself a fitting motto for the hardy locals who keep Big Sur humming no matter what Mother Nature—often helped by careless, fire-starting humans—can throw at them. The Basin Complex Fire of 2008 burned more than 162,000 acres over the course of a month and caused mass evacuations. It was followed by the Pfeiffer Fire of 2013 and by the horrific 2016 Soberanes Fire, in which more than 50 homes were lost. Accordingly, the Mud Creek slide of 2017 closed PCH again and brought yet more isolation and economic suffering.
Why live in Big Sur? Why own a business there?
Sipping a cocktail at sunset at iconic Nepenthe restaurant answers these questions, as does a hike among the legendary redwoods at Big Sur Lodge or a coastal stroll at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. There is something magical about Big Sur, and that magic is grounded in its remoteness. You have to want to be there to get there—now more than ever.
With the Rat Creek closure under repair by Caltrans until summer, Big Sur is once again struggling. The good news is that ALL businesses are open, and all are following active COVID-19 precautions. For a community with acutely limited health care access, protecting its residents is as important as protecting tourism revenue—as they’re inherently intertwined.
As Nepenthe’s Alicia Hahn Peterson puts it, “We know our employees are our greatest asset, and we are very proud that we have retained our staff and been able to support them and their families. Returning guests have been great, and all are continuing to wear masks and to practice good social distancing protocols. We appreciate the support and the courtesy to our staff and other guests.”
With a little planning, guests can safely enjoy the wonder that is Big Sur. From springtime poppies blanketing the slopes to summertime glamping, it’s a great time to plan your trip. Visitors from northern California can still access most of Big Sur’s beloved spots by traveling south from Carmel-by-the-Sea and from the Monterey Peninsula.
Visitors from the south can choose to drive the coastal route up from historic San Simeon as far as Rat Creek or zip up the 101 to Salinas and then cut across to the west. (Nacimiento-Fergusson Road remains closed due to fire damage and is the only east-west passage across the Santa Lucia Range; be aware and check Caltrans … check your gas tanks too. It’s quite a wild ride.)
Below are some suggestions for wining, dining, shopping and staying in Big Sur, so please do bring your mask and your credit card. These good people are ready to welcome you to one of California’s most beautiful coastal stretches, and they genuinely need our collective support.
For visitors approaching from the south, consider Treebones Resort and its yurts, where glamping takes on a whole new dimension when paired with one of California’s finest omakase sushi menus.
For families approaching from the north, a classic choice is Big Sur Lodge with its rustic cabins, hearty breakfasts and easily accessed hiking trails with towering redwoods.
If soaking in an outdoor tub while listening to the sounds of the Big Sur River sounds good, check out Glen Oaks and its recent “rustic modern” renovation. Glen Oaks offers a variety of room types, and with the Big Sur Roadhouse’s seasonal, inventive cuisine, there’s no need to go far for great food.
After an uncertain future due to the pandemic, beloved Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn has reopened under a nonprofit structure. Popular since the 1930s, a stay at tiny Deetjen’s—listed in the National Register of Historic Places—is a step back in time and is about as romantic as it gets for any duo looking for privacy and, well, privacy.
And if you’re feeling flush, there truly is no greater luxury than a stay at Post Ranch Inn. While not inexpensive, the Post experience is purely transportive as you dine on the edge of the coast and above the world itself. For oenophiles, Post Ranch Inn has one of California’s finest wine lists, bar none. Ask sommeliers Ted Glennon or Matthew Peterson to help you navigate the list.
No visit to Big Sur is complete without shopping at COAST Big Sur (image above), where repurposed redwood water tanks from the 1950s have become an incredible complex of art galleries, boutique shops and truly killer coffee. Yes, the coffee is really that good. Supporting the local artists and artisans of Big Sur is made easy by spending some money here.
Another magical destination is the Phoenix Shop at Nepenthe, which offers handcrafted jewelry and ceramics, children’s books, one-of-a-kind paintings and quilts, and plenty more. Recently, the namesake giant phoenix carving that marks the Nepenthe experience was briefly missing. That it returned and proudly flies again is evidence of the indomitable Big Sur spirit.
Diving for jade off the Big Sur coast is where longtime resident, surfer and artist Justin Barrett found his calling. His creations are exquisite, so call ahead and see what pieces might be available. His art is available only by private appointment.
Artists and authors have long felt the allure of Big Sur’s remoteness—none more so than writer Henry Miller, whose eponymous library is on everyone’s literary bucket list. Revisit his then-scandalous novels, in addition to the works of other Big Sur writers, at the Henry Miller Library—just a stone’s throw from Nepenthe.
And if you want to make your carbs count, absolutely no visit to Big Sur should preclude a stop at Big Sur Bakery. Sure, they serve dinner and have great food and killer wines, but what they have are the best pastries EVER MADE outside France. Full stop. Big Sur Bakery is worth the drive in and of itself. That still-warm bacon-cheddar croissant! And a perfect flat white to boot. Get there early, or be prepared to wait in line. It’s worth it.
Lastly, one of the best times to visit Big Sur is during November’s annual Big Sur Food & Wine Festival. Put on by a determined group of local volunteers and by Big Sur’s de facto (if unelected) mayor Aengus Wagner, the Big Sur Food & Wine experience includes signature events like Hiking with Stemware up to Rancho Rico and the Pinot Walkabout at Julia Pfeiffer State Park. Canceled due to coronavirus concerns in 2020, the 2021 event is luckily looking like a go, so watch the website to score some tickets before they sell out. Pretty much nothing is as fabulous as enjoying amazing food and wine while watching the sun set over the Pacific in Big Sur. Get there at least once in your life to experience this festival.
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