Features

An Ode To Highway 1

by Benjamin Schneider, Meredith May and Jeanne Cooper

Photo courtesy of Daniel Peckham.
Photo courtesy of Daniel Peckham.

As we contemplate travel in 2022, road trips continue to hold a lot of appeal. And with access to such a storied thoroughfare as Highway 1, Californians aren’t complaining. We celebrate our coastal passageway with a three-part look at its engineering, its personal charms and worthy reasons to explore anew.


At the 1937 dedication of the Carmel–San Simeon Highway through Big Sur, Governor Frank Merriam ceremoniously dynamited a boulder, capping off 20 years of construction. | Photo courtesy of Caltrans
At the 1937 dedication of the Carmel–San Simeon Highway through Big Sur, Governor Frank Merriam ceremoniously dynamited a boulder, capping off 20 years of construction. | Photo courtesy of Caltrans

1 Part 1 :The battle against the elements

How the most treacherous span of one of the world’s most famous highways was first constructed — and how the engineering marvel is maintained today.

Last winter, a stretch of Highway 1 in Big Sur turned into a scene out of a Road Runner cartoon. For 150 feet near Rat Creek, the world-famous road simply disappeared into thin air, victim of a landslide caused by days of heavy rain on the burn scar of the 2020 Dolan Fire.

“It defied the imagination,” says Kevin Drabinski, public relations officer for the Caltrans district that includes Big Sur. “It was a far enough gap that I thought in my mind, how are they ever going to repair this?”

Repair it Caltrans did, over the course of 86 frantic days. The washed-out road may have been mind-blowing, but it wasn’t exactly unexpected.

“In geological spans of time, the conditions have been consistent on the Big Sur coast,” Drabinski says. “That is, geologically active, and the steep hills lend themselves to mudslides or rock slides. That’s built into the nature of the location.”

The dramatic meetings of land and water that make the central California coast so famous also made Highway 1 an epic struggle to construct — and make it a bear to keep open on a daily basis.

The original impetus for a highway along this rugged swath of coast, roughly between Carmel and San Simeon, came from a doctor named John L.D. Roberts. In the 1890s, the 30-something-year-old Roberts would ride south on horseback from his home in Carmel along precipitous trails to attend to residents in the Big Sur area. It was such a dangerous and inefficient means of travel that he took it upon himself to begin photographing and surveying the area for a future road.

Roberts’ early efforts helped form the basis of a 1917 appropriation from the state legislature that set in motion a construction process as winding as the highway itself.

With its breathtaking beauty and cliff-hugging curves, Highway 1 is at once awe-inspiring and stomach churning. | Photo courtesy of Caltrans.
With its breathtaking beauty and cliff-hugging curves, Highway 1 is at once awe-inspiring and stomach-churning. | Photo courtesy of Caltrans.

Earth-moving on the Carmel–San Simeon leg began in 1921 and was immediately challenged by the elements, as Carina Monica Montoya describes in Pacific Coast Highway in California (Images of America). Equipment regularly fell off cliffs and into the ocean. Dynamite, then a popular excavation method, destabilized many cliffs even more than Mother Nature had already done. By 1924, construction was halted due to labor shortages in the remote area, only to resume in 1928 with the introduction of convict labor.

It wasn’t until 1937 that the Carmel– San Simeon Highway was formally dedicated by Governor Frank Merriam at a ceremony near Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. By that point, 29 of 32 planned bridges had been completed along the route, all designed by California State Bridge Engineer Frederick Panhorst. Those bridges, most notably the scenic Bixby Creek Bridge, have since become world-famous tourist attractions.

With locals, tourists and state officials leery of modifying these century-old structures, Caltrans engineers have turned to a high-tech solution known as electrochemical chloride extraction (ECE) to keep them in good shape. Through this process, engineers are able to reverse the decay of these reinforced concrete bridges. “We run electricity through the bridge, and it extracts the elements that participate in the corrosion of the rebar,” Drabinski explains.

The ECE process takes place over the course of several months, without closing the bridge to traffic, by wrapping electrically charged anodes around key parts of the structure. The Malpaso Creek Bridge recently got the treatment over the course of 305 days, at a cost of about $1 million to taxpayers. It’s one of two bridges in Big Sur to have undergone ECE in recent years, with two more coming soon, Drabinski says. “If you can maintain that historic bridge structure instead of replacing it, then that’s going to be your best alternative.”

While winter storms often cause road closures, this was an extreme case: a 150-foot section in Big Sur washed out last January. | Photo courtesy of Caltrans.
While winter storms often cause road closures, this was an extreme case: a 150-foot section in Big Sur washed out last January. | Photo courtesy of Caltrans.

Finding ways to keep the existing infrastructure up and running is especially important in Big Sur, where there are no alternate routes. The Devil’s Slide viaduct and tunnels in San Mateo County — the biggest infrastructure project in recent memory along the entirety of Highway 1 — benefited considerably from the inland connection to Half Moon Bay provided by Highway 92. During the 86-day Rat Creek closure in Big Sur, destinations on either side, like Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park to the north and Hearst Castle to the south, required approximately two-and-a-half hours of additional travel, Drabinski says.

Countless other small-scale, low-tech interventions help keep the highway operational.

Using cameras and motion-sensing ground monitors, Caltrans can identify trouble spots before a major rock slide occurs. Then, Caltrans sends out teams for “rock scaling,” rappelling down a cliff face and shaking off loose rock while the roadway is closed. Think of it as a controlled burn for landslides. “You’re causing the rocks to fall on your schedule and time in a safe manner,” Drabinski says.

More routine maintenance includes cleaning out the hundreds of culverts that divert water beneath the road when it traverses a canyon. Naturally, many of these century-old drainage channels are no longer up to snuff. The failure of the Rat Creek culvert was a major factor in the extended 2021 closure. While the highway was shut down, the culvert was replaced by one double in size.

While it’s certainly an improvement, the culvert is no guarantee against future road closures. “The needs change from year to year,” Drabinski says. “It’s certainly a dynamic situation.”


Author Meredith May at age 17 on Carmel Beach, one of California’s most iconic coastal spots. The waterfront Scenic Drive is also a local draw. | Photo courtesy of Meredith May.
Author Meredith May at age 17 on Carmel Beach, one of California’s most iconic coastal spots. The waterfront Scenic Drive is also a local draw. | Photo courtesy of Meredith May.

2 Part 2 : What a road can represent

A local writer reflects on the towns dotting a stretch of the coastal highway, which figure prominently in her memories.

I am 6, standing in the bed of Grandpa’s pickup holding on to the crossbar of the contractor’s rack.

He’s behind the wheel, whistling down the Coast Highway in Big Sur. His job is to keep his eyes on the curving cliffside road. Mine is to keep my eyes on the sea. Finally, I see it.

“Whale!” I scream over the roar of the engine. Grandpa takes his right hand off the steering wheel and reaches through the open cab window. We high five. That’s one.

We’re headed to Nepenthe restaurant to fix the toilets. Along the way, we spot 11 spouts and one tail break the surface of the Pacific. We crawl under the restaurant to find the leaky pipe. As I hand Grandpa the wrenches and the pipe dope he asks for, I wonder how big the whales are. Are they bigger than a fire truck? Above me, I can hear the footfalls of servers and the clang of dishes, and the laughter of people who can afford to pay other people to bring them food. Grandpa and me, we don’t have a lot of money. But we have whales.

Five summers later, I scramble on the seaweed-covered rocks along 17-Mile Drive in Pacific Grove, trying to keep up with my grandmother. Grandma May spent most of her life on this shoreline, and she hops from boulder to boulder with the balance of a seagull.

The tide is ebbing, leaving seawater puddles behind in the crevices. Grandma May is bent over, inspecting something.

“Magoo! Come look at this!” she hollers, using her nickname for me.

I crouch down next to her and peer into the tidepool, shocked to find a whole underwater city. I see seaweed “palm trees” sprouting before a rock covered in white barnacles that look like miniature volcanoes. Two bat stars are stretching their red legs toward one another. When I reach into the water for a purple spiral shell shaped like a turban, it gets up on crab legs and skitters away.

“Watch this,” Grandma May says. She pokes a green sea anemone, and it retracts its pink-tipped tentacles into a closed fist.

I’m afraid it will sting me, but In Grandma I Trust. Carefully, I tap an anemone and it recoils in a flash, giving me the thrilling sensation that I’ve just shaken hands with an alien.

I am 16 and tiptoeing across one corner of the Pebble Beach golf course in the dark. My friends and I are trying to not alert security as we sneak boxes of firewood and cheap beer over the manicured greens. Our destination is a section of Carmel Beach where the wind and waves have carved a cavelike hideout in the sandstone cliff that we have inexplicably dubbed “Zoom.”

I crouch down next to her and peer into the tidepool, shocked to find a whole underwater city. I see seaweed “palm trees” sprouting before a rock covered in white barnacles that look like miniature volcanoes.

We light a bonfire. Someone starts playing “Hotel California” on a guitar and we sing. Louder and louder, until we are screaming like Eagles.

I get a sudden urge to swim. I slip away from the group, strip down to my underwear and plunge into the frigid Pacific. I close my eyes and duck under the swells, putting all my trust into the dark unknown. A boy I like comes swimming after me.

“You’re too far out. Let’s go back,” he says.

I don’t need a rescue, but I let this boy think he’s saving me because the worry on his face makes my heart pinwheel in my chest. •••

I am 50, inside the Kelp Forest at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in scuba gear. I wriggle a piece of squid against the glass to lure the leopard shark to shimmy its white belly against the window, giving the crowd a good view of its mouth as it takes the food.

I can’t hear the children, but through the glass I see their eyes widen and their mouths open in a wondrous “Ahhhhh!”

When the aquarium opened in 1984, Grandpa and I were among the first in line. When I saw scuba divers inside the exhibits, I told him that I was going to do that one day. Now I volunteer several times a month cleaning windows and feeding fish. And I wave at children. They come running to the windows and gape, astonished to discover what lies beneath. Now I’m the elder revealing the magic to another generation. Back on dry land, perhaps one day they’ll realize that Highway 1 borders this marvelous world where humpbacks sing, where lifelong friendships are forged by bonfires and where a whole microcosmos lives in a tidepool.

Their awe is mine — still.

Meredith May, an award-winning journalist and fifth-generation beekeeper, grew up in Big Sur and Carmel Valley; she currently calls the latter home once again. May spent 16 years at the San Francisco Chronicle and later authored the 2019 memoir The Honey Bus. Her forthcoming memoir, Loving Edie: How a Dog Afraid of Everything Taught Me to Be Brave, will be published in April.


A couple takes a railbike on the tracks typically traversed by Fort Bragg’s famous Skunk Train. | Photo courtesy of Brendan Mcguigan.
A couple takes a railbike on the tracks typically traversed by Fort Bragg’s famous Skunk Train. | Photo courtesy of Brendan Mcguigan.

3 Part 3: Detours and destinations hold new appeal

Planning a road trip? Highway 1 should be number one on your list. The scenery along the sinuous road remains as spectacular as ever, while renovations and innovations from 10 regions en route — north to south — offer plenty of reasons to pull over.

Mendocino County

Brewery Gulch Inn’s new chef Stephen Smith, formerly of Stars and Albion River Inn, creates enticing breakfast fare such as amaretto brioche French toast, plus seasonal “wine hour” appetizers served in salvaged redwood boxes specific to each of the 10 guest rooms. Nosh in your room or elsewhere in the blufftop venue overlooking Smuggler’s Cove. From $425. brewerygulchinn.com

Dogs can now join their humans ogling redwoods on the Skunk Train’s Railbikes on Pudding Creek excursion, which includes about an hour’s pedaling on two-person, electric-powered custom bikes on railroad tracks and a 50-minute stopover for a forest hike or picnic. $250 per bike, dog trailer $30. skunktrain.com

Sonoma Coast

After a two-year closure for restoration, the landmark Sea Ranch Lodge reopened its oceanview dining room, cozy barn and lounge, cafe, general store and post office last fall. While the lodge’s accommodations are still under renovation, take advantage of numerous vacation rentals on the 3,500-acre Sea Ranch, which still hews to its 1960s ethos of blending in with the environment. thesearanchlodge.com

Bonus: You don’t have to be a Sea Ranch guest to join the two-hour guided walking tour of its architecture, landscape and nature with Margaret Lindgren, owner of Unbeaten Path Tours — you just have to book well in advance. $85, two-person minimum. unbeatenpathtours.com

Russian River Detour

Whether heading to or from the northern coastal route via Jenner, an inland stopover is worth it for the 21-room Stavrand Russian River Valley. The luxurious transformation of the former Applewood Inn now provides complimentary bikes, kayaks and inner tubes to guests. And Guerneville, home to classic shops like the Guerneville 5 & 10 and the new Russian River Books & Letters, is just a 10-minute stroll away. From $497. thestavrand.com

This spring, swing by Healdsburg’s Westside Road, where San Francisco designer Jay Jeffers will reveal his update of Madrona Manor, which he purchased with an investment team last March. Now called The Madrona, the Dry Creek Valley estate will also feature a new menu by Michelin-starred chef Jesse Mallgren. themadronahotel.com

Northern Monterey County

Most people speed through Castroville on their way to Monterey, but Ag Venture Tours & Consulting provides a new reason for artichoke lovers to put on the brakes at Pezzini Farms, just off Highway 1. Book a 90-minute walking tour that includes an overview of Salinas Valley agriculture, in-depth artichoke lore and an artichoke cupcake or deep-fried artichoke hearts. $55. agventuretours.com

Steer into Carmel-by-the-Sea for made-toorder decadence from Dutch Door Donuts, which opened last fall in Carmel Plaza. The family-owned artisan shop has won avid fans for flavors such as blood orange, ground chocolate and pistachio cardamom, plus an expert cup of coffee. dutchdoordonuts.com

Big Sur

Stretch your legs and then some along the Pine Ridge Trail, a 19-mile, out-and-back trek through the Ventana Wilderness from Big Sur Station to Sykes Hot Springs. The popular trail in Los Padres National Forest reopened last April after more than four years of closure due to fire and storm damage. Reward the effort with a stay or a meal at iconic Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, which reopened its rustic lodgings in late 2020 and its restaurant last May. From $135 with shared bath, $250 with private bath. deetjens.com

Cambria and Cayucos

These villages on San Luis Obispo County’s northern coast are chock-full of places to explore. Make your home base the White Water Inn, an imaginative, ocean-themed remodel of two former hotels on Cambria’s Moonstone Beach, with an enticing surf break just across the bluff. From $229. whitewatercambria.com

For a unique make-your-own meal, Spencer Marley of Marley Family Seaweeds will show you how to forage edible seaweed sustainably. The private tour in Cayucos ends with preparing a bowl of traditional Japanese seaweed ramen. $125. marleyfamilyseaweeds.com

The birds may in fact have the best view of the road to San Luis Obispo. Hotel Cerro, located in the city’s downtown area, is mere minutes from Highway 1. | Photo courtesy of Highway 1 Discovery Route.
The birds may in fact have the best view of the road to San Luis Obispo. Hotel Cerro, located in the city’s downtown area, is mere minutes from Highway 1. | Photo courtesy of Highway 1 Discovery Route.

San Luis Obispo

After a long drive, check into downtown’s newly sophisticated Hotel Cerro and refresh yourself with a cocktail at its vibrant rooftop pool and cafe, also open to the public on Friday and Saturday late afternoons. Its Brasserie SLO restaurant is considered one of the city’s best, while around the corner is the long-running Thursday night farmers’ market, with live entertainment and 120 food and craft vendors lining Higuera Street. From $315. hotelcerro.com

For more regional farm-sourced gifts — including olive oil, honey and soaps — visit the Apple Farm Inn’s new Marketplace and Cellar. The latter features local wines, ciders, seltzers and other libations. applefarm.com

Avila Beach and Pismo Beach

One block from the sands of Avila Beach, shuck fresh Morro Bay oysters on the back patio of the Sinor- LaVallee tasting room, and pair them with wine from grapes grown in the winery’s nearby Bassi Vineyard. Tip: To guarantee a portion, visit the online shop and order oysters ahead. $25 per dozen. sinorlavallee.com

In Pismo Beach, pet-friendly Vespera Resort has direct access to the boardwalk and now offers a convenient beach shuttle, beach chairs and toys — including special ones for pups. At night, study the stars through the collapsible telescope provided in all 124 rooms, along with a stargazing map. From $303. vesperapismobeach.com

Santa Barbara

In September, for the first time, the Michelin Guide recognized Santa Barbara County as a star-worthy dining destination. Chef Lennon Silvers-Lee’s ingenious, omakase-style Sushi|Bar Montecito earned a one-star rating, as did Daisy Ryan’s locally sourced French bistro cuisine at Bell’s Restaurant in Los Alamos. sushibarmontecito.com, bellsrestaurant.com

Lounge chairs are at the ready at Malibu Beach Inn. | Photo courtesy of Malibu Beach Inn.
Lounge chairs are at the ready at Malibu Beach Inn. | Photo courtesy of Malibu Beach Inn.

Malibu

Make Malibu the grand prix of your Highway 1 getaway with an overnight stay. At chic Malibu Beach Inn, book the new Fliteboard Experience, which includes a private lesson on an electric foiling surfboard, or just enjoy the views while dining at the 47-room hotel’s Carbon Beach Club, overlooking Malibu Pier. Fliteboard Experience, from $1,010; room only, from $995. malibubeachinn.com

Calamigos Guest Ranch and Beach Club boasts 56 recently renovated cottages and bungalows on a 250-acre spread in the Santa Monica Mountains, plus a beachfront outpost within a 12-minute drive. Go hiking or paddleboarding in the morning, then unwind with a massage at Spa Calamigos or sunset cocktails on the beach. From $545. calamigosguestranch.com

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