Update: On Tuesday, March 28th State Parks opened the bypass trail to local residents, school children and people who work south of the downed bridge. Trail users must get a pass from State Parks and sign a waiver. The trail opens a half hour before sunrise and closes a half hour after sunset.
Just to the south of where the Pfeiffer Big Sur bridge used to stand, a helicopter sits parked on Highway 1 in front of the Big Sur Deli. A sign of the times in this now isolated part of the Central Coast.
It’s been more than a month since the bridge was condemned and an ongoing mudslide blocked the highway to the south. Both disasters have virtually separated the south side of the community from the rest of the world.
But inside the deli, life feels almost normal. Music plays over the sound system and the shelves look freshly stocked. It’s the only place that’s stayed open just south of the bridge.
“We have been doing supply runs around the south through Nacimiento,” says Stephen Mayer, who works at the Deli, his family’s store.
That’s Nacimiento Fergusson Road. It’s rugged and remote four hour drive to normally nearby Monterey where Mayer lives. Going home is not part of his daily routine. “Yeah, I just sleep on the floor. I have an air mattress, ” says Mayer.
With a replacement bridge not expected to be complete for six months, he’s eager for a new trail around the bridge to open. “Oh it’s going to be very important. I think I’m going to be hiking in and out every day if I can, just to get back home.”
Mayer and other locals have cars on either side of the downed bridge meaning the trail will bring life, kind of, back to normal.
A sign at the new trailhead just up the road reads “Trail Closed Under Construction”. Waiting for it to open is a test of patience for locals who willingly found ways to hike through the steep and rugged terrain before approaching State Parks about building a formal trail.
“It’s critical. It’s not like we can wait another month or two months or even a week,” says Carissa Chappellet. She’s been organizing locals to help State Parks and the California Conservation Corps build the trail. “I don’t know how to stress this cause for me I mean it’s really personal.”
Everyone on the south side of the bridge has a story of hardship from being isolated for more than a month. “I have actually have a very dear friend, who is actually my ex-husband from years ago who has stage 4 cancer that I've been his primary care person for. So for a month I’ve been cut off from being able to help him. Luckily I have friends who are helping. This is one story,” she says.
There’s also the story of the roughly 40 kids who can’t get to school. For now teachers are being flown in by helicopter. Others who have been able to hang on to their jobs, can’t get to work.
But the trail, while nearly done, is still a construction site. I walked it Monday with John De Luca of California State Parks. We make our way back and forth through switchbacks and several flights of stairs. He says the steep hillside required the trail to be this elaborate.
“There’s really not much footing. You’d be on all fours grabbing at trees and branches to pull yourself up,” says De Luca.
There’s still one retaining wall still needs to be built, and the trail will need some rehab after the recent rains. Once complete, it will be for Big Sur locals only. Expanding access is an ongoing debate, especially for local businesses who rely on tourists.
“It’s still being developed, the trail plan itself. But the intended use is for the immediate needs of the community. Depending on weather and other environmental issues, it may be scheduled during daylight hours only, during best weather conditions,” says De Luca.
An official open date has not been set.