Highway 1 in Big Sur will reopen Friday, two months ahead of Caltrans’ schedule. A section of the roadway at Rat Creek has been closed since late January.
It was back on January 28, during a powerful rainstorm, that a debris flow from land burned in the 2020 Dolan Fire washed out both lanes of Highway 1 at Rat Creek. A combination of water, boulder and trees overwhelmed the road’s drainage infrastructure. By the time the storm passed, a 150 ft. chunk of the scenic highway was missing.
Construction crews have been on the job seven days a week since the storm, according to Caltrans Public Information Officer Kevin Drabinski. He describes the repair work as an “amazing ballet.”
“Always in motion, kind of like a heartbeat,” Drabinski said. “That advanced the project to a timely conclusion.”
Thanks to the steady work, plus favorable weather, Caltrans plans to reopen Highway 1 on Friday, April 23 at noon, a date the agency has consistently moved up. First estimates looked toward early summer, then April 30.
Although Caltrans considered three different bridge designs, they settled on filling the 150 ft. chasm with dirt and building a new road on top. Drabinski said the latter option was more cost effective and would allow them to reopen the road sooner. The project, which cost $11.5 million, involved moving a lot of Earth; approximately 70,000 cubic yards of debris was removed from the site and about 45,0000 cubic yards of dirt came in.
Diana Ballantyne, general manager of Fernwood Resort in the heart of Big Sur, can’t wait for Friday.
“Caltrans always tries to under promise and over deliver, and they definitely did that this time,” she said.
Fernwood is a campground resort on the Big Sur River. There’s a motel, grocery store and a bar and grill plus a live music venue. Like all businesses in the area, the road closure was an added burden on top of the economic fallout from the pandemic.
She said the biggest challenge was handling the public perception that Big Sur had fallen into the ocean. While the closure prevented people from traveling the entire coastline, people could still access Big Sur from the north. She laughed while saying she’s looking forward to “just not having to answer the questions of how to get to Big Sur.”
As the road reopens, Ballantyne reminds visitors that Big Sur is not a series of Instagram photo ops. It’s an experience.
“Experience Bixby Bridge, just drive over it. You don’t need to stop and take a picture of it,” Ballantyne said. “And then go to Henry Miller Library and spend a couple of hours reading or go to our back deck and listen to live musicians play.”
Additional construction activities will continue past Friday’s reopening and, at times, there will be intermittent traffic control at Rat Creek that may cause delays of up to 10 minutes. Future work includes improving the roadway’s drainage infrastructure. In addition to a five ft. diameter culvert and two 24 inch culverts already installed, crews will add a 10 ft. diameter, one-inch thick steel pipe culvert underneath the roadway that will outlet to the ocean. Caltrans said this will improve water flow capacity and make the highway more resilient to future flooding and debris flows.