Highway 1 in Big Sur: Doomed to be forever rebuilt?

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Eddie Sun

A drone view shows Highway 1 and the waves below after severe weather and heavy rains caused a partial collapse of the road near Big Sur, California, U.S., April 5, 2024. Photo by REUTERS/Fred Greaves.

The stretch of Highway 1 that snakes along the edge of the Pacific Ocean and passes through Big Sur is one of the most picturesque roads in the world. It’s also among the most treacherous, subject to frequent landslides. That part of the highway closed at the end of March due to the Rocky Creek Slide, which isolated thousands of residents in the coastal community. Repairs on the 86-year-old road will cost upwards of $100 million. 

So how devastating is the damage? The infrastructure underneath the highway, which was installed during the 1980s, appears to have crumbled away, says Brianna Sacks, extreme weather and disasters reporter for The Washington Post.

The rock in the area is younger than other parts of the continent, which are older and denser. It’s also rich in clay, which is more prone to movement. 

“People built PCH back in the 1930s. I don't think they were really thinking about that. So they cut into this hillside, really not knowing what was underneath and how fragile it was. So I think PCH was built to fail, in a way, because of the type of rock that it was built into.” 

As a result, the area could become more dangerous. Now, it’s a matter of preparing for the next disaster.

“It's like Whac-a-Mole with this. And I think CalTrans and scientists have just accepted that reality. They're trying to get better at predicting where the next slide might happen,” Sacks explains. 

Preparation, however, conflicts with preserving the area’s fragile ecosystem, she points out. The Monterey Bay is home to black abalone, an endangered aquatic species that clusters in rocky habitats.

“There's also this fascinating conundrum of: climate change is ruining this iconic piece of history and part of California's identity. But to fix it would actually harm the environment as well, right? So there's been a lot of push and pull from environmentalists and CalTrans on how to make this safer without further damaging the environment.”