venturing into Big Sur
February 5, 2009 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Tomorrow afternoon, I'm driving south on Hwy 1/Big Sur Coast Highway from Monterey to Lucia. I've never driven this road before, and I'll be alone. Thing is, it's supposed to rain hard tomorrow and apparently Big Sur Highway + lotsa rain = rock & mud slides. Unfortunately, dodging mudslides while driving along rainy cliffs aren't exactly skills I've developed living in pancake-flat Houston. Does it really get that treacherous? Should I postpone this trip for a less rainy season? If not, what are you supposed to do if you see a bunch of mud and rocks tumbling towards you and your rental car?

I've been needing to take a personal break, so I booked a room at the New Camaldoli Hermitage for a few days of reflection and solitude and scenic views. I'm flying into Monterey Airport, renting a car then driving 55 miles south to Lucia. In normal conditions, I'd look forward to the drive, but the idea of sliding rocks and mud has me pretty worried. It also seems the California fires have increased the risk of these mudslides.

(It's supposed to be sunny on my drive north back to Monterey, so I'm only worried about the drive south).

My questions:
1. How likely is it that I'd actually encounter serious problems with a rock or mud slide?

2. Plenty of websites and some blogs warn about the rock/mudslides, but none explain exactly what to do if you run into one (or it runs into you...). Any advice?

3. Is there an alternate route I could take? According to this map on the Camaldoli website, it looks like I could take 101 to King City, then cut across to Lucia on Jolon Road....but I can't find that route on Google or Yahoo Maps.

4. I'm considering cancelling or postponing this trip - but is that overreacting? I'd lose some money, but not too much.

posted by yeoja to Travel & Transportation around California (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Have you called Camaldoli to confirm the alternate route? If they confirm the alternate route, I think you should be fine. They can also give you updates on road/weather conditions either on Hwy 1 or the Jolon road. The 101 should not be an issue in terms of the weather.

It's a gorgeous drive but I think you're smart to be cautious in terms of the weather conditions.

FWIW, it is raining in So-Cal and the rain is expected to continue through Saturday.
posted by cjets at 2:39 PM on February 5, 2009

I wouldn't cancel the trip, I just probably wouldn't take 1. I'd backtrack east to 101 south and then come west. It's a beautiful drive, but during rainstorms it's better to be safe.

Also keep in mind that 1 may look to be less distance but that doesn't mean it's faster. There are more local roads, stop signs, lights and curves so the speed limit is low.
posted by miss lynnster at 2:47 PM on February 5, 2009

Yep, confirm with the Camaldoli that the Jolon Road will be passable. I can't give you odds on mudslides (though yes, the fires last year made them a lot more likely now), but I can confirm that that stretch of PCH can be tricky even in good weather, so I would definitely consider the alternate route given the weather that's coming this weekend.
posted by scody at 2:49 PM on February 5, 2009

I would not take the alternate route. The only real road that goes over is Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, which is extremely narrow and twisty (far more so than 1) and very isolated. You'll also have to go through Fort Hunter Liggett, an Army base, who may close the road.
posted by zsazsa at 2:51 PM on February 5, 2009

The risk of a rockslide or mudslide careening down the side of a hill and nabbing you as you drive past is many orders of magnitude smaller than the risk of hitting another car over the same route (several traffic accidents every week, several slides every year). If you're in Houston, your drive to the airport is statistically far more dangerous than your drive to Lucia.

The purpose of the warning is to remind you that slides do occasionally occur and that you shouldn't drive into one that has already slid across the road. So just drive slowly and defensively. (It's so pretty that you won't want to speed anyway.)
posted by gum at 3:01 PM on February 5, 2009

Best answer: FWIW, I've driven a bit on Jolon Rd, though going in the other direction, towards Paso Robles and Lake Nacimiento. Jolon Road is a winding, two lane affair that weaves through canyons. It's a long drive, and will be even longer in the rain. Also, it's a very rural route with few services along the way.

Personally, I'd much rather drive Hwy 1, which is gorgeous. In clear weather, Hwy 1 south of Monterey has some of the most beautiful and dramatic coastal view of any highway in California. I think your risk of encountering a rock slide is minimal, especially early in this storm cycle: the ground is extremely dry right now, as we've had a very dry winter. It may become more dangerous as the ground gets soaked, but you shouldn't have much increased risk tomorrow. In fact, if the storm is a solid one, there may be more risk on the return.
posted by mosk at 3:04 PM on February 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I grew up next to that stretch of road and drove it regularly. I have family and friends who still do, and none of us has ever been caught in a slide. You're much more likely to get halfway to your destination and find that the road's been blocked ahead of you. Call ahead and confirm that the way is still clear. There's the CA Dept. of Transportation website, which lists the 1 as currently clear.
posted by lekvar at 3:05 PM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I wouldn't cancel my trip, but I also WOULD NOT take Jolon Road, especially since the east-west leg of it marked on the retreat's map doesn't appear (readily) in googlemaps.

But even if it did, I'd be extremely wary of taking a mountain road. I've driven on the smaller, local cross-ranges roads in coastal California, and they can be every bit as terrifying as Rte 1, but with the added "benefit" of less traffic (no one arrives to help for hours and hours if you get stuck or break down), and a good chance that portions of the road may only fit one car at a time, so be ready to back down - or up - an unfamiliar windy road with no guard rail to allow a car or truck (we met a logging truck once on a road like that! fun!) to get by.

Stick to Rte 1. For all the yelping about this storm, it's actually not going to produce a lot of rain, unfortunately. This is the forecast and the precipitation so far for Big Sur; they're predicting "showers." It hasn't been a very wet winter so far, and landslides tend to happen when the ground is much more saturated. (This is not a guarantee that one won't happen, of course.)

As for what to do if you see a landslide: if it's in front of you, stop; if it looks like it's going to broadside you, pedal to the metal (but remember the curves in the road!). Chances are slim that it will happen at all, so try not to worry about it.
posted by rtha at 3:10 PM on February 5, 2009

I second rtha in that every time we have been getting big hype about rain, it's barely rained at all. I seriously would not worry about this.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:17 PM on February 5, 2009

I think US 1 would still be the way to go, even in the rain. Once you get past Nacimiento Jolon Rd. is absolutely in the middle of nowhere and as mosk mentioned a tough drive, even in good conditions. I haven't gone the whole way to the coast on it, but have done a good bit of it. I remember there being next to nothing and little to no cell service, but this was around 4 years back.

Smaller rock do routinely end up in the road on US 1, so just go slow and keep your eyes open.
posted by cbp at 3:22 PM on February 5, 2009

I've lived in the Monterey area since 1985 and have never talked to anyone who has been caught in a mudslide on Highway 1. Certainly it could happen, but the odds are very slim. For your own peace of mind, you might want to call the Camaldoli Hermitage and get their perspective. I second the comments about avoiding the Jolon road. Ditto the comment about checking with the California Transportation website or phone: 800-427-7623 ==> currently: "no traffic restrictions are reported for this area."
posted by ranebo at 3:36 PM on February 5, 2009

I don't think it will be that much of a problem.

First of all, you're driving south on the 1, which means you're on the other side of the road from where any mudslides will originate.

Secondly, I live in San Luis Obispo, about 2 hours south of Lucia, and today the weather has just been light rain. So hopefully it won't be too bad by tomorrow.
posted by JauntyFedora at 3:57 PM on February 5, 2009

Well, Mr. Minervous and I were out there this past holiday season and we hit - or were hit, sorta - by a rock slide about 5 miles north of Esalen in Big Sur. It wasn't mud, but it did break the car quite completely.

(The rocks came down in front of us, around a blind curve, and despite the fact that we were going around 15 MPH (it was foggy), we couldn't dodge them. We drove over them. There was much banging and scraping. The dashboard lit up. We coasted about half a mile before the engine died and we stopped dead.)

I can't speak to what may happen with the weather, but I can tell you what to do about your rental car. Of course, make sure you have full liability and collision coverage through the rental company or your credit card company.

If you have an accident, try to get the car off the highway. Turn the blinkers on. Call the rental company's accident hotline and follow their instructions. If they can't get a tow truck to you quickly (which was our experience), flag a ride or call a local taxi so that you can continue on to your hotel. Call the CA Highway Patrol and report your car so that they don't ticket and tow it. You'll have to go back or stay there to meet the tow truck and get a ride back to the rental car's repair depot. Once there, they'll put you in a new car.

The chances of this happening to you? Small. But if it does, you'll be fine. Rental car companies deal with this all the time.
posted by minervous at 4:34 PM on February 5, 2009

The problem is unlikely to be mud slides, fallen trees or the like - we're talking an inch or two of rain. The most likely issue you will come across is California drivers forgetting how to drive in the rain - it isn't the coastal dwellers who have that issue. It's mainly Californians who don't see rain that often, or aren't used to the curves in the road. Spitting on the freeway in LA can result in loss of traction, I swear.
posted by jet_silver at 4:44 PM on February 5, 2009

Well you're hearing from a lot of people here who think its no big deal, BUT

Honestly, even on a clear day, Highway 1 south is scary. You are literally driving right along the edge of a massive cliff with a ton of twists and turns and no guardrail.

Maybe I am a wimp... but if you've never done it and are used to driving on straight flat roads with plenty of open space next to you... it will be a new experience, to say the least.
posted by muscat at 5:01 PM on February 5, 2009

Take your time, be careful. There will be mooks and morons driving too fast/slow, use a turnout let them pass. We haven't had a enough rain for the real slides yet but there may be rocks, don't speed around blind corners.
Enjoy the view, smell the bushes (not the Poison Oak!) bring lunch or snacks.
I love Big Sur.
posted by blink_left at 8:37 PM on February 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's one of the most beautiful roads I have ever been on - just take it easy and enjoy!
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:26 PM on February 6, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much everyone for the advice! I ended up taking Hwy 1 down to Lucia - it was cloudy and slightly drizzly, but no thunderstorms as forecasted. There were a few clusters of rocks on the road, but no big deal. I did drive from Lucia to Cambria one day, and that part of the highway seemed to have more steep cliffs and sharp turns than further north near Monterey. Anyways, the drive was far less scary and so much more beautiful than I imagined. Thanks again!!
posted by yeoja at 1:38 PM on February 11, 2009

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