The trail, 3,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean along Coastal Range of Central California, was a four- to six-inch-wide path of loose gravel bordered on the left by a cliff that crumbled in my hand and on my right by a sheer drop into a ravine. I took a tentative step to test my footing and the trail disappeared underneath me. I slid ten feet down the slope before I grabbed onto a branch of scrub oak and arrested the fall. Luckily, I managed to catch my bike by its chain.
Thinking I’d found solid footing, I let go of the branch. Nope, down I went. Twenty feet later, I hit the bottom of a boulder-strewn dry creekbed. My left arm was a bloody mess. I was five miles from a paved road and another four miles from civilization. I had half a bottle of water, one Clif bar, and no idea how to escape this ravine.
This was not part of my plan.
Last winter and spring’s record rainfall along the California coast wreaked havoc on Highway 1 between Big Sur and San Simeon. It knocked out the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, effectively cutting off the southern end of the village from the world. That’s because roughly 20 miles south of Big Sur, “Paul’s Slide” had turned Big Sur into an island unless you traveled by foot. But even more dramatic, the massive Mud Creek slide 22 miles north of San Simeon altered the coastline. Google Maps satellite view shows it as a giant splotch of sand flowing into the sea.
The result: Almost 65 miles of some of the most dramatic road cycling in the world on a remote stretch of coast, with about as much daily traffic as you’d expect in a suburban neighborhood. And nary a bus-sized RV in sight.
Big Sur local Joaquin Sullivan took advantage of the situation, launching Big Sur Adventures, an e-bike rental business for people to ride the empty highway. “By the fall I was renting out my fleet of 54 fat-tire e-bikes twice a day on weekends. And I’d guess there were close to 200 additional road cyclists out there as well,” he said.
Before the slide split the highway in two, Caltrans recorded peak average daily traffic of 3,200 vehicles at the Monterey/San Luis Obispo county line south of the Mud Creek slide to 4,500 just south of the iconic waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur. While Caltrans’ hasn’t released numbers for the recording season that just ended, I’d put that peak traffic number in the hundreds, and even less for October.
I pedaled into Big Sur from Carmel on a Friday afternoon and was greeted by a steady stream of roadies coming the other way, tennis shoes stuffed in their jersey pockets or poking out of hydration packs, having put in a day of riding on the auto-free zone on the other side. The next morning I headed south. By the time I got to the Esalen Institute, traffic had petered out to a passenger vehicle or motorcycle (and no commercial trucks or RVs) passing me every couple of minutes or so.
Previously, I found a route around the Mud Creek slide heading into the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest on Los Burros Road, a dirt track (and Strava segment!) that climbed 7.5 miles and 3,250 feet up into the Coastal Range with access to remote campgrounds and a few private homes, with another 3.5 miles to the Salmon Creek Trail. From there it was a six-mile hike—no riding allowed—straight back down to the highway.
I hit Los Burros at half-past noon and realized that my skinny-tire road bike with no granny gear was not going to cut it. This was going to be a long-ass day of mostly hike-a-biking. It took me three hours to cover the 11 miles to the entry to the Salmon Creek Trail, hitching a ride for two of those miles with a local who lived on a sweet solar-powered spread on top of the ridgeline.
Chaparral scrub had almost completely grown over the trail. Within 15 minutes of descending, my arms were covered in scratches as I mostly carried my bike down the path. Then the trail gave out under my feet.
As luck would have it, a father-daughter backpacking duo came down the trail and bailed me out. Unlike me, they were prepared. Larry pulled 75 feet of thin rope from his pack and we got my bike and myself out of the ravine. Then they were nice enough to let me hike with them to the nearest fresh water, about a half-mile down the trail, where he refilled my bottles with filtered water and gave me some soap to clean out the carnage of my left arm. Thank you, Larry and Ellie.
By the time I hit Highway 1 again, the sun had set and I had four miles before I reached the Ragged Point Inn. Glad to be moving and shocked that my bike still worked after banging it down the trail, I smiled for the first time in six hours. Then I pulled into the resort just as dusk turned to night only to have the overnight innkeeper confirm that there was no vacancy and that the restaurant was closed. So, with a postage-stamp sized commuter headlight to light my way, I pedaled out onto the road.
It took me awhile before I noticed that I had the road to myself for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. Only 12 cars passed me in the 90 minutes it took to reach the glare of the tourist hotels in San Simeon. Mostly, I rode in darkness with only the stars, the lighthouse at San Simeon Point and Hearst Castle lit up like a birthday cake providing any light.
The thing with darkness is that it heightens the senses. The smell of the ocean, the sound of crashing waves—the dark brought an added dimension to my ride that I hadn’t really noticed earlier. Or maybe my body was still running on adrenaline from the mess of a day I’d had and the situation I was in—biking down the most scenic highway in America in the dark. It turned out to be one of the most memorable rides of my life.
If you want to experience it for yourself, act fast. Caltrans is shooting to finish work at the Mud Creek slide by late summer 2018. But that’s only if this winter’s rains don’t wash trigger any more slides. As for the no-bikes-allowed trail, when I asked the Los Padres National Forest office what they thought of my detour, they pointed out that I was hike-a-biking down through the Silver Peak Wilderness Area and the mere presence of my mechanized bicycle was a violation of the Wilderness Act. For that, I am truly sorry to the Forest Service—and to Larry and Ellie for ruining their expectation of a true wilderness experience.