Palo Colorado Canyon in Big Sur is a throwback to an earlier time, a narrow, shady and quiet furrow cut into the mountain, with essentially a one-lane road lined by small cabins and soaring redwoods.
It’s not a heavily traveled road so it was a surprise to residents when dozens of visitors began making their way up the canyon in April to Michael Selig’s 180-acre parcel on top of a ridgeline with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. Unbeknownst to his neighbors, Selig had listed his property in March on Hipcamp, an online platform that is to camping spots as Airbnb is to lodging.
“The Unspeakable,” as Selig named his camp for up to 30 groups – named for the “unspeakable” beauty of the site – went viral in April.
Neighbors noticed the influx of campers right away. “I could hear people at all hours of the day and night up there. I could hear people crashing through the woods,” says Selig’s neighbor and friend of 20 years, Scott Bogen. “I don’t know one person in the community who was in favor of this. The entire situation is of great concern to people here. A lot of us still have PTSD from the Soberanes Fire.”
Residents complained to Monterey County officials. On May 5, a next-door property owner, Susan Widmayer, pleaded with the county Planning Commission to shut down Selig’s campground. Planning Commissioner Martha Diehl backed up Widmayer and chided county staff for not taking swifter action. Five days later, a code enforcement officer showed up and told Selig he was illegally operating a campground without a coastal development permit, in addition to unpermitted grading and other violations. He was ordered to shut down immediately. Selig was taken aback, since the summer before the same officer had inspected fire break grading after a neighbor complained, with no violations issued.
Selig claims he only wanted to share his property with “underprivileged” families who don’t have the money for hotels and can’t get campsites through the overtaxed California State Parks system.
“To me there is a super-positive side to Hipcamp,” he says. Selig calls his neighbors elitist, a charge Bogen says is a way to shut down discourse.
Also of concern was sanitation, with only one bathroom for potentially up to 100 people. One neighbor took photos of campers defecating outside, Bogen says. Selig’s explanation is that “Hipcamps across the nation allow hipcampers to basically ‘dig a hole’ near their campsite if they wish,” and that there was never a long line for the bathroom for those who wanted to use it. (Hipcamp’s community guidelines tell campers to “leave no trace behind.”)
On June 5, Selig, his lawyer and a code enforcement consultant he hired met with county officials to argue against the code violations. Using photos comparing the property from years past to the present, they attempted to persuade them that grading and other improvements were pre-existing. A decision by the Housing and Community Development Department is pending.
As to the future of The Unspeakable, Selig says he has no plans to reopen. He would need a septic tank and possibly other costly improvements. “I don’t need the money,” he says. “I’ll just have friends and family come up and it’ll be fine.”