Big Sur locals paint a brutal picture of the condition of Garrapata State Park after a string of summer weekends bringing hordes of visitors. A beach littered with human feces, graffiti all over a cave, trampled vegetation, trash overflowing from bins. This picture comes with an aroma: the stench of urine along the trails. Human waste littered along the landscape is not a new issue in Big Sur, but residents say it’s the worst they’ve seen.
“The degradation at Garrapata is horrific,” says Butch Kronlund, executive director of the Community Association of Bug Sur. The trouble is not just at Garrapata, he says. The weekend of Aug. 22, with smoky skies due to multiple fires, hundreds of people ignored closure signs at Pfeiffer Beach, in a scene Kronlund describes as “chaos.” Despite the parking lot being closed, people parked along the roadway creating hazards and streamed down to the beach. With local, state and federal officials busy with wildfires, there is almost no one to police bad behavior.
"It seems like people are leaving their brains in a jar at home.”
“For sure, tourism is vital, critical, the most important thing in the world to keep [Highway 1] open,” says Kronlund, but the onslaught of day-trippers has been hard on the region. “This summer we’ve seen the worst of it. It seems like people are leaving their brains in a jar at home.”
Since shelter-in-place orders in March to slow the spread of Covid-19, Big Sur has seen a constant flow of tourists on weekends, mostly day visitors who bring their own food and drink, passing by inns and restaurants, Kronlund says.
Kirk Gafill, president of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce and general manager of Nepenthe, says restaurants have been struggling with reduced capacity due to Covid-19 guidelines, and business at lodging facilities was already down 20-25 percent pre-fires. After the Dolan Fire broke out on Aug. 18, forcing the closure of Highway 1 to the south, business dropped by as much as 80 percent.
Locals blame a lack of coordination between officials in Big Sur who manage the State Parks and National Forest lands in agreeing on closures, leading to confusion for the public. Gafill also includes a lack of coordination up and down the coastline with closing beaches and natural areas. He likens it to “squeezing a water balloon” – when beach areas close in Santa Cruz or the Monterey Peninsula, it drives people who never intended Big Sur to be their main destination to head further south.
The weight of the pandemic proved too much for one of Big Sur’s oldest businesses, Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, which this week is announcing an indefinite closure. The inn’s demise began years ago, accelerated by the loss of four units crushed by trees that fell during the winter storms of 2017, General Manager Matt Glazer says. That reduced the inn’s income by 25 percent.
When Covid-19 came, the inn’s small restaurant struggled with reduced seating, then had little outdoor seating to offer. They shut it down earlier this summer – only offering breakfast to guests – for the safety of employees and diners.
“All of the dominoes fell poorly for Deetjen’s all at once,” Glazer says. The inn may open again in the future if the nonprofit foundation that owns it can work out a way to make it pencil out financially.