Backcountry Blue

Anne Canright, a volunteer wilderness ranger with VWA, surveys the damage caused by a recent storm near Los Padres Dam.

Access to the Big Sur backcountry was already limited due to the effects of fire and mudslides on roads and trails. Then, about a month ago, another major access road was damaged by a storm.

“We are bracing for spring break,” says Mike Splain, executive director of nonprofit Ventana Wilderness Alliance, which recruits volunteers to maintain access to public lands that the U.S. Forest Service is too strapped to handle. “It’s going to be just a few places getting hammered by visitors.”

In the northern half of Ventana Wilderness, the trailhead at Bottchers Gap is cut off because Palo Colorado Road remains closed. Another popular route, the Little Sur Trail, is blocked because of a shutdown on Old Coast Road. The lower Pine Ridge Trail, which goes from Big Sur Station to the popular hot springs site at Sykes Camp, remains shut after more than two years.

A storm in February led to two slides near Los Padres Dam, eliminating the approach to yet another trailhead for the Carmel River, Rattlesnake and Big Pines trails.

One of the slides “created a large crack, which opens a couple-hundred-foot drop and renders that entire section of road unstable,” says Catherine Stedman, a spokesperson for California American Water, which owns and maintains the road. The utility has assigned a team of engineers to survey the damage and formulate recommendations. Repairs are expected to be “significant,” Stedman says, and it’s too soon to know when they might happen.

All the closures create a funnel concentrating visitors at only a few coastal trailheads, mostly in the south of Big Sur. One of the busiest trails is now Kirk Creek Trail, which leads to Vicente Flat Camp.

Overuse makes the work of maintaining the Ventana trail network that much harder. Splain would like to see renewed federal funding for recreation infrastructure before much of it is irreversibly ruined. “We want to protect an investment in trails,” he says. In order to mitigate the damage, he urges visitors: “Don’t just show up. Plan ahead.”

The popularity of Big Sur also creates a strain on the local community. “There are not enough resources to manage the amount of visitors coming in,” says Butch Kronlund, executive director of the Community Association of Big Sur, formerly known as the Big Sur Coast Property Owners Association. He points to illegal campfires, road congestion, trespassing and the accumulation of human waste as result of camping outside of designated areas. “It’s just not sustainable.”

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

(1) comment

Mike Splain

The 1st Leave No Trace principle is "Plan ahead & prepare". Know before you go-

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