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Highway One

It is difficult for today's visitor to imagine the Big Sur area without State Highway Number One. The Cabrillo Highway, once called the Carmel-San Simeon Highway, allows armchair access to rugged regions once only reached by seasonal wagon roads, trails and boats.

You can principally thank Dr. John L.D. Roberts for this incredible piece of the State Highway system. A country doctor in Monterey, Dr. Roberts was understandably tired of the poor conditions preventing him from reaching his patients on the south coast--he campaigned for years for a road that would open the region to the public.

Work began in 1922 with a 1.5 million dollar budget. Supplies had to be brought in by pack mule or unloaded on the beach from launches. Funds ran low several times as the initial budget proved to be woefully inadequate. Dr Roberts had a friend who was a prison warden--he persuaded him to supply convict labor to work on the road at significant savings to the state.

Bixby Creek Canyon represented a major challenge for engineers. The single-arch design they decided upon was revolutionary for its time. At over 900 feet long and 260 feet above the creek, the Bixby Bridge or Rainbow Bridge as it used to be called, is still on the list of the ten tallest single arch bridges in the world. It ranks high on the list of most photographed spans too!

Ten years and ten million dollars later, the highway opened to great fanfare. Dr. Roberts cut the ribbon himself--with a snip of the scissors, the end of an era had been declared.

Some of the early inhabitants hoped the tourist trade would make them rich--others bemoaned the loss of quiet and privacy. As it turned out, however, Highway One channeled almost all traffic away from the canyons and valleys where most residents lived--leaving the old coast and crest roads eerily quiet with hardly a car to disturb the dust.

Very few signs of our modern commercial culture are visible along Highway One, and this is no accident. The Wall family of Rainbow Lodge, among others, heavily lobbied Monterey County supervisors to prevent billboards and other eyesores from detracting from the scenic grandeur.

Inevitably, any project this extensive will have an environmental impact. Road cuts increased both erosion and the presence of non-native invasive plant species, such as Pampas grass. Landslides frequently close the road. During the El Nino winter of 1998-1999, it was closed for long periods at a stretch.

It is always wise to keep alert for fallen rocks in the roadway, particularly in the cliffside lane. Highway One is exceptionally well-maintained, but small earthquakes, rain and ground seeps continually bring down debris onto the blacktop.

Traveling southbound on Highway One is generally preferred, as access to ocean-view overlooks is more convenient, and fewer rocks are encountered in the west lane. And if your passenger calls out, "There be whales", please pull over at a safe pull-out before looking for them.

This jewel in the crown of the world's highways deserves your most careful attention to navigate its challenges safely.


 

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