Big Sur resident Tom Collins installed vehicle counters at three dirt roads, and the data shows a steep increase in visitation in June and July. Nic CouryOn the internet, evidence of the wilderness rave that took place in Big Sur on the weekend of July 25-26 is scant: a single post on Instagram by someone who wasn’t invited to the party but stumbled upon it and joined the fun. The photos and video posted by Joshua Sandle document a sea of people partying silent disco-style, which means the music came not from amplified speakers but from the headphones each person was wearing. No masks, no social distancing.“What an amazing experience,” Sandle wrote. “A random silent disco showed up the second night of camping on top of the mountain. Thank you universe for quite the night, couldn’t have asked for a better weekend.”
Sandle didn’t respond to an interview request and no one in Big Sur seems to know who organized the rave on Prewitt Ridge off Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. But even if his Instagram post was never found, physical evidence of the rave was indelible. South Coast Ridge Road, the dirt route leading to the flat clearing where the party took place, was all torn up with ruts caused by the influx of two-wheel drive cars, and ashes left from illegal campfires littered the area.
After learning of the party and the seeing damage it caused, the U.S. Forest Service on Aug. 7 ordered the road to Prewitt Ridge closed through October, along with three other dirt roads that have seen heavy traffic. (Those are Cone Peak Road, Plaskett Ridge Road and Los Burros Road.)
The presence of so many people makes wildfires more likely and fighting them more difficult because the dirt roads are not designed for so much traffic, which tears up the hardpacked surface, Andrew Madsen, a spokesperson for Los Padres National Forest, said shortly after the order was issued.
The “road closed” signs that were posted, however, didn’t do much to solve the problem. It was the next day, a late Saturday afternoon, when all-volunteer Big Sur Fire got a call for an emergency medical situation at Prewitt Ridge. Driving up the mountain, the crew was shocked at the crowdedness. “Until you see it, it’s hard to even explain the amount of people,” says Marcus Foster, a captain with Big Sur Fire. “Every little spot you can camp along the road, there are people there. It is mind-boggling.”
A man who was camping up there had overdosed on recreational drugs. “He was unconscious and breathing but unresponsive,” Foster says. “A seizure-like state with foam in the mouth and vomiting.”
Getting an ambulance up there was not practical because of the remoteness and the likelihood it would get stuck in the ruts. So an emergency helicopter was called. But when the chopper arrived, it couldn’t immediately land – there were too many tents – so it hovered above for about 20 minutes while people cleared space. The man was flown to Natividad Medical Center in Salinas where he remained in critical condition through the weekend.
The Forest Service is planning on expanding the closure and installing gates, but Foster says that without more funding for law enforcement, protecting Big Sur from crowds will be impossible.
…716 cars either entering or leaving South Coast Ridge Road on the Saturday of the silent disco party – more than any other day since counting started on Jan. 2, 2020.
Raves, overdoses and helicopters_ Big Sur is being overrun, and here’s data that proves it. _ Local News _ montereycountyweekly.com
Just as the problem reaches a crescendo, new data has become available quantifying for the first time just how busy some of Big Sur’s back roads have become. Vehicle traffic data – collected by an independent resident of Big Sur and shared with the Weekly – shows 716 cars either entering or leaving South Coast Ridge Road on the Saturday of the silent disco party – more than any other day since counting started on Jan. 2, 2020.
The average number in the months before California’s stay-at-home order took effect was about 84 cars per day.
The data collection is the work of Tom Collins who, months before the pandemic would drive up interest in outdoor recreation, purchased three vehicle-counting devices. “They are small devices, high-tech metal detectors, and you put them in places where there’s a single-lane road, where cars aren’t apt to stop and stay for very long,” he says.
He found such spots at Los Burros, Plaskett and South Coast Ridge roads, wrapped the devices in two layers of waterproof material, and buried them in the ground, where each passing vehicle has been quietly counted for the past seven months. It’s the only such data that exists for any road in Big Sur. Even the flow on Highway 1, where traffic volume is the subject of endless consternation, is not counted by any individual or government agency.
Collins is also using Google Earth to monitor and map illegal campfires and has detected dozens of them on Prewitt Ridge. And he takes photographs and is regularly making phone calls to the nonprofit Community Association of Big Sur, the Forest Service and others to discuss the problem.
These may seem like the behaviors of a curmudgeon, but Collins is not that. In fact, he sympathizes with the visitors. “There’s an explosion of young people,” he says. “These are good kids. They are trying to enjoy themselves. But it’s way over capacity. The solution to the visitor use challenges we have is not a matter of better visitors, but better management practices.”
But as Collins and many others have pointed out, the budget of the Forest Service has been decimated and all the money now goes to prevent and fight wildfires, which have grown worse with climate change. Closing roads may be necessary to prevent disaster, but it’s a solution that ends up causing more crowding at those places that remain open, says Mike Splain, executive director of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance.
“I shudder to think of what becomes the next sacrifice zone,” he says.