Mud Creek Now Mud Point

May 23, 2017

image0021

Punta Barro: Big Sur’s newest geographical feature (photo credit: Rock Knocker)

The Santa Lucia Mountains are very young. At just 5 million years old, they are still in the process of being born – punching upward out of the Pacific faster than the forces of wind, waves, rain, and gravity can wear them down. Their steep, unstable seaward wall, rising to over 5,000 feet at Cone Peak, is constantly eroding, sliding and collapsing into the sea.

This natural process has been greatly accelerated since the 1930s, when the construction of Highway One undercut and activated treacherous slopes and old slide zones from one end of Big Sur to the other.

Mud Creek is one of those treacherous slopes. It’s not even really a creek; just a highly saturated mountainside that constantly oozes mud and water and tends to creep or slide downhill during the rainy season. It’s been a problem area since the Highway was built.

In the 1960s, the Highway at Mud Creek featured a floating bridge. This was a bridge structure that, instead of spanning a canyon, sat directly on the ground or, in this case, the mud. As the slope crept downhill, the bridge would travel with it, slowly moving out of alignment with the Highway. Whenever it moved too far, Caltrans would simply drag it back up the slope and back into place.

Perhaps the mud dried out a bit at some point, because the floating bridge disappeared long ago and most locals eventually forgot a place called Mud Creek even existed.

That all changed this year, as persistent rains reactivated Mud Creek and made it one of the most problematic spots, among many problematic spots, along the coast. Weeks, if not months, ago, Big Sur Kate began warning that an immense amount of material appeared to be mobilizing above the Highway at Mud Creek and that a very large slide appeared imminent. She was right.

Last weekend, a very large and deep-seated landslide occurred at Mud Creek; a slide large enough to create a small new point and cove, significantly altering the shape of the shoreline in the area. No one seems to have even tried to estimate the size of the slide at this point. Caltrans simply describes it as “millions of tons.”

Besides inspiring awe, the slide has inspired a good deal of worry over the amount of time it may take to rebuild the Highway in the area. At this point, it is impossible to say how long that might be. As Caltrans will have to knock down or excavate any highly unstable material left above the Highway, before they can rebuild, everything depends on how much mud and rock remains poised to come down and how hard it will be to remove or stabilize it.

After Big Sur’s last major slide, the Julia Pfeiffer Burns slide in 1983, so much unstable material remained that the Highway stayed closed for over a year, while Caltrans undertook the largest earth-moving operation in their history. How much material will need to be removed at Mud Creek, and how long it will take, can’t be known until geologists have finished evaluating the remaining slopes – a process which it may not yet be safe enough to even begin.

Mud Creek 4:2:15

The approximate boundaries of the area that collapsed in last weekend’s slide are marked in red. Large as this slide was, it appears that only the lower portion of the Mud Creek slide zone failed in this event. With this buttressing gone, failure of higher altitude slopes may now be more likely.

Unfortunately, as can be seen in this pre-slide image from Google Earth, last weekend’s slide, big as it was, did not extend anywhere close to the top of the active slide area at Mud Creek. This suggests that a huge quantity of very unstable material may still be up there and that this slide event may be far from over.

It now seems likely that, until the new Pfeiffer Gulch Bridge is finished (hopefully in September), the only vehicular access to the coast between Pfeiffer Gulch and Mud Creek will be over the long, twisting, frequently one-lane, Nacimiento-Fergusson Rd.

This is a stretch of coast the includes Pacific Valley, Kirk Creek Campground, Limekiln State Park, the Camaldolese Hermitage, Lucia, Big Creek, Esalen Institute, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Deetjens, the Henry Miller Library, Nepenthe, Post Ranch, Ventana Inn, the Big Sur Bakery, and many other popular destinations.

Gorda:Mud

The Mud Creek slide in relation to the “town” of Gorda (which also sits on an active slide). The Mud Creek slide zone appears to extend all the way up slope to the yellowish head scarp in the upper right hand corner of this image.

As Gary Griggs, Kiki Patsch and Lauret Savoy put it in their excellent book Living With the Changing California Coast (highly recommended reading for coastal residents):

From Pacific Valley to the southern end of Big Sur at San Carporforo Creek, the terrain again becomes very steep and rugged. This entire section contains some of the weakest rock (serpentinite) of the Franciscan complex and is very prone to landsliding. Some development, single-family homes and small ranches, exists on the steep slopes west of Highway 1, even though the risk from landslides is quite high. The town of Gorda is built within a large ancient landslide complex. The interior portion of this large slide continues to slip on smaller, active slide planes, resulting in very high landslide risks.


April Wildflowers

April 19, 2017

All that rain has really gotten the wildflowers going this month. Here are some highlights from the past few weeks:

IMG_5841

California goldfields (Lasthinia californica) and Gray’s clover (Trifolium grayi), share a meadow at The Indians in the upper Arroyo Seco watershed.

IMG_5731

Monterey mariposa lily (Calochortus uniflorus) blooming at Ft. Ord National Monument.

IMG_5758

Denseflower owl’s clover (Castilleja densiflora) in Carmel.

IMG_6076

Tidestrom’s lupine (Lupinus tidestromii), a federally listed endangered species, attempts to assure its continued existence on the planet by setting some robust seed pods. Development of the beachfront dunes where it makes its home has brought this Monterey native to the brink of extinction.

IMG_6030

Monterey gilia (Gilia tenuiflora arenaria), an even more highly endangered species, is another struggling denizen of the Monterey Peninsula’s vanishing dune ecosystems.

IMG_5700

Pink sand verbena (Abronia umbellata) is holding its own better against the onslaught of houses, hotels and ice plant.

IMG_6078

Yellow sand verbena (Abronia latifolia) is also doing well.

IMG_6042

Orange sand verbena??? Probably the result of a genetic variation. Unexpected color schemes frequently complicate the task of identifying plants.

IMG_6029

Pacific silver-weed (Potentilla anserina pacifica) is salt-tolerant enough to grow right down to the beach.

IMG_5721

Beach evening-primrose (Camissoniopsis cheiranthifolia). Imagine the lupine, gilias, verbenas, silver-weeds, and evening-primroses covering the dunes instead of houses and ice plant and you’ll get an idea of what the Monterey coast looked like 100 years ago.

IMG_5711

Pipestem clematis (Clematis lasiantha) along Paloma Creek.

IMG_5708

Western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) along the Carmel Valley Rd.

IMG_5877

Indian pink (Silene laciniata californica) in the San Antonio River watershed.

IMG_5975

Canyon liveforever (Dudleya cymosa) at The Indians.

IMG_5984

Mesa brodiaea (Brodiaea jolonensis), named for the bustling town of Jolon; also at The Indians.

IMG_5996

Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) along the Arroyo Seco River.

IMG_5964

A Santa Lucia easter egg balanced on a ridge…

IMG_5785

And it’s not just flowers that like a little warm spring rain. How about highly prized white porcini (Boletus barrowsii) fruiting in a Carmel city park?

 


Flashback! Julia Pfeiffer Burns in the 1960s

July 19, 2016

Just a few shots from the days before traffic jams and crowds…

Scan

At the Waterfall House with my mother and sister in 1966. Notice how the waterfall drops directly into the ocean. The beach formed after a 1983 landslide put a huge amount of material into the ocean just to the north.

JG 1

Mom and Sis on the terrace.

Brown House

Leading Mom around the house (I think this photo is from 1963). To get there, we rode down from the Highway on the funicular car.


Steelhead Lose Again at Carmel River Mouth

January 11, 2016

IMG_0450

Slowly rising lagoon

A few days ago, everything was working out perfectly for the Carmel River’s remnant steelhead population. With the San Clemente Dam gone, the door was open for more young steelhead smolts to safely reach the lagoon, and eventually the sea, than had been possible for many years. Then, relatively gentle rains put enough flow in the river to provide easy fish passage from the higher elevation tributaries to the lagoon, but not enough to breach the high summer sandbar at the lagoon mouth. Behind the bar, the slowly filling lagoon was becoming an ideal habitat for young steelhead to undergo the rapid growth and physiological changes necessary to survive at sea. Read the rest of this entry »


November Surf in December

December 11, 2015

IMG_0174

A swell that peaked at 30 feet last night combined with a 6.5 foot high tide to bring ground-shaking waves ashore on Carmel Point this morning. Read the rest of this entry »


Coastal Commission to Weigh in on Carmel Beach Fires

December 8, 2015

IMG_4121

Carmel Beach

If you’re sitting at a city council meeting and hear the mayor proudly describe how he got the head of a government agency to write a letter threatening to take enforcement action against the city, you’re probably not really in Bizarro World or the Twilight Zone; you’re just in Carmel and the item on the agenda is beach fires. Read the rest of this entry »


Carmel Prepares to Ban Beach Fires Once and For All

November 30, 2015

DSC06787

A summer evening on the Carmel Beach

If there’s one activity that pretty much defines what it means to be human, it’s sitting around a fire. Your parents did it, their parents did it, and so did everyone else in your family tree going back for as many as 1.7 million or more years – a time long before anyone remotely resembling a modern person even existed. Until quite recently, it was something that nearly everyone did nearly every day. Read the rest of this entry »