The ‘Nasty’ needs help Nacimiento-Fergusson: A lifeline in jeopardy


By Kate Woods Novoa

All I was trying to do was get back home. I was convalescing from eye surgery I had done at the Veterans Administration hospital in Palo Alto and had been away from my South Coast home for 19 days, recovering and seeing doctors. I was told I couldn’t travel to a place higher than 1,500 feet in elevation, and I live at 3,200 feet.

When I was finally cleared to head home from Paso Robles, we learned that the highway was closed at Pepperwood Gulch. We waited a couple days for a reopening, but when Caltrans said it would take up to a week, we decided to go the back way, over Nacimiento-Fergusson Road.

That trip was a major wakeup call. The harrowing journey from the Salinas Valley over the Santa Lucia Range to the coast launched me on an email campaign that continued even as I wrote this article.


Nacimiento-Fergusson Road | Provided image

Nacimiento-Fergusson is a road of 100 curves with no guardrails, along rugged canyons that drop up to 2,000 feet. It is not for the faint of heart, but people have relied on it even before the first pioneers settled in the area. In the late 1800s, those pioneers drove their cattle over the Santa Lucias to get them to market. The path they took is where the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road is today. In 1931, modern-day construction of the road began. It was finished in 1937.

It’s a wild and windy road, but it is critical for residents, businesses and visitors to the South Coast. When Highway 1 is closed to through traffic — which seems to be a more regular occurrence these days — Nacimiento-Fergusson is usually the only way in and out for stranded residents and tourists.

Settlers in the southern portion of Big Sur, around Lucia and Pacific Valley, would travel over the road by horse or wagon to catch either the stagecoach in Jolon or, after about 1897, the train to Salinas in King City for supplies.

Stanley Harlan, a South Coast resident who turned 94 on Veterans Day, remembers the road well. His brother, Don, was the original “road warrior,” supervising the Caltrans crew stationed at Willow Springs. The Harlans’ father, George, built Lucia Lodge even before the highway was built.

“My father, with his first truck, went over the Nacimiento to haul a saw mill over to the coast for use by DeLamater in making the lumber for Lucia Lodge,” Stanley Harlan told me. ”I went on that trip, riding in the back, and holding onto the low rack for dear life.  The section in the Mel Pitas was terribly washboard, and it felt like my teeth would fall out! The most unusual experience was about a mile or two down from the summit, where the road was real narrow and blasted out of solid rock. Our dual truck wheel actually hung out in open air, briefly, as we passed this narrow section.”

Stanley Harlan said his Uncle Fred was the first person in the area with a car, a Model T Harlan. He drove it up the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, and then an old lumber road to get it home. “They then dismantled it and hauled it in pieces to the Wilber Harlan ranch,” Stanley said, “where they re-assembled it before there was any road in the area. They then made a road down the hill, to the expected highway, with a team of horses and a (Fresno) scraper.”


Nasty Road | Photo by Ted Buzzard

The state of ‘Nasty’ is tenuous

It was exactly one year ago that I wrote a rather prescient article about the state of “Nasty,” as some locals like to call Nacimiento-Fergusson. At the time I laid out the potential impact the Dolan Fire would have on the road. You might call that story prophetic, but I had a feeling about how things would turn out only because I have lived here so long and have seen what can happen.

Tim Short, the district ranger for Los Padres National Forest, told me then that he and the Burned Area Rehabilitation Team had reached out to county officials to discuss post-fire impact on the road, and the potential issues that could arise after winter storms. “The Forest Service has taken proactive steps to clear culverts, install debris fencing to prevent plugged drainage inlets, contract culvert riser installation, and remove hazard trees among other activities,” Short said.

In another email a year ago, County Public Works Director Randell Ishii said his department was evaluating strategies to keep Nacimiento-Fergusson Road open. “However, we must acknowledge that should the storms be greater than our capacity, there is (a) possibility that the road would need to be closed for public safety,” he wrote.

Just two months later, the so-called “atmospheric river” of January 2021 hit Big Sur hard. It closed the Forest Service road completely.

“Chalk Peak, the primary way off the mountain for many of us, was hit with well over 10 inches in a 24-hour period and at least 15 inches over 48 hours,” I wrote in my blog at the time. “Winds howled. Trees fell. Rocks and mudslides covered roads. We don’t have a road crew available. Los Burros, Plaskett, Nacimiento and South Coast Ridge Road were trashed. We didn’t call anyone, because there was no one to call and no one would or could respond. We got to work clearing roads, cutting downed trees, and checking on neighbors.

“Two neighbors, Tom Collins and Colleen Wilson, are a team that just got busy and got to work Friday, clearing South Coast Ridge Road, What normally takes 1/2 hour or so to drive, took seven hours to get through from Alm’s Ridge to Nacimiento-Fergusson Road,” where they were stopped by three large trees they could not cut through.

Once a path through Nasty’s debris flows was cleared by county road crews, locals were allowed over the road to get to King City. While the atmospheric river completely closed Nacimiento-Fergusson, it also closed Highway 1. The highway at Rat Creek was closed for four months while a slipout there was repaired. Two of our exits were now closed to us south of Rat Creek.

Nacimiento-Fergusson is technically a U.S. Forest Service road that the feds contract out to Monterey County for maintenance. Usually, the relationship that works well. There were problems this year, though, revolving around payments to the county for repairs they were making.

I spoke with a county road maintenance worker back on the east side of Nacimiento-Fergusson shortly after the crew got it open enough for me to pass through in January. He told me department supervisors told the San Ardo crew to pack up and go home. The road was as nasty as I’ve ever seen it.


Debris from the Dolan Fire washed to the roadway | Photo by Kate Woods Novoa

A White-Knuckle Ride

On Oct. 29, Rock Knocker and I left Paso Robles to take this precipitous road home. We were shocked. It was so bad that Rock Knocker, who worked Highway 1 maintenance for more than 27 years, said he would not take that road again until it was fixed. I was white knuckling it all the way.

A couple of days after that trip, I started my email campaign to find out how the government would fix the road. I reached out to everyone who had any responsibility for this road, from the road maintenance people to our elected officials and everyone in the chain of command in between.

In response to my Halloween email blitz, Monterey County Supervisor Mary Adams’chief of staff, Sarah Hardgrove, sent a schedule for repairs to the road.

Bottom line: The project schedule shows completion in late 2023.

The caveat: The schedule is dependent.

The complication: The estimates were made before last month’s rains closed Highway 1 north of Ragged Point.


Tom Collins clearing debris | Photo by Colleen Wilson

In the meantime, Tom made arrangements to rent a skip loader and was issued an emergency permit from the Forest Service that allows him to scrape the road of rocks and debris that made the road extremely difficult to navigate. While working the road, he discovered another slipout that threatens to shut down the entire road.

After that discovery, Collins asked for help from engineers from the county and the feds to fix the problem, but has not yet heard back from anyone.

Meanwhile, I heard from Andrew Marsden, a spokesman for the Los Padres National Forest, who said the Forest Service is seeking emergency funding from the Federal Highways Administration.

South Coast residents are hardy souls. Some of us can patch this road temporarily, and will do it if they can get permission. The question is whether piecemeal repairs will be enough to keep the road open until the Forest Service can get it fixed in two years.

And, of course, the overriding question is whether Highway 1 will hold up for another two years without another significant closure.

Featured image: Tom Collins clearing debris | Photo by Colleen Wilson

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Kate Woods Novoa

About Kate Woods Novoa

Since 1985, Kate Woods Novoa has lived in Big Sur, working as a public defender for Monterey County. She started the bigsurkate blog ( during the 2008 Basin Complex fire and kept at it when she didn’t intend to.