The history of development in Big Sur reflects the changing demands for use of the land. Subsistence ranching, logging of redwoods, harvesting tan bark and mining of limestone and gold provided a livelihood for early residents. While life was extremely rugged in these early years, there was a population of nearly 1,000 people by the 1880’s largely supported by these basic industries. The mountain terrain, numerous deep canyons and lack of roads made travel difficult and slow. Most local products were shipped out by sea on the small coastal trading vessels that brought supplies to the isolated coast’s residents. Palo Colorado Canyon, Notley’s Landing, Bixby Creek, the Big Sur Valley and Partington Canyon were early centers of activity. Around the turn of the century, limited recreational use of the coast began to occur. The Big Sur Valley could be reached by stage from Monterey and camping in the redwood groves grew in popularity. Hunting and trout fishing were also popular and some local residents supplemented their income by guiding sportsmen from the cities.
Today, the tan bark, lumber and limestone industries have ceased. Gold is still mined on a limited basis in the Los Burros region and a few trees are harvested along the coast. Ranching continues as the major use of the large private holdings and contributes much to the character of Big Sur. Public recreation and private residential development are by far the strongest land use trends today. Single family residences comprise a major developed land use on private land. This occurs either in rural residential clusters in areas where development has historically been concentrated or scattered along Highway One. Many of the larger parcels are used for cattle grazing.
Commercial uses, including restaurants, grocery stores and service stations are generally concentrated in the Big Sur Valley, Gorda and a few isolated businesses along Highway One. Recreational uses include public and private campgrounds, visitor accommodations, restaurants, State Park units and the Los Padres National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service has offices and other facilities in the Big Sur Valley and at Pacific Valley. State Parks and Recreation manages its units in Big Sur from offices in the Big Sur Valley.
Caltrans has maintenance facilities in the Big Sur Valley and at Gorda. Quasi-public uses serving the local community and the traveling public are located in the Big Sur Valley. These include the Big Sur Grange hall, Captain Cooper Elementary School, churches, the County Library, Post Office and new Multi-Agency Conference Center.There are approximately 1,100 parcels in private ownership on the Big Sur Coast, ranging in size from less than an acre to several thousands of acres. Approximately 790 are vacant and 370 are occupied. Many have more than one unit on them, either residential or commercial. Small parcels of 2.5 acres or less are generally located near the highway, particularly between the highway and the ocean in a few specific locations including Palo Colorado Canyon, Garrapata Redwood, Rocky Point, Big Sur Valley, Coastlands and Partington. These areas have the greatest number of developed parcels.
Approximately 2/3 of the Big Sur coastal zone is in public ownership under the U.S. Forest Service, the State Department of Parks and Recreation, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard and the University of California. If public acquisitions now contemplated or in progress are completed, approximately 60% of the coast will be publicly owned.
Some of the private lands have scenic easements or deed restrictions, which limit the level of development. The 1990 decade census recorded approximately 800 housing units of which approximately 600 were single family dwellings. Large proportions of these homes are located in several residential areas. While there are historic expectations the buildup of these areas will be allowed to proceed, there are a number of conflicts with the broad objectives of the land use plan, particularly visual protection and protection of water resources. Residential areas include: Otter Cove, Garrapata Ridge/Rocky Point, Garrapata and Palo Colorado Canyons, Bixby Canyon, Pfeiffer Ridge/Sycamore Canyon, Coastlands, Partington Ridge, Burns Creek, Buck Creek to Lime Creek, Plaskett Ridge and Redwood Gulch. The Big Sur Valley, Lucia and Gorda also have significant residential use, although the primary functions of these areas are community service and commercial.
Twelve Restaurants seat about 1,100 people. There are also nine grocery stores, seven gas stations and a few gift shops are scattered along the length of Highway One. Private facilities are typically of a small to moderate scale in harmony with the natural beauty of Big Sur.