Big Sur is a sparsely populated region of the central California coast where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean. This geology produces stunning views and has become a magnet for global tourism. Big Sur's Cone Peak is the highest coastal mountain in the lower 48 states, ascending nearly a mile (5,155 feet/1.6km) above sea level, only 3 miles (4.8 km) from the ocean. Although Big Sur has no specific boundaries, many definitions of the area include the 90 miles (145km) of coastline between the Carmel River and San Carpoforo Creek, and extend about 20 miles (32km) inland to the eastern foothills of the Santa Lucias, while other sources limit the eastern border to the coastal flanks of these mountains, only three to 12 miles (4.8-19km) inland. The northern end of Big Sur is about 120 miles (193km) south of San Francisco, and the southern end is approximately 245 miles (394km) north of Los Angeles.
Big Sur Today
Big Sur remains sparsely populated, with fewer than 1500 inhabitants, according to the 2000 US Census. The people of Big Sur today are a diverse mix: descendants of the original settler and rancher families, artists and other creative types, along with wealthy home-owners from the worlds of entertainment and commerce. Real estate costs are as impressive as the views, with most homes priced above $2 million. There are no urban areas, although three small clusters of gas stations, restaurants, and motels are often marked on maps as "towns": Big Sur, in the Big Sur River valley, Lucia, near Limekiln State park, and Gorda, on the southern coast. The economy is almost completely based on tourism. Much of the land along the coast is privately owned or has been donated to the state park system, while the vast Los Padres National Forest and Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation encompass most of the inland areas. The mountainous terrain, environmentally conscious residents, and lack of property available for development have kept Big Sur almost unspoiled, and it retains an isolated, frontier mystique.
It is impossible to generalize about the weather in Big Sur, because the jagged topography causes many separate microclimates. This is one of the few places on Earth where redwoods grow within sight of cacti. Still, Big Sur typically enjoys a mild climate year-round, with a sunny, dry summer and fall, and a cool, wet winter. Coastal temperatures vary little during the year, ranging from the 50s at night to the 70s by day (Fahrenheit) from June through October, and in the 40s to 60s from November through May. Farther inland, away from the ocean's moderating influence, temperatures are much more variable. Annual precipitation in the Big Sur Valley is about 40 inches (100cm), diminishing further to the south to about 25 inches. More than 70% of the rain falls from December through March, while the summer brings drought conditions. Snow is uncommon during the winter months on the coast, although the mountaintops can receive heavy snowfalls. The abundant winter rains cause rock and mudslides that can cut off portions of Highway 1 for days or weeks, but the road is usually quickly repaired.
Along with much of the central and northern California coast, Big Sur often has dense fog in summer. The summer fog and summer drought have the same underlying cause: a massive, stable seasonal high pressure system that forms over the north Pacific Ocean. The high pressure cell inhibits rainfall and generates northwesterly airflows. These prevailing summer winds from the northwest push the warm ocean surface water to the southeast, away from the coast, and frigid deep ocean water rises in its place. The water vapor in the air contacting this cold water condenses into fog. The fog usually moves out to sea during the day and closes in at night, but sometimes heavy fog blankets the coast all day. Fog is an essential summer water source for many Big Sur coastal plants. Most plants cannot take water directly out of the air, but the condensation on leaf surfaces slowly precipitates into the ground like rain.
The many climates of Big Sur result in an astonishing biodiversity, including many rare and endangered species such as the wild orchid Piperia yadonii. Arid, dusty chaparral-covered hills exist within easy walking distance of lush riparian woodland. The mountains trap most of the moisture out of the clouds; fog in summer, rain and snow in winter. This creates a favorable environment for coniferous forests, including the southernmost habitat of the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), which grows only on lower coastal slopes that are routinely fogged in at night. The redwoods are aggressive regenerators, and have grown back extensively since logging ceased in the early twentieth century. The rare Santa Lucia fir (Abies bracteata), as its name suggests, is found only in the Santa Lucia mountains. A common "foreign" species is the Monterey pine (Pinus radiata), which was uncommon in Big Sur until the late 19th century, when many homeowners began to plant it as a windbreak. Monterey pine fossil remains have been found at Little Sur.
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