Big Sur is one of California’s scenic wonders. A nexus of rushing creeks, vertical mountains, cool redwood stands and underwater kelp forests, this slender section of the Central Coast appeals to just about everyone.
Those wishing to study Big Sur’s dynamic environment routinely turn to Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve. Encompassing canyons and ridgelines, a freshwater stream, and adjacent to a marine protected area, this UC Natural Reserve System site draws university classes and researchers from across California and beyond.
Easing user access to all of these habitats has shaped reserve plans for decades, says reserve director Mark Readdie. “There’s always been an underlying vision of how best to let users take advantage of the resources on this reserve. How can we put people close to where they’re going to work? That line of thinking has always played into opportunities for improving the reserve.”
In fact, previous reserve staff had already scoped out possible sites for more housing, and had conceptual plans drafted for a classroom near the reserve’s entrance. To make these dreams a reality, all the reserve needed was funding.
So when Californians passed Proposition 84 in 2006, making up to $20 million available to fund facilities and property acquisitions at NRS reserves, both the reserve and its home campus of UC Santa Cruz were ready.
“We said, let’s plug in years of plans for facilities and refine them to meet current needs. We built on a lot of forethought developed in case we ever had money to act,” Readdie says.
Hired soon after the proposition passed, Readdie’s first responsibilities involved laying the groundwork for Big Creek’s Prop. 84 request.
According to the terms of the legislation, the reserve had to match any requested sums from the state. Luckily, the Big Sur Land Trust was seeking a recipient for a $1.5 million property adjacent to Big Creek’s northern boundary. Readdie negotiated the property’s addition to the reserve with the help of the NRS headquarters office.
The next task was to safeguard the future visitor center the reserve wanted built. That took the form of a berm near the mouth of the canyon near the entrance road. The berm protects the site from rockfalls tumbling from the canyon walls.
The value of these efforts, plus $1.15 million from the reserve’s endowment fund, nearly $40,000 of cash, and time spent for campus and reserve staff to oversee the project, qualified Big Creek for nearly $2.56 million in project funds.
The monies went toward constructing two buildings, a visitor center and a staff residence. Located near the entrance road, the visitor center airy, sunny, and is surrounded by a spacious deck. Oriented to utilize seasonal sunlight, the building uses no mechanical cooling and is thermally efficient. Solar cells supplemented with propane generators provide electricity, and heats water to warm the building via a radiant floor heating system.
The classroom has been a boon for visiting field courses, says Readdie. “Classes that go out in the field, such as the NRS’s California Ecology and Conservation program and scientific diving courses, often have students perform rapid research projects or practice. They need a place to reconvene and discuss before they go out to try again,” Readdie says. “Before, those courses would have done a lecture without visual aids in the campground. With the classroom, they’re able to bring the campus setting to the reserve.”
The classroom also provides a meeting place for community and reserve business. “There are not many meeting halls in Big Sur. We’re located dead center on the coast, so it’s a central place for people to meet at,” Readdie says.
The classroom and a smaller breakout meeting room have come in handy for plenty of reserve business as well. These include negotiations with CalTrans during its project to extract salt from adjacent Big Creek Bridge, convenings of the California Coastal Trail Planning Committee, and a place to welcome the public during the reserve’s annual open gate day.
The visitor center also provides the reserve with a dedicated office for the first time. Before, “it was always in my residence or a shared space with users, such as the library shed across the parking lot,” Readdie says.
Last but not least in importance are the building’s two bathrooms, facilities critical at a site that typically requires hours of driving to visit. “Thirty people used to show up to wait for the one restroom above the parking lot. Now everyone can use the restroom as soon as they arrive; there’s very little waiting in line anymore,” Readdie says.
When those toilets flush, the wastewater gets piped to a new, high-tech water treatment system. Previously, the plumbing for buildings in the area merely went to a septic tank adjacent to the reserve’s eponymous waterway. “We’re finally in a position to say that our septic operations don’t have any effect on the steelhead in Big Creek,” Readdie says.
The second half of the project involved constructing a residence outside the entrance canyon for reserve steward Sean McStay. Previously, McStay (and Readdie before him) lived in the Gatehouse building. The new two-bedroom, one bathroom house, located near the reserve’s Coyote Creek, has an adjacent garage and workshop. Power comes from a photovoltaic cells combined with a backup generator.
Now that McStay has relocated to the Coyote Creek residence, it frees up the Gatehouse for reserve users. The Gatehouse is ideally situated for visitors because it’s near the beach, the creek, and Big Creek’s most popular campsites. It’s almost always reserved by instructors of field courses staying at the reserve for many days at a time.
“Teachers have said it’s really helpful to have that space away from the class to grade papers, hold planning meetings, solve problems, and do debriefs at the end of the day to make the course better,” Readdie says.
Construction began in the spring of 2016 but halted soon after due to the Soberanes Fire. More serious interruptions followed due to flooding during the winter of 2017, which damaged a bridge and caused a catastrophic landslide that shut down Highway One for months. The project was finally completed in July of 2018.
“It took ten years from the time I started working in 2007 on transferring the Big Sur Land Trust property to when we were finished,” Readdie says. “It’s incredible to think about how much administrative stamina projects like these require.”