Big Sur has more tourists than public restrooms to support them. And that's creating a mess. People are relieving themselves along Highway 1 and on private property.
On a Tuesday afternoon in Big Sur, tourists from all over the world take selfies in front of the Bixby Bridge. Just below, the Pacific Ocean sparkles in the sunshine. Phillip Bland and his family are visiting from Guatemala. They walk toward the famous landmark. A popular TV show drew them here.
“The series 'Big Little Lies.' Yeah that's right,” Bland laughs. “So we wanted to see the bridge.”
So far, the trip here has been smooth. But Bland needs to use the bathroom.
“We haven't seen any bathrooms and it would be very good to have some because right now I have to go,” he says.
The lack of public bathrooms along Big Sur's scenic Highway 1 is a problem for tourists. It’s also a problem for locals. They’re finding human waste on their properties.
Marcus Foster has lived in Big Sur for 25 years. He’s the caretaker of a ranch just south of Nepenthe Restaurant. Recently, he’s also become an unofficial caretaker of Highway 1.
At least once a week, he gets in his truck to go pick up poop where the highway borders the ranch’s property. He soon spots toilet paper. It’s tucked behind rocks and bushes in a dirt pullout. He pulls over and gets his supplies.
"I have plastic garbage bags [and] my litter picker-upper, so I don't gotta touch nothing,” Foster says.
And he gets to work. At just one pullout, the bag is nearly full.
“That's a pound of toilet paper,” he says.
Big Sur’s Highway 1 sees hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
“And that sort of feels like living in Big Sur. It's basically a Disneyland with no infrastructure, and you can really feel the consequences of that,” says Foster.
It's not just Foster who has noticed the problem.
State Assemblywoman Anna Caballero says this is the number-one complaint she hears from Big Sur residents. She’s one of a few regional elected officials who represent the area. Big Sur has no local government.
Last year, Caballero helped create a Big Sur bathroom task force to address the problem.
“So I took on that commitment to do something about that and to find out exactly where the restrooms were, how many there were, and to see if there was a solution to the problem,” says Caballero.
This 100-mile stretch of coastline, from Carmel State Beach (Monterey County) to Leffingwell Landing State Park (San Luis Obispo County), has no formal rest stops. But it does have 17 public bathrooms, including portable toilets. Caballero says the longest stretch between them is about 30 miles.
“The problem is that the traveling public doesn't know where those restrooms are. And part of the reason is because over the years the signs along Highway 1 have been removed for aesthetic reasons,” says Caballero.
She’d like to bring back highway signs noting where there are public restrooms. But there’s no timeline for that to happen.
So the plan is to build permanent restrooms north of Bixby Bridge at Garrapata State Park. It’s a popular area for hiking. According to California State Parks, the bathrooms will cost between $1 million and $1.5 million to build, plus the cost of ongoing maintenance. That will bring the total number of restrooms to 18 when construction is complete in about two years.
Neither of these remedies will solve the problem now. That leaves Marcus Foster wondering about the future of the place he calls home.
“I think we're on an unsustainable path here. If we keep going in this direction, I can't imagine what this place is going to look like in another five or 10 years because we have just exceeded, years ago really, our capacity,” says Foster.
Until there’s a solution, he’ll continue to pick up what he can.
According to the California Department of Transportation, workers see human waste every time they pick up litter, which is about once a week.