Big Sur is revered as one of the most scenic spots in California. Known for deep swaths of Redwoods and soulful ocean views, the 90-mile stretch of land between Monterey and San Luis Obispo along the state’s central coast was a frequent destination for some of America’s literary giants.
“It was here in Big Sur I first learned to say Amen,” novelist Henry Miller once wrote — high praise from an author who previously lived a wild life in France and Greece.
In May 2017, Big Sur was abruptly split in two. A landslide collapsed supports on the iconic Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, cutting off access from Highway 1 to the southern portion of the community.
With residents and businesses left isolated, locals joked about living on “Big Sur Island.”
It was in this unlikely scenario that Joaquin Sullivan launched Big Sur Adventures.
When Sullivan first learned about the bridge collapse, he was concerned, to be sure, but also a little excited.
Big Sur had experienced a glut of tourism. “This was a chance to have Big Sur quiet again, for a little while,” Sullivan, who grew up in the area and eventually started a woodworking business there, told us.
In the aftermath of the landslide, there was a scramble to get people in and out. For some, this meant using a hastily assembled 1/2 mile footpath to cross the deep ravine. For others, helicopters were used to fly to the upscale resorts and restaurants that pepper the area.
Getting around once you arrived, however, proved more difficult.
While the sprawling vistas and mountainsides may impress tourists, they make a typical bike ride impractical. So Sullivan researched electric bikes online.
“I wanted something that could climb hills because I had a really steep one going up to my house,” Sullivan said.
He ended up buying a RadRover and a RadMini for him and his dad. Before long, they were zipping along Highway 1, a dream that before the landslide would have been nearly impossible due to car traffic.
“It was the most fun we’ve ever had,” Sullivan said.
He realized then that the ebikes would be perfect for trips to McWay Falls, a nearby 80-foot waterfall. A rental company, he thought, could do well off that alone.
Over the next two months, Sullivan bought a dozen more ebikes.
He took them to a nearby inn over Memorial Day weekend and started renting them to guests.
“On Sunday, every bike I had went out twice, just by word of mouth,” Sullivan said.
He doubled his fleet, and they were booked almost immediately. He ordered 30 more, finding creative ways to store them in an 18x20 foot shed. Before long, every bike was reserved twice-a-day, every day, two weeks in advance.
Sullivan’s customers loved the chance to take private trips to the falls and soak in Big Sur’s natural beauty.
The community reaction was more mixed, with some of the locals who were used to rushing down the road in their cars annoyed at the influx of ebikes, Sullivan said.
Several of the businesses on the southern side of Big Sur, however, appeared to be kept afloat by the small rental company.
“There were days we would go by and there would be 50 bikes in the parking lot,” he said. “And no cars.”
After 8 months, the “island” was no more. The new bridge opened in October 2017, and the steady stream of cars returned, forcing Sullivan to cancel scores of reservations.
By that point, though, Big Sur Adventures had received widespread media coverage and a few hundred five-star reviews. So the Sullivan family decided to keep it going.
Sullivan chose an HQ site in Pacific Grove, not far from Monterey's top tourist draws. New tours include rides along the region's picturesque 17-Mile Drive. Fans of the HBO show "Big Little Lies," based in Monterey, can take treks to shoot locations.
Keeping true to its name, the rental company still offers rides in Big Sur, but in a more rugged, backcountry setting than when Highway 1 was cordoned off.
Sullivan enjoys opening up new routes to his guests, and with a fleet of 100 ebikes from Rad Power Bikes, the business is thriving.
Still, he looks back at the early days fondly, not just because it paved the way for where he is today, but because “Everyone who stayed on the Island got closer as a community,” he said. “We really got to enjoy Big Sur again, and realized why we wanted to be there in the first place.”