Everyone knows California is home to the worst gas prices in the country. And the worst of the worst are often in some of the state’s most scenic, difficult-to-reach places.
One of those is the tiny hamlet of Gorda along the Big Sur coast.
There, the pumps max out at a whopping $9.99 per gallon for premium, which gives drivers the kind of sticker shock and wallop to the wallet that borders on the comical.
Located about 20 minutes north of the San Luis Obispo County line, Gorda has a certain notoriety on the Central Coast, routinely charging some of the highest prices anywhere.
From the outside, this station perched at the edge of the continent seems to be fueled in part by both infamy and bad planning.
But it also makes for a quizzical experience, one where the latest price at the pump isn’t something to rage at, and instead is a source of roadtripping humor.
So why is gas priced so infernally high there and what do visitors whose tanks are bordering on empty think of it?
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said one driver who was filling up on his way from Los Angeles. “But what are you gonna do?”
‘Maybe it’s just absurd?’ Visitors to Big Sur gas station shrug off high prices
On Monday afternoon, the price for regular unleaded gas at the Highway 1 station was somewhat below that of a headline-making Mendocino station that unabashedly claimed the title of most expensive gas in the country — but not by much. Gas there started at $9.63 earlier this month.
Here, overlooking the craggy coast, one gallon of regular gas costs $9.299, the plus mix costs $9.699 and premium maxed out the space on the dial at $9.999.
That’s by far the highest they’ve ever seen it, station attendants said. In fact, the price is so high that it’s unclear what might happen if premium ever needs to increase above $10, since the dial only has space for prices with one digit ahead of the decimal.
Yet still, people keep pulling into the station to fill up.
On a recent afternoon of patchy sunshine at the minimart overlooking the Pacific Ocean, cars pulled off Highway 1 and rolled up to one of the four available pumps.
Some took a glance at the prices and sped off.
Others stopped and stared, maybe calling a friend or passenger over to gawk at the numbers on the screen before taking a picture on their cell phones.
“It’s the most photographed pump in America — in the world,” station attendant Ringo Jukes joked with one customer as he rang up their purchase in the minimart.
With his register perched right in front of the door, Jukes has the perfect angle to watch the comings and goings of folks stopping in for gas. He’s also often the target of their ire.
“A lot of Europeans don’t even care — they don’t care,” he said. “But then a lot of Americans will complain. ... They would come in here and curse at me.”
Some tell him he should be in jail for charging those kind of prices. Others call him names.
“One guy was like, ‘That’s un-American!’” Jukes said with an exaggerated drawl. “And I’m like, actually, that’s the most American thing possible.”
Still, surprisingly, it’s gotten easier in recent weeks as skyrocketing prices elsewhere seemed to make folks shrug off the numbers they see at Gorda’s pumps.
“Lately, it’s not been that bad,” he said. “They don’t complain anymore. Maybe it’s just absurd?”
Why is Highway 1 gas station so expensive?
Though other stations in the remote Big Sur area are definitely pricey, none come close to Gorda’s.
On Monday, the nearest station to the south, Ragged Point Gas, was charging $7.79 for a gallon of regular, making it the most expensive gas in San Luis Obispo County.
Meanwhile, about and hour up the coast, the next nearest pump — a Shell station in Loma Vista — charged $7.95.
So why is Gorda’s gas almost $2 more per gallon than its nearest counterparts?
It’s to keep the lights on.
John Maragos, a wiry man who at first politely declined to be interviewed until he wandered into the minimart and realized there were no TV cameras, has worked at the station for almost three decades. In that time, he’s become used to trying to explain to bewildered customers why the station charges more for gas than even a few miles down the road.
“The expense is to run the town on diesel fuel,” Maragos said.
Because PG&E doesn’t provide electricity to the area, the entirety of Gorda has to run on a generator 24/7, Maragos said. And like all gas right now, diesel isn’t cheap.
“It’s astronomical,” he said. “I think it figures into $45 per hour we have to pay.”
Some quick math shows that would come out to more than $30,000 per month to keep the town powered. That includes the station, minimart, restaurant and hotel.
Maragos said an additional reason for the high prices is to pay for liability insurance for the trucks that transport gas to the remote spot.
Highway 1’s winding curves at points aren’t easy to navigate even for compact cars. Now imagine a giant semi loaded with combustible fuel snaking along those same cliffs. And accidents do happen.
“They went over twice,” Maragos said of fuel trucks bringing gas to the station. “Not our fault — not anybody’s fault on the coast, you know what I mean? (It’s) those hairpin curves.”
One of the trucks that tumbled over the edge was empty and easier to remove from where it had come to rest, Maragos said. But another was full of fuel, and crews had to intermittently close the road to drain the gas over a three-week period, he said.
All of that explains why the cost of gas along the area is so high and why other nearby towns like Lucia have even stopped selling it entirely because of the expense, Maragos said.
That’s not likely to happen at Gorda any time soon, though. For now, the owner sees the benefit is keeping a station running, Maragos said.
“If we didn’t have it, you’re not going to have it for almost 60 miles,” he said. “And you don’t want to run out of gas up here.”
How drivers reacted to prices at Gorda gas station
What seemed like every size and make of vehicle stopped at the station Monday afternoon, carrying drivers from destinations around California and beyond.
All were on their way from or to somewhere, and everyone was talking about those little numbers at the pump.
“Holy f---,” one motorcyclist exclaimed when her friend asked her if she’d seen what gas cost while they were filling up.
The motorcyclists were part of a group riding from Sacramento and had been driving along the coast for several days. During that time, gas prices had definitely become a sticking point.
“We brought the bikes because we thought it would be cheaper,” Sarah Inskip said while perched on one of the motorcycles. Their ride has still cost them a pretty penny, however.
During their trip, they found the cheapest price, $6.19 for a gallon of premium, in Lompoc, which itself was “still disgusting,” Inskip said.
Motorcycles only take premium gas, the group said, which means they are often paying upwards of 30 cents more per gallon than car drivers who pick the lowest-grade option.
“In three days, I think I’ve spent $100 on gas on a motorcycle,” Kaitlyn Anderson said. “And we’re getting 55 mph to the gallon, and it’s still so high.”
Anderson — the one who before had hollered a choice word at the pump — called Gorda’s prices “insane,” but at the same time didn’t seem too upset about it.
“It hurt my soul,” she said with a laugh.
For the motorcyclists, pumping gas at Gorda cost about $15. But for William Salazar of Los Angeles, the stop was a lot more pricey.
Salazar’s large burgundy F-150 truck cost him $100 on his way back from Big Sur on Monday — and it was far from full when he returned the nozzle to the pump.
“It’s really expensive,” he said with a shrug and a laugh. “Yeah, I was surprised. Thought it would like $8 or $7.”
One person who was not surprised by the prices was Robert Clarke, who was driving with a friend from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.
They had decided to travel along Highway 1 while visiting from Ireland.
“It was just always on the bucket list, you know?” he said while filling up their silver Honda Accord. “Always liked America, been here a few times, so after the pandemic it just kind of gave that extra push to go on, you know?”
And true to Jukes’ earlier assessment that most Europeans don’t care much about local prices, Clarke wasn’t too put out by the Gorda station’s listed $9.29 per gallon.
“It’s actually more expensive at home,” Clarke said as his friend added that, where they are from, the current prices come out to about $10 a gallon.
“Yeah, you think it’s bad here. It’s a lot worse in Europe,” he said.
‘We try to help them out,’ gas station attendant says
Both Jukes and Maragos are perfectly aware that filling up at the Gorda station can be pricey, so they usually buy gas down in San Luis Obispo County. Jukes said he hits a station in Morro Bay, and Maragos said he’s found comparatively inexpensive options in Paso Robles.
It’s all about planning ahead, Jukes said, and knowing where you’ll find the best deal.
But a lot of customers who stop at the Gorda station are running on fumes, not knowing that gas stations are few and far between along the scenic highway.
For them, the pair usually suggest putting $20 on the pump to get enough gas so that they can make it to a slightly cheaper station down the road, and then ultimately get to the much less expensive gas in more populated areas like Carmel or Morro Bay.
“We know it’s the highest prices everywhere,” Jukes said. “We try to help them out.”
In the end, the Gorda station’s prices are just a fact of life in the remote area of California’s scenic coast — not much he or anyone can do about them, Jukes said.
“This is such an anomaly,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders. “It’s one station in the middle of a coastal touristy place, so it has no bearing on the average — it’s just, you know, come on.”