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Geo-Joint: The Ridge Route and I-5

Posted on August 16 2016

California isn’t the biggest state but it’s one of the longest, and it has the longest continuous stretch of interstate highway in the nation. Interstate 5 runs from the Mexican border to Oregon, almost 1,400 miles end-to-end. It’s a long drive, much of it droning along through the Great Central Valley: flat, farmy and relentlessly golden yellow these drought-plagued years. Still, that scenery may be easier on the eyes than its ultra-urban run through the middle of the Greater Los Angeles Megalopolis. You can get stuck trying to pass through there for what seems like days.

On your way north, between that famous urban monster and the nation’s breadbasket, you will encounter some mountains. The first ranges define the northern edge of the San Fernando Valley. Zooming over their dry, scrubby slopes at 70 mph, they may not seem like much to be concerned about. But Interstate 5 (or “The Five” as SoCal residents call it) wasn’t always there. In fact, for a long time, the San Gabriel, Santa Susana, San Emigdio and Tehachapi mountains, among others, kept the southern and northern parts of interior California pretty well separated for all but the more-determined travellers. Of course there were always animal and Native American trails, widened by later horse and wagon travel, but the trip was a hard go. Travel between the two parts of the state was so difficult that some considered dividing California into two separate states. But things were soon to change.

In 1915, a new path was engineered. Called the Ridge Route, it shortened the previous trip by 24 miles. The new route ran from Castaic Junction, over the mountains and down to the settlement of Grapevine, at the south end of Central Valley. The route came to be known as the Grapevine, partly owing to the 697 curves in the new road, which gave it the look of a twisted vine. In truth, the name came from a short part of the route called La Cañada de Uvas, or the Canyon of Grapes, where actual grapevines impeded early wagon traffic. Even the new, relatively straight I-5 in that area is still referred to as The Grapevine. The advent of the Ridge Route, and the growing popularity of the automobile led to greatly increased north-south traffic. Travel time was far less – after all, you could fly around the curves at speeds up to 15 mph and make it from LA to Bakersfield in just 12 hours! Caution was always well-advised though, as the unpaved road was not only twisty but also climbed to 4000 feet, no doubt an effort for early autos and their drivers.

As the road grew in popularity, businesses such as gas stations, eateries, and motels sprang up. The Ridge Route was paved with concrete in 1919, which added to its safety and efficiency, but the growing volume of traffic made it clear that an even better-designed road was needed. In 1928, an improved Ridge Route Alternative was built, reworking and realigning the old road. And by 1933, the never-ending increases of traffic pressure and speed had inspired the construction of Highway 99, a straighter and better engineered route, shaving 10 miles off of what had been previously considered a marvel of a road. Of course, everyone wanted to travel this newer and better highway, and the enterprises along the Ridge Route began to fail for lack of business. It became a forgotten byway, its structures abandoned, lost to fires and the inevitable collapse from the lack of maintenance.

Highway 99, a federal highway, carried the traffic for almost four decades. It even was upgraded from a three-lane roadway with a suicide passing lane in the middle to a true 4-lane highway. But Southern California saw nothing but massive growth in the 1950s and ’60s. Plans made as far back as 1947 got funding with the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 and the future was on the way. By 1970, a shiny new 8-lane Interstate made the drive over the mountains a breeze at any speed the CHP would let you get away with. The route followed much of the old 99, but also went wherever the engineers wanted. More dirt was excavated and removed in the massive grading works than in the building of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, one of the world’s largest embankment dams. The cuts through the mountains are large enough to be seen from space.

So the path connecting Southern and Northern California has gone through a number of ever-improving changes over the years, and it’s easy to forget what an arduous trip it used to be. For those on the lookout, though, there are still pieces of the various old roadways off to the sides of I-5, perched along hillsides, and running along ridges. Efforts have been made to preserve those parts of the old Ridge Route that still remain, but private property owners have restricted auto access since 2005, and a push to get the old road made into a National Scenic Byway has stalled. Ruins along the path make for interesting sights for hikers and mountain bikers who are still allowed to explore the area, so continued fascination may yet lead to preservation. And one reminder of the really old days still persists – along the stretch of I-5 that curves its way down into the Central Valley, there are still, to this day, living remnants of the ancient grapevines that gave the very earliest wagon trail its name.

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