Ridge Route

From Academic Kids

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Vintage postcard of the Alternate Ridge Route, later a part of U.S. Highway 99. Notice the three-lane roadway, with a center suicide lane.

The Ridge Route was the popular name given to an early 20th-century road in the United States. The Ridge Route was California's first paved highway. Linking the Los Angeles Basin with the San Joaquin Valley; it was particularly used to travel from the city of Los Angeles to Bakersfield. Its official name was the Castaic-Tejon Route.



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A map of the Ridge Route drawn in 1919.

In 1895, the State Bureau of Highways was created by Governor James H. Budd who appointed three highway commissioners: R.C. Irvine of Sacramento, Marsden Manson of San Francisco and L. Maude of Riverside.

After purchasing a team of horses and a buckboard wagon, Irvine, Manson and Maude set out on a surveying trip to determine the feasibility of connecting the state via a network of state-run highways running between major population centers. Eighteen months and 7000 miles (11,000 km) later, they submitted their recommendation which included a direct route between Los Angeles to the San Joaquin Valley.

The California Legislature of 1897 dissolved the Bureau of Highways and created a Department of Highways which immediately set to work studying road construction practices in Western Europe.

Surveying began in 1912 on what was to be California's first major mountain road. Since such a road had never been attempted, the Ridge Route was considered by the Automobile Club of Southern California to be the greatest feat of road engineering to date. (Touring Topics, 1919, p. 11.) Compared to the established construction practices of railroads over rugged terrain, with a grade of perhaps two percent, the Ridge Route permitted steeper grades and sharper turns than any railroad, with grades up to six percent. The July 1, 1916 edition of the California Highway Bulletin quoted the San Francisco Chronicle that same year as saying that the Ridge Route was "one of the most remarkable engineering feats accomplished by the State Highway Commission. It is Southern California's Magnus Opus (sic) in mountain highway construction." (California Highway Bulletin, 1916, p.2)

This project would also include a major bridge over Castaic Creek — destroyed in the 1928 St. Francis Dam disaster — and two major cuts through solid rock, Swede's Cut and Beale's Cut. Beale's Cut was named for General Edward Fitzgerald Beale, federal Surveyor-General of California and Nevada and famous for his 1857 trek across the desert regions of Southern California by camel. Beale dispatched a crew of Chinese laborers in 1862 to widen an 1858 cut established for the Butterfield Overland Stage. Beale's crew expanded the passage to 12 feet (4 m) through 60 feet (18 m) of sandstone to reduce the climb by 50 feet (15 m). The first automobile went over the pass in 1902. Until the 435 feet (133 m) Newhall Tunnel opened in October 1910, Beale's Cut was the only way over Newhall Pass.

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Original stretch of 1919 concrete pavement and curb, pictured circa 2004.

Prior to the 1897 overseas studies, a road of that scale and complexity was considered by engineers to be such a daunting task that there was serious discussion underway in Sacramento about splitting the state in two at the mountains. They believed that to build a road over such a rugged range based on the American highway technology of the day was a nearly impossible task. Even the simplest logistics brought up concerns, for example, the initial difficulty in bringing the necessary animals and equipment to the site. Without the Ridge Route, road travel meant skirting the mountains to the west near the coast; road and rail travel could also enter through the Antelope Valley to the east and through the Tehachapi Pass. Either route added as much as an extra day to the trip, greatly driving up the cost of commerce. The Automobile Club of Southern California as well as political interests led the charge to improve the technology, build the highway and preserve the state. So successful was the Ridge Route that it was credited for helping to open the Los Angeles area to tourism.

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View of the Grapevine looking north toward the San Joaquin Valley, 1934.

The Ridge Route was completed in 1915 at a cost of US$1.2 million—including the 1919 concrete paving—which was covered by a 1909 bond issue that taxpayers didn't pay off until 1965. Originally opened with an unpaved roadbed that was oiled to keep the dust to a minimum, by 1919 the highway was paved with four inch (100 mm) thick reinforced concrete. The highway got its name because it followed the ridgeline of the San Gabriel and Tehachapi Mountains. Mostly bypassed by 1933 with the coming of the three-lane "Alternate Ridge Route" which would later be part of U.S. Highway 99 (converted to a four-lane expressway by 1947 and severed with the 1970 completion of Pyramid Dam), a 30 mile (48 km) long, 20 foot (6 m) wide stretch of the original Ridge Route between Castaic just off Interstate 5 and Highway 138 in Gorman is paved (except in a few very small stretches) and is still passable. Thanks to the efforts of retired telephone engineer Harrison Scott, roughly seventeen miles (27 km) of that fragment was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Scott is also the author of Ridge Route, The Road That United California, one of the most detailed reference works available about the highway.


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Photograph of speed limit sign, circa 1920

The complete road from Castaic to Gorman had 697 curves totaling 39,441 degrees — roughly 110 full circles — with few guard rails or turnouts (see glossary). Curbs along the sides of the steepest drops kept cars from sliding into the ravines and a speed limit of only 15 mph (24 km/h) was strictly enforced.

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Beale's Cut, 1937

One section, popularly referred to as "The Grapevine" (then, as now) was not named for the winding path taken by the road as many believe, but for the wild Cimarron grapevines which early Spanish explorers and later 19th Century wagoneers had to hack through.

It was dubbed Caņada de las uvas, or "Canyon of the Grapes" in 1772 by Don Pedro Fages. Don Pedro was a Spanish officer, acting governor of Alta California and the first european to travel through the area. These wild grapevines still exist on the hill west of Interstate 5 next to a part of old US 99.

Other named features included the Beale's Cut, Swede's Cut (known also as "Big Cut" and "Culebra Excavation") and Horseshoe Bend overlooking Liebre Gulch. Beale's Cut is located about 10 miles (16 km) south of Castaic and is now rendered unusable for automobile traffic since the coming of the Newhall Tunnel. Parts of the route ran alongside and overlooked Castaic Creek.

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Swede's Cut looking north, pictured circa 2004.

Horseshoe Bend was the first paved stretch of the Ridge Route, but was bypassed early in the highway's history and is no longer passable. Except for 110 foot (34 m) deep Swede's Cut which was completed in 1915 and carved through solid rock with the help of steam-powered equipment, the entire route was graded by horse and mule-drawn scrapers. While Swede's Cut is the largest cut on the entire route, it was cut extremely narrow in an effort to save money. As a result of the cut, the soft surrounding rock has held up somewhat poorly.


The route's present end at Highway 138 was the site of the Butterfield Overland Stage stop between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. The remainder of the Ridge Route as well as the town site of Grapevine were covered up by U.S. 99/Interstate 5 with a few fragments of broken pavement still visible from the new highway. What is today a fairly brief drive of less than 30 minutes on Interstate 5 takes an average of three hours plus sightseeing stops on the Ridge Route, even in a modern automobile. So narrow was the Ridge Route in places that there was just enough room for two cars of the period to pass. Drivers of modern wider-bodied automobiles should strongly consider treating these narrow road portions as a shared one-way lane. Inclement weather, including snowstorms at the higher elevations and mudslides during the rainy season not only make the drive nearly impossible, but extremely dangerous as well because no services remain and irreversible damage can occur to the roadway itself. It is strongly recommended to avoid the Ridge Route if the weather is even the least bit threatening.

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U.S. 99 "Ridge Route Alternate," 1948

Driving the Ridge Route

To get to the existing fragment of the route from Los Angeles, take Interstate 5 heading north and exit where the green and white Caltrans informational sign says "Parker Road/Castaic." Proceed right at the top of the offramp — which is the location of the first street sign marked "Ridge Route." Then simply follow the road, being careful to proceed straight at marked intersections in the new suburban portion of Castaic. At Templin Highway, disregard the yellow and black advisory sign which says "not a through road." Templin Highway was built in 1968 during construction of Interstate 5 as an access road to the Castaic Power Plant, forcing a partial reroute of both the Ridge Route and Highway 99.

From the San Joaquin Valley, take I-5 south. Exit at Highway 138 toward Lancaster. The Route 138 freeway stub will narrow to one lane each direction. After passing Quail Lake — found on the north side of Route 138 — turn right at the street marked "Old Ridge Route." As elevation is gained, one will enter the unmaintained area past the intersection with Pine Canyon Road (Los Angeles County Route N2). Once one has traveled the route southward to Templin Highway — a wide maintained asphalt paved road about 17 miles (27 km) south of Route 138's intersection with "Old Ridge Route" — the traveler may turn right on Templin Highway to return to the Interstate at their discretion, or continue straight on the remainder of the Ridge Route to reach Castaic. The road is in better condition south of Templin Highway, but still has many curves.

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Highway 99 "Ridge Route Alternate" between Lebec and Bakersfield, 1943; today part of Interstate 5. Looking north.

Navigating on the Ridge Route demands safe driving habits. Potholes, loose sand, debris, remnants of mudslides and rockslides and many of the aforementioned 697 curves await todays traveler. The road is not being maintained beyond its current use as a fire access road, although its historical status makes it eligible for available future funding and preservation, including signage pointing out places of note.

None of the businesses that once dotted the route remain, but tourists can catch a glimpse of the occasional wall or foundation of a long-lost building. Many of the buildings were intentionally bulldozed by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1950s and 1960s per their fire protection policy and because they were used as flophouses by transients and later by hippies, resulting in unsanitary conditions and additional fire danger. Remains of the buildings can be glimpsed in the canyons. However, a $5 (USD) National Forest Adventure Pass is required if you step out of your vehicle for exploration within the forest boundaries. Driving straight through requires no pass.

Notable stops

The Tumble Inn

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The Tumble Inn's famous step, 2004.

One of the best-preserved ruins on the Ridge Route is the foundation of the Tumble Inn at about the halfway point of the trip. It is a native stone structure that still bears the words "TUMBLE INN" carved in its top step, just below the foundation floor level. A 1928 motor tour book described the Tumble Inn thus: Rooms, dbl. $2, meals, gas, free camp space, water and rest rooms. A small resort of far-reaching vista. The same could be said of the view today since it extends to the mountains in practically every direction.

The National Forest Inn

Little remains of this stop once situated on Forest Service land except for cement steps on the west side of the road leading up to the foundation.

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Remains of the steps to the National Forest Inn, pictured circa 2004.

A 1926 touring guide indicated that there were nine rooms in cottages, most with running water, from $1 to $2, lunch 75 cents; garage; camp 50 cents. A ranger station and highway repair station completed the complex.

A 1932 pamphlet on highway beautification described it as the sort of filling station that gets into a national forest and is no addition thereto, a comment which probably alluded to the fact that the National Forest Inn consisted of a series of neat, white clapboard (see glossary) buildings instead of log structures of the type prevalent throughout the forest.

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Historical marker and photo across from the National Forest Inn site.

Above this structure on a nearby hill are an unused cement-lined reservoir believed to have been built for fire control as well as the foundation remains of an airplane beacon.

The National Forest Inn was destroyed on October 20, 1932 by a fire which originated in the building's garage.

Sandberg's Summit Hotel

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Detail of collapsing foundation of Sandberg's Summit Hotel, circa 2004.

All that remains of the Ridge Route's finest accommodation, Sandberg's Summit Hotel are its extensive rock wall work below the main floor, cement foundations and the floor and rear wall of what was once an auto repair facility. The facility burned down in 1961 during efforts to renovate the building for use as a youth hostel. Sandberg's was notable for its many amenities, including both running water and indoor plumbing which made it the stop of choice for the well-heeled traveler, and the proprietors made that quite clear. A sign in front of the hotel said, "NO TRUCKERS OR DOGS ALLOWED." Sandberg's was also the stuff of road lore as unsubstantiated rumors of illegal gambling and even prostitution abounded. The highest point of the Ridge Route was just south of Sandberg's on the Los Angeles County side at an elevation of 4223'/1287 m.

Reservoir Summit

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Ruins of Reservoir Summit, pictured circa 2004.

Reservoir Summit took its name from the large reservoir that once provided water during construction of the highway. The Reservoir Inn travel stop consisted of a very small garage, a restaurant that hung over the side of a cliff, rest rooms and an auto camp. Harrison Scott describes the Reservoir Inn as "green with a screened porch. It had a lunch counter with three or four tables. It was a high-class, popular restaurant with men waiters in solid white uniforms. Truckers were welcome." Today, all that remains are parts of the reservoir itself.

Tire tracks

Though a great deal of the route had been daylighted (widened) and paved in asphalt by the mid-1920s, much of the 1919 concrete pavement remains intact. In some areas, Model T tire tracks can still be seen, left decades ago in the still-soft concrete.


In an attempt to make this information as universal as possible, some American terms from the article are presented with their British English counterparts:

Guard rail: Crash barrier
Turnout: Lay-by
Clapboard: A narrow board usually thicker at one edge than the other used as siding (in place of brick, logs or stucco)


  • Images of Ridge Route. August 21, 2004.
  • "This mountain road level as a floor." Los Angeles Times, November 3, 1912.
  • "The Great Short Cut over Tehachapi Mountains." California Highway Bulletin, July 1, 1916, p.2.
  • "Ridge route now open; Paved from end to end." Los Angeles Times: November 16, 1919.
  • Pool, Bob. "Ridge Route's Scholar." Los Angeles Times: October 13, 1997.
  • Scott, Harrison Irving. Ridge Route: The Road That United California.
  • "All Aboard for Ridge Route — But Watch Your Step! Touring Topics, November 1919, p.11.
(Note: Touring Topics' current name is Westways, the member magazine of the Automobile Club of Southern California.)

See also

External links and other sources


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