In the early part of the twentieth century, California had a serious problem. There were no direct routes from Southern California
to the rest of the state, causing early drivers to have to drive out of their way in order to reach their destination. Commerce was severely interrupted, and there was talk about dividing California into two states. Something needed to happen.
That something came in the form of a road running from the Grapevine through the rugged San Gabriel Mountains to Castaic Junction. Several routes were proposed for routing the new highway, winding their way through various small mountain passes. Many of these routes had major logistical problems, such as conflicting with the site of a proposed dam, and it was decided to build the road along the ridgeline of the mountains.
The road was considered a technological marvel when it was built. Modern road construction techniques, such as blasting and grading, were still in their infancy, and considered by many to be a black art. Thus, most road designers used such tools very sparingly, instead choosing to snake their roads along the mountaintops or along canyon floors. The Ridge Route is a fine example of this, as very little blasting was used in the construction of the road; in most places the road snakes around small, tight curves, instead of going through a cut in the mountain.
The Ridge Route opened as a dirt road in late November of 1915, and quickly became a popular route between the two halves of the state, as it cut nearly fifty miles out of the previous fastest route. This may not seem like a particularly long distance today, but when the road was originally built, a fifty mile detour meant an extra half day's travel. The debate over splitting up California all but dried up; it was finally convenient to drive into and out of the rapidly expanding Southern California.
The road quickly became a popular, heavily traveled thoroughfare. Concrete pavement was added in 1919, meaning a much smoother and faster ride. The entire route was added to the Federal Highway System in 1925 as US Route 99. Unfortunately, automotive technology was quickly obsoleting the once state of the art road, with ever increasing automotive speeds leading to often serious problems.
Accidents were plentiful on the road, with often serious consequences. The numerous hairpin and blind curves would cause a car going much faster than the speed limit of 15 miles per hour to either slide off the road, or drift into the lane going the opposite direction and hit another car head on. Portions of the road were realigned several times, as the rapidly evolving art of road construction allowed road builders to widen some of the more difficult curves, eliminating some of the most dangerous blind corners. There were still several dangerous curves, though, such as the infamous Deadman's Curve, named due to the many fatal accidents which occurred on that stretch of highway. All too often, cars going downhill through the curve would lose their brakes, drift into the uphill lane, and collide head on with another car. The resulting loss of control would usually take both vehicles into the ravine below, nicknamed the Graveyard because of the numerous fatal collisions. Due to the ever-increasing number of accidents, it became more and more obvious that major work needed to be done to this vital stretch of highway.
After much debate, it was decided that the best course of action was to reroute the road through a different, easier to navigate canyon. Though it was a contender for being the original routing for the Ridge Route, this route wasn't chosen earlier as the canyon was the proposed site of a major dam project. In the few years after the construction of the Ridge Route, the construction of the dam had been placed on the back burner, and it was decided to place a road up through the canyon. Construction of the bypass began in 1928, and progressed rapidly. The Ridge Route's days as a major highway were numbered.
The end of the Ridge Route as a major road came in 1933 when the bypass was completed. Ridge Route Alternate, which replaced the Ridge Route as Route 99, was wider, had fewer curves, and was much, much safer. The number of fatal accidents occurring in the pass plummetted as there were no truly treacherous curves to negotiate. The Ridge Route was relegated to being a small country road, with only a few hardy travellers taking the once busy road.
It's still possible to drive the a large portion of the Ridge Route, even though it hasn't been actively maintained since the 1930's. The most accessible portion of the road is the stretch from Castaic to Gorman, with much of the route still driveable. The easiest way to get to the road is to take it from the south, as many of the landmarks are set up to handle traffic coming in from Los Angeles. One simply has to exit Interstate 5 at Parker Road and follow the signs to the Ridge Route. At the end of the Ridge Route proper, make a left on highway 138, then a right on Gorman Post Road to end the trip in Gorman with a meal at one of the roadside diners. From the north, it's slightly trickier, as the easiest way to reach the road is to exit Interstate 5 at the Gorman offramp, and go under the freeway to Gorman Post Road. From there, make a right and follow the road to Highway 138, and take Highway 138 east to the Ridge Route itself. It is seriously recommended, however, to take the road from the south to get the full effect of this road. North of Gorman, the right of way of Interstate 5 closely matches the path of the original Ridge Route, with the only major deviation from the right of way being a bypass of the extremely dangerous Deadman's Curve.
For most stretches of the road, it's practically impossible to drive more than 15-20 miles per hour, with portions of the road requiring the driver to slow down to a crawl to maneuver past large rocks and crumbling sections of road. The Forest Service maintains most of the road between Castaic and Gorman, but only performs repairs when the road truly requires it. Most of the road consists of the crumbling asphault laid back in the mid 1920's, though there are portions of the road which run on the original concrete. For much of the year, the road is open to all travellers; four wheel drive is not needed at all. It is recommended to check the status of the road if planning to drive the road in the winter or after a rainstorm, as dirt portions of the road have a tendancy to turn into quicksand with a bit of moisture. With clear weather and a full tank, however, the Ridge Route is an interesting drive through a beautiful and historic stretch of California.
The future is looking up for the preservation of the Ridge Route. On September 25, 1997, the section of the Ridge Route from Templin Highway to the small town of Sandberg was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, ensuring that this stretch of road will be preserved for future generations. Further encouraging signs of future preservation came on September 4, 2001, when the California State Legislature passed Concurrent Resolution 98, which provided funding for a commemorative plaque denoting the beginning of this historic road. It appears that the road which united the state of California will exist for some time to come.
ridgeroute.com - http://www.ridgeroute.com
Virtual Tour of the Ridge Route - http://www.scvresources.com/highways/ridge_route/rrtintro.htm
California Highways Website - http://www.cahighways.org