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Thursday, April 11, 2019

Photo Essay: The Forgotten Highway Between LA and Bakersfield

Before the Castaic-Tejon Route opened, there was no good way to get from LA County to Bakersfield (or back). Stagecoaches and wagons could make it, but the trek over the Tejon Pass was harrowing. And because of drainage issues, dirt roads to the north of LA often became muddied or downright flooded.



As "automobilists" (as they were called) began taking over the roadways with motorized vehicles, those dirt paths just no longer cut it—and they began to complain.



The solution offered by the newly-formed State Bureau of Highways? Carve out a road, high up along a mountain ridge to keep the puddles away (not taking into account the snowpack of the harsh winter seasons), by using horse- and mule drawn-scrapers and grader.


German Point in background

Today, a very civilized, paved portion of the old "Ridge Route" runs alongside the 5 Freeway—its eventual replacement—in Gorman, a common pit stop for travelers needing to fill or empty their tanks.



Since renamed Gorman Post Road, it passes the former sites of the Gorman Inn, the first store in Gorman, and the home of Oscar and Mary Ralphs (brother and sister-in-law of the grocery store chain founder).



You can even see some original curbs along the road shoulder, some dated 1924 (although the Ridge Route's first iteration actually opened in 1915). In the beginning, the Ridge Route was so narrow that some joked it was just one long sidewalk.



Today's Gorman Post Road is also where a lot of the construction camps were set up for the workers who first put down the gravel and oil road bed—and would later lay reinforcing rods and tamp the wet concrete down (circa 1919).



Between the construction works and the travelers, there was plenty of business for the free water given away at German Station, as well as the goods for sale at Caswell's Road Stop, the services provided by mechanics, and the gas pumped at Holland Station #1.



But like many of those early roads, it quickly became obsolete. The two-lane engineering feat of the Old Ridge Route was bypassed in 1933 by a straightened, three-lane alternate (with a center "suicide lane" for passing) that became Highway 99.



Even Highway 99—which shortened the journey by nearly 10 miles—gave way (mostly) to the eight-lane 5 Freeway, which began construction in 1963 and opened in 1970. Though the Ridge Route was abandoned, it wasn't erased.



In fact, at the southeastern terminus of Gorman Post Road, west of where Quail Lake reservoir is now and in the general vicinity of the former Bailey Ranch, you can actually drive on a flat, well-preserved stretch of the Ridge Route. It just doesn't go anywhere.



To follow the original path of the Ridge Route, you've got to get off of Gorman Post Road and turn left onto Lancaster Road (a.k.a. Hwy 138) and drive 2.5 miles to the signed juncture with Old Ridge Route Road.



That's where the old route finally begins to climb the ridge, looking down over the former General Petroleum (later Mobil) pumping plant and Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Relay Station. This is the future site of Centennial, California—a master-planned community on land owned by Tejon Ranch—in the westernmost portion of the Antelope Valley.



It's actually not that easy to follow the entirety of the Old Ridge Route because, like Route 66, its alignment did change—and portions of it were even buried with the construction of the California Aqueduct.



But a stretch of this "miracle of modern engineering" that runs through Angeles National Forest is both drivable and maintained.



It's a fun destination for vehicular tourism...



...but it also provides access to some recreational and historic sites (as well as campgrounds).



In fact, the most famous stop between LA and Bakersfield was a midpoint waystation known as Sandberg, whose lampposts across the street beckoned travelers (no truckers or dogs allowed) to stop at its Summit Hotel, located near the peak of the Ridge Route at 4100 feet of elevation. (The streetlights' concrete footers still stick out of the hillside.)



Sandberg's Summit Hotel—which was later sold and rebranded The Sandberg Lodge—was set to reopen in 1961 as a children's camp when it burned to the ground. Nothing has ever been built in its place.



And that's where the Ridge Route really starts to get interesting.



Although the county no longer maintains the road, you can still drive on it—at least, until you hit a locked gate.



This is also where you get a good feel for a few of the route's 697 curves that you could really only take safely at 15 mph in a car.



And even so, some of these stretches have since been widened, their hairpin turns more gentle, with even some blacktop that was added later (though now crumbling, revealing the original concrete in astonishingly better condition).



As you round Horseshoe Bend, with Liebre Mountain in the distance and the ghosts of the former Liebre Construction Camp as your guides...



...you've got to swerve and snake your way past the rockslides that nobody has cleared, trying not to drive off a cliff as you take in the scenery.



Up there, long-gone guard rails would save some careless drivers—sometimes.



The big payoff for your drive are the ruins of the Tumble Inn (later, the Mountainview Lodge).



Although the landmark arch is some rebuilt version of the original, the edifice of native stones still marks a nice turnaround point.



If the road south of the Tumble Inn is open, you can take it past the site of the former Kelly's Halfway in, and all the way down to Castaic. But when you get there, you might find the gate at the other end closed, forcing you to make a two-hour drive back the way you came.



By 2005, the road had suffered so many rockslides and washouts that it's been officially closed—but sometimes the gate is open. (And even when you can't drive on it, you can walk/hike on it.)



I'm banking on it being open the next time I come to the area, so I can see the rest of it (as well as any sections north of Gorman that are still open).


Photo: Circa 1922, Automobile Club of Southern California collection, USC Libraries (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Stay tuned for dispatches from my visit to the Ridge Road Communities Museum and Historical Society. 

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Hiking Old San Francisquito Canyon Road, Along the Path of the St. Francis Dam Flood
Photo Essay: The Road That Google Maps Forgot, Old Hwy 62

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