First Drive Day – OC to Sacramento
We headed out early on a Friday morning. This was still a work day, so we hit the road at about 7 am, and headed north out of the OC towards the Central Valley. Most of the traffic in LA ebbs and flows each day like the tides at rush hour, heading to downtown LA, Santa Ana/ Irvine, and the LAX airport area. To avoid this, we headed up east of the metropolitan LA area, on the 605 freeway, which follows the path of the San Gabriel River from the beach to the base of the San Gabriel mountains. Traffic on this path was fairly light, and we took advantage of the Carpool lane which runs most of the length of the freeway.
From the end of the 605 freeway at the base of the mountains that border LA on the north, we headed west via Pasadena on the 210 “Foothill Freeway”. This freeway skirts the edge of the northern mountains around LA so we passed through Pasadena and edged along the side of the San Fernando Valley to the start of the “Grapevine” route out of LA.
This passage out of LA is the old historic northern route of LA. If you know where to look there are still some of the old stagecoach ruts and cuts through the hillsides north of LA, as the stagecoaches would take the steep grades out of the San Fernando Valley, and then head west towards Santa Barbara. However, around the turn of the 20th Century, a road was cut over the mountains down Taejon pass into the Central Valley. This rapidly became the main route between LA and San Francisco, and the route was nicknamed the “Grapevine” due to the many turns and twists the road took (like a grape vine) coming down out of the coast range mountains into the flat, long central valley of California. Today however, the old “grapevine” road is abandoned and unmaintained, although much of it is still drivable as a Forest Service road in the Angeles National Forest.
At the top of the Tejon Pass, where the road splits with routes north, south, west and east there’s an old US Army Fort. Today it’s a state historic park, and primarily used as a meeting spot by Civil War Reenactors, but its an interesting stop to tour. I used to stop here to stretch my legs and look around, but the State has redone the entrance and put the picnic tables and restrooms behind the “pay to enter” kiosk, so you can’t legally enter to use the bathrooms without paying.
From Tejon Pass, you head down a steep grade which is still called “the Grapevine” in memory of the old route, and then into the flats of the Central Valley. The I-5 through here is quite flat and travels through large orchards of fruit trees and rows of grapes. This area can be treacherous in the late spring and early winter, as its possible to get very thick “Tule” fogs which reduce visibility to only a few feet, and potentially freezing fogs which can make the roads dangerously slippery. The many drivers taking the route north and south between LA and San Francisco are usually concentrating on making the drive in minimal time, so its not uncommon to encounter drivers trying to travel at 80+ miles per hour. In combination with the Tule Fogs or other inclement weather, this can be a recipe for disaster, with multiple-car pileups not uncommon in those conditions.
But on this trip, the sun was shining and we sped up I-5.
About 3-4 hours out of LA on I-5 you pass by the little crossroads of Lost Hills. It’s not well known but the south western part of the Central Valley was a very intensive oil producing area. Huge gushers which ran for weeks, and even lakes of oil were found here. Today, most of the easy to get oil has been pumped out, although there are still quite a few grasshopper pumps still pulling oil out if you look around. Just west of Lost Hills there is a “reef” structure where there are several hundred grasshoppers still pulling oil out of a buried geological structure – hundreds of oil wells in a very small, very well defined area.
Another interesting stop near Lost Hills is the Kern National Wildlife Sanctuary. This is about 10 miles from Lost Hills, north east of the crossroads. When the early explorers entered the Central Valley, they found a very large, very shallow lake in the area which can be seen on old maps as “Tule Lake”. At the time, this was the largest lake in California – larger than Lake Tahoe. By the 1920’s farmers and ranchers had drained almost all of this lake and turned the rich soil around it into farmland. Today, most of Tule Lake is invisible, although on an exceptionally wet year it will come back for some weeks, when the fields and irrigation canals overflow the roads and a faint trace of the huge old Lake reappears.
Kern National Wildlife Sanctuary is in the midst of the old Tule Lake area, and even in the heat of the summer the area still has marshlands and wetlands home to ducks, birds and even Pelicans. We typically stop here since its usually quite deserted, has some rudimentary bathrooms and picnic areas and is a nice quiet stop for lunch.
Temperature when we left the coast in OC was expected to be a high of around 70 F, but the Central Valley was heading for 100 F or more. We hurried up the I-5 through Santa Nella and into Sacramento. We arrived at our evening stop east of Sacramento about 3 in the afternoon, and after dealing with some last minute issues with our reservation headed for the room, and then the pool at the hotel in the 101F heat.