Considered an engineering marvel in its day, this 48-mile route traveled along the mountain ridges between Castaic Junction to the bottom of the grade at Grapevine, CA and was the first paved highway to directly link the LA Basin to the San Joaquin Valley.
I guess you could trace my interest in the old Ridge Route back to my youth when my father used to tell me stories about the old road that motorists had to travel in order to get from the Central Valley to Southern Calfornia. My step-grandmother would also talk about her first hand accounts of traveling over the mountainous route that wound its way through 697 curves, had a speed limit of 15 miles per hour and took approximately 12 hours to travel from Bakersfield to Los Angeles. I had been meaning to take a drive along this long abandoned road that is now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places but just never got around to it. A recent visit to the Ridge Route Communities Historical Society and Museum in Frazier Park, CA changed all of that.
The museum is dedicated to collecting and preserving the history and artifacts in the mountains south of Bakersfield and north of Castaic along the historic Ridge Route.
There are lots of incredible photo displays highlighting the original Ridge Route throughout its history…
…but it was this 23 page, $7 driving guide that really piqued my interest.
I had seen numerous driving guides online over the years but this simple “Self-Guided Driving Tour of the Historic Ridge Route Road: 2015 Centennial Edition” compiled and sold by the Ridge Route Communities Museum & Historical Society, was the best I’d ever seen. The turn-by-turn directions, photos and historical details found within its pages, made my decision to purchase it that much easier. At $7, the book was a steal, plus I would also be helping out this little jewel of a museum. I knew it would come in handy someday, I just didn’t know when.
Fast forward five months later after an early morning hike within the Wind Wolves Preserve, which is only a 30 minute drive from the base of the Grapevine. Ironically, the Preserve contains a section of El Camino Viejo, (Spanish for “the old road”), which was the oldest north-south trail in the interior of Spanish colonial Las Californias (1769–1822) and Mexican Alta California (1822–1848), present day California. Like the Ridge Route that would come after it, El Camino Viejo became a well established inland route, and an alternative to the coastal El Camino Real trail.
After leaving the Preserve, I headed south on I-5 towards the base of Grapevine Canyon.
Taking Exit 215 and driving under the Interstate lead me to Grapevine Road, which was the beginning of the old Ridge Route Road. The grapevines were planted by Tejon Ranch while the stone wall (where the trees are located) was built along Grapevine Creek in order to keep the flood waters away from road.
The road also passes over one of the original bridges of the Ridge Route Road. The guard rails are also believed to be original.
Shortly after the bridge, I came across the foundations of the commercial settlement of Grapevine, CA. Until two motels were built, it was not uncommon for travelers to ask for a night’s shelter at the homes that once stood here. The community was abandoned in the early 1960’s when the eight lane highway was being built.
Further up the road, the old Ridge Route veers off to the left.
While the driving guide reports that this section of the road is not open to the public…
…I failed to see any signs designating it as a private road and made my way up to see what I could find.
What I found was a cut barbed wire fence…
…leading to a ledge overlooking the northbound lanes of I-5. The Ridge Route used to wind its way past this spot but was destroyed when the alternate routes were constructed.
Upon its completion in 1915, the Ridge Route was a graded dirt road with an oil surface. Work on paving the Ridge Route with 20-foot wide, 4-inch thick reinforced concrete began in 1917, but was delayed until 1919 by the U.S. entry into World War I. The asphalt seen here was added on top of the concrete in 1922.
Fencing and 10-inch-high curbing kept the death toll from being worse than it was. There were 31 fatalities from accidents between 1921 and 1928, many resulting from runaway trucks and cars or drivers’ failure to negotiate turns.
Overlooking the northbound lanes of I-5 and the San Joaquin Valley. Directly below is where the commercial area of Grapevine, CA was once located.
An old wrecked car lies along the banks of Grapevine Creek.
Driving back towards the Interstate along Grapevine Road provides a glimpse of the “straight away” or “17 mile Tangent” as the road continued for some 17 miles straight to the north – the longest perfectly straight stretch in the California Highway system at that time.
After heading south along I-5 for 2.3 miles, the first “water hole” stop can be seen. This spot has been providing motorists with water for their overheated vehicles since the 1930s.
Another mile beyond the watering hole and right after this JESUS SAVES sign…
…was the site of a road stop known as Oak Glen.
A ghost curb at one of the road stops along the old Ridge Route.
Further up the road, past the large highway sign on the right that says, “Fort Tejon 1 Mile” is the curving concrete roadbed of the original Ridge Route road. This section of the road circles a hill creating what was called “Dead Man’s Curve.”
Downhill trucks and autos would mis-judge their speed or loose their brakes, cross the double line and crash head-on with uphill traffic. The impact would generally take both vehicles to the canyon below.
The concrete along this section dates back to 1919 and was the first to be poured in Grapevine Canyon.
The backside of Dead Man’s Curve during an incredible wildflower bloom.
Upper Dead Man’s Curve as it approaches the I-5 alignment.
Across the Interstate from Fort Tejon, is the El Tejon School which is where a road stop known as the Blue Windmill was located before the school was built in 1938-39. Continuing past the school and the Tejon Sports Fields, is this stretch of the old road behind a locked fence. In the distance is another one of the original bridges with old wood railing.
After crossing I-5 and continuing south past the Post Office located in Lebec, I came across this open space with two large cypress tress.
This was the location of the grandest hotel along the Ridge Route, the Lebec Hotel which opened in 1921. The hotel had Spanish Mission style architecture and was a playland for Hollywood executives and stars in its hey day. Over the years the hotel fell into disrepair and officially closed on November 13, 1968 in response to health department charges concerning its substandard water system and dilapidated condition. The hotel went into receivership and was acquired by the Tejon Ranch Company. They torched the hotel and demolished the remains on April 27,1971 only two weeks after acquiring the property.
You can still see the original lamp posts that once stood in front of of the Lebec Hotel at the Ridge Route Communities Museum & Historical Society located in Frazier Park.
Past Gorman, I exited I-5 and headed east on Hwy 138. Shortly after passing Quail Lake, I made a right turn at the “Old Ridge Route” sign. Two miles ahead, at the intersection of Pine Canyon Road and Old Ridge Route Road was a sign announcing the beginning of the Old Ridge Route through the Angeles National Forest.
A half mile ahead is where the famous Sandberg’s Summit Hotel once stood. It was built in 1914 and opened for customers as soon as the road opened in 1915. It was originally a one-story structure but became a larger, three-story log hotel surrounded by oaks and pine trees. The hotel included a lovely, large dining room, several cabins behind the hotel, a garage, and a large fireplace. Sandberg’s was the finest hotel along the route. It is reputed that a sign was displayed that said, “No Truck Drivers or Dogs Allowed.” The hotel burned down in 1961 when a new owner was burning trash, and an errant ember landed on the wood shingle roof. The old wooden hotel was reduced to ashes in just a few minutes.
As it curves through forest land, the road remains in the same condition in which it was left in 1933 when funds for its maintenance dried up.
The road alternates between dirt, concrete and asphalt as it winds its way through Angeles National Forest.
A half a mile ahead, is the section known as “Horseshoe Bend” because it’s shaped like a horseshoe. This section was probably the most difficult to navigate due to the poor condition of the road. A high clearance vehicle shouldn’t have a problem getting past this point. My 2WD Jeep Cherokee made it just fine.
Another half mile ahead is Granite Gate…
…where this huge rock was left standing after blasting of the hillside was done on this portion of the route.
Crumbling asphalt near Granite Gate.
Shortly beyond Granite Gate, is Liebre Summit, which is the highest point on the road at 4,213 feet, around the same elevation as today’s Tejon Pass on I-5. Liebre Mountain is also home to the largest stand of black oaks in the state.
I found this memorial located on the ground near the monument. I’m guessing David was 27 years old (.25 + .02) when he passed. All I could find online about him was that he loved visiting Liebre Summit, no dates were found. R.I.P David.
Another mile ahead is the famous ruins of the Tumble Inn.
The Tumble Inn was built in the 1920’s as a gas station and hostel.
Many people made this place a stopping point when traveling over the Ridge Route.
It was built by hand with native stones.
The buildings were located here above the wall.
It offered double rooms for $2 in 1928. They also offered meals, gas, free camping space, water and rest rooms.
“Because of its distinctive rock work and spectacular views, the Tumble Inn was known as one of the loveliest locations on the ridge. From here, travelers had breathtaking views of the Liebre Mountains to the east and the coastal ranges to the west. Can you match the stone work still here to the picture? Just beyond the Tumble Inn is the Angeles Forest upper gate, closing off the next 12-13 miles of the Ridge Route. The Forest Service closed this section of the road to the public in 2005 after heavy rains washed out parts of it. You are allowed to walk, hike, or bicycle in, just no motorized vehicles. I plan to bike this portion of the Ridge Route at a later date. In the meantime, I made my way back down the mountain and headed home.
On the following morning I rejoined the southern end of the Ridge Route near Templin Highway.
No access granted! This lower gate is located 1.2 miles north of Templin Highway on Ridge Route Road.
View from the Forest Service lower gate overlooking the private residences below the road.
Newer asphalt covers an older concrete section of the old Ridge Route Road north of Templin Highway.
This building was once the location of Martin’s Garage. A 1926 touring guide simply states: “Garage, gas and water.” Part of the original building remains today surrounded by a chain link fence.
Concrete vs Asphalt
Original curbing from the old Ridge Route Road overlooking the valley below.
This portion was straightened in 1924 and now sits above the southbound lanes of I-5. In 1933, a straighter, three-lane road known as the Alternate Ridge Route opened to the west and cut time between the valley and Los Angeles even more. With few people traveling the original route, most of the small businesses and inns that had relied so heavily on the traffic were forced to close. If you would like to take a tour along this incredible historic road, I would highly suggest you pick up your own copy of the “Self-Guided Driving Tour of the Historic Ridge Route Road: 2015 Centennial Edition” at the Ridge Route Communities Museum & Historical Society in Frazier Park. The museum is a great resource to check out prior to your tour plus you’ll be supporting their efforts to preserve the history of this amazing road.