Want to Drive California’s Most Terrifying Highways?

Sure, the 5 and the 101 Are Efficient. But If You Want to Find Beauty and Danger on the Roads of California, Head East or West.

Do you seek beauty and danger in California, but are unsure in which direction you can find it?

West. Just drive west.

Or east.

California is sturdily and reliably connected from north to south by straight, workhorse highways like the Interstate 5, the 99, and the 101. They can be boring yes, but with multiple lanes, center divides, and the various other protections of big modern freeways, they get us there.

The stark otherworldly blue of the San Luis Reservoir, the vistas of the Diablo Range, and the sweet smell of the garlic fields and fruit stands as you near Gilroy.

But if you want to travel horizontally in this state, from east to west or back, your task will be harder, your risks higher. If you’re heading between major population centers, you might well find yourself on stretches of interstate that rank high in the rankings of most dangerous in the country—I-80 to Nevada, I-10 on your way east to Arizona, and I-15 in the desert approaching Vegas.

And if you’re trying to head inland or to the coast away from the big cities, your only option may be a windy state highway that offers little protection from oncoming traffic. California’s east-west connections, despite improvements, are narrow, far from numerous, and hard to navigate. It’s not merely politics that divides the blue coast from the red inland; it’s our geography, our weather, our Pacific Coast Range, and the very roads that connect us.

I recently faced California’s east-west challenge late one afternoon in the town of Yreka, in Siskiyou County, inland along the Oregon border.

I needed to go to Crescent City—80 miles to the west as a bird flies—for meetings the next day. But the Klamath National Forest stood between me and the coast. And Google Maps showed I’d have to drive more than 150 miles, and at least three hours, to get there.

“You gotta go north and south to go east and west here,” Mark Baird, a leader of the secession movement to create a new State of Jefferson in the far north of California, told me. He noted it was an old problem; a 1941 secession attempt in these parts used the slogan, “Our roads are not passable, hardly jackassable.”

As the locals laid it out, I had three options. I could head south, almost down to Redding, then cut over to the Eureka area on windy CA-299, before heading another 80 miles north on 101 to Crescent City. But that was the longest route, more than 250 miles.

The two other east-west routes required me to go north—into Oregon. The safest, according to a local newspaper editor, would be to drive a semi-circle, taking I-5 North 45 minutes into Oregon, through Ashland and Medford, before connecting with U.S. 199 in Grants Pass to take me southwest to the coast. But this drive would require going over the Siskiyou Pass—near the Oregon-California border—where it was snowing. On my way over the pass the previous night, I had barely been able to see through a spring snow squall, and I’d skidded to the side of the road in my rented SUV.

So I chose the third, geographically direct option—right through the forest. I got on tiny CA-96 and headed west along the windy path of the Klamath River, as rain and sleet fell. After more than 90 minutes of spectacular scenery and scary turns, I made a right onto a road that, after another slow hour, took me back into Oregon, where I connected with U.S. 199.

That road, the Redwood Highway, delivered on its name, with awe-inspiring trees and views of the Smith River’s Middle Fork. The road was wet and slick, and I drove slowly. I arrived at the Pacific in Crescent City nearly four hours after I left Yreka, weary from the intense driving but also happy from having been witness to so much beauty.

That mix of feelings is common to east-west travel, no matter where you are in the state. I experience it most frequently on 152, which I use to cut between I-5 at Los Banos and the 101 in Gilroy on long family drives between Southern California and my grandmother’s house in San Mateo. The 152 is a special drive—the stark otherworldly blue of the San Luis Reservoir, the vistas of the Diablo Range, and the sweet smell of the garlic fields and fruit stands as you near Gilroy. But it’s also dangerous, especially the stretch between the 156 and the 101, where the road has just one lane in each direction, rain ditches right along the sides, and no center dividers; you have to keep your headlights on to avoid head-on collisions.

California hides wonderful surprises on these roads—the roadside restaurant and attraction Casa de Fruta in the Pacheco Pass on 152, the sun-splashed lemon groves near Fillmore on 126 from Valencia to Ventura, and the Boston House of Pizza in Lemoore, at the intersection of two east-west highways (CA-198 and CA-41), where I had the tastiest pie on a nighttime drive from Visalia to Paso Robles.

But these small roads also represent a failure for a big state. California’s economy relies on our mastery of trade and logistics, and so it should be much easier to move people and things sideways on the map. Over the years, there have been proposals for rail links or cargo-only roads from east to west. Building tollways for cargo movements would make a ton of sense. It also might be worth encouraging, via public subsidy, bush plane services like those that connect far-flung communities in Alaska.

But California, a laggard in infrastructure for the past two generations, has been slow to build the links that would ease east-west connection. Even the proposed high-speed rail project, which connects the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area and L.A., is too vertical in its orientation to solve the problem.

It’s past time for action. East-west traffic is increasing, with more people and businesses in the growing inland regions needing to get to the coast. In Southern California, truck traffic on east-west roads is expected to double in the next 20 years. Surely we can find faster, safer ways to help Californians traverse the beautiful east-west divide.


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