Climbing the Elkhorn Grade in a Chevy Bolt EV

By Paul Gipe

With bright sunshine, spring in the air, and a bit of cabin fever, we headed west out of Bakersfield to a remote site on the Carrizo Plains National Monument hunting wild flowers. Social distancing wasn’t a problem. Most of the time there wasn’t a human in sight for as far as the eye could see.

To stay off the beaten track and away from people we decided to climb the Elkhorn Grade over the Temblors from Maricopa, California dropping down into the Carrizo Plains to Soda Lake Road where there are two famous sag ponds on the San Andreas Fault.

The roundtrip from Bakersfield is 140 miles and we used 33 kWh of the Bolts 60 kWh traction battery for an overall efficiency of 4.3 mi/kWh. The trip took 20% less energy than that estimated by A Better Routeplanner.

Dry stats don’t quite tell the story of getting there.

The Elkhorn Grade

The Elkhorn Grade crosses the Temblors north of Hwy 166 just west of the dusty oil town of Maricopa. We’d been over the grade once before in the three decades I’ve lived in California and that was in a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle.

The Chevy Bolt is not a high-clearance vehicle, though it has more clearance than most other electric cars. It also does not have four-wheel drive. The Bolt drives the front wheels only.

When I last asked BLM botanist Denis Kearns whether a passenger vehicle could get over the grade, he hesitated before answering with “you should be able to” if it’s not wet. That hesitation spoke volumes.

The Temblors are mostly marine shales and when wet the expansive clay turns to gumbo–slick, gooey muck. You wouldn’t want to be there even if there was a hint of rain or you would have to walk out.

It was dry. The sky was clear. The grass was green and the hint of wildflowers near the summit was beckoning so we went for it. We could always turn around and come back the way we’d come–couldn’t we?

The first few miles were deceiving, a smooth dirt track with an easy grade. One could liken it to the beginning of some horror movie, everything’s placid and peaceful before the fun starts.

Soon we were climbing up steep hillsides with deep, narrow, rutted road cuts. Some sections were nearly washed out from the last heavy rain. (Fortunately, we never came across another vehicle on the climb out of the San Joaquin Valley.)

We came to our first great display of golden yellow Monlopia or hillside daisy, an oft-photographed flower characteristic of the Temblors and the nearby Carrizo Plains. We stopped in the road for a photo op–there was no fear of blocking traffic.

The climb continued, tires occasionally slipping slightly, nothing too concerning. But as we neared the summit there was a section that had been asphalt at one time. Heavy rain had severely eroded and broken up the pavement. There wasn’t much there. There were deep ruts, broken pavement covered in gravel, and a steep grade. Oy vey!

As we slowly tried to climb up the broken sections, the car began to buck as the tires would grab then lose traction. Our slow crawl came nearly to a halt as the tires began to spin on the loose gravel. Your reaction is to give the motor more juice to keep your momentum up but the image of shredding your tires on the sharp edges of the broken pavement catches your breath. We were on the edges of our seats at each jerk forward. But I didn’t panic and kept a steady foot on the accelerator as we tried to maintain some momentum. Finally, it was clear ahead and the tires gripped again and we were on our way.

By now it was clear that backing the car down the road if we couldn’t get through ahead would be a nightmare. It was forward to Soda Lake Road or likely a long walk out. . .

The vista from the summit was spectacular and we found more wildflowers, including a Mirabilis, part of the four o-clock family. We could now see the Carrizo Plains as we came to a fork in the road.

The road to the right looked smooth, well used, and straight. However, the GPS was telling us to take the left fork and wind our way down from the summit across the San Andreas Fault zone to Soda Lake Road. Oddly, we couldn’t really see where the road to the left went. It just disappeared. We soon found out why.

Shortly after winding our way down the hill, the road just stopped. The road cut was filled with tumbleweeds–Russian thistle–or Salsola tragus to botanists. Previous drivers, no doubt in four-wheel drive vehicles, climbed a gentle hillside to go around the damned section of road. So, off road we went. It was another tense moment to get over the berm and to keep traction going up the slope then negotiating the berm again to get back on to the track. We did it and breathed a sigh of relief, having only lightly scraped the undercarriage crossing the berm.

Until the next tumbleweed barrier and we had to do it all over again.

This happened three times.

We were only two miles from the paved road at Soda Lake when we saw a big pickup coming down the hill in front of us. Luckily, we were on the flats where we could pull over to let him by. He stopped and rolled down his window to let us know there was a section ahead that was dicey. “Can we do it in this?” I asked. “You should be able to,” he said. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it was unlikely we going back at this stage.

He was right. There was a low section in the road a half-mile ahead that was muddy with deep ruts. Fortune was with us. There was just enough terra firma for us to pass through with our narrow wheelbase, riding the ridges between ruts.

Finally, we could see an alkali flat of a sag pond ahead and then the paved Soda Lake Road just beyond it. The rim of the sag pond was covered with goldfields (Lasthenia sp.) and was a welcome photo stop after so much excitement.

Wildflower Heaven

Carrizo Plains is justifiably known for its spectacular wildflower displays. During good years the monument draws thousands from the coast, Central Valley, and from far afield as Los Angeles.

Not this year. The region has dropped back into drought and as late as March there were few reports of blooms. The local chapter of the California Native Plant Society had cancelled our field trip to the monument because there was nothing to see.

Since then we’ve had some late rains and, unknown to almost everyone, flowers were beginning to bloom after all.

Fortunately for us, there were very few vehicles crossing the vast monument and we practically had the flowers to ourselves.

We found a dirt track to the west of Soda Lake Road that headed off into a sea of yellow goldfields, Monolopia, and sun cups (Camissonia campestris), cream-colored loco weed (Astragalus sp) and cream cups (Platystemon californicus) where we had lunch.

Blue sky, warm sun, the sweet scent of wildflowers, the only noise the wind in your ears, it was a pleasant few hours in nature.

The trip back was uneventful. We picked up the paved road near the junction of Soda Lake Road and Hwy 166. For variety, we drove through the oil town of Taft and across what was once known as the Elk Hills Petroleum Reserve then on across the breadth of the Central Valley to Bakersfield.

It was a day well spent with a little more excitement than we’d bargained for.

Would I recommend someone else take the Elkhorn Grade over the Temblors in a Bolt? No. The road is really only suitable for a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle. “You could make it,” then again, maybe not.