Covid-Escape: Chimney Peak Road into the Wilderness

By Paul Gipe

Since air travel was prohibited during the pandemic, we took the opportunity to explore our region of central California by car. We dubbed these our pandemic peregrinations and used our Chevy Bolt EV to take more than 50 day trips from Bakersfield during the past year of the pandemic.

Many of these trips were to little know areas, such as the mountainous region east of Lake Isabella and Ridgecrest, California about an hour northeast from Bakersfield. Chimney Peak Road traverses the area between Hwy 178, the Isabella-Walker Pass Road, on the south, and Nine Mile Canyon Road on the north. The 15 miles of graded dirt road separates the Chimney Peak Wilderness on the west and the Owens Peak Wilderness on the east. This is a remote, rugged highland dominated by granite domes.

Before the pandemic, we’d never been there. In fact we’d never even considered driving there in a sedan of any kind. We didn’t know it was possible to drive the road without a four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle.

We needn’t have worried. We’ve done it twice now, once in July of 2020 and once in May of this year. Sure, there are places where its wash boarded, especially on the climb out of the Kern River Valley, and some spots with loose granitic sand, but it’s all doable. The Bureau of Land Management maintains the road and a remote—little used–campground deep into the interior of the Kern Plateau.

The pandemic has taught us the differences in dirt roads and what we can do in a Bolt EV and what we probably should not do. Graded dirt roads are accessible; roads suggesting high-clearance may or may not be doable in a Bolt, but roads calling for four-wheel drive should be avoided. We’ve been on all three types and returned safely to Bakersfield (see Climbing the Elkhorn Grade in a Chevy Bolt EV), but we can’t recommend trying roads calling for four-wheel drive.

Chimney Peak Road, like many other places we’ve ventured this past year, has no services, no cell phone service, and very little traffic—unless you count through hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail who may be carrying satellite phones. This year we may have seen one other vehicle the entire time it took us to cross the plateau. In 2020 we may have seen two vehicles—at most.

This is the route we took: It’s15 miles on a graded dirt road.

We returned to Bakersfield by taking Nine Mile Canyon Road off the Kern Plateau down to Hwy 395 and the Mojave Desert. The canyon is steep, narrow, and barren, but it has spectacular views of granite outcrops and the desert below.

Energy estimates from A Better Routeplanner suggested we’d be cutting it tight on the route through Tehachapi, so I planned a DCFC stop. The station at Brady’s had just opened and I took the opportunity to check it out. We were there all of 15 minutes, picking up enough to comfortably make it back home.