Covid-Escape: The Ridge Route

By Paul Gipe

This trip was an adventure that I’d thought about since I moved to California four decades ago. It’s legendary. Mythic even. And I never thought you could still do it until we visited the Ridge Route Museum in Frazier Park pre-pandemic. There the curator mentioned that there’s a movement to preserve the road that still exists and “some” still drive it she said. The implication in her voice was that we couldn’t.

With that warning in mind, we took I-5 south out of the San Joaquin Valley to just north of Castaic. At Violin Summit, we took Templin Highway east towards Castaic Lake turning north on the Old Ridge Route before we reached the reservoir.

This is spectacular—and desolate—country famous for the colorful Ridge Basin Formation of Miocene-age sedimentary rock. The formation appears in frequent road cuts and prominent cliffs.

Here’s the route:

The Ridge Route, as the name implies, follows a northward trajectory from one ridgetop to another until the road reaches the Antelope Valley at Sandberg east of I-5.

The Ridge Route was the original road from Los Angeles to the San Joaquin Valley and Bakersfield. It predates Hwy 99 which followed the more traditional route through deep valleys before reaching Tejon Pass in the north. I-5, the modern road, replaced Hwy 99 by blasting its way through the maze of canyons and mountains that separate LA from the San Joaquin Valley. At the time, the construction of I-5 was the largest engineering project in the Western United States–this was back when Americans built stuff.

It’s best not to think of the Ridge Route as a “road.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Today it’s nothing more than a track, sometimes paved, sometimes not. There are washouts and rock falls—and absolutely “no services” for 25 miles with limited cell phone access. It’s really only suited for high clearance vehicles, and drivers with a thirst for adventure–though we did it in a Bolt.

Whatever you do, don’t try this route when it’s wet. The Miocene shales that the route crosses turn to gooey muck when it rains. If you don’t slide off the road into a chasm your wheel wells will soon clog up and you won’t go anywhere. And it’s a very long walk—anywhere.

I’d also have good digital maps that are geo-referenced so you always know where you are.

We started northbound to see how far we could get. After an hour or so we realized that with careful driving we might be able to go all the way through. There were some tense moments when we thought we might have to get out and try to move some boulders out of the way. With slow, patient, maneuvering we got around them without going over the side and continued on.

Eventually I recognized the National Weather Service towers on the summit of Sandberg Mountain and knew we were going to make it.

Once we returned to the paved road at Sandberg we parked to catch our breath. A little later one of those big four-wheel drive trucks with the big knobby tires drove by. The driver would have been embarrassed to know we’d done it in a Chevy EV.

The Ridge Route is not for the faint-of-heart. Like our trip across the Elkhorn Grade to the Carrizo Plains (see Climbing the Elkhorn Grade in a Chevy Bolt EV), we can’t recommend it in a Bolt or any sedan for that matter, though we did it and lived to tell about it.