Angeles Crest Highway – Our Backyard Paradise
One of my favorite drives is to climb up Angeles Crest Highway from La Cañada and explore some of the most spectacular scenery in Southern California. Any visitor from out of town, any dynamics in the weather – heck, any couple of free hours – provides an excuse to wander up the twisting Highway 2. The miles of scenic roadway are cut through the solid (and not so solid) granite of a dynamic mountain range that is among the fastest growing and fastest eroding mountains in the world. It has side roads that take drivers across the great San Andreas Fault to I-15 in the Cajon Pass, to the flat baking deserts of the Mojave, up to Mt. Wilson where the fundamental discoveries were made about the origins of the universe, and down through Big Tujunga Canyon, rich in the western lore of bandits and gold mines.
The history of the highway really dates back to pre-history, when the Indian villages in the L.A. area sent regular trading parties across the San Gabriels (where Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest Highways run today) with soapstone and shells for barter with tribes as far east as the Mississippi.
The first attempt to build a “modern” road across the mountains came in 1873. Speculators trying to build a wagon route to transport the silver ingots coming out of the Cerro Gordo mines in the Owens Valley drove a wagon road from Los Angeles, up Verdugo Canyon, across La Cañada, and up the west side of the Arroyo Seco. They abandoned the effort after cutting their way about 10 miles up the mountain, roughly paralleling today’s Angeles Crest Highway. Portions of that old “ghost road” can still be glimpsed from Highway 2.
Angeles Crest Highway as we know it today was first conceived by Pasadena boosters in the early ‘teens as both a tourist attraction and as a fire-fighting aid. In 1915 the Automobile Club hired surveyors to begin laying out a highway from the Arroyo Seco to the Cajon Pass. WWI stalled the mapping project and it was only worked on sporadically through the 1920s. However, big forest fires in 1919 and 1924 showed the urgent utilitarian need for the highway. Finally in 1929, just in time for the Great Depression, the first contract was awarded for actual road construction, a whopping 2½-mile dirt stretch from La Cañada. It was at the opening of this short stretch that Forest Supervisor Mendenhall suggested the name “Angeles Crest Highway” for the future road. Depression economics slowed progress and by 1932, only 10 miles of unpaved road had been hacked and blasted up the steep mountainside.
It was grueling, backbreaking work, often dangerous, with lots of dynamite used on unstable, nearly vertical slopes. Hundreds of unemployed men were brought in and housed at camps along the way. Companies of prison inmates also joined the hazardous work. By 1939, the road reached Chilao and the hermit hideaway of Newcomb’s Ranch. As cars and people showed up there following the road’s progress, old Louis Newcomb left in disgust after living there since 1890.
“They ruined the place!” he declared, and left the now thriving Newcomb’s Ranch Inn.
Work on the road paused for WWII as men went off for war, although prison crews continued to chip away at the granite. In 1945 the men and machines returned for the last and perhaps hardest section – climbing Dawson’s Saddle at nearly 8,000 feet, and winding around Mount Badin-Powell. In the early ‘50s they busted into Wrightwood – literally – knocking down a too narrow stone archway that had been built across the road at the Wrightwood Lodge. On Nov. 8, 1956 the ribbon was cut opening the Angeles Crest Highway in its entirety from La Cañada to Cajon Pass.
It’s a road through an untamed wilderness, and so has been temporarily closed many times for fires and floods, snow and ice, car crashes and murder investigations. I think it’s still closed right now because of a rockslide.
But we’re privileged to live at the highway’s base, giving us constant access to a wilderness paradise.