Day Venture – The Cliff Hanging Highway

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Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

When I was a little kid living in Los Angeles, my parents would often take my younger brother and I on small ventures to the local beach and mountains. One fleeting memory I have of these ventures was in the winter of 1985. The San Gabriel Mountain Range had received a considerable amount of snowfall and so we went up to visit for the day. We took the mountain road of California State Route 39. The last 4 miles of this highway has been shut down since 1978 when a landslide swept away the highest portion of road, which cut off access to Highway 2.

About four miles before the 39 connects to Angeles Highway 2, there are massive rock boulders that act as a blockade for any vehicle traffic. I remember seeing the snow covered scenery back in 1985 and it always felt like a very surreal memory to which I still have difficulty determining as a real memory or a dream. My parents did confirm that it was indeed a real memory and sits in the back of my mind as a point of much interest even to this day.


Northern Closure of California State Route 39

GPS Coordinates: 34.3564° N, 117.8546° W

I did not return to the closure of this highway until I was in my late 30’s. The difference being that this time I would be looking at the Northern end of the closure at the Islip Saddle on Highway 2. I had always wondered what was on the other end and now I was looking at it first hand. Naturally with camera in hand, I took a small hike to survey the damage that exists on the northern end of the highway.

“The highway looked to be in pretty reasonable shape for one that has been closed for almost 40 years.”

“These K Rails have definitely seen years of weathering and erosion.”

“Looking up at the steep rocky slope above, it’s easy to see why this road is plagued with rock slides.”

“This is the first major evidence of rock slide damage so far.”

Environmental and Budget Reasons

In February of 2003 the 4 mile section route 39 was once again opened to emergency crews after a Caltrans study showed that reopening the 4 mile stretch of highway would not harm wetlands, air and water quality, natural vegetation or threatened plants and animals. The highway had been closed for so long that Nelson’s Bighorn Sheep had returned and started to use the closed section of route 39 as a yearly migratory path. This was a bit of a surprise as I had never seen Bighorn Sheep anywhere near this region. As it would turn out, Nelson’s Bighorn Sheep are fully protected under state law further adding to the difficulty in re opening this last section of Route 39.

The 4 mile section of CA-39 has been a pressing issue with Caltrans as since 2009 and the reasons for it’s continued closure were hinged off the topics of budget and environmental concerns. By the middle of 2009, a budget was put forth to begin building two retaining walls near the city of Azusa from Old San Gabriel Canyon Road to a point that was four miles south of Highway 2 at the Islip Saddle which was set to begin by mid 2009. The second portion of the budget included a $45 million dollar project to reconstruct the highway, build soldier pile type retaining walls, repair existing drainage systems, install rock fall protection, and provide asphalt concrete overlay, and traffic striping, which would begin by fall of 2010.

“This is definitely a sign of some of the recent work that had been done in 2010, the post looks new.”

By 2012, Caltrans was officially involved in a standoff with federal officials and proposed to abandon the project all together for the simple reason that it was far too expensive to maintain with persistent annual mudslides and rockfalls. To avoid this disaster, the California Department of Transportation worked a deal to persuade the U.S. Forest Service or Los Angeles County to take over the highway including the troubled section of mountain road, but neither agency will have it.

Caltrans spends $1.5 million every year to maintain the two-lane highway, which is regularly damaged by flooding, falling rocks, erosion, and forest fires. Abandoning the highway would save the Caltrans $1.5 million a year, but it is not a significant amount as it already spends $13 billion annually to manage the 50,000 miles of existing California roads. For now, the debate remains and a decision on what will be done next is at a stalemate.

“This was the first of the rockfalls that plagued the northern end of this mountain route.”

“From the other side…”

“One of the many new drainage systems that is clearly a recent addition, it looks new as well.”

“This crumbling wall is all that remains of the stone guardrail that’s meant to keep vehicles from plummeting off a steep cliff.”

Brittle Granite and Veins of Quartz

I noticed that the rock along this road is very brittle in a lot of areas. This would explain the excessive landslides that occur along this route. There is a good variety of rock here, including gneiss and granite rock with interesting striation patterns on them. These rocks are part of the Vincent thrust, a part of a regional thrust system of Late Cretaceous that makes up a large portion of the rock seen throughout the San Gabriel Mountains.

Quartz is often found in veins that cut through rocks and although the term “vein” suggests this, the veins of quartz and other minerals are usually not thin tubes, but rather thin sheets. The veins can form under various conditions, and depending on these conditions, may or may not bear quartz crystals in them. Even though certain types of quartz veins do never bear any quartz crystals, it sometimes makes sense to follow large quartz veins to look for crystal-bearing fissures: Should a rock that contains old large quartz veins have been folded later due to tectonic forces. (Source: The Quartz Page)

“A sample of the gray granitic rock that has thick vein quartz running through it.”

“Some of the other rocks that made up the slopes were randomly marked with gray paint.”

“From this point, I took shots of the continuing section of Route 39’s closure.”

“This was as far as I’d go for the day, It was hot and I was about 3/4 of a mile south of the northern closure.”

“A closer image of the highway revealed what looked like a new section of soldier pile and lagging type retaining walls.”

“Looking up, there were some razor thin looking rocks that I imagine contributed to previous rock falls.”

“I turned back to get more of the highway damage from a different perspective, like this big boulder on the road.”

“This is the section of highway where the Bighorn Sheep wander.”

“A section of mostly intact stone gaurdrail still lines this portion of the highway.”

“After a good exploratory hike along the Route 39 closure, I headed back to the Islip Saddle.”

This day venture was just what my burning curiosity needed. I had passed this closure countless times as I drove along the Angeles Crest Highway and always wondered intensely about it. Only recently did I learn that it was a part of a very important childhood memory. Only a brief image of a closed down and snow covered Route 39 exists in my memory from 1985 so I was very glad to be able to explore it for once.

I’ve learned a lot about this area and would love to see any California agency own it so that it can one day open again, although I have not been to the south end since 1985, I have heard bad things about massive amounts of graffiti and trash left behind by many bad people. Perhaps the U.S. Forest Service will take over and charge a toll which I will gladly pay to keep the place in order and discourage the dirtbags who litter and deface this beautiful mountain region.

Until the next travel blog, remember to get out there and “Shoot the Planet!”



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