So … I decided to go on an adventure the other day.
It came about because, not long ago, I was talking to Art Van Rhyn, The Cambrian’s intrepid editorial cartoonist, about old highways.
Most Cambrians know Art for his … well … art. He’s got a studio down on Moonstone Beach, and this spring he was the subject of a career retrospective exhibit in Morro Bay.
What some may not know is that this is his second career. Before he was an artist, he worked for the California Department of Highways (before it was called Caltrans) and plied his trade as a civil engineer. On this particular day, in this particular conversation, that’s what Art and I were discussing: highways.
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When I was working on a book — due out next year — about the history of U.S. Highway 99 in California, Art was kind enough to provide me with a photo of old Grapevine Grade. It’s a segment of the oldest version of the road, the Old Ridge Route, which was built over the top of the Tehachapi Mountains starting in 1915.
The Old Ridge Route featured nearly 700 curves — many of the hairpin variety — and the speed limit in your Model T was a whopping 15 mph. If you were unlucky enough to go off the road, all that stood between you and the canyon below was a white wooden picket fence.
The Old Ridge Route has been bypassed twice with newer, sleeker roads. The current version, Interstate 5, is the second of those bypasses, having replaced the Ridge Route Alternate, some of which now lies beneath the surface of man-made Pyramid Lake.
I’ve walked portions of the old Grapevine Grade — and the similarly curvy Cuesta Grade outside San Luis Obispo, but I always wondered what it would be like to drive on a road like that.
Which brings me back to my conversation with Art — and this past week’s adventure. During our talk, I mentioned Highway 46 (aka Green Valley Road), and Art brought up the original road over the Santa Lucia Mountains — the one drivers used before there was a Green Valley Road.
Santa Rosa Creek Road intersects with Cambria’s Main Street just east of East Village and takes you out toward Coast Union High School. Before the modern state highways were built, this was a major crossroads connecting old Highway 1 (Main Street) with old 46. There was even a gas station just up the road on Main — now a bead shop — to take advantage of the traffic.
Santa Rosa Creek Road, however, wasn’t built for traffic. Art told me it was a narrow, curvy road, and I believed him, but I didn’t realize just how narrow and curvy it was.
As I drove out past Coast Union, I came to a sign for a one-lane bridge. No problem, I thought. But then, after I passed the bridge, the road didn’t widen again. In fact, I soon came upon a sign that read “Road narrows.” Considering it was already barely more than a one-lane road, I was a little apprehensive.
Another sign warned of curves for the next 14 miles.
“No problem, Steve,” I told myself. “You’ve got this.”
I’d driven on the left side of the road in England without a hitch and, more to the point, I’d navigated the famed Hana Highway on the island of Maui, with its 620 curves and 46 one-lane bridges.
Trip back in time
Santa Rosa Creek Road isn’t nearly as long, but it has plenty of curves; much of the way, you should limit your speed to 15 or 20 mph, just like you would have on the Old Ridge Route. And it has another thing in common with both that historic road and the Hana Highway: It’s beautiful. Much of the way, you’re driving through what amounts to a tunnel of oaks. Then the road breaks out into the open and carries you up a steep grade to what seems like the top of the world, where you can look down on a verdant valley.
The creek escorts you off to one side and is visible at various points as you pass barns, cow pastures and occasional homes. You’ll pass Stolo Family Vineyards, Linn’s Farm Store and the Soto Ranch, among other noteworthy sites.
Along one stretch, a large rock outcropping hugs the side of the road. On another, you come upon a sign that reads “Road may flood,” recalling the time when roads followed the path of least resistance through canyons and, as a result, were prone to washouts during the rainy season.
There are places (a lot of them) where the road is so narrow, I don’t know how two cars can pass abreast, harkening back to the days of the Old Ridge Route, when the pavement was concrete and just 15 feet wide.
One good thing about Santa Rosa Creek Road is it’s well-paved, except for a slightly rough patch near its intersection with modern Highway 46, about halfway to Paso Robles. Another good thing, given its narrow width and blind curves, is that I encountered maybe two cars going the opposite direction when I was driving on it.
So if you’re up for an adventure and a scenic drive back to a time before the era of freeways and rush-hour traffic, by all means take a drive on the old 46. And if you decide not to, that’s OK, too. You see, Santa Rosa Creek Road is a paradox: Yes, it was built for cars, but the fewer of them that make the trip, the more rewarding the drive will be.
If you go
From Cambria, take Main Street east through East Village to the Cambria Dog Park and turn left. It will take you about 45 minutes to cover the 16 miles from the to the junction with Green Valley Road (modern State Route 46). You can’t get all the way across the mountains to Paso Robles on Santa Rosa Creek Road, but if you continue on the other side of Highway 46, Old Creek Road will loop you back toward the coast at Cayucos.