Photo gallery: Riding California’s abandoned Old Ridge Road

by Brian Vernor


Old Ridge Road in Southern California once stretched from Castaic to Grapevine. It was touted as a miracle of engineering when it opened in 1915, but the winding mountain route connecting Los Angeles to the Central Valley ended up being one of the most dangerous stretches of road in California. Maybe the cars weren’t up to the engineering level of the road, but bikes were, and are to this day, regardless of the road’s current state of disrepair.

For weeks I’d planned to ride this route with a varied group of friends, but in the midst of a tidal wave of influenza, only three of us were healthy enough to tackle the 80 miles (130km), with roughly 6,000 feet (1,830m) of ascent, on broken pavement and dirt roads.

Myself, Moi Medina, and Eric Brunt, all being Northeast Los Angeles residents, decided to meet up early on Super Bowl Sunday, and hop on the earliest available regional train to Palmdale. Almost the antithesis to Los Angeles, Palmdale is the weathered, meth-addled, biblically literalist, desert outpost which Angelenos love to hate.

If the cultural vacancy weren’t enough to induce dread, inland Palmdale can also be considered the source of the treacherous Santa Ana winds. The dry, heaving, malevolent Santa Anas are responsible for a great many local disasters, and notably, the recent Thomas Fire which with the help of the Santa Anas burned nearly 300,000 acres. All of this is worth stating because a prerequisite for any adventure is to step outside one’s comfort zone. Going to Palmdale, in itself, was a major first step in that direction.

Our plan was to jump off the train and put our heads down for a hard headwind pedal of 25 miles, to Lake Hughes, where we could leave Palmdale behind us and step into the Rock Inn, a motorcyclist hang out. The Rock Inn serves up beers and conventional but solid pub grub, and the staff are more than happy to refill a water bottle or four. With our goal being to make it to the city of Santa Clarita in time to catch the last return train at 7:18pm, we knew our Rock Inn hang time had to be brief. After our beers and pulled-pork sandwiches, we hit the road.

The next 40 miles were mainly dirt roads, steep and sandy, where we each spent enough time walking to lose all sense of humor. It was up on these open hills that we got the sense that we’d more likely see a mountain lion than another human. We were in the vicinity of the Pacific Crest Trail, and it crossed our dirt road route numerous times. However, for this portion of the PCT, due to weather considerations, through-hikers would not likely be in the area, and we saw none. I only brought two water bottles for the day, and I emptied them quickly. Along the route we saw signs left by through-hikers indicating a spring or other water source, and I considered diving off-route to look for a way to refill my water supply (Giardia and other parasitic concerns be damned).

Eventually we topped out at Liebre Mountain (5,783 ft), and started a trending-downhill path to the Old Ridge Road, past the site of the former Tumble Inn, and down to Castaic Junction, all the while paralleling Interstate 5, the eight-lane freeway built in 1970, which currently supersedes Old Ridge Road.

At this point in our ride we were pedaling the sporadic uphills at a survival pace, the sun had set, and we had about 15 miles to cover before catching our train. We settled into a cross-eyed, red blinky-light dazed, head-down scramble to reach Santa Clarita in time for the 7:18pm train. We weren’t getting on that train without a beer in us, though, so we scrambled all that much harder to find a beer, any beer, which we eventually came by at a Chevron station a couple miles from the train station. With a few minutes to spare we pedaled onto the train platform and settled in for the hour-long return ride to downtown Los Angeles.

The whole day had been exhausting, but also refreshing. Sometimes the best ride is the ride you’ve never done before, and this was one of those. Gratitude to my mates, Moi and Eric.

Brian Vernor is a filmmaker and photographer based in Los Angeles, California. You can follow his work via @vernor. Brian’s companions were Moi Medina and Eric Brunt.

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