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Old Highway 399, Part 3: The Maricopa Highway (Ojai to Rose Valley) (CA 33)

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[Construction of the Maricopa Hwy over Topatopa Summit, 1933.] The mountain portion of the Maricopa Highway alignment is the most rugged and critical part of US 399's former routing (and CA 33's modern routing); without it, the link between coast and valley would not be possible. It is dramatic and beautiful, and we will spend three parts on it because of its isolation and splendour.

A route from the Central Valley to the coast had always been envisioned by local boosters, enough so that a preliminary survey was done around 1890 over the Pine Mountain Range that CA 33 crosses now which was subsequently used to construct a wagon trail in 1891. The trail was difficult and twisty, and lost more than a few wagons off its sheer cliffs. By the dawn of the 20th century, automobile enthusiasts found the highway severely wanting as it had been little upgraded since. The 1911 Good Roads Club managed to get the attention of state senator J. I. Wagy and future Division of Highways Chairman Harry A. Hopkins, and thus was established the 1913 Bakersfield, Maricopa and Ventura Road, "an Act declaring and establishing a state highway from the city of Bakersfield through a portion of the counties of Kern, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura to the city of San Buenaventura, designated and known as the Bakersfield, Maricopa and Ventura state highway" (Ch. 610, 16 June 1913), later amended in 1915 (Ch. 748) amusingly using the old Nordhoff name for Ojai. Despite this apparent legislative victory, however, the wagon trail remained the only route in the region for nearly a decade afterwards; the survey that the 1913 act authorized was slow to complete, and only the northern end of what would become US 399 was designated as a full-fledged Legislative Route Number with the next bond issue of 1919 (starting with Part 5).

Displeased with the slow progress, Kern, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties determined to construct the highway on their own in 1926 under the local Joint Highway District. This initial segment went north from the Pine Mountain summit (Part 4) to the existing highway in the Cuyama Valley, which was LRN 57 and is now CA 166 (Part 5). In 1929, the state legislature finally adopted the partially built alignment and committed to complete it, this time with the federal Bureau of Public Roads and National Forest funds, constructing future CA 150 over Casitas Pass at the same time. As part of the project, three tunnels were blasted through Wheeler Gorge, completed in 1931, greatly reducing the circuitous route required to deal with the steep grades, and multiple culverts and small bridges were completed for the Matilija Creek and Sespe Creek and their forks that the highway ran parallel with or crossed. The view from the construction over the Topatopa Mountains is shown at the above right. The route finally opened as Joint Highway District Number 6 on 22 October 1933, just in time to be subsumed as LRN 138 the same year and submitted to become a US highway for the initial signage of California highways in 1934. (The number 399 was assigned shortly afterwards.)

As a parenthetical note, the Maricopa Highway never did get officially funded by California in law; the 1913 act on the books still authorized only a survey and nothing more despite the fact that by now the highway existed and was in fact finished (just with local and federal funding, not state dollars). This legislative irregularity was fixed with the revised Streets & Highway Code in 1935, repealing the original and unnecessary survey and officially acknowledging the Highway's presence as LRN 138. If the state could figure out more tricks like that today, maybe we wouldn't have the budget problem we do.

Virtually the entire modern routing and indeed alignment of CA 33 between Ojai and the Cuyama Valley is unchanged and identical to US 399's original routing as it stood on its initial designation.

Maricopa Highway (CA 33)

Distance signage leaving the CA 150 junction in Ojai. Despite the fact that technically we were on the Maricopa Hwy all the way down to Ventura (Part 2), the modern name Maricopa Hwy only starts getting applied to CA 33/old US 399 here.

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Mailbox for the Division of Highways at the intersection (viz., Caltrans, but Caltrans hasn't gone by that name since the early 1970s).

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Leaving Ojai.

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Ah, those mountains. We're going to be seeing a lot of them and in them.

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Turnoff for Meiners Oaks, named for landowner Carl Meiners in 1925.

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Read this sign carefully, and then read it again. If you don't believe this road will close on you suddenly, you might want to jump to the last picture on this page for one day that it abruptly closed on me.

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Also, this is not a good routing for high-profile vehicles. Getting stuck in the tunnels would get you much abuse from angry motorists, and probably a nicely written ticket in longhand from the Highway Patrol.

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Passing by some of the rural homes on the outskirts, including this turnoff for Arnaz Avenue, named for nearby Rancho Arnaz and its original owner, Don Jose de Arnaz. Yes, Desi Arnaz himself is a relative. Not a joke. No 'splaning needed.

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Interesting 5-way junction signage.

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Road closure information is usually posted on this clapboard sign just before entering the hills, as there is no outlet anywhere except the highway itself.

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NB CA 33/old US 399.

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PM 13.69.

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Curving around to parallel the Matilija Creek, the north fork of which we will parallel and cross in multiple places as its valley is the natural split between the Santa Ynez Mountains to our west and the Topatopa Mountains to our east. Matilija is the Spanish transcription of a Chumash word of uncertain provenance; it was applied to one of the San Buenaventura rancherias as early as 1827 along with the canyon, the creek and the eponymous local poppy.

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The highway is very tightly hemmed in by the sheer faces, some of which were blasted out for width by the original construction.

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Several later crossings are beside us, including this 1940 construction at N Matilija Rd leading to the old hot springs at Matilija Lake.

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A small open-spandrel, it sees little traffic today except for fishermen and campers.

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This bridge is important and I have photographed it on purpose because it is barely north of the confluence of the Matilija Creek with its north fork. The main creek emerges from Matilija Lake, joins its north fork just south of this point, and proceeds south to join with the Ventura River. It is the Creek's north fork that will be our companion until we crest the Topatopa summit at the end of this Part.

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The creek winds and undulates literally under us in several places. The initial bridges were later judged inadequate and upgraded in the 1940s, then again in various stages in the late 1960s and 1970s. A fourth major upgrade occurred less than a decade ago, but some of the older bridges like this one are still in service.

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1949 date stamp on the bridge flaring.

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You'll be the first one to know. (Posted on the bridge.)

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Another view of the creek fork.

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And another of the old bridges.

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This one bears a 1947 date stamp on its lead pylon.

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PM 17.05.

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Turnouts occur irregularly but there is no consistent shoulder. This made setting up for shots really, really difficult and the pictures you're seeing from here up to the Sespe Gorge are an amalgam of three separate passes on the route. Despite the deceptively isolated appearance of these pictures, there are a lot of people out and about fishing and hiking on the weekends.

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Low vertical clearance? Why, I wonder what could be the reason?

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Could it be ... a tunnel?

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And now the first of our tunnels as we cross through Wheeler Gorge, named for nearby Wheeler Springs, although the Wheeler in question has been lost to history. These tunnels were blasted out in 1931 and other than various small structural improvements are essentially in their original form still today. Despite being through Wheeler Gorge, the three tunnels are simply called the North, Middle and South Matilija Tunnels. This is the South and longest one, barely a hundred feet or so.

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Curving around with the creek fork at our right.

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One can see that the tunnels were a virtual godsend compared with contending with the steep grades surrounding us.

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Entering Los Padres National Forest, the 1936 successor to the Santa Barbara National Forest. Today it covers nearly 2 million acres stretching as far north as Big Sur.

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Approaching the Middle Matilija Tunnel.

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PM 18.77 into the Tunnel. The Middle and North Matilija Tunnels are back to back and straight-thru as plainly seen in this shot.

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A lucky flash shot got the old concrete seams and ribbing along the ceiling, reinforced with corrugated steel ribs on the north exit.

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The sharply denuded rock between the Tunnels.

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Looking up at the top rim of the gorge as if from the bottom of some sunlit natural oubliette, although what's actually under us forming the gorge here is the creek's north fork again, getting back to our left hand side.

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Exiting through the North tunnel.

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Curving around.

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The creek, faithfully beside us.

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Turn-off for one of the nearby campgrounds.

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Although California has always had a problem with forest fires, Los Padres seems especially afflicted with them due to the dry coastal mountain microclimate. Those wishing to camp or hike should take note of any fire or open flame restriction, any time of year.

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Reaching the 2000' mark as we start our ascent over the Topatopas, leaving the north fork to split apart at last into its tributary creeks. The Topatopa Mountains are the eastern side of the coastal range split by the Matilija Creek and the Ventura River; their name appears to be a corruption of the Chumash tip'tip' "brushy place," later rendered Top Top on early maps and then the current form.

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PM 20.85.

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Curving through the stark cuts, virtually all dating back to the original 1930s construction.

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Overlooking the radiant verdant hills.

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A small waterfall caused by a recent rain on one of my area sorties.

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Snaking along the rim of the mountains.

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NB CA 33/old US 399.

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Despite the appearance, this is not the summit. That comes in a little bit more.

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Another distant, cloud-shrouded glamour shot.

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Two views of the road we've traveled: one from a bit lower on the ascent, ...

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... and one higher up on a mistier day, showing one of the overlooks. Compare these views with the 1933 photograph at the top of this page.

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The final stage of the summit ascent.

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PM 25.67.

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Turn-off to nearby Rose Valley with the summit just beyond us.

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And if you don't think they won't close the road at a moment's notice, try this picture, when a landslide had the road shut down and the CHP nicely but firmly told me that the only way out was back the way I came, all the way back to Ventura.

Continue to Part 4

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