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Old Highway 399, Part 5: The Maricopa Highway (Santa Barbara County Line to Maricopa) (CA 33, CA 33/CA 166)

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Go to: Part 4 | Main 399 page | Part 6

From here, we finish the Maricopa Highway with its grand descent into Maricopa itself and the California Central Valley, leaving the mountains behind for the breadbasket plains. US 399 touches no less than three counties in this section (four if you count Ventura from Part 4) in a very few short miles, namely Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and finally Kern county, where we will remain until our terminus in Bakersfield; as we are in the first two counties for only a few miles at most I will defer their discussion to the future US 101 exhibit.

Kern county was not part of the original 27 California counties; on California's declaration of statehood on 9 September 1850, it was originally part of then-Mariposa county. Further juggling of county lines caused Kern county to be formed from a portion cut from Tulare county and Los Angeles county in 1855, first called Buena Vista county, but then changed to Kern in 1866 after the Kern River. The Kern River, in turn, derived its name from topographer Edward Kern, who helped to plot officer John C. Fremont's 1845 expedition. The county is topographically diverse, running from the oil-rich plains of the west to the mountainous reaches of the east (see US Highway 395 Part 2 for a little of that; eventually we will do some highlights from CA 58 [old US 466] and the Tehachapi Pass). Originally a mining region, Kern's first county seat was the now isolated town of Havilah south of Lake Isabella along the mountainous canyons of the Kern River. Appropriately, the name came from the Biblical story of Havilah, "where there is gold" (Genesis 2:11); the 1868 courthouse still stands and is a local museum.

As people eventually found out that the real Havilah was nowhere near Kern county, its residents turned to other pursuits, including attempting to drain the then-swampy southern San Joaquin Valley to make it suitable for farming. Large-scale canal construction made controlled drainage and irrigation possible, and within a decade the agricultural production of the county far outpaced its mining output; as a result, the hub of this newly and still productive region, Bakersfield, became the new county seat in 1874. We will reach Bakersfield at the very end, in Part 8. Kern county is also California's top oil-producing county, because we're not allowed to fricking drill off the coast, with over 85% of the state's active oil wells producing 66% of the state's total output and 10% of the entire United States', at over 500,000 barrels a day [1999]. We will pass the largest of these, the remarkable Midway-Sunset fields, on our way into Taft (Part 6). Here are some interesting facts about Kern county oil. Kern county also still does produce a certain amount of gold even now, but is better known for its borax operations and for its kernite, named for the county, another borate mineral whose only known source for decades was the region. Kern also has a rich aerospace industry, including the world-famous Edwards Air Force Base and the Mojave Spaceport. Its present population is 779,869 [2006].

['US 399' along CA 33/CA 166 in the Cuyama Valley on Google.] We will be on two Legislative Route Numbers in this Part; LRN 138, which we have been following ever since Ventura, ends this portion at what is now CA 166. From there, LRN 57 (1915, 1935) continues the Maricopa Hwy alignment into Maricopa proper, where we will resume the continuation of LRN 138 from there. Amusingly, someone at Google Maps thinks US 399 still runs along CA 166 (see the screencap at right).


Leaving the Ventura county line into Santa Barbara county.

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The small town of Ventucopa, a portmanteau of Ventura and Maricopa. Isolated from the rest of Santa Barbara county, you have to travel through either Ventura county or San Luis Obispo county [north] to get to it.

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Through Ventucopa.

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NB CA 33/old US 399.

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Shortly afterwards, the aforementioned San Luis Obispo county line.

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Terminal postmile for Santa Barbara county (PM 8.18).

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Into the Cuyama Valley proper.

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Advance signage for the junction with CA 166.

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Junction. This is the end of the original 1926 highway from Pine Mountain to the Cuyama Valley (Part 3) and the end of this segment of LRN 138. We merge right to continue the Maricopa Hwy as CA 33/CA 166 and LRN 57.

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Distance signage looking back at the junction.

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Maricopa Highway/West Side Highway (CA 33/CA 166)

Although this section is legislatively CA 33, a CA 166 postmile (PM 74.69) sits east of the junction.

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A very brief daytime headlight zone begins.

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PM 4.0, showing the legislative CA 33.

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I told you it was brief (just before the Kern county line).

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Kern county line and terminal postmile for San Luis Obispo County (PM 4.95). At the county line we lose the modern Maricopa Hwy designation and become the West Side Hwy, variously applied to the whole of CA 33 and part of Interstate 5 in the Central Valley (West being relative to Fresno and old US 99, now CA 99). Interstate 5 actually stole this name; CA 33 had it first, and I-5 even stole part of its routing. In US 399 days, however, the West Side Highway ended in Taft (Part 6), and the old Maricopa Hwy still started in Maricopa, which of course we haven't reached yet.

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Federal Aid Primary marker at the county line. These enamel-steel signs are rarely seen today but grace very old alignments still in use, corresponding to the FAP number which was used to denote their construction funding. Notice that this was determined by county, hence the change in number at the county border. The numbers do not correspond to any known LRN or signed route. There are also FAS (Federal Aid Secondary) markers out there too.

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Looking west at the San Luis Obispo county line sign, using a non-standard typeface.

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PM 2.0 ascending into the Caliente Range west of the Central Valley. The images into Maricopa are also an amalgam of several passes on this grade; like the Matilija canyon it is built tight and hard to photograph safely on, made worse by the fact that this is a heavily traveled highway.

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Caltrans District 6 has a real problem with getting the threes to line up on their CA 33 shields. This is not the only such goof.

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Between the Caliente Range and the eastern Temblor Range sits the Carrizo Plain and the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Not often seen by drivers-by due to its isolation, we'll make a quick detour to take a look since we're here.

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Detour: Carrizo Plain National Monument

Carrizo Plain NM is accessed from the south by Soda Lake Road, internally KernCo 324D (Kern county uses their own internal numbering system and even gives their routes postmiles, here at PM 0.24 just north of CA 33/CA 166). The Carrizo Plain is in fact the axis of the infamous San Andreas Fault, and the quakes it causes gave the Temblor Range its name (temblor being Spanish for tremour); the Plain is one of the easiest places to see the Fault directly as this Wikipedia aerial photograph demonstrates. The San Andreas Fault was responsible for California's strongest quake to date, the 1857 Fort Tejon earthquake, with an estimated magnitude of 7.9, as well as California's most destructive, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (7.8) which killed 3,000 people in the chaos. The Carrizo Plain is one of the few remaining native grasslands in California, and most of it is within the currently 250,000 acre National Monument which was established by President Bill Clinton in 2001.

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Soda Lake Rd at the San Luis Obispo county line (PM 2.14). The road is a graded but rough gravel surface that most passenger cars can drive, but the wet weather warning is well-taken as it is prone to flood. Soda Lake Rd is the only north-south route through the monument, although north access from CA 58 (43 miles away, the sign reminds you) is generally easier than this route I've taken here. This is the end of KernCo 324D. We will see several other Kern county roads along our US 399 trek.

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Entering the National Monument.

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One of the small alkali lakes. The largest is Soda Lake itself, a 3,000-acre alkali lake at the center of the plain, with Painted Rock next to it with Chumash and Yokut rock art nearby. Soda Lake receives most of the plain's runoff, leaving the smaller lakes dry most of the time except for rains.

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Overlooking the grasslands.

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Carrizo Plain NM has not been without controversy, mostly with respect to the energy industry and to grazing rights. A push to declare the region a World Historic Site was widely opposed by local residents and the Independent Petroleum Association, while supported by San Luis Obispo city and county; while supporters cited increased tourism and funding potential, the oil industry complained that the required buffer zone may retard future exploration, and there was also concern that the requirements for the Site would lead to intrusion on property rights. Oil wasn't the only energy industry the NM ran afoul of; attempts to exploit its ample sunlight for the solar power industry ran aground when oil prices fell, and new solar farm proposals are similarly opposed locally. Finally, grazing rights to the grasslands became controversial when existing guaranteed permits were to be replaced with free use permits, rankling ranchers used to a guaranteed stocking rate and culminating in the suicide of the NM's first manager, Marlene Braun, in 2005. These issues still fester locally.

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Heading back to US 399.

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The road snaking back into the distance as we leave the Monument.

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Terminal postmile for KernCo 324D (PM 0.09).

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Notice that as we rejoin old US 399, the street sign calls it State Hwy 166, despite being legislatively CA 33.

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End Detour

Back on NB CA 33/EB CA 166/old US 399, passing through the Temblor Range to prepare for our descent. Check your brakes.

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Down into the Central Valley. Notice the 35mph truck limit -- which is a real pain on a one-lane-per-direction road.

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6% grade. But it's about to get steeper.

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Two truck runaway ramps currently exist as there are no truck lanes on the narrow road (with another cock-eyed 33 shield).

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Curving around on the Grocer Grade, the rarely-used name for the drop from the Temblors, ostensibly named for the agricultural hauling on the route.

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7% grade.

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First emergency runaway ramp, a conventional gravel strip and hill.

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Passing lane, a great relief if you've been stuck behind a semi all this time.

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45mph turn down the mountain.

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The grade shallows out to 4% here as we finally near the valley floor.

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Second runaway ramp, requiring less grade and gravel due to the less steep roadway.

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Maricopa city limits (more about Maricopa proper in Part 6).

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Curving around into town.

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Notice that here, at least, we are signed correctly as State Hwy 33.

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Advance signage for CA 33 and CA 166's separation in downtown Maricopa.

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Separation. This is the end of the Maricopa Hwy. Notice the Interstate 5 signage, even as far away as it is, due to its presence as the only high-speed arterial for the west Valley. Rather than use a standard guide sign, the mileage each way is simply printed onto a blank directional tab. This is used multiple places in the region.

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Distance signage looking back at CA 33/CA 166 as we continue into Maricopa.

Continue to Part 6

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