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CA 266: The Loneliest Highway in California

[This photoessay is presented with a 16:9 aspect ratio.] There are many highways (and certainly many stretches of them) in California that could compete for title of "loneliest highway," but CA 266 has a strong claim, not least of which for its profound isolation. From its own state it has only one entrance along CA 168, a difficult mountain road with the infamous one-lane section through the notorious Westgard Pass; it has actually better access to Nevada, which its two endpoints terminate at, and serves more or less as a cutoff auxiliary for through traffic to Nevada's central west, to US 395 via the Westgard Pass and to US 6. Not that there's very much traffic: Caltrans' 2017 annual average daily traffic counts record just 290 vehicles a day at the southern stateline crossing, which falls to 140 on the northern crossing as half the traffic leaves on CA 168 for points west. At its highest, only 70 cars passed through the southern crossing in that particular hour. This is not the lowest AADT count anywhere in California -- for example, the highly discontinuous CA 271 (an old US 101 alignment) in Mendocino county has AADTs of around 110 to 120 on some specific segments -- but it's probably the lowest in the state for any through highway, and similarly most likely the lowest for any entire routing.

The southernmost section from state line to Oasis was an early alignment of the Midland Trail until around 1922, which at that time then proceeded west over present-day CA 168 into Big Pine. The Midland Trail was first signed in 1913 and either the first or one of the first marked transcontinental road trails in the United States, predating the Lincoln Highway by three years. Its general termini were from either Washington, D.C. or New York City by two eastern spurs to the main highway and then Los Angeles or San Francisco via four spurs in the west, through Richmond (Virginia), Kansas City, Topeka, Denver and Salt Lake City. In 1922 a major rerouting eliminated all but the southern Los Angeles spur and moved this segment to what is now US 6. Nevertheless, the older alignment here was still formally enshrined in law as Legislative Route Number 63 [1931] and signed as CA 168. A county road continued north from Oasis to the northern crossing; this was incorporated into the state highway system as the initial routing of CA 266 in 1965. In 1986 CA 168 was truncated to Oasis and the southern leg also given to CA 266 to yield the modern routing.

Necessarily for continuity purposes I will also include some brief photos from the Nevada highways CA 266 hits on both ends along with their termini, and since this routing is so short we'll do it in both directions because I'm anal and OCD like every other roadgeek in existence. Photographed May 2006 and August 2010.

Westbound CA 266

We start here at the southern crossing, heading north to Oasis. This was originally CA 168 until 1986. The entirety of CA 266 is in Mono county, which you can read about in US Highway 395 Part 6.

California state line. Note Caltrans designates this stretch as a truck route, which certain sections of CA 168 decidedly are not.
Watch out!
First northbound shield. This was original 1986 vintage, at least at the time.
It's so flat that there's no reason not to sign it for 65mph.
If you can find a cell signal.
PM 1.0. All PMs westbound are at the integral mile point.
PM 2.
Curving around towards the Oasis junction. The section through Oasis runs nearly straight east-west.
Strangely, this section of highway up to CA 168 wasn't formally state highway until 2012, although it was maintained with Caltrans money by the county of Mono and had Caltrans-issue signage. The adoption was done to reduce this particular curve and eventually make the route even more appropriate as a truck bypass. To the best of my knowledge this work has yet to begin.
The warning signage was turned out even though there wasn't a cloud in the sky that day. Well, one cloud.
A signed junction to a local ranch road (just not much of one).
Evidence of civilization.
Signage for the Fish Lake Valley.
The Fish Lake Valley is one of the many small endorrheic valleys that compose the Great Basin in the eastern alluvial fan of the White Mountains. Most of the Valley is in the Nevadan central west, but the southern extent is here in Mono county. Its eponymous intermittent lake is roughly in the center of the valley, about a mile or so in length, and despite the name only rarely featuring fish which could be found in fossils from wetter times in antiquity. A far more reliable local product was borax and the valley was exploited by mining companies as the Palmetto Mining District as early as 1866, though the Paiute and Shoshone had of course lived in the region for some time by then. The valley is not a Census-designated place and no exact population estimate exists, but Dyer to the north (which we will reach) had 259 residents in 2010, so the total souls in the valley is probably no more than a thousand at the very most.
PM 4 as we enter, more or less, Oasis.
Oasis is the only CDP in the Fish Lake Valley other than Dyer, and gets its name from the Oasis Ranch established by settler brothers N. T. Piper and Samuel Piper in 1864. This ranch is still in operation and is still at the CA 168 junction. The name was most likely established by the U.S. Post Office in town which ran from 1873 to 1942. It has a population of just 22 [2010], and there are no motorist services.
Advance signage for the CA 168 junction, but signed actually for CA 266 "straight ahead." This signage probably predates the 1986 routing.
Junction CA 168. The truck route designation continues with CA 266. We'll look at the reverse angle on the way back. The entrance to the Oasis Ranch is here.
Into the Big Moo.
Distance signage leaving Oasis and CA 168 on what was once Mono County road 101, and is now the original 1965 routing of CA 266. This is not the worst sign on a California highway but it's still rather grotesque with several different font shapes, a fair bit of greenout and a 3-digit shield for US 6.
Curving more due north.
PM 5.
PM 6.
PM 7, with a little private road sign stuck on the postmile.
PM 8.
Cattle guard leaving the ranching area proper.
PM 9.
PM 10. You would find it difficult to distinguish any of these slide groups, really.
White Mountain Rd near the northern border although it doesn't really go there.
END CA 266 at the northern stateline crossing.
Nevada state line.
Northbound NV 264

We'll continue on NV 264 up to US 6 in less spatial detail just to complete the continuity. Most of this route was signed as NV 3A in 1933 but was not fully paved until two decades later. In 1978 the Nevada Great Renumbering changed NV 3A to NV 264, but established the designation over the Dicalite Cutoff west to US 6 near Mineral county. The original NV 3A alignment from the Dicalite Cutoff to the east US 6 junction is now NV 773.

Although CA 266 is officially east-west, we are primarily traveling north, and thus NV 264 is signed north-south. The entirety of NV 264 is in Esmeralda county, which you can read about in US 6 Part 2. Consistent with the general isolation of where we are, it is Nevada's least populous county -- which for Nevada is really saying something.

PM 0 at the state line.
First NV 264 shield.
Here was a nice spring photo showing all the lovely snow still on the White Mountains, which really were largely white at the time.
The western wide alluvial fan.
Entering Dyer.
Dyer is the largest of the two towns in Fish Lake Valley, at 259 residents [2010]. Although mining was present in the valley as early as 1866 and operating borax extraction in earnest by the 1870s, the actual name comes from Alex P. Dyer, a local rancher and the town's first postmaster in 1881.
The Dyer post office, presumably upgraded from the days Alexander Dyer ran it.
Historical signage in town, pretty much recapitulating what we've said here, but we say it better.
Leaving town into the northern valley.
Junction of the Dicalite Cutoff with NV 773.
The left fork along NV 264 was not part of the Nevada highway system until 1978, though the road appears to have existed for some years beforehand. Dicalite refers to diatomaceous earth formed from fossilized microscopic aquatic diatoms, also a reference to this region's wetter climes in the distant past, and some of the local diatom beds may be as ancient as 5 million years old. Dicalite mining operations, its high silica content being useful as a mild abrasive in products such as toothpaste and metal polish as well as absorption, filtration and clumping applications, existed in the valley around the mid 1920s and continue today; the Basalt plant along US 6 is the fourth oldest mine still in operation in Nevada.
END NV 264 at US 6. (Continue east?) Let's rewind back to the state line.
Eastbound CA 166

We'll elide most of this section since it looks the same going east as it does going west.

State line, with truck route signage again, and Esmeralda county PM 0.
Two old signage remnants sit at the stateline, one for California and one for Nevada.
The first is an old California FAS (Federal Aid Secondary) marker, corresponding to the FAS number which was used to denote its construction funding. This is of interest here because this means the original Mono county road to Nevada was built with some federal funding, even though it doesn't seem to have had a Legislative Route Number as part of the state highway system. The FAS number has no correlation with any signed or legislative route number and has been obsolete since 1944. These signs are typically porcelain on steel but some may have wood backing for reinforcement, which in many cases weathered less well than the steel it was supposed to be supporting.
The second is an old Nevada wooden milepost. The paint is largely worn away but the top clearly says ES for Esmeralda county, as with the more modern Nevada postmiles, and then what may be numbers "0" and either an "I" or a "1". An arrow helpfully indicates which way Nevada is. In the 1978 Nevada Great Renumbering the state converted to California-like postmiles, and there is no evidence anywhere on this post of the post-1978 route number, so it can be no younger than that.
PM 11.5. Eastbound postmiles are at the half-mile.
Heading back to Oasis.
Curving around to the CA 168 junction.
Junction CA 168 from the west. The large sign is from the 1986 rerouting and only gives US 95 as CA 266's "control city," Lida being of little consequence to travelers and even less assistance.
A flag to remind you about them cattle.
To make the point, no Nevada destinations are given on this distance signage leaving Oasis, only US 95 itself. We'll travel to this junction for continuity (and also because that's where we're going).
PM 3.5.
PM 1.5.
PM 0.5.
END CA 266, on a stupid little utility shield intended for signage.
First NV 266 signage at the Nevada state line.
Eastbound NV 266

Consistent with this portion of the highway being an early form of the Midland Trail, NV 266 was originally the north end of one of Nevada's major trunk routes, NV 3. NV 3 was one of Nevada's first four highways established in 1917, affectionately named the "Bonanza Highway." The routing lost its preeminence as a through highway with the Midland's rerouting and later overlays with various US highways (notably US 395, US 6 and US 95), and no single Nevada or US route number corresponds to it anymore. The modern number to this alignment from the stateline to US 95 was applied during the 1978 Great Renumbering. We will travel it in abbreviated fashion.

First postmile, also in Esmeralda county.
Distance signage leaving the stateline. Lida is the only town NV 266 reaches directly, and defining it as a town is highly suspect. It is widely considered a ghost town and its permanent population only a handful of people. If you need gas, you're going to Goldfield.
65mph speed limit.
Leaving the Fish Lake Valley.
Curving around the mesas on the other side of the Lida Summit.
Final postmile at PM 40.0 just ahead of the US 95 junction.
Junction US 95.
END NV 266.
Control cities on US 95 at the junction.
Junction from NB US 95, with Lida and Dyer given as control cities.
Looking back down westbound NV 266, with the first westbound shield and "next gas" warning (essentially, Dyer).
Distance signage on NV 266, with "BISHOP CA" (via CA 168 and US 395).
Distance signage on SB and NB US 95 respectively. Let's get out of here. There's a whole lotta nothing going on.
All images, photographs and multimedia, unless otherwise stated, are copyright © 2004-2020 Cameron Kaiser. All rights reserved. All writeups are copyright © 2004-2020 Cameron Kaiser. All rights reserved. Unauthorized copying or duplication without express consent of the copyright holder is strictly prohibited. Please contact the sitemaster to request permission if you wish to use items from this page.

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