Crazy Curvy Roads in California’s Central Coast

Challenging roads, beautiful valleys, twisting curves, a spectacular gorge, mountain peaks, tunnels, no traffic and the surf lapping up on the highway.

Since you know I’m a Southern California guy, I probably had you going there except for the “no traffic” part. So where’s the drive?

Well, let’s call it drives. California is known for its spectacular scenery but the roughly 160 miles from Ventura to Pasa Robles – and the additional nearly 100 miles from Ventura to Gorman, plus the 60 miles south from Ventura to Santa Monica, the provide a wealth of wonderful vistas and most importantly, great roads.

Until two trips in the past year, I hadn’t explored this area very much. Most of my visits have been through the area on U.S. 101 headed to Monterey or Big Sur. So here are some impressions of the roads taken over two trips… one in August 2012 and another in February 2013.

Keep checking back for a series of posts on my trips, including how the two cars I drove (two different trips) performed in the mountains – Volkswagen Jetta GLI and my own Mini Cooper Countryman.

Here’s the first post, on the route from Gorman, Calif., on the I-5 Grapevine, to Ventura.

Gorman to Ventura: Mountains, valleys and tunnels

From the top of the Grapevine at Gorman, north of Los Angeles on Interstate 5, to Ventura, hard on the coast where California juts out into the Pacific, was the route.

In case you don’t know the area, the Grapevine is the pass that carries Interstate 5 north from the Los Angeles basin to the San Joaquin Valley and Bakersfield. Normally, it’s a place to refill the tank or stomach, but then keep going. After a late start from San Diego, I’d decided to overnight there, where for some reason I actually had a reservation in the filthiest hotel I’ve ever stayed in, the Econolodge at Gorman (and I used to work on the road and have stayed in some pretty bad places). By then, it was nearly midnight and I didn’t want to drive any further, so I just gambled that I wouldn’t pick up any bedbugs (or anything else) and stayed the night.

Which way do you go on CA-33?
Which way do you go on CA-33?

Anyone who’s been up the California coast knows that in most of the state there’s a mountain range along the sea shore; it starts in earnest north of Santa Monica. I settled on Ventura for my coastal point, seeing that California 33 heading north looks like it was drawn by a mapmaker with the shakes. Not wanting to visit the oil fields of southern Kern County, a trip east on Lockwood Valley Road would hook me up with I-5.

It looked like a great trip and (aside from the rancid Econolodge) it didn’t disappoint.

Back when the pioneers were building railroads and highways to connect California’s north and south, the Santa Susana Mountains were a challenge. Although the high points are under 3,000 feet, the range can be steep and rugged. The Grapevine in the early days was called the Ridge Route, a twisting, dangerous two-lane affair where Ford Model T drivers might find their tiny radiators boiling over, have to back up over hills (due to the lack of a fuel pump and the gas tank located aft of the engine) or get stuck in a snowstorm.

Today, it’s not as treacherous, assuming your car is in good shape and you don’t get flattened by a semi.

Pt. Mugu along CA-1, the Pacific Coast Highway.
Pt. Mugu along CA-1, the Pacific Coast Highway.

Lake of the Woods and Lockwood Valley sit in a ravine at the top of the mountains. the drive is a wonderful, gently curving trip through what look like grazing lands, about 34 miles from I-5 to Highway 33. Big, puffy clouds were in the sky when I visited in August 2012, making it look like something out of a Hollywood western. Who knows; some may have been shot here.

From I-5, take Frazier Park Road east, following the signs to Lockwood Valley Road. The rolling ranch lands look like something out of an old Western movie and who knows, they might have filmed some here. It’s just a very pleasant drive through grazing lands dotted with groves of what look like oaks. There’s more than a few curves but nothing that is too challenging on the 37 miles from I-5 to CA-33.

I turned south on CA-33 for the area where the mapmaker had the shakes, heading toward Ventura, 52 miles away. It didn’t disappoint. I lost count at 20 hairpin turns (sorry, I was trying to keep the car from flying off the road at the time). The two tunnels through Wheeler Gorge are icing on the cake. Wheeler Springs shows up on some maps but it didn’t look like there were any services available.

South of the Ojai cutoff, the road turns into a major highway, then freeway. The fun is gone and the trip only took a couple of hours. end of story

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 95 miles from Gorman to Ventura.

Difficulty

  • Challenging

Directions

More on the Crazy Curvy Central Coast

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