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Tale of CA 168 West and the failed Piute Pass Highway; the climb to Kaiser Pass on the modern highway and the descent on the 1934 highway

Back in 2017 I decided that I would get my mountain highway fix for the week out of the way with a route clinch of the western segment California State Route 168 from the Fresno eastward up to Huntington Lake.  It certainly gave me a chance to revisit one of the most intriguing highways in the state with various substantial alignment changes since it was added as a Signed State Route in 1934.  A little bonus was essentially a tour of the Southern California Edison Big Creek Project along the infamous Kaiser Pass Road.  My climb to Kaiser Pass would be on modern CA 168 and my descent would be on the original 1934 alignment.

Modern CA 168 West in the Fresno Area is largely an arterial freeway from the CA 41/CA 180 junction in Fresno which runs northeast through the city of Clovis.  Originally CA 168 ran through downtown Clovis on an alignment that stayed in use into fairly modern times.  My approach to CA 168 was from CA 180 westbound.

The freeway segment of CA 168 West is only 9 miles long before it drops to a brief four lane expressway.  I would be remiss to mention that CA 168 exists in two segments; one in eastern Sierras running to CA 266, and the one I was on which is in the western Sierras.  The western CA 168 has a total length of 65.84 miles, both segments were initially planned to be connected.  Originally CA 168 ran east from Blackstone Avenue which was CA 41 in Fresno, north on Clovis Avenue in Clovis, 3rd Street East, and Tollhouse Road.

It isn't too far past the end of the freeway where CA 168 merges back in with the alignment of Tollhouse Road and drops to two-lanes.

At Academy Avenue CA 168 starts to climb int the Sierras Foothills and become more curvy.  For some reason Caltrans still has a placard showing Academy as an actual place even though it is essentially a ghost town.  Academy was the site of the first secondary school in Fresno County which opened in 1872.  Apparently there is a church from 1869 that is still in use today somewhere near CA 168 in Academy.  It would seem Academy was in the fortunate location at the junction of the Stockton-Los Angeles Road (the main stage route through San Joaquin Valley) and Tollhouse Road which led to a small boom.  Apparently there was even a hotel in Academy once, it seems the church has been the only thing that has stood the test of time.

Originally CA 168 took Tollhouse Road all the way up the Tollhouse Grade to Shaver Lake.  The modern highway has been realigned through Prather to the north.  Tollhouse is a small community that was founded in the 1860s and was the site of a lumber mill.  Tollhouse Road was created as a toll road for the lumber runs which took place around what is now Shaver Lake.  Tollhouse Road much like many of the roads in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was created as a State Authorized private franchise toll road.  The last toll on Tollhouse Road was apparently in the late 1870s and it eventually became part of CA 168 when it was created as a Signed State Highway in 1934.

CA 168 in Prather as of my writing this blog was undergoing construction in Prather for a roundabout build.

Apparently the Shell station in Prather has problems with people climbing their rocks.

Just east of Prather CA 168 intersects Lodge Road and becomes a four-lane expressway which climbs rapidly from 1,700 feet to approximately 4,800 feet.   There is a handy yellow guide sign which indicates if Kaiser Pass Road is open, CA 168 West stays open all through winter.

At the top of the expressway there is an overlook just above where Tollhouse Road meets modern CA 168.

Shaver Lake is only 6 miles from the junction with Tollhouse Road, this is also where CA 168 drops back down to two-lanes.

The village of Shaver Lake was originally the site of a logging flume that could be accessed via Tollhouse Road.  Originally the village was known just as Shaver and was located at the bottom of what is now Shaver Lake just to the northeast of the present site.

Continuing eastward CA 168 approaches Shaver Lake before descending down a large slope over Stevenson Creek in the face of Shaver Lake Dam.

CA 168 rises above the Shaver Lake Dam and runs along side it for another mile or so.  The Shaver Lake Dam was completed in 1927 and was part of the Second Phase of the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project.   The Big Creek Project is a series of reservoirs and hydroelectric dams feeding off the San Joaquin River watershed and is now owned by Southern California Edison.  The Big Creek Project was completed in four phases; Phase One 1913-1914, Phase Two 1921-1929, Phase Three 1948-1960, and Phase Four 1983-1987.

The surveys that would eventually lead to the Big Creek Project first took place in the 1880s.  By the early 1900s the concept was taken up by the Pacific Light and Power Company (PL&P) as a possible source of electricity to power the city of Los Angeles.  PL&P had additional surveys conducted between 1902 to 1905.  By 1912 the San Joaquin and Eastern Railroad was completed which ran until 1933 when the tracks were removed.  The San Joaquin and Eastern Railroad apparently had over 1,000 curves in addition to several grades exceeding 5% which is extremely high for rails.

Today Shaver Lake is largely more known for being a weekend haven during the summer for residents from the Fresno area.  Shaver Lake lies at 5,370 feet above sea level.

Directly north of Shaver Lake is the junction for Huntington Lake Road which is where CA 168 originally was routed via the north end of Huntington Lake.

Modern CA 168 takes a higher routing over Tamarack Ridge at 7,582 feet to the south shore of Huntington Lake.  Huntington Lake Road has a much more extreme grade while the modern highway has a nice gentle slope.  Shaver lake can be seen looking back west from close proximity to Tamarack Ridge.

As previously stated modern CA 168 approaches Huntington Lake from the south shore.  Huntington Lake was the first reservoir to be completed during Phase One of the Big Creek Project.  Huntington Lake originally had three dams when it opened in 1913 but a fourth was constructed by 1919 in addition to all the others being raised.

CA 168 continues past Big Creek the China Peak Ski Resort which opened in 1958.  Past China Peak CA 168 crosses Racheria Creek at the junction of Huntington Lake Road and Kaiser Pass Road.  There is no signage to indicate that CA 168 West has terminated.

Kaiser Pass Road is a 20 mile roadway extending east from the terminus of CA 168 to Florence Lake.  Kaiser Pass Road was built during Phase Two in the 1920s of the Big Creek Project and really is one of the most infamously dangerous paved roads in California.  The road was built to move supplies for the construction of the 13 mile Ward Tunnel under Kaiser Ridge which was completed in 1925 in addition to Florence Lake which opened 1926.  I would probably say only Mineral King Road, Blackrock Road, and the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road rival Kaiser Pass Road in terms of difficult paved roadways in California.

The first five miles of Kaiser Pass Road are a fairly normal two-lanes which drops to a single lane at a gate.  After a series of hairpins there is a enjoyable view of Huntington Lake.

The remaining 15 miles of Kaiser Pass Road is a single lane with three cliff-face sections.  When I say "single-lane" I really mean it as you often have to divert into the dirt to let cars coming the other way pass or back up if there is no room on a cliff.  The grades are extremely steep on the assent to Kaiser Pass and really isn't a place you want to run into another vehicle coming the other way.  There is far more traffic than one would anticipate in a location like this given that Southern California Edison runs vehicles in addition to tourists/campers attempting to reach destinations like Mono Hot Springs.  Kaiser Pass lies at an elevation of 9,184 atop Kaiser Ridge and likely would have been utilized if the gap in the segments of CA 168 were ever completed.

Really all I wanted to go see on this trip was the back side of the Ward Tunnel on the opposite side of Kaiser Ridge.  The descent to the Portal Forebay is the most dangerous segment of Kaiser Pass Road given that a lot of it is only 10 feet or less wide on the side of Kaiser Ridge.

But when the view is this, it makes the dangerous drive worth the trip.  I've found on roads like this the best way to avoid not running into another car is to wait if you hear engine noises off in the distance with the window down.

The rest of the journey on Kaiser Pass Road to the Portal Forebay was in rough shape.  I had to get out twice to clear rock fall from the road and had to get by an oncoming  driver who thought I could climb a rock face in a Chevy Sonic to back up.  The Portal Forebay has a campground that appears to be lightly used which seems like it might be worthwhile looking into for an overnight stay.  Weird to think that the Ward Tunnel really cuts 13 miles straight through the Kaiser Ridge to Huntington Lake.

Of course no good mountain trip would be worth it without a good hike.  After climbing back up to Kaiser Pass I took the 1 Mile Dusy-Ershim OHV Road to White Bark Vista which overlooks the area north of Kaiser Ridge from 9,600 feet above sea level.

The descent off Kaiser Pass back to the two-lane section of Kaiser Pass Road is on the hazardous side.  As I stated previous the road gets extremely narrow on the cliff-side for about a mile and I ran into a fire truck coming uphill, luckily I ran across it in a wide part of the roadway and had room to get by.

Just prior to the end of Kaiser Pass Road I stopped by the overlook of the Ward Tunnel outlet and Portal Powerhouse.

On the way back downhill to the Fresno area I decided to take the original alignment of CA 168 which as stated previously ran on Huntington Lake Road on the north shore of Huntington Lake.  The original alignment of CA 168 West can be see clearly running north of Huntington Lake on the 1935 California Division of Highways Map of Fresno County which can be seen here:

1935 California Division of Highways Map of Fresno County

The original alignment of CA 168 north of Huntington Lake on Huntington Lake Road was replaced by the modern routing on the south shore by 1956.  The change in alignment can be seen when viewing the 1955 and 1956 California State Highway Maps:

1955 California State Highway Map

1956 California State Highway Map

Westward on Huntington Lake Road the roadway is two-lanes for a couple miles through the cabins along the north shore Huntington Lake.  The roadway doesn't drop down to a single wide lane until Manzanita Dam.

Huntington Lake Road largely follows Sheep Thief Creek at the end of a canyon leading out to the larger San Joaquin River Canyon.  The road is largely wide enough for two cars through to the village of Big Creek and believe has grades in excess of 15%.  There appeared to be a slip-out in the roadway that had a stop sign posted at it just prior to the slow down entering Big Creek.  Given the huge grades and sheer slope it is pretty obvious why CA 168 was eventually realigned to the south side of Huntington Lake.

At Big Creek; Huntington Lake Road expands to two-lanes again, crosses over the actual Big Creek, and continues to CA 168 just north of Shaver Lake.

I took modern CA 168 through Shaver Lake to the junction where the highway splits with Tollhouse Road.  Before splitting off onto Tollhouse Road I stopped to have a look at this somewhat rare 1972 Jeep Commando which was sale.

Tollhouse Road was the alignment of CA 168 until the roadway was realigned to the west through Prather sometime between 1970 and 1975.  The expressway was planned to continue all the way westward towards Clovis. The planned rerouting of CA 168 can seen on the 1975 California State Highway Map and the alignment shift off of Tollhouse Road can be seen by comparing the 1970 State Highway Map to the 1975 edition.

1970 California State Highway Map

1975 California State Highway Map

Tollhouse Road is a fairly high quality roadway through the Tollhouse Grade with large descending slopes down into Tollhouse.  The roadway has several sharp hairpins and apparently the grades frequently approach 10% in places.  I would say the maintenance level being so high has a lot to do with the Tollhouse Grade section of Tollhouse Road staying in the state highway system until the 1970s.

Evidence of Caltrans maintenance can be seen with a button-copy reflective sign indicating you have arrived in Tollhouse.

Tollhouse Road continues through Tollhouse and Humphrey Station before merging back with CA 168 to the southwest.

Heading back to Clovis I encountered the last major variation of CA 168 can be found with the freeway alignment.  Prior to the freeway segment of CA 168 being completed in 2002 the alignment eastbound alignment followed; Shaw Avenue east from Blackstone Avenue (which was CA 41 once) in Fresno, Clovis Avenue north through downtown Clovis, 3rd Street east out of downtown Clovis to Tollhouse Road, and Tollhouse Road east out of Clovis towards the Sierras.  The shift from a urban surface alignment in Clovis to a freeway is documented in great detail on on CA 168

Since I was traveling westbound on CA 168 I had to take detours to get to isolated sections of Tollhouse Road.  I took Temperance Avenue and Herndon Avenue to reach an isolated section of Tollhouse Road.  The segment of Tollhouse Road north of Herndon is cut-off by the CA 168 freeway and it cannot be traversed as through road westbound anymore as well.

After a quick side detour to get back onto Tollhouse Road I took it west onto Third Street and downtown Clovis.

I next took Clovis Avenue South to Shaw Avenue and then west on Shaw Avenue to reach Blackstone Avenue in Fresno to complete the original alignment of CA 168.

CA 168 as originally conceived in 1934 was to begin at CA 41 in Fresno and ascend the Sierra Nevada Mountains to CA 7 in Bishop.  CA 168 was originally northeast out of Bishop to the Nevada State Line.  The segment of CA 168 between CA 41 and the Nevada State Line was part of Legislative Route Number 76 which had been adopted into the State Highway System in 1931 originally only included the segment of highway between Bishop and the Nevada State Line.  LRN 76 had been expanded in 1933 to include a segment west of Bishop to Camp Sabrina and a new segment from Fresno east to Huntington Lake. on LRN 76

Although no formal route had been adopted through the Sierra Nevada Mountains from Huntington Lake east to Camp Sabrina it was clear that LRN 76/CA 168 were intended from the start to be a Trans-Sierra Highway.  The below Department of Public Works guide from August 1934 shows the planned route of CA 168 over the Sierra Nevada Mountains on Page 23 and the clearly defined route from Fresno to the Nevada State Line on Page 32.

August 1934 Department of Public Works Publication announcing the Signed State Highways

The conceptual route of CA 168 crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains is shown on the 1935 Goshua Highway Map of California.  The Goshua Map details clear imply that Kaiser Pass Road was definitely intended to become part of a future Trans-Sierra crossing as the conceptual route of CA 168 begins snaking towards Camp Sabrina from Florence Lake.  Please note;  CA 180 is also shown with a conceptual crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains which would originated from General Grant National Park and would have likely crossed through Onion Valley.

1935 Goshua Highway Map of California

So the real question is what killed CA 168 and CA 180 being built out to Trans-Sierra Highways?  While I have never seen a clear answer in any Department of Public Works Publication the obvious answer seems to be General Grant National Park being reorganized into Kings Canyon National Park in March of 1940.  General Grant National Park encompassed only land surrounding Grant Grove whereas the expansion to Kings Canyon National Park included a massive amount of wilderness northward.  The expansion to Kings Canyon National Park has a boundary that appears to mimic the intended route of CA 168 east of Florence Lake towards the 11,423 Piute Pass.  The northern boundary of Kings Canyon National Park can be viewed on the modern National Park Service Map.

National Park Service Map of Kings Canyon National Park

The below guide was published by the US Forest Service, it details the proposed Piute Pass Highway.  The article provides substantial insight into the building the roadways that became part of CA 168 and gives a date of September 8th 1920 for the first car to climb Kaiser Pass.  

Sierra National Forest on the Piute Pass Highway

The article above states that the Roosevelt Highway first became interested in building a roadway over Piute Pass to connect with the new route through Westgard Pass to Owens Valley.  Federal Legislation was introduced to authorize the War Department to survey routes for new highways which would become critical to National Defense; one of these routes was the so called "Piute Pass Highway."  In 1922 members of Fresno Chamber of Commerce began to support the Piute Pass Highway and scouted a possible route for a road from Florence Lake to Piute Pass.  In 1923 State Legislation was introduced to survey the route of the Piute Pass Highway, said survey was completed by 1924.  In April of 1925 a second survey for the Piute Pass Highway was approved by the State Legislature.  Various state bills regarding the Piute Pass Highway popped up through the remainder of the 1920s although it would take until 1933 for it to be added to as part of the planned LRN 76.  Nonetheless the Piute Pass Road and CA 168 seems into the end not only been cut down by Kings Canyon National Park being created but worsening economic conditions. 

Regarding the routing of CA 168, a major change occurred in 1937 when US 6 was extended into California.  US 6 absorbed what had been CA 168 northeast of Bishop to the Nevada State Line.

1938 State Highway Map

CA 168 would not see expansion again until the 1964 State Highway Renumbering.  CA 168 was extended south from Bishop on a multiplex of US 395 to what was LRN 63. The extension of CA 168 followed LRN 63 through Westgard Pass to the Nevada State Line near Oasis.  The expansion of CA 168 can be seen by comparing the 1963 State Highway Map to the 1964 edition.

1963 State Highway Map

1964 State Highway Map

For reference LRN 63 was added into the State Highway System in 1919 during the Third State Highway Bond Act. on LRN 63

CA 168 would receive a small truncation when CA 266 extended in 1986.  Interestingly CA 266 being extended appears to have been purposed with the intent of having it reach NV 266 which was assigned in 1976 during the Nevada State Highway Renumbering.  CA 266 conversely had been first been added to the State Highway System in 1965 and the 1976 Nevada Highway Renumbering appears to have intended to match the number.  I found it amusing that CA 266 and NV 266 seemed to have push the progression of each other. on CA 266


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