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Signed County Route J1 and former California State Route 180 on Panoche Road

Back in November of 2017 when I was returning to the Central Valley from Monterey I decided to take a route far less conventional than California State Route 152 or 198.   From CA 156 I took Union Road through Hollister to CA 25, from there I headed southbound to Signed County Route J1.  Signed County Route J1 partially is aligned over what was formerly California State Route 180 on Panoche Road.

Signed County Route J1 is a 70.5 mile east/west Signed County Route spanning from CA 25 in Paicines to CA 33 in Mendota.  J1 is the second longest Signed County Route in all of California behind County Route J16.  Traveling east from Paicines J1 traverses through the Diablo Range in San Benito County, Panoche Valley, Fresno County via the Panoche Hills, and San Joaquin Valley.  A great deal of J1 on Panoche Road was as part of early CA 180 in an era when State Highways were on occasion signed by the Auto Clubs on locally maintained roadways.

From Paicines eastward J1 utilizes Panoche Road.  Paicines is notable for being located essentially along the San Andreas Fault which is largely traversed by CA 25.  Paicines was originally known as Tres Pinos but that was switched with the town to the north (modern Tres Pinos which was the original Paicines) when a railroad terminus was built there.

Turning onto J1 east there was a portable VMS sign warning truckers not to make deliveries to the Panoche Valley Solar Farm.  J1 eastbound through San Benito County is a wild ride with several narrow sections and some of the worst maintained asphalt I've ever encountered.  I would speculate that nothing bigger than a box truck would reasonably be expected to make through to Panoche Valley from CA 25.

Initially J1 eastbound really doesn't appear all that bad.  The the grade is shallow and the road is dual striped with various little farms strewn about.

J1 begins to ascend into the Diablo Range and becomes more narrow with much rougher pavement.  There is 18 miles worth of  curves with small one-lane segments and one-lane bridges ascending to Panoche Pass.

There are a couple rock slide zones ascending eastbound but nothing too extreme in terms of rock fall.

The one-lane bridges really are just glorified culverts.  I didn't catch an age on any of they appear to be fairly modern.

The final climb to Panoche Pass begins at at about 1,800 feet above sea level.  J1 is very narrow and is on a shadowy side of a canyon which appears to ice up easily in the winter months.

Eastbound J1 has a couple concrete water fords which are crossed on the ascent to Panoche Pass Summit.

Panoche Pass Summit is located 2,250 feet above sea level.  While much higher in elevation than Pacheco Pass the summit of Panoche Pass Summit is still about 500 lower than CA 198 to the south. 

J1 enters a ridge above a canyon overlooking Panoche Valley where the longest one-lane segment of the highway begins.  This particular section of J1 on Panoche Road was built with the somewhat amusing name of the Jackass Grade.

The one-lane section of J1 is known as the Waggle-Tail Grade which has been in usage as a highway for well over a century.  I tried my best in 2019 to replicate the same photographic perspective as this 1917 photo of a Studebaker.

Entering Panoche Valley J1 widens back out and uses a couple more one-lane bridges before last major curve which apparently is the location of a community called Llanda.

There was actually a major slide that San Benito County was repairing this location last year when I drove through.  Traffic was routed through the gravel side road via a flag man.

The previously mentioned curve above Llanda is located here.

The pavement conditions on J1 in Panoche Valley are awful.  I would speculate that this section of road hasn't been repaired since the 1960s or 1970s.  Ahead to the east the Panoche Hills start to come into view.

J1 continues to the left on Little Panoche Road.  Panoche Road continues eastbound where it becomes a dirt road that eventually reaches I-5 as a paved highway.  Originally CA 180 was signed eastwards on Panoche Road towards CA 33 in Mendota.

The above guide sign indicates New Idria as being 25 miles away.  New Idria is a ghost town up in the Diablo Range which can be accessed via Idria Road from a junction a mile or two east on Panoche Road.  New Idria was the site of a mercury mine that began operation in 1854.  The town of New Idria was founded in 1857 and likely had a high population of a couple hundred residents.  Mining persisted in New Idria until 1972 when the mercury mines were closed and it quickly became a ghost town.  In 2011 the town of New Idria was declared a Superfund site due to the mercury run-off which led to all the remaining structures being fenced off.

I'm to understand that New Idria is still accessible along the mostly paved Idria Road.  Apparently there is one creek ford along on Idria Road before the town site.  The town is accessible so long as you stay behind the fence lines.  Given the roadway has been abandoned for almost half a century I've found it questionable that it made it through the previous winter without significant damage.  To that end as much as I want to visit the site of New Idria I believe that it will require a high clearance vehicle to access.

Turning onto Little Panoche Road the first sign for Merecy Springs on J1 comes into view.

J1 on Little Panoche Road takes a northward through Panoche Valley on an approach towards the Panoche Hills.  There is some odd signage at the Panoche Valley Solar Farm project which broke ground last year.  Apparently the Solar Farm has a build design of 130 Mega Watts which is far from the 399 which was first proposed back in 2010.  The trucks entering the Solar Farm generally use J1 from Fresno County over the Panoche Hills.  The damage to Little Panoche Road from the heavy trucks is significant (which has been repaired as of 2019).

J1 climbs over a short pass over the Panoche Hills.  Last year I encountered solar panel trucks in this pass which required that I back up given that they had extended length and width.

Upon reaching Fresno County the pavement on J1 improves dramatically as it has had a a fresh resurfacing.  When I drove through last year Fresno County was out repaving this section of J1 east to I-5.

Shortly after entering Fresno County J1 passes by Mercey Hot Springs.  The Hot Springs were discovered back in 1848 when the road along Little Panoche Road was a stage route.  The resort at Mercey Hot Springs was built in 1900 but burned in the 1930s.  Mercey Springs now includes an RV Park, hotel and swimming pool.

North of Mercey Hot Springs is the BLM Managed Panoche Hills Recreation Area.  The Panoche Hills are a buffer mountain range between the Diablos and San Joaquin Valley with a high peak of just about 2,200 feet.

The fresh pavement on the Fresno County side of J1 actually is a blast to drive on.  It's rare to see this good of pavement and grading at the county level on a mountain route in California.

Little Panoche Road follows Little Panoche Creek.  J1 passes the Little Panoche Reservoir which appears to have seen better days.  I know at one point the reservoir was designated as a wilderness area in the 1970s but it has been boarded and barb wired closed.  I'm not sure when the reservoir was built but it was probably in the mid-20th century given it is an earthen design.

After climbing a ridge on Little Panoche Creek J1 enters San Joaquin Valley and crosses I-5.

After J1 crosses I-5 Little Panoche Road becomes Shields Avenue.  J1 on Shields Avenue crosses the San Luis Canal on the floor of San Joaquin Valley.

J1 turns south on Fairfax Avenue for two miles before cutting east again towards Mendota on Belmont Avenue.

The weather was really good after the Friday storms, I could actually see the Sierras in the distance approaching Mendota.

J1 terminates at CA 33 on the south end of Mendota.  For a County Route the terrain J1 traverses is really hugely diverse.  The maintenance disparity between San Benito County and Fresno County is disappointing to say the least..  I'm surprised that San Benito County even bothers to sign J1 nowadays given the lack of maintenance since they haven't replaced any G13 shields on Bitterwater Road.

J1 was one of the early Signed County Routes having been established in 1958 according to  J1 is closely signed to what was the original alignment of CA 180 between CA 25 and CA 33.  CA 180 was one of the original 1934 Signed State Highways and was designated to be signed from CA 25 east over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to CA 7.  The original definition of CA 180 can be seen on an August 1934 Department of Public Works Guide.

Interestingly most of CA 180 was defined over what was Legislative Route 41 between CA 33 in Mendota east to CA 7 whereas the highway did not even have a LRN to back it up west to CA 25.  LRN 41 dates back to 1909 when a highway from General Grant National Park to the bottom of Kings Canyon was authorized.  By 1933 LRN 41 was extended west to LRN 5 (future CA 33) near Mendota.

Despite not being on a State Maintained Highway the route of CA 180 appears to have been signed west of Mendota to CA 25 in the 1930s as it appears on the maps below.  This signage was not unique to CA 180 as other state highways such CA 33 and CA 49 also had segments signed on locally maintained roadways. It should be noted that the Automobile Club of Southern California and California State Automobile Association were signing early State Highways.  It is likely the ACSC and CSAA were authorized to sign State Highways on non-state maintained roads for a time.

1935 Goshua State Highway Map

1938 Division of Highways State Map

1938 Thomas Bros State Highway Map 

By 1940 any signed routes not on state maintained highways disappear from the Division of Highways State Map, CA 180 west of Mendota is no exception.

The route of CA 180 from Mendota to the Diablos appears to have taken the following:

1.  Modern CA 33 south out of Mendota.
2.  California Avenue west.
3.  San Bernardino Avenue south.
4.  An extended Panoche Road which used to extend further northwest on an alignment which no longer exists.

The 1935 California Division of Highways Map of Fresno County shows the above alignment under County Maintenance.

On the 1935 Division of Highways Map San Benito County Map Panoche Road is shown under local maintenance.

On the San Benito County Map above Little Panoche Road and Idria Road are also shown as being county maintained.  The New Idria Mine likely was a significant factor in the drive to push CA 180 into the Diablos.  In 1959 the State Legislature authorized LRN 263 which was to be a State Highway between CA 25 and CA 33 via Panoche Road.  LRN 263 first appears as an unbuilt State Highway next to Panoche Road on the 1960 Division of Highways Map.

During the 1964 State Highway renumbering LRN 41 and LRN 263 were changed to LRN 180 to reflect what was intended to be signed in-field as CA 180.  Interestingly LRN 180 was assigned over CA 25 north from Pacines to US 101.  This change can be seen on the 1964 Division of Highways State Map.

The 1975 Caltrans State Highway Map shows a change to the planned route of CA 180 from CA 33 west to CA 25.  CA 180 was intended to largely follow what is now J1 to I-5.  CA 180 would have followed I-5 briefly southeast to Panoche Road before continuing west to CA 25.

According to the planned route of CA 180 was truncated to CA 25 in Pacines by 1984.  This change is reflected on the 1986 Caltrans State Highway Map.

As of 2005 an unbuilt extension of CA 180 still shows on the Caltrans State Highway Map.

In June of 2019 I returned to J1 and intended to head eastbound completely via Panoche Road following what was early CA 180.  I quickly descended from Panoche Pass via the Waggle-Tail Grade to the junction with Little Panoche Road.  Instead of following J1 onto Little Panoche Road I continued east on Panoche Road.

Panoche Road takes several 90 degree turns through Panoche Valley before meeting New Idria Road.   Interestingly San Benito County furnishes Panoche Road east of Little Panoche Road with J1 Call Boxes.

The dirt segment of Panoche Road begins shortly east of New Idria Road.

The dirt segment of Panoche Road is very high quality and doesn't carry much wash boarding.  I was able to sustain 35 MPH speeds without much difficultly on the well graded Panoche Road.  My concern given the high amounts of rain in the Diablo Range in early 2019 was the ford of Panoche Creek.

Unfortunately the ford at Panoche Creek had a solid 18 inches of water.  Suffice to say a Subaru Impreza wasn't going to be able to cross Panoche Creek.  I should note that Panoche Creek also carries trace amounts of mercury from the New Idria Mine.

After encountering the flooded ford at Panoche Creek I turned around and returned to J1 via Little Panoche Road.  Since 2017 Little Panoche Road on the San Benito County side has been repaved.

CA 180 has been one of my frequently utilized highways since I returned to California.  Additional articles on CA 180 can be found below.

Old CA 180 and CA 41 surface alignments in Fresno
California State Route 180 (from CA 99 west to CA 33)
California State Route 180 east of Fresno to Cedar Grove (Kings Canyon Highway)
Old California State Route 180 on Dunlap Road
CA 180 Kings Canyon Expressway and Sequoia-Kings Canyon Freeway


JohnW said…
A buddy of mine and I are planning a cycling (bicycle) trip from the San Joaquin Valley across the coastal mountains through Hollister and then into Santa Cruz. Is J1 the route we should take? Is it passable on bicycles (gravel type or road bikes)?

I'd love to hear more about this pass from you.
Thanks, JohnW

Challenger Tom said…
It definitely is passable by bike. If you stick to J1 in it’s entirety a road bike should work. If you end up on the gravel part of Panoche Road it should be easy on a mountain bike.

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