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Signed County Route J1

Saturday morning 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.

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 was at one point likely signed as part of CA 180 and was intended to be a full fledged extension of the highway.

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.  The stage coach I found in San Juan Bautista that said "Tres Pinos to New Idria" likely originated from modern Pacines.

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 lots of narrow road 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 them but I would assume that they might date back to the days CA 180 may have been signed on Panoche Road.

The final climb at about 1,800 to Panoche Pass is very narrow and is on a shadowy side of a canyon.  The road is double-laned here but there are plenty of icy road warning signs which actually rung true with some minor frost on the ground.

Panoche Pass is located 2,250 feet above sea level.  While much higher in elevation than Pacheco Pass the summit of Panoche Pass 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.

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 intended to continue straight ahead towards CA 33 via Panoche Road.

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.

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 is 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 and a resort was built back in 1900.  The resort seems to be long gone today but the area seems to be popular with Central Valley locals looking to camp out on the weekends.

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 of 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.  Its weird to see something so far gone out in San Benito become a really well maintained highway in Fresno County.  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. on J1

J1 is closely signed to the original proposed alignment of CA 180 west of Mendotta to CA 25.  Back in 1938 several maps show CA 180 actually on an alignment to CA 25 via Panoche Road.  It would seem that many routes like US 101 in San Francisco, CA 33 in Fresno County, and even parts of CA 49 were actually signed on County/City maintained roadways.

1938 State Highway Map

1938 Thomas Bros State Highway Map 

By 1940 any signed routes not on state maintained highways disappear from the state highway map, CA 180 west of Mendotta is no exception.

1940 State Highway Map

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.

1935 Fresno County Highway Map

On the San Benito County Map Panoche Road which was likely part of CA 180 is shown under county maintenance.

1935 San Benito County Map

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.

As of 2005 an unbuilt extension of CA 180 still shows on State Highway Maps.  The proposed alignment west of Mendota appears to be roughly along Belmont Avenue west to I-5 and I-5 south to Panoche Road.  From I-5 the proposed alignment of CA 180 is shown on Panoche Road west to CA 25.

2005 State Highway Map

For quite some time CA 180 was proposed to not only to be extended to CA 25 but rather take over the alignment northwest to US 101.  CA 180 was even post marked on CA 25 north of Pacines for a time. has much more information on the history of proposed CA 180 extensions. on CA 180


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