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Tale of CA 168 West; the climb to Kaiser on the 2017 Highway and the descent on the 1934 Highway

Originally this weekend I was going to do an excursion up the high passes in the Sierras with my Challenger, but unfortunately it seems that trip hit a snag and is on indefinite hiatus.   With that being the case I decided that I would get my mountain fix for the week out of the way with a route clinch of California Highway 168 West from the Fresno Area 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 with Kaiser Pass Road.

Today CA 168 West in the Fresno Area is largely an arterial freeway from CA 180 in Fresno which runs northwest through the city of Clovis.  Originally CA 168 ran through Clovis and surprisingly stayed that way until fairly recently, but I'll touch more on that later.  Started out my trip I approached CA 168 from CA 180 West.

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.  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.  It would seem Academy was in the fortunate location of being at the junction of a stage route between Millerton and Visalia in addition to 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 would taken 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 a toll road for the lumber runs which took place around what is now Shaver Lake.  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 is currently undergoing an alignment shift to push it further south from the from the junction with Auberry Road.

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 on a rapid climb from approximately 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 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 the state.

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 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.

The rest of the journey to the Portal Forebay was in rough shape.  I had to get out twice to clear rock falls 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 was kind of wild.  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 Huntington Lake.  The roadway doesn't drop down to a single wide lane until the 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.  There appears to be evidence that Caltrans once had planned to have CA 168 continue as a more directly routed expressway from Clovis to the modern segment just east of Prather.  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 viewing the 1970 in addition to the 1975 State Highway Maps:

1970 California State Highway Map

1975 California State Highway Map

Tollhouse Road is a high quality roadway through the Tollhousegrade 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.

Referring back to the history of CA 168 in general, the segment from the eastern Sierras to the state line was adopted as part of Legislative Route 63 back in 1931.  The western segment from Fresno to Huntington Lake was adopted into Legislative Route 63 in 1933.  All segments of LRN 63 became part of Signed State Route 168 in 1934/AKA 168.  Given that the state adopted roadways all the way to Huntington Lake that weren't part of the state highway system prior to 1933 I find it kind of surprising that Kaiser Pass Road was never incorporated into CA 168.  I've also  never found any evidence of a implied routing through the Sierras to connect the two segments of CA 168.  I would imagine that there must have been some sort of far flung plan for CA 168 given both CA 180 both CA 190 did have implied planning routes through the Sierras at various points of time.  Either way completely odd route with lots of alignment shifts, heavy mountain grades, and copious amounts of historical infrastructure.


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