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It never rains in California, except when I road trip

a bird on a fence at the beach

For several years now, as California has had one its most severe droughts in history, I have joked on Loyalty Traveler that the state of California should pay me to drive around. There has been a rain storm on nearly every road trip I have made to Los Angeles in the past five years. The past three days have been no exception. Los Angeles County had some of the most severe flooding in the state when more than two inches of rain fell in 24 hours in some places.

Flash Flood Watches Issued as More Rain Expected to Hit SoCal This Weekend

California is a state covered with mountains and valleys. There is no way to drive from northern California to southern California without crossing mountains or avoiding roads like Pacific Coast Highway beneath the Santa Monica Mountains with high potential for mudslides in heavy rains.

I am sitting in a hotel room in Bakersfield, California writing this piece. Bakersfield is on the eastern side of the great Central Valley, near the southern end of the 450 mile long valley. Normally I drive the coast roads from Monterey to Los Angeles for the scenic beauty and ocean views.

My real purpose in writing about my road trip from Monterey to Orange County in Southern California is to write about some interesting sites for readers who may be planning a road trip along California’s Pacific Coast Highway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I like to drive new roads on each trip and discover California places I have never visited or driven through on my cross-state trips. I will cover some interesting detours and stops along the coastal route in separate posts, including San Luis Obispo on Thursday’s Farmer Market, Rancho Guadalupe Dunes on the coast of Santa Barbara County around the wetlands of the Santa Maria River, and the ‘Lost Highway’ between Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo County.

Guadalupe Dunes

Rancho Guadalupe Dunes, Santa Barbara County

I am a Pacific Coast guy, so why the hell am I in the valley at Bakersfield, California?

California is the hot spot for U.S. hoteliers right now. The deal with California is our big cities tend to have lower hotel rates on weekends and coastal region hotels have lower rates on weeknights, outside of peak summer tourist season, which runs Memorial Day through October for California. I was able to find a reasonable hotel deal around $110 for a Marriott brand hotel on Thursday night in Santa Maria, California, about midway between Monterey and L.A.

My first issue was for the drive back to Monterey on a Saturday night via the coast roads, hotel rates were really high all the way from L.A. to Monterey. Most chain brand hotels were pushing $200 per night, even now, before peak season. My old standby hotel for years was Starwood’s category 2 Four Points Ventura, but that hotel is now category 3. High hotel rates drove me to the Central Valley for the Interstate 5 drive home.

I-5 is actually the fastest route between northern and southern California since it is possible to drive 70 to 80 mph for hundreds of miles. The speed limit is 70 mph on I-5, but traffic will run you over and your vehicle is a road hazard if you only drive 70 and don’t stick to the truck lane.

The second issue was Marriott’s 2016 cancellation policy change requiring a hotel stay cancellation penalty for reservations not canceled the day before arrival. The inaccuracy of weather reports was another factor in that this storm was not forecast to last all weekend, but each day for the past few days the rain forecast kept getting extended. The Southern California mountain ranges were some of the hardest hit areas by rain and the most notorious road for mudslide or snow closures is Interstate 5 when it passes through the San Emigdio Mountains and the descent from 4,106 feet at Tejon Pass into the Central Valley. Bakersfield is at 400 feet elevation. By the time I learned about the I-5 mudslides and lane closures on Friday night, I had no choice but to continue with my route through the Central Valley to get back to Monterey.

I-5 was closed Friday night due to mudslides. The forecast yesterday was for more heavy rain in the mountains, most likely in the afternoon. I wanted to cross the Tejon Pass early in the day. Good news is I crossed Tejon Pass before the afternoon rain storms hit the mountains over I-5 and I reached the Central Valley in dry conditions. There were several miles along the interstate when a police escort paced traffic down the pass, keeping vehicles at a maximum speed of 35 mph, when some people would normally drive 80+mph down the mountains. There was debris all along the roadsides for several miles where mud had flowed downhill off the hillsides the night before.

There were flash flood warnings until late last night for Central Valley roads, so it was better for me to hunker down in Bakersfield and wait out the storm. This also allows me to drive a new route home today. For several years now, I have wanted to drive “the lost highway†between Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo County.

Central Valley

I-5 North descending into California’s Central Valley.

L.A. is a great, big freeway

I hate driving in Southern California.

Driving in Southern California is a nightmare to me. I narrowly avoided several accidents due to idiot moves drivers made like one guy on PCH in Santa Monica who made a U-turn from north bound Highway 1 and came to a near dead stop in the center lane as I was driving 50 mph in the center lane of the three lane road.

Yesterday on the ‘Grapevine’, which is California locals’ name for I-5 over Tejon Pass, a woman suddenly swerved into my lane when we were driving at 70 mph and I narrowly missed hitting her. Earlier yesterday I saw several totaled cars over a 1/2 mile stretch on I-5 south in Los Angeles in the rain. Traffic was backed up for miles going into Los Angeles. I was happy to be driving north and out of Los Angeles.

Most of my family has lived in SoCal all my life, so I find myself driving there at least once a year. After each trip I say that I am not going to do it again. Yet, every year I end up visiting family or going to a conference in L.A. or visiting Disneyland, and I make the drive again.

The basic problem with driving in Los Angeles is there are too many cars.

And still, there is huge resistance to building a high speed rail system between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Historical fact – Los Angeles did not develop as a city until the 1880s, after there was a train line built connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles and railways connected Los Angeles to the east. The railroads made Los Angeles a boom town and the oil industry concurrently developed in California when oil field discoveries were made all across Los Angeles County. The automobile industry changed California and most rail lines for passenger traffic were discontinued across the state following World War II.

40 million people later, and this state has remained firmly rooted in car culture. There are more than 13 million residents in the greater Los Angeles area and very little viable public transportation service over the vast urban sprawl of Los Angeles County.

To place traffic on L.A. freeways in perspective, I can typically drive the 300 miles along Highway 101 and Pacific Coast Highway from Monterey to Santa Monica in about five hours. Santa Monica is the beach city adjacent to Los Angeles. The problem comes once the road turns east for Interstate 10 to reach Interstate 405 and continue driving south to Orange County and San Diego. I arrived in Santa Monica at 1pm in the afternoon and spent 30 minutes driving 0.5 miles to exit I-10 onto I-405. Then the next hour I managed to drive 11 miles past LAX airport. Then another hour to drive 22 miles through Los Angeles County before traffic eased up and I was able to drive the final 20 miles to Orange County in 20 minutes.

Burt Bacharach put the issue into lyrical perspective way back in 1968. It is true, “L.A. is a great, big freeway.†Traffic is a real problem with Los Angeles.

Marriott MegaBonus

Marriott MegaBonus ends next week and I had not completed any Marriott brand hotel stays in the past four months. I only needed two hotel stays by May 15 to earn a free category 1-5 hotel reward night and I needed two hotel nights to break up the 400-mile drive between Monterey and Orange County.

Fairfield Inn Santa Maria was $124 after tax. Without MegaBonus I would not have stayed with Marriott since the Holiday Inn and Candlewood Suites immediately adjacent to the Fairfield Inn Santa Maria were $30 less for the night. I have stayed in both those IHG properties and they are perfectly fine. I enjoyed the Fairfield Inn facilities. Hotel review to come.

Marriott’s free reward night made it a better value proposition for me to pay the extra $30 for the night compared to the IHG hotels. I figure the Marriott free night will be worth at least $125 in some place where I will need a hotel over the next few months.


  • P T May 8, 2016

    Did you get to drive the “lost highway”? We did a couple of times and enjoyed it. During those drives we had a convertible making it a lot more fun. Thanks for the tips on hotel pricing. Your description of the Tejon Pass adventure brought back harrowing memories of the many times negotiating through traffic there. Not enjoyable.

  • Amy May 8, 2016

    My first, and so far only, taste of SoCal traffic was in the rain. I left ONT airport, headed NE on I-15 to connect to 395 North. By the time I made it to the pass (or notch?) on I-15, it was a downpour. No mudslides, thankfully, and my return a few days later was in beautiful sunshine. White knuckle driving for someone from upstate NY!

  • Jennifer May 8, 2016

    By “lost highway” do you mean 58 or 166?

  • Brian Cohen May 8, 2016

    You reminded me of a road trip I undertook from Fresno to San Diego years ago — on the day before Thanksgiving.

    I cannot tell you how unbearable was the traffic from north of Van Nuys to much of the remainder of the way to San Diego — and how long it took for me to drive that distance…

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