Hiking the Muir Trail this summer got GG pondering what might have been, as is still evident in the California highway numbering system…
If you are in Denver and driving east on I-70 and want to be on I-70 in Washington DC, you can simply stay on I-70. This is pretty much true throughout the interstate system: get on I-5 in San Diego and you can follow it all the way to Seattle. But get on California 190 in Porterville and head east and you’ll need an atlas to somehow get on California 190 heading east from Olancha. Similarly, following highway 168 east out of Fresno will carry you past a small ski area and to the edge of the Huntington Lake Resort, but try to continue on to the Bristlecone Pine forest and you’ll quickly find yourself on what amounts to a paved horse trail heading to Florence Lake with no hope of getting across the range in your motor vehicle. Those oddly disconnected pieces of numbered highway are reminders of how the long Wilderness of the Sierra very nearly was not to be.
These highway numbers are not an accident or a malicious joke by Caltrans. These two highways were intended to be connected; two others were the Minarets Highways crossing the Sierra near Devils Postpile (a continuation of highway 203) and a continuation of highway 180 across Kearsarge Pass to Independence. As roads to the north were completed, continuing the march to the south seemed likely in the 1950s and plans were laid for expansion of the highway system.
Increased experience in mountain highways and a shift from a need for access to a need for preservation conspired to block this march of progress. The cost of maintaining the existing trans-Sierra roads was proving to be significant, lessening Caltrans’s appetite for more expensive mountain roads only open a few months of the year; the need for residents of Fresno to visit Bishop was hardly compelling, the Forest Service established a Primitive Area across some road alignments, Congress legislated Wilderness areas in some other areas, and the most promising road (the Minarets Highway), which would have given Central Valley ski bums a quick link to Mammoth Mountain, was scotched by Governor Reagan and his Secretary of Resources, Ike Livermore, who apparently was scarred by finding automobiles at Reds Meadow as a youth working as a packer. [Reagan also killed the designation of the Mineral King road as a state highway].
This is generally good news though for Muir Trail hikers, though. Had planned highways been completed, we would have crossed three major trans-Sierra highways instead of hiking for nearly 200 miles through wilderness. While this maybe has made getting a resupply harder than it might have been, it is difficult to imagine Highway 168 plowing down Evolution Valley or winding down Piute Creek towards the Muir Trail Ranch; the halfway point for the John Muir Trail might have been a highway rest area. Highway 180 would have replaced the busiest backcountry area in Kings Canyon National Park with gas fumes, car campgrounds and even more abuse. The fragmented wilderness would have been quite different.
In a way, it is possible that Los Angeles’s appropriation of the Owens River helped to keep the roads from being completed. Had water stayed in the valley, it is nearly certain that populations would have been larger and more eager for major east-west highways.
Whatever the reasons, it is well to recall that one of the longest wilderness hikes in the country nearly became impossible.