Snow on the Grapevine

The 40-mile stretch of Interstate 5 north of Castaic is nicknamed the Grapevine, after the small community at its northern end. The road reaches it highest elevation at the 4,160-foot Tejon Pass.

Also known as the Ridge Route, the original highway through the pass opened around 1910. A four-lane expressway opened in 1947. The larger Interstate 5 opened in 1970.

While a snow-covered Grapevine is a very photogenic scene, it often means dangerous driving conditions. Just about every winter, storms force the California Highway Patrol to close the Grapevine for short periods.

In a Jan. 5, 2011, Los Angeles Times story headlined Motorists criticize weather-related closure of the 5 Freeway in the Grapevine, staff writer Sam Allen reported:

“It’s not a decision we like to make,” CHP Officer Patrick Etchebarne said. “The thinking is let’s close it now before it gets really, really bad. If you don’t, you’re going to have a nightmare.”

Etchebarne said that closures on the Grapevine and other mountain roads are designed to prevent a worst-case scenario, and that they generally are based more on road conditions than the experience level of individual drivers.

Most vehicles can traverse the steep inclines even in snowy conditions if they maintain a steady speed, he said. However, if an accident forces traffic to slow or come to a complete stop, and snow continues to fall, hundreds of vehicles can become stalled at once. The Tejon Pass is particularly vulnerable because of its steep hills and the number of big-rigs that travel on it, Etchebarne said.

In December 2008, the CHP waited too long to close the interstate and faced that exact scenario, Etchebarne said. Hundreds of drivers had to be rescued after their cars became stranded, and the American Red Cross was called to the scene.

“We’ve all been there before, and that’s what we don’t want,” he said. …

A Jan. 31, 1979, storm closed Interstate 5 for three days. Staff writer Mark Stein reported in the Feb. 2, 1979, Los Angeles Times:

Waiting in Castaic. And hoping.


–Spreading rumors about the road opening again.

–Cursing the freezing rain and dropping temperatures.

–Pitching pennies and swapping stories.

–And waiting some more.

There wasn’t much else to do for those stuck on Interstate 5 below snow-choked Grapevine about 30 miles north of Los Angeles.

“I can’t afford to wait here much longer. I’m down to my last few dollars,” lamented truck driver Norman Nations, who was headed toward Seattle with a couple of tons of lettuce when he was stopped by Cal Trans and the Highway Patrol Wednesday afternoon.

By Thursday afternoon, with his perishable cargo barely holding its own in the 38-degree weather, he was ready to give in and go 400 miles out of his way up California 101 along the coast.

Other truck drivers weren’t so sure that was the right move.

“You hear so damn many stories that it’s hard to tell what to do,” said Jim Frye, a driver from Willits. “I’ve heard about 75 m.p.h. winds and mudslides over there (on 101), and winds and ice on every road between here and there. Just sitting here is a lot less wear and tear on the truck and me.”

The big knot of traffic that formed below the Grapevine Wednesday after the road was closed had largely thinned out by Thursday afternoon. But a few die-hard truckers and families remained, their hopes field by false rumors that snowplows would be punching through the snow in just one more hour.

“The policeman told me to go up 101 to Paso Robles and then cut over to Bakersfield, but that’s a long way around–maybe six hours, maybe eight. I think it’s better to wait.” said Rogalio Fernandez, who was taking his wife, brother and five children from Sonora, Mexico, to Shafter, near Bakersfield.

His wait would be a long one. The Caltrans office in Newhall said the light snow that was again beginning to fall Thursday afternoon was hampering road-clearing efforts.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to stop,” a spokesman said.

While the blocked road meant boredom and frustration for anxious drivers, it also meat brisk business for restaurants.

“We’ve been waiting on the same people three times a day for three days,” said Sue Hentges, a waitress at Castaic Landing Restaurant. “It’s really funny–they come in for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Snacks too. There’s just nothing else to do.”

The accompanying photo gallery includes images of Grapevine road closures and winter scenes.

Check out current Interstate 5 driving conditions from Caltrans.