When fire, rain and mud closed this winding stretch of asphalt through the Angeles National Forest, bicyclist Kerin Huber said she lost more than just a favorite bike route.
"It's been so long, it's like not seeing a friend," said Huber, who, along with hundreds of other cyclists, motorists and nature lovers, spent part of the day Saturday reacquainting herself with a beloved stretch of Angeles Crest Highway.
The heavily trafficked, scenic route had been closed for a year and a half after portions of the roadway were washed away in the aftermath of the 2009 Station fire. On Friday, police and Caltrans crews reopened the newly striped and re-oiled route, just in time for a gloriously sunny Saturday ride.
For Huber, a Pasadena chemistry professor, and her riding partner, Renee Smith, the closure of this stretch of roadway between La Canada Flintridge and Angeles Forest Highway was like experiencing withdrawal. Caltrans delays, false rumors of reopenings and summer's approach only made the wait that much more difficult.
When motorcyclist Craig Steel checked his cellphone Friday, he found a simple message from fellow biker and childhood friend Brian Morrow: "Angeles Crest is open tomorrow, good for you?"
The roadway, which tempts more than a few motorcyclists and drivers to step on the gas, is also one of the county's most dangerous. Anticipating increased traffic, the California Highway Patrol will beef up its surveillance of the route throughout the summer.
Saturday morning started out a bit chilly in the forest, especially at higher elevations, but it was so quiet you could hear birds sing and woodpeckers hammer away. Bicyclists pedaled through fog and motorists drove along tight twists and turns that make the curvy northbound Pasadena Freeway look like amateur hour.
"It's phenomenal to come back up here and visit," said 55-year-old Kathy Miller, who stopped her car on the side of the highway to inspect what she thought were mustard flowers. When she had heard the highway was open her only thought was: "I'm ready to go, first available weekend."
Miller, parked at an elevation over 3,000 feet, said she loved the purple flowers, even if her allergies were acting up a little. But she also noted the "sad contrast" of the colorful plants blooming against a backdrop of blackened trees.
At Newcomb's Ranch Bar & Restaurant, a favorite motorcycle hangout and the only restaurant along a 57-mile stretch of the highway, bikers Steel and Morrow removed their helmets and inhaled fresh, crisp air.
"There's nothing like this," Steel said after dismounting a black-and-yellow Suzuki GSX-R1000. "It's quiet, it's peaceful, it's scenic."
Steel used to ride up the highway almost once a week -- and said he has plenty of tickets to prove it. On Saturday morning, the parking lot was filled with a colorful array of Harley-Davidsons, Kawasakis, BMWs and Ducatis. Their owners ate sausage and eggs, sipped coffee, smoked cigarettes and warned one another about police on the lookout for speeders.
Freddy Rundall III, the 24-year-old son of restaurant owner Frederick Rundall, said Saturday that the road's closure brought hard times on the restaurant. They closed for several months, laid off employees, shortened their menu and hours, and lost much of their business.
"We're hoping for a great rebound," said Rundall, the assistant manager. "We're just very happy, ecstatic that it's open."
The highway closed Jan. 17, 2010, when rains poured onto the Station fire burn area, washing away major sections of pavement through the Angeles National Forest.
Caltrans hoped to open the road about a year later, but needed to do further repairs after intense rainfall caused a runoff that overwhelmed a culvert and washed out a slope.
Restoring the road cost $32 million, officials said, and the majority of that will be paid back through the Federal Highway Administration's emergency relief program.
There is still some construction repair along the highway, including two storm-damaged sections -- one east of Mt. Wilson Road and a washout east of Snow Creek -- but there is traffic control to allow motorists through, officials said.
"Obviously, this work has taken quite some time," Caltrans official Roy Fisher said in a statement. "With steep and severe terrain, Mother Nature and extremely damaged roadway, it was no quick or simple task to rebuild."