Motorists and cyclists gathered by the dozen on Friday morning to be among the first in more than a year to travel a scenic stretch of Angeles Crest Highway that was closed after sustaining heavy damage following fire and rain.
The steep, winding roadway had been closed between the Angeles National Forest entrance above La Cañada Flintridge and Angeles Forest Highway since January 2010 while state transportation officials repaired extensive damage to the 7-mile stretch of roadway.
For the first time in nearly 17 months, commuters and recreational users are now able to travel the highway from the Foothill (210) Freeway all the way to Wrightwood.
“This is an escape from the city. I missed it greatly,” said cyclist Mason Fong, of Glendale.
In a brief 10 a.m. reopening ceremony at the Angeles National Forest entrance, state and local officials urged drivers of cars and motorcycles to watch their speed and use caution while navigating the roadway’s sharp curves.
Over the coming months, California Highway Patrol officers plan to conduct at least 1,000 hours of traffic enforcement along Angeles Crest Highway with the help of a grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said CHP Lt. Steve Strull.
“Our main goal is to save lives by educating and raising awareness among motorists and motorcyclists,” Strull said, noting the 164 motorcycle-involved collisions — eight of them fatal — that occurred along the Angeles Crest in 2007 and 2008.
The most common unsafe driving habits along the narrow highway are speeding and encroaching on the oncoming lane, said CHP Officer Ming-Yang Hsu.
“It’s great to be able to open up recreational opportunities in the forest, as long as users of the highway obey traffic laws, especially the speed limit. And for crying out loud, no big trucks,” said La Cañada Flintridge City Councilman Donald Voss, referring to the April 2009 runaway truck crash that killed two people where the highway terminates at Foothill Boulevard.
The driver in that crash faces charges of murder, vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving.
Angeles Crest Highway was closed briefly after the 160,000-acre Station fire in August 2009, then reopened later that year. It was closed again on Jan. 17, 2010, due to six pavement washouts and other erosion damage caused by post-fire rainstorms.
The California Department of Transportation had planned to reopen the roadway by Jan. 1, 2011, but storms just weeks before that pummeled the area with more than 12 inches of rainfall and triggered a seventh roadway collapse 2.5 miles east of La Cañada.
“As you drive up this highway, you may not even notice the gargantuan repairs that have occurred,” said Caltrans Deputy Director Roy Fisher of road fissures that were up to 200 feet wide and 300 feet deep.
Traffic controls are in place at points east of Mt. Wilson Road and near the Snow Creek area, where work is still being completed.
Many forest recreation areas along Angeles Crest Highway that were damaged in the Station fire reopened in May, including Chilao Flats Campground and Charlton Flats Picnic Area.
Switzer Falls and Buckhorn Campground areas remain restricted.
Sandi Hemmerlein said she drove all the way from Beverly Hills to enjoy the scenic wilderness area.
“The Angeles National Forest is gorgeous,” she said. “There are many ways to enjoy it, but in terms of recreational driving, you can’t beat it.”