Tehachapi Pass (SR 58)
THE SOUTHERN LOW POINT
HIGHEST ELEVATION: 4,064 feet
CLOSED FOR WINTER: No
ALONG THE WAY: Tehachapi Valley
WHAT TO DO NEAR TEHACHAPI PASS
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
Choose a favorite mural in downtown Tehachapi. We like the street dance.
Drive out to see the Tehachapi Loop. Try to be there when a train is passing so that you can see it cross over itself.
Take a night-time wander in the Valley under a big moon. Learn your train trivia in a real depot and go to the Tehachapi Depot Railroad Museum. There’s a Southern Pacific car parked outside.
The Acrophobic’s Route
The southernmost pass linking Bakersfield to the Mojave Desert is where the Sierra ends and the Tehachapi Mountains begin. It’s also the lowest-elevation pass.
The Tehachapi’s early history mirrors other Sierra passes, originating as an Indian route that was later used by settlers. The railroad came through next. It took Southern Pacific Railroad two years to complete the job, but the roughly 3,000 workers that were brought in from China completed the project in 1876.
One of the Lost Highways
A highway wouldn’t come until much later. SR 58 was known until 1964 as US 466. The original name was based on a system that numbered US highway offshoots based on the road from which they extended. Commissioned in 1935, US 466 was the fourth spur to strike out from the famed Route 66. (The sixth, originating in Gallup, NM, was US Route 666, which earned it the nickname “Devil’s Highway” and created all sorts of spooky mystique. Various stretches were renumbered over the years, but US 666 wasn’t retired entirely until 2003.).
The portion of466 that ran through the Tehachapi Pass was a welcome addition for Southern Californians who needed to travel east and wanted to avoid more treacherous Sierra passes — or ever-growing Los Angeles. Its renumbering came when California eliminated most of its US highways to streamline the names of its major roads. (Nevada and Arizona would eventually follow suit in decommissioning US 466, at which point it disappeared entirely.)
Calling All Railway Enthusiasts
The Tehachapi Pass is a high-traffic route not only because Highway 58 is very busy with traffic, but because two railroads use it as their Sierra crossing point. Today, Union Pacific and BNSF Railway share rights to the railroad that cuts across this challenging grade, and they send several freight trains across it daily. It’s one of the busiest sections of single-track railroad in the world.
The Tehachapi Loop
“Foamers” (train enthusiasts) are drawn to the Tehachapi Pass not only for the steady flow of trains in beautiful, rugged terrain, but to see the Tehachapi Loop. When the railroad was being constructed, a loop was added to minimize the steepness to a more manageable 2% grade. Loops are a favorite for railroad lovers, offering a chance to see longer trains crossing over themselves as they travel the spiral.
The Tehachapi Loop is considered an engineering marvel in railroad circles. Nearly three-quarters of a mile around, it would take about 85 box cars to fill the length of it. What makes it truly remarkable is that workers used rather rudimentary tools to put down the track over the mountains. Dynamite, picks and shovels cleared the rock, and horse-drawn carts hauled it away. The white cross that stands inside the loop honors two railroad workers who were killed in a 1989 train derailment near San Bernardino.
With so much railroad history, it’s fitting that there would be a railroad museum in Tehachapi. It’s housed in a restored depot.
If You’re Not into Trains…
For those less enthralled by all things rail, Tehachapi Valley also has a growing wine industry, and there are several vineyards in the area.
The Tehachapi Murals: History in Streetscapes
Like Bishop, Tehachapi also has several murals downtown depicting the area’s history. There’s one of the Loop, of course, as well as scenes depicting the Nüwa Indians who lived here and a street dance that was held in 1915 when the first electric streetlights in town came into use.
Missing from the painted scenes is a major earthquake that struck Tehachapi in 1952. The pre-dawn shaker measured above 7 on the Richter scale, making it the strongest the state had experienced since San Francisco’s notorious 1906 quake. Damage in Tehachapi was severe, and 12 residents were killed.
Hilltop Windmills: The Tehachapi Wind Farm
One of California’s largest wind farms is also situated along the pass. The Tehachapi Wind Farm has some 5,000 turbines that dominate the landscape.
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