They like to say the journey is the destination. They probably don’t do laps on the Las Vegas-to-Los Angeles speedway. I speak, of course, of Interstate 15 south out of Sin City to Interstate 10 west toward the City of Angels. It’s a relatively easy trek if the traffic’s right, but sometimes it seems to take days due the brain-freezing boringness of vast stretches and because of that one horrible radio station (The Highway?) that seems to be the only sound between Vegas and Victorville.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If you find yourself pining for your sister city by the Pacific, I got a little something for you.
I confess: It’s not a panacea. And it could take you a couple of extra hours. Other than the road you’re all too familiar with, I still haven’t found safe passage to the Cajon Summit from whence your descent into the Los Angeles Basin begins. But I can offer you something better than Fontucky (Fontana) and Rancho Cucamonga as your reward for having gotten this far: the Angeles Crest Highway.
It’s waiting for you right there at that aforementioned summit. Before you go down the hill, glance out your passenger window and notice an exit for State Route 138. You’ve probably gone by it a million times and wondered what the hell is down there in that cool-looking canyon (it’s called Horsethief Canyon) with jagged rocky outcroppings like giant cairns beckoning you.
Why not? You know what the straight drop will get you: a slingshot straight into the exurban hell of the Inland Empire. State Route 138 north toward Wrightwood, though, carries you to the wild fringe of Los Angeles—the San Gabriel Mountains, the steep range rising out of the basin that keeps the smog in and the bears (mostly) out.
A couple of miles into Horsethief Canyon you’ll come to Angeles Crest Highway (California State Route 2). This is your microclimate reward for the long, dusty trek to this point. Reaching elevations of 7,000 feet, Angeles Crest winds—sometimes precariously—through the heart of the Angeles National Forest and delivers hiking trails galore, views of the entire Los Angeles basin from Mount Wilson (depending on marine layer or smog), numerous campgrounds and two ski areas—Mountain High near the beginning of your 65-mile diversion and rugged Mount Waterman about halfway through.
After you’ve worked up an appetite on one of the hiking trails, keep heading downhill to Newcomb’s Ranch. It’s pretty much the only bet for food and drink in this forest, but it’s a gem. Angeles Crest, which opened in 1956, was built by prison labor, and it sometimes looks like the entire chain gang retired to Newcomb’s. Pool tables, fireplace, sports on big-screen TVs, beer, burgers and bikers. What could go wrong?
If this isn’t your thing, re-enter civilization at the highway’s terminus in La Canada Flintridge (home to Jet Propulsion Laboratory) by stopping at legendary Taylor’s Steakhouse on Foothill Boulevard, a charming main street that’s like stepping back into 1950s California.
From there, kid, you’re on your own. Los Angeles spreads in every direction, and there’s a freeway to take you to wherever you need to go, be it the beach, the boulevard or a boardroom.
The Trip: Las Vegas to Los Angeles.
The Way: I-15 south about 200 miles to Route 138 north to Route 2 (Angeles Crest Highway) south. There’s only one way to go: Through the mountains, or else it’s back from whence you came. Go for it. The road can be windy and vertiginous, and motorcycles may buzz by you, but it’s the most beauty you’ll see between Las Vegas and Los Angeles by far.
The Wheels: 2012 Ford Focus SE Hatchback. That’s right, deal with it. This little thing chews up highway (I admit to blowing the doors off a Lexus in a little regressive machismo showdown), handles turns like a sports car and, with the hatch down, carries as much or more cargo than my retired Jeep Cherokee. Plus, you almost never have to worry about running out of gas.
Pit Stops: Newcomb’s Ranch for lunch. It’s either that or bring something from the Subway at the Route 138 exit.
While You’re at It: Get out of the car and take a hike. It’s a great way to stretch your legs and breathe some fresh mountain air before you head down into smogtown. There are many trailheads along the route, some of which have parking lots and bathrooms. All have something special waiting for you just a short walk from your wheels. Try Switzer Falls, about two hours there and back, with moderate elevation gain and a waterfall.