The buckled and twisted road linking Saugus to Canyon Country uprooted by a spectacular landslide last year reopened to motorists and emergency crews Wednesday morning.
Beaming orange signs warning of an upcoming road closure were removed from metal posts along Sierra Highway, nodding to an anxious populace that two ends of the Santa Clarita Valley once severed by physics, were once again connected.
“It is fantastic. We have missed it,” said Cherlyn Mena, an unincorporated Los Angeles County resident who piloted one of the first few vehicles through the area.
Mena said detours around the road closure had added about 15 to 20 minutes to her routine trips and drained a considerable amount of money for additional fuel.
“It makes life so much easier to get into Santa Clarita from Acton and Agua Dulce.”
Avid cyclist and Santa Clarita Parks Commissioner Kevin Korenthal rode his bicycle to the ceremony from Bouquet Canyon Road and hoped to close a 16-mile loop into Canyon Country via Sierra Highway.
“Cyclists ride a great distance from other areas in the valley to come and do the climbs here in Vasquez Canyon,” he said.
“You have two long climbs that offer a good bit of challenge for medium to advanced level riders.”
Korenthal reflected on riding along the roadway days before it collapsed and headed skyward.
“I was deeply disappointed that it occurred and thought it would be years before they would get it open again.”
Today, the evidence of that catastrophic failure still dominates a small chunk of the landscape north of Santa Clarita city limits.
Jagged hilltops still punctuate the series of smooth rolling bluffs lining Vasquez Canyon Road.
The thoroughfare was closed to the public on Nov. 19, 2015 after lifting about two to three feet in several places.
“We don’t know exactly what’s causing it,” CHP Officer Eric Priessman said at the time. “Right now, it’s just a weird thing.”
“Instead of the road buckling down, it’s buckling up,” he said.
Power poles maintained by Southern California Edison listed in various directions and leaned farther out as time passed.
“The whole road is moving sideways,” said one Edison worker from the scene. “Basically, the county guys came up here, looked at it and said it was a landslide.”
The initial geologic event drew little media attention from outside the Santa Clarita area.
Less than 24 hours later, the time bomb exploded – the land above the road slid and lifted a 200-foot section of pavement.
With no movie special effects, the ground rose 15 to 20 feet into the air. It was then that county and utility officials realized there was a problem.
The mangled roadway became an unexpected tourist stop in the initial days following as hundreds of people showed up to get glimpse of the wasted hump of clay, skewed pavement and nonlinear lane markers.
“It’s pretty wild,” said 22-year-old UCSB student Scott Yehl.
Like many who ignored trespassing signs and numerous warning to avoid the area, Yehl first heard of the geologic failure through social media. His class had scheduled a trip to view the site of the St. Francis Dam and decided to make a quick stop to see the road before heading back to Santa Barbara.
“Quite obviously, this is something that will not be corrected in a short period of time,” department spokesman Steven Frasher said days after the landslide.
Over the course of a year, plans to use eminent domain to seize the privately owned land that slid and lifted the road stalled.
Fortunately, Mother Nature had a second act in store. The crumbling land gave way just enough to clear a path for a road.
Geologists had hypothesized it was a simple combination of serrated fissures atop the hillside and water that doomed the windy canyon road in 2015.
After four years of drought, Los Angeles County saw a large influx of rain on Oct. 15, 2015 – with that, flash flooding and massive mudslides struck along Interstate 5 in the Grapevine and in Lake Hughes.
Supervising engineering geologist Gerald Goodman believes those storms may have lit the fuse on the ticking siltstone time bomb that was Vasquez Canyon Road.
“We did a series of geological trenches and borings here and did find free water on the clay layer,” Goodman said.
“That was a good indication that this precipitation worked its way down the hillside and down the slide plane.”
Those layers became lubricated and with the extra weight of the water, the slope failed.
Goodman said the mountainous landscape in Southern California is typically prone to this type of activity.
“We do see a lot of slope failures and it’s not uncommon,” he said. “However, this one occurrence was definitely spectacular.”
Additional work will be needed in the future after the eminent domain process is completed.
“The slope itself is not finished sliding,” Goodman said. “We’re still working with the property owner to obtain right of way on it.”
Ideally, crews want to remove the remaining loose silt and construct a series of drains to channel rainwater runoff. Ultimately, the proposed system would work to prevent future failures.
But that didn’t steal the thunder from Wednesday’s reopening.
“This was not an easy task,” said County Supervisor-elect Kathryn Barger. “We worked hard and long with a lot of lawyers, but we made it happen.”