California’s Seven Federal Highways




This is a blog post that’s taken 7 years to write. I started taking photos in 2005 for this one.

In the United States we have two major sets of federally funded highway systems that connect cities across this land.

  • Interstates – Most commonly known as the “superslab” amongst motorcycle riders. President Eisenhower championed the Interstate system in 1956 with the Federal Highway Act. Interstates are labeled with east-west routes as even numbers and north-south routes as odd numbers. Interstate 5 sits in the west and Interstate 95 sits in the east. Likewise Interstate 4 sits in the south and Interstate 96 sits in the north.
  • Federal Highways (aka US Highways) – The federal highways were the predecessor to the interstate system. They are laid out in the opposite way of the interstates so that no federal highway and interstate highway would have the same number in the same state. Federal highways are labeled with east-west routes as even numbers and north-south routes as odd numbers as well. However, US 1 runs the eastern seaboard while US 101 runs the western coast. US 2 runs along the Canadian border and US 98 runs along the Gulf Coast.

I remember coming back from Seattle on my first long trip. The day I crossed into California on US-97 I remember seeing the highway sign very crisply set in it’s environment. One of the things that makes the Interstate highway sign so recognizable is that it’s “cut out” instead of painted on a square piece of metal. California and Virginia are the only US states that cuts out the US Highway shield.

US Highway 97: Volcano Country


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Date Photo Taken: September 2005

Notes: US 97 starts in Weed, CA right near Mt. Shasta. The north eastern part of California is known as the “Shasta Cascade” which is very distinct from the Sierra Nevada. Ironically, Weed doesn’t get the name from the pervasive use of marijuana in the state, but from Abner Weed a lumberman from the late 1800s. The highway is two lanes to the Oregon border with with mostly a speed limit of 65 miles per hour. Coming out of Weed the highway offers some pretty spectacular views of the north side of Mount Shasta.

US Highway 6: The High Desert


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Date Photo Taken: May 2008

Notes: US 6 was one of the transcontinental giants that has slowly been dismantled over time. Once spanning all the way from Long Beach, California out to tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, it’s been shortened to start in Bishop. In California, US 6 is mostly a straight shot from Bishop to Benton with plenty of excuses to stretch one’s throttle.

Highway 6 is not a route I’d recommend riding for it’s own beauty as there are much better rides in the high desert, but it does intersect CA-120 in Benton which is an awesome ride back to 395. I added this one to my collection doing just that.

US Highway 199: Deep Redwood Country


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Date Photo Taken: August 2009

Notes: US 199 is the shortest highway in the list at just 80 miles. Every time I’m up here I think about a Scattergories game a number of years ago. The category was US Cities and the letter was C. I’d recently been up here and remembered “Crescent City, California” for a three point answer but only got two in that game. US 199 is a great ride from US 101 to the Oregon border. It alternates between two and four lanes for a mellow and technical ride. For most of the section in California it follows the Klamath River in the canyon.Once in Oregon police presence steps up as this is one of the major routes between US 101 and Interstate 5. Hit this road in the early morning or late in the day for a great ride in California.

US Highway 395: The Eastern Sierra


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Date Photo Taken: April 2011

Notes: Much like the interstates the two digit (ala 95) highways are the main arteries while the three digit (ala 395) ones are supplementary roads. In California however 395 is the better bet. US 395 really is a mix of everything. For most of it’s length however, it’s known as the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway. It covers the gamut of elevations between 4000 and 8000 feet and very closely follows the eastern slope of the mountains.

I was returning home from Death Valley in the spring and all the passes were closed. Thus we rode from Lone Pine up to Highway 88 near the Nevada state line. There is a nice, twisty section of 395 from about Lee Vining to Topaz that’s worth riding. The rest of the highway tends to be a main artery with lots of police presence. US 395 returns to California again just north of Reno. Once back in California US 395 meanders in the Shasta Cascade area before exiting the state in the high desert.

US Highway 50: The Western Sierra


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Date Photo Taken: June 2011

Notes: US 50, like US 6 used to be a transcontinental highway between San Francisco, CA and Ocean City, MD. The western half of the highway became Interstate 80 so now US 50 begins in Sacramento. In California US 50 is the main road up to South Lake Tahoe.

The western side of the Sierra Nevada is a gradual slope whereas the eastern side of the sierras have a very quick fall. The western side of the mountains get significantly more rainfall and generally have a more lush environment. US 50 climbs from near sea level to over 7000 feet at Echo pass and then drops into South Lake Tahoe. It’s a better ride into Lake Tahoe than Interstate 80, but US 50’s real feature is across the state line in Nevada: The Loneliest Road.

US Highway 101: The Coastal Cities


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Date Photo Taken: November 2011

Notes: US Highway 101 is the fatted calf of the highway system here. It connects most of the major cities in the state with the exception of Sacramento and San Diego. After a few trips down to the Central Coast, I’d done a lot of thinking about the entire route in a blog post. Once north of Cloverdale it’s a great ride all the way through California, Oregon, and Washington. I particularly like the section in the redwoods in California, the coast in Oregon, and the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.

I’ve often found that US 101 is a decent compromise when needing to go long distance in California. It’s not as sterile as Interstate 5 but it’s much faster per mile than CA-1. Plus, what could be cooler than claiming the Golden Gate Bridge?

US Highway 95: The Low Desert

95 Vert A

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Date Photo Taken: July 2012

Notes: This was my last photo to be taken. It was the furthest drive from home and the ride wasn’t scenic at all. That being said, for me there was an allure of going all the way out to the desert to find it. US 95 runs between Needles and Blythe in California and then exits to Nevada in the north towards Searchlight and Arizona to the south. This wasn’t the first time I’d ridden 95. On my trip to Idaho I’d spent some time on the 95 on the Idaho peninsula. The two sections could have not been more different. Needles, California is a small town in the low desert of California baked to high heaven in the summers (110-120 degrees is common). Sandpoint, Idaho is a small mountain town nestled amongst the Rockies.

The highway itself is a desert byway that can be taken at some speed as you can see tomorrow from yesterday. The road has only two small towns on it: Needles and Blythe with only 100 miles between them. While not an overly interesting stretch of road for the rider, the scenery is different if one has not spent a lot of time in the desert.

US Highway 99: What Happened?

I went back and forth on whether to include US highway 99 in the series. There are a number of US highways that have been retired like the famous route 66 or US80 which makes its way west from the Atlantic starting at Tybee Island, GA. Retired US 40 crosses Donner Pass. Former US 99 still is in use today. It’s been relegated to the states with a similar number. California, Oregon, and Washington recognize it as state highway 99. Sections of it have been replaced by Interstate 5. What’s remaining is a patchwork of highway of lesser quality than the interstate to the west. In time all things must get replaced. This time we’re just seeing it decay slowly.


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One response to “California’s Seven Federal Highways”

  1. Pseudocognitive Avatar

    Very cool! I especially enjoy the black & white photos.

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