The Making of Skyline Boulevard

Panoramic of Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35). Photo: Jawed Karim CC BY 3.0
Panoramic view of Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35). Photo: Jawed Karim CC BY 3.0

Skyline Boulevard, which stretches through California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, is much more than just a transportation corridor. Its gentle curves and spectacular views are beloved by tourists, motorcyclists, and the local residents who regularly pick up trash along the shoulders of the winding road. South of Skylonda, the area is a mosaic of open spaces and trails along the ridge. There are roadside parking areas where you can pull off the highway and enjoy the panoramic views, and there are numerous trails for hikers to enjoy a more intimate experience with nature.

View from Russian Ridge, 2015. Photo: Yūgen CC BY 2.0
The view from Russian Ridge, 2015. Photo: Yūgen CC BY 2.0

Although there are an exceptional number of parks and trails open to the public, there are also private residences and private land. If you happen to visit, please respect the carefully placed signs that indicate private property.

Historical Background: From Summit to Skyline

Previously, the ridge top here was known simply as “The Summit.” The word “skyline” probably came into use as a promotion for the construction of the new state highway in the early 1900s. Indeed, without the persistent promoting, lobbying, and creative thinking of a group of dedicated folks, there would not be a Skyline Boulevard.

he South Skyline Region in the Santa Cruz Mountains along the San Francisco Peninsula. Map © Eric Goetze, courtesy of Eric Isacson.
The South Skyline Region in the Santa Cruz Mountains along the San Francisco Peninsula. Map: Eric Goetze, courtesy of Eric Isacson

“It Takes a Village” to Build a Highway

Around 1900, the vision of a highway along the ridge top from San Francisco toward Santa Cruz and Monterey began to take shape, but it took 30 years to materialize. The project involved considerable political maneuvering, because it would pass through four different counties and change the way the state financed its highway construction.

Hundreds of people became involved in promoting, designing, and building the boulevard. In the fall of 1916, county supervisors, state senators, chamber of commerce members, and representatives from the California Automobile Association met to form the Skyline Conference. They were instrumental in establishing the first joint highway district in the state, which included the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz.

The new highway district, the state, and the federal government each contributed $250,000 toward the project. To secure state funding, the promoters claimed that the highway would relieve traffic congestion in the Santa Clara Valley. Then, to gain federal funds, they asserted that the highway would have strategic value with its views of the Pacific Ocean and provide a vital connection between the presidios of San Francisco and Monterey.

The First State Bond Measure for Highways

When they failed to raise enough money for the highway district, the promoters successfully lobbied for an amendment to the state constitution to allow the issuance of bonds dedicated to highway construction. In 1919, the voters of California approved the first bond measure for highways. It allocated $2,471,000 specifically for the construction of a “skyline highway.”

Sign posted at Saratoga Gap, 1928. Photo courtesy of CalTrans.
Sign posted at Saratoga Gap, 1928. Photo: Courtesy of CalTrans

Highway Engineers Relish the Challenge

The state engineers were chomping at the bit to begin designing the new roadway. Chief Engineer John H. Skeggs explained, “Our work up to then had been upgrading existing county roads and putting up with their compromises. With the Skyline Boulevard project, we saw an opportunity to build an all-new road through an undeveloped mountainous area.”

Skeggs was also transfixed by the beauty of his creation. “Under my direction,” he said, “we established design standards for the entire length of the road. We set the roadbed width at 30 feet, limited the grades to 6.5%, and set the minimum radius for a curve at 200 feet. The result is a road that is clearly superior to its feeders.”

Panoramic of Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35). Photo: Jawed Karim CC BY 3.0
Panoramic view of Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35). Photo: Jawed Karim CC BY 3.0

Construction Gets Underway

In 1922, the first construction crews gathered at Ocean Beach in San Francisco and worked their way south in segments. They completed the third segment to La Honda Road (now Highway 84) in the South Skyline region in 1925.

The Insley one-man power shovel saved many man hours clearing slides during the construction of Skyline Boulevard, Photo courtesy of CalTrans.
The Insley one-man power shovel saved many man hours clearing slides during the construction of Skyline Boulevard. Photo: Courtesy of CalTrans

Progress lagged after 1925, because the state highway commission ran short of funds or the funds were diverted to other highway projects. With an increase in the fuel tax, the project got back on track. In 1928, a new contract was awarded for the segment between La Honda Road and Saratoga Gap (now State Route 9). The amount allotted was $723,000, close to the initial estimate for the entire project 10 years earlier.

Photo: Caltrans
State Route 9 spans 35 curvy miles that connects Santa Cruz to Los Gatos. Photo: Courtesy of CalTrans

State Senator M. B. Johnson toured the route and convinced 80% of the landowners to donate a right-of-way. Others were compensated for the loss of their barns and orchards. Some ranchers were granted tunnels under the highway for their cattle to pass through.

Roadbocks: Where Do We Go from Here?

But more roadblocks lay ahead. The vague wording in the enabling legislation allowed citizens to contest the route down from Saratoga Gap. Businessmen from Boulder Creek and Santa Cruz proposed turning south and heading down the San Lorenzo Valley, while those in San Jose promoted the route continuing along The Summit ridge.

Saratoga Gap during the construction of Skyline Boulevard, 1933. Photo: Courtesy of Chuck Schoppe
Saratoga Gap during the construction of Skyline Boulevard, 1933. Photo: Courtesy of Chuck Schoppe

The ridge route won out, and construction continued to Black Road in 1932. There, it came to an abrupt halt, probably due to lack of funds and political will. Some of the original promoters had died during the long campaign. Drivers who insist on continuing along the ridge must follow the winding path of the old Summit Road created in the 1890s.

The Result: A Panorama of Exceptional Beauty

As Chief Engineer Skeggs said, “It is seldom that one highway combines the beauties of the mountains, the sunsets of the desert, the fogs of the ocean, the panorama of a great historical bay, and the magnificent urban valley of a large city in as many varying phases by daylight or starlight. Only those who travel it many times ever learn the full potency and charm of the scenic Skyline Boulevard.”

Santa Cruz Mountain sunset, 2012. Photo: Yūgen CC BY 2.0
Santa Cruz Mountains sunset, 2012. Photo: Yūgen CC BY 2.0

Skeggs marveled at the view from the Castle Rock Ridge: “…from the summit of which, on a clear day, 13 counties, the Monterey coast, and Farallons (Islands) can be seen at one and the same time.” On a moonlit night, he said, the fogs below present a sight “of such rare silvery beauty as to be incapable of description.”

View from Castle Rock State Park, 2011. Photo: Sourav Das CC BY 2.0
The view from Castle Rock State Park, 2011. Photo: Sourav Das CC BY 2.0

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the South Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35) Tour made possible by Janet Schwind and the Skyline Historical Society. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

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Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Apple App Store
Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Google Play Store
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6 Comments

  1. patt kutscher

    Truly a ride back in time when I read this article. It was a long road in the 50’s riding with my family. Then I went with friends in the 60’s for a fun and long day ride, it felt as if we were driving at the top of the world. Last time I went through it was in 1976 with my future husband on the back of his “chopper” It was a warm day and it felt as if we were gliding on the road as if the bike knew the way. Hope I will go for this ride again. Thank you for your photos and time I took to tell my story.

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