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Cajon Pass
Spanish: Puerto del Cajón, Paso del Cajón
Cajon Pass, wide angle.jpg
I-15 passing over Cajon Summit
Elevation 3,777 ft (1,151 m)
Traversed by SR 138
US 66 (until 1979)
Union Pacific Railroad/BNSF Railway/Amtrak
I-15 (indirectly)
Location San Bernardino County, California, United States
Range San Bernardino Mountains/San Gabriel Mountains
Coordinates 34°19′33″N 117°25′42″W / 34.32583°N 117.42833°W / 34.32583; -117.42833
Cajon Pass is located in southern California
Cajon Pass
Location in southern California
Cajon Pass is located in California
Cajon Pass
Location in California

Cajon Pass ( Spanish: Puerto del Cajón or Paso del Cajón) is a mountain pass between the San Bernardino Mountains to the east and the San Gabriel Mountains to the west in Southern California. Created by the movements of the San Andreas Fault, it has an elevation of 3,777 ft (1,151 m). Located in the Mojave Desert, the pass is an important link from the Greater San Bernardino Area to the Victor Valley, and northeast to Las Vegas.

Cajon Pass is at the head of Horsethief Canyon, traversed by California State Route 138 (SR 138) and railroad tracks owned by BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad. Improvements in 1972 reduced the railroad's maximum elevation from about 3,829 to 3,777 feet (1,167 to 1,151 m) while reducing curvature. Interstate 15 does not traverse Cajon Pass, but rather the nearby Cajon Summit, 34°20′58″N 117°26′47″W / 34.34944°N 117.44639°W / 34.34944; -117.44639 (Cajon Summit), elevation 4,260 feet (1,300 m). The entire area, Cajon Pass and Cajon Summit, is often referred to as Cajon Pass, but a distinction is made between Cajon Pass and Cajon Summit.

Mormon Rocks-1
A freight train passing in front of Mormon Rocks

In 1851 a group of Mormon settlers led by Amasa M. Lyman and Charles C. Rich traveled through Cajon Pass in covered wagons on their way from Salt Lake City to southern California. A prominent rock formation in the pass, where the Mormon Road and the railway merge (at 34°19′06″N 117°29′31″W / 34.3184°N 117.4920°W / 34.3184; -117.4920, near Sullivan's Curve), is known as Mormon Rocks.

MORMON ROCKS San Andreas
Near the Highway 138 and Interstate 15 junction, the Mormon Rocks are evidence of the San Andreas fault beneath the surface

Name

In Spanish, the word cajón refers to a box or drawer. The name of the pass is derived from the Spanish land grant that encompassed the area; it was first referred to in English on a 1852 map.

Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail goes directly through Cajon Pass, and during the hiking season up to several hundred transient hikers will pass through this area after walking one of the hottest, driest, and most grueling sections of desert on the trail. The McDonald's restaurant at the pass happens to be very close to the trail, and it is famous among hikers, who often arrive dehydrated; most will stop here for water and salty food. Many hikers also spend the night in the one motel at Cajon Pass.

Natural hazards

During October and November 2003, a number of wildfires devastated the hills and mountainsides near and around the pass, forcing the closure of Interstate 15. The following winter, rains in addition to burnt vegetation caused a number of landsides to further close the freeway pass.

On July 17, 2015, during severe drought conditions plaguing the whole state and creating extreme fire hazards, a fast, wind-whipped wildfire swept over Interstate 15 between California State Route 138 and the Oak Hill Road exits, sending drivers running for safety and setting 20 vehicles ablaze, officials said. The vegetation fire, which closed the I-15 southbound lanes and restricted the northbound side to 1 lane, overtook stalled cars.

The following year, the Blue Cut Fire again forced the closure of the freeway for several days starting on August 16, 2016. The fire closed the I-15 north and southbound lanes due to the intensity of the fire. It destroyed a number of outbuildings and homes, and destroyed the Summit Inn Restaurant in Oak Hills. A McDonald's restaurant was also burned but the damage was minor. The fire threatened homes in Lytle Creek, Phelan, Oak Hills and Wrightwood and burned 37,000 acres

In addition to wildfire hazards, Cajon Pass is notorious for wind hazards. In gusty conditions it is especially difficult to navigate through it as the Santa Ana winds usually push through that area. The winds sometimes reach gale-force strength. As a result, there are usually high wind advisories as well as road signs posted throughout the area. It is not uncommon to see overturned trucks during such windy weather there.

Cajon Pass gets snow occasionally, sometimes enough to close the pass temporarily. When there is snow, the California Highway Patrol will set up checkpoints on the freeway. Since most southern Californians are without snow tires or snow chains, they are forced to turn back, or wait until the snow has stopped and the freeway has been cleared of snow.

When there is high wind or snow in the Cajon Pass, it is fairly common for weather forecasters or reporters for San Bernardino, San Diego, and Los Angeles-area televisions stations to do location reports from the Cajon Pass.

The San Andreas Fault passes through the Cajon Pass (crossing I-15 on the south side of the summit) and is responsible for the unique local geography.

Rail transport

Santa Fe stopped at Cajon Siding, March 1943
Santa Fe Railway brakeman atop a train that has paused at Cajon siding to cool its brakes after descending Cajon Pass in March 1943

Traffic

Santa Fe R.R. trains going through Cajon Pass in the San Bernardino Mountains 1a34758v
Santa Fe train climbing to Cajon Pass 1943
UP 9214 19910510 CA Cajon
Union Pacific Railroad GE Dash 8-40C #9214 leads a freight train up Cajon Pass
844 nov 19 2011 036xRP - Flickr - drewj1946
Union Pacific excursion train at Cajon Pass pulled by FEF-3 4-8-4 "Northern" type steam locomotive UP 844

The California Southern Railroad, a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, was the first railroad through Cajon Pass. The line through the pass was built in the early 1880s to connect the present day cities of Barstow and San Diego. Today the Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway (the successor to the Santa Fe) use the pass to reach Los Angeles and San Bernardino as part of the Southern Transcon. Due to the many trains, scenery and easy access, it is a popular location for railfans, and many photographs of trains on Cajon Pass appear in books and magazines.

The Union Pacific Railroad owns one track through the pass, on the previous Southern Pacific Railroad Palmdale cutoff, opened in 1967. The BNSF Railway owns two tracks and began to operate a third main track in the summer of 2008. The railroads share track rights through the pass ever since the Union Pacific gained track rights on the Santa Fe portion negotiated under the original Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad. The original BNSF (ATSF) line was built in the 1880s and later roads, U.S. Route 66 and I-15, roughly followed this route. The 3.0% grade for a few miles on the south track is challenging for long trains, making the westbound descent dangerous, as a runaway can occur if the engineer is not careful in handling the brakes. The second track, built in 1913, is 2 miles (3.2 km) longer to get a lower 2.2% grade. It ran through two short tunnels, but both were removed when the third main track was added next to the 1913 line. Trains may be seen traveling at speeds of 60 and 70 mph (97 and 113 km/h) on the straighter track away from the pass, but typically ascend at 14 to 22 mph (23 to 35 km/h) and descend at 20 to 30 mph (32 to 48 km/h). With the third track, the BNSF lines have a capacity of 150 trains per day.

Incidents

  • The steep downhill grade south of the pass was a contributing factor in the May 12, 1989, San Bernardino train disaster.
  • Cajon Pass was the site of a major accident on December 14, 1994, when a westbound Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe intermodal train lost control and crashed into the rear of a westbound Union Pacific coal train just below California Highway 138, between Alray and Cajon. Thankfully, the Santa Fe crew warned the Union Pacific crew ahead of time, and the UP crew on the helper locomotives at the back of their train bailed out and were uninjured, while the Santa Fe crew received minor injuries after bailing out in turn before impact. All of the Santa Fe and UP helper locomotives involved in the collision suffered irreparable damage and were scrapped, while the lead UP locomotives were undamaged.
  • On February 2, 1996, a Santa Fe manifest train derailed and caught fire at Cajon Pass.
  • The August 16, 2016 Blue Cut Fire destroyed a trestle on the Union Pacific mainline.
  • On August 21, 2018 a train carrying hazardous materials derailed, causing the FedEx facility on the left of it to evacuate, along with one school that took shelter.

Passenger service

Amtrak's Desert Wind used the pass until it quit running in 1997. The Southwest Chief runs daily between Chicago and Los Angeles, through Cajon Pass on the BNSF line.

In 2020, Brightline initiated planning for a high-speed route between Victorville and Rancho Cucamonga as an extension of their forthcoming Brightline West service. The route was not initially considered by the project's preceding operators, as it was seen as prohibitively expensive.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Puerto del Cajón para niños

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