US 80 Tour

Imperial Valley

[Desert Bridge] US 80 east of Octillo.
The road in the middle is the original alignment of US 80, built in 1915. A later alignment, from the 1930s is on the left and remains passable.

The Imperial Valley is a remarkable study in contrasts. It is at the same time the Colorado Desert, one of the most barren and desolate places in the world, surpassing even the Gobi and Sahara deserts, yet it has  some of the most productive farming land, rivaling even the banks of the Nile River in Egypt.  The farmland in the middle of the barren wasteland was made possible through the both intervention of man and the handiwork of nature. Man's efforts include the completion of the All-American Canal and the network of irrigation canals that has brought water from the nearby Colorado River. This valley was once the bottom of a vast lake, Lake Cahuilla , and nature provided the fertile sediment that was once the bottom of the lake. The Imperial Valley gets its name from promoters of the turn of the century who used the name to imply the wealth and riches that may be obtained from this valley. For some, that is exactly what this valley has brought.

Millers to Plaster City

"State Highway, Imperial County, on the
Desert." (1918)

The foot of the In-Ko-Pah Gorge marks the start of the long crossing over the Colorado Desert. The original paved road dates to 1915 and was only 15' wide, but paved with Portland Cement. This is unusual for a desert highway since asphalt is better suited to accommodate the temperature extremes associated with the desert climate. This road was surpassed in turn in 1932 by a wider road, this time paved with asphalt. Both alignments remain today and can be seen easily, though by foot.

I-8 intersects SR-98 about a mile to the east of the gorge at a grade separated interchange built in 1971. The railroad bridge next to it dates from 1958 when this section of US 80 was upgraded to a short section of four lane divided highway. Shortly beyond is Millers, once a bustling rest stop on the highway and now a ghost town with several dilapidated buildings surviving. It can be reached by backtracking on S80 from Octillo and marks the convergence of the 1915 and 1932  alignments as they head east. More information is available in the following side trip.

The Octillo exit (County S2) is the first one beyond Mountain Spring where one can access the old highway(s). A left turn on S80 leads to Millers, the subject of the following side trip while a right turn leads to El Centro via the US 80 alignment. S2 continues in a northwesterly direction and goes over the route of the old Butterfield Stage line. Continuing beyond Octillo, I-8 follows a more southerly route leaving US 80 untouched until the intersection of SR-115 and I-8, a large number of miles to the east.

This section is called County S80 as a tribute to its former status as US 80. Unfortunately Imperial County appears to lack the funds or the political will to do anything more than sign the road and has only been able to provide minimal maintenance on the road. As a result, old US 80 between Octillo and Plaster City is rather bumpy with potholes since it has not been resurfaced in many years. Additionally, the only marking is the broken yellow line, although that has mostly faded. For a several miles, you continue to cross through desolate, desiccated desert, seemingly devoid of life. However Plaster City looms out of the horizon and can be seen on weekdays bustling with activity. It has long been a landmark along US 80 and the factory for which it is named still operates to this day.

Side Trip:  Millers

This short side trip explores the abandoned town of Millers. In addition to the historic buildings, the highlight of this trip is seeing a nicely preserved concrete section of the 1915 highway.

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Seeley and El Centro

US 80 crosses the West Highline Canal, dips below sea level, and suddenly enters the fertile farmland of the Imperial Valley. It's hard to imagine this land once looked like the barren desert to the west of the canal. The scene could be in Kansas or Nebraska with only the Chocolate Mountains in the background to betray the desert surroundings. Solitary farmhouses line the highway, completing the illusion of being in the Great Plains rather than a desert. 

Entering Seeley and its big brother, El Centro is like taking a step back in time, but much in the same way as entering Cuba where there are no cars built later than 1959. Unfortunately for El Centro, its western gateway is the New River, considered by many to be the most polluted river in the United States. Whenever I cross it, I make it a point to shut off the vent in my car. Today it is at the bottom of a surprisingly steep gorge, created by the flooding action of the Colorado River as it filled the valley in 1906 after flooding its banks. Water raced down the New and Alamo rivers, filling what was then known as the Salton Sink, located 

Right before the town of Seeley, US 80 dips below sea level, a spot marked by the crossing over the Westside canal. It remains a two lane road with farmhouses lining the side of the roads, reminiscent of a scene that could be found anywhere in the Midwest. After about four miles, US 80 enters the city of El Centro and becomes a four lane divided road. This road had the original concrete until mid-1998 when the local agency decided to pave it over with asphalt. However, the reflective divots in the curb are still visible and a lot of the surrounding scenery still harks back to the days before the Interstate went through.

After a few blocks S80 intersects SR-86 (old US 99) at Imperial Ave. SR-86 is co-signed with S80 for several blocks just as US 99 was signed with US 80. The combined SR-86 and S80 continue east, then loops south. After two blocks S80, or old US 80 goes to the left while SR-86 follows the former alignment of  US 99 to the south.

S80 remains a four lane undivided conventional highway for several miles until it reaches the outskirts of El Centro. At this point, the road splits into a four lane divided expressway with a wide median that resembles modern day I-8 more than an older expressway. It appears this expressway was in place since the 1950s. The highway continues through farmlands and intersects SR-115, which marks the end of S80. The expressway ends about two miles to the east of the interchange with SR-115 and goes back to a two lane alignment to the City of Holtville.

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Holtville to the Plank Road

Gray's Well (1916)Holtville appears like the typical town one would have seen on an old US highway. The road widens from two to four lanes with a corresponding decrease in the speed limit. A lot of the buildings are of the same vintage as US 80. After going through the City of Holtville, Old US 80 continues as SR-115 from here to the intersection with I-8.

East of the intersection with I-8, US 80 is relegated to the status of frontage road. This was one of the last sections to have been bypassed in California, which was in 1971. For the next 20 miles, there is no scenery, save for the occasional bridge over the freeway. There is virtually no difference between taking I-8 and taking the old road, save that on I-8 one can get this section over with fairly quickly.

After miles upon miles of desolate and flat country, I-8 starts crossing the Algodones Sand Dunes , which had in the past posed an enormous problem to highway engineers. The simple reason for the difficulty is that sand dunes constantly shift, making a solid foundation upon which to build a road a technical nightmare. In 1915, several enterprising people from San Diego, most notably Ed Fletcher, funded the construction of the first road across these dunes - a one lane plank road. Even though this was a traveler's nightmare, it still took a lot of time off the trip to San Diego. Instead of having to head north to Los Angeles, then south to San Diego, the road provided a very direct route.

However, despite the directness of the route, the old road was terribly difficult to cross. The biggest problem was that it was extremely narrow - only about nine feet wide. At first it was simply two parallel wood tracks, but it was improved to a more solid, filled in structure. It took a lot of patience and skill to keep on the road, and the consequence of veering off was getting stuck in the sand and having to wait for a team of mules to come to the rescue. Even though turnouts were provided every 1/2 mile, there was almost always a conflict of who would back up to the nearest turnout to let the person going in the opposite direction pass. Fistfights would often ensue.

Despite its many drawbacks, the plank road was an ingenious piece of engineering for its time. It did provide a means of getting over shifting dunes which would have otherwise remained impassable. If sections were covered in sand, a team of mules could be sent to pull it out and relocate it to more solid ground. The later incarnations made it easier to pass, and toward the end of its tenure, the road was covered with oil, making it seem like more of a conventional road.

The plank road saw service from 1915 to 1926, when it was replaced by a standard paved road. However, it was very much a part of US 80 history, since it was incorporated into US 80 for almost a year. The need to replace this road was very much apparent, especially after the establishment of the Federal Aid Highway system and the technology quickly came about to replace it by 1926. Sections of the asphalt road are still visible, although most is now under I-8.

Side Trip:  Sand Hills and the Old Plank Road and 1961 Freeway Construction

The Imperial Sand Dunes ("Sand Hills") have long posed an obstacle for travelers across this section of desert. The shifting sands made construction of a permanent road an impossibility. The impediment was overcome in 1915 by the construction of a moveable plank road and subsequently by a regular paved road in 1926. This side trip examines the history of these remarkable roads and also has a separate page devoted to the 1961 construction of the current freeway.

Note: Both the pages linked in this box contain numerous photographs and will have an extended download time associated. However, I strongly encourage you to look at the pages anyway.

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All-American Canal, Winterhaven, and the Colorado River

After crossing the sand dunes, I-8 reverts to the typical desert landscape. At this point, it is paved over old US 80. The old road diverges from I-8 at the SR-186 (Andrade) exit. Turn left and follow the road. After a short distance it rejoins the alignment of US 80. This section is of some interest since there are still surviving bridges over the All-American canal that date back to its construction in the 1930s.

The All-American Canal is so named since it is entirely within the United States. This was very important since before its construction, American farmers in the Imperial Valley had to rely on water that passed through Mexico. This posed a problem since there were many complications created by international water rights, etc. A canal entirely built within the United States was a near impossible feat and it wasn't until the All-American Canal was built that it became a reality. Once it was completed, farmers had a reliable source of water that didn't have international strings attached.

US 80 passes through some farmland, then enters the town of Winterhaven. This town has seriously been affected by the completion of I-8, which completely bypassed it by 1978. There are a lot of abandoned stores and it has the general appearance of a ghost town. The main road jogs to the south, then crosses over I-8. To the south of this is the four lane bridge that crosses the Colorado River. There is nothing exceptional about this bridge, which was built in 1956 and carried traffic into Arizona until the current bridge, to the east, was built in 1978. Interestingly, this bridge still appears on the Caltrans Bridge log.

Before 1956, US 80 crossed the Colorado River over a steel truss bridge which was built in 1915. This bridge, which may seem antiquated by today's standards, was a major feat of engineering for that time. It even survived flooding of the Colorado River which was prevalent and disastrous before the construction of the Hoover Dam in 1933. It has been closed to vehicular traffic, but it is still worth getting out of the car and walking across it. It can be reached by turning left on County S24 and making a right before the railroad under crossing. It is located shortly after that.

Side Trip:  All American Canal and Colorado River Crossings

This side trip features two bridges, built in 1915 and 1951, both of which have been surpassed by the I-8 bridge completed in 1976. Also featured are the crossings over the All-American Canal and Winterhaven.


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[US 80] West: Mountain Spring and In-Ko-Pah Gorge.


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