Hagerty Road of the Year 2024: California State Route 33

James Lipman

As the summer driving season approaches, Hagerty’s new Road of the Year award is meant to encourage Hagerty Drivers Club members and all automotive enthusiasts to get off the freeways and explore a great road in their own region. Our first annual Road of the Year winner: California’s Highway 33. This epic two-lane road is within easy reach of residents and visitors to the Los Angeles area. If you’d like to make your voice heard and discuss your favorite road, comment below and share the love of driving with fellow enthusiasts.

As important as what you drive and where you are going is how you get there. Because any wheel-driven vehicle cannot function without a surface upon which to exert its motive force, the road is as important to a car as oxygen is to the human body. OK, there are a few exceptions, including the lunar rover, but one characteristic shared by almost all automobiles built between the 1885 Benz Patent-Motorwagen and the 2024 Tesla Cybertruck is that they function to their full potential only on a prepared surface. Unlike the USS Enterprise, cars go best where others have gone before.

There are more than 4 million miles of road in the United States, from the Aleutian Islands to the Florida Keys. We’ve built roads over and under mountains, across sweeping spans of water, through the eastern forests and the western deserts, around nearly every island, and over the southern swamps. Picking one to single out as the best is impossible. The best for what? Since Roman times, roads have been engineered to do one thing and one thing only: link points on a map so that travelers may more easily journey between them.

However, as we all know, roads are capable of so much more. They can provoke delight and terror in equal doses. They can be vaults for our memories and incubators of our dreams. They can pay riches and serve as the best schools from which to get an education. Whether you press an accelerator or twist a grip, something is going to happen to you on a road, and there are a few worth recognizing for the extent to which they stir our spirits as much as get us to where we are going.

James Lipman

In our selection, the first of what we plan to make an annual feature, a few rules were necessarily applied to help winnow down the endless possibilities. First, the road had to be no more than a one-day round trip from a major urban center, the thinking being that anyone should be able to access the route easily as a day excursion and while perhaps visiting this urban center for work or vacation (we may change our mind on this point in future selections). Also, the pavement had to be in good condition. Plus, it had to have some dining amenities, and we leaned toward roads with outlets to other roads, such that they could be run in one direction rather than merely to a turnaround point.

The best roads tend to pass through majestic scenery, and majestic scenery tends to have extreme weather. Thus, always check the conditions before departing. It’s a living landscape in which rivers swell and mountains move, sometimes onto roads, making published routes suddenly impassible. Great roads often don’t have continuous cellphone coverage either, so best to bring some tools and an extra set of points if going in an older car. Hagerty Roadside is good, but they’re not psychic; they can’t find you if you can’t call them.

California Route 33 Road of the Year 2024
James Lipman

None of which should deter anyone from venturing out onto this or any other road, the one and only place our cars truly belong. “Wealth I ask not, hope nor love, nor a friend to know me,” wrote the poet Robert Louis Stevenson. “All I ask, the heaven above, and the road below me.”


California is a fever dream that has been riling up folks since well before it became the 31st state back in 1850. Then, people didn’t worry too much about asking permission for stuff—they just went out and did it. Indeed, when the car came along, the state’s public works barons laid out the first highways that way, spreading maps of the still wild and remote state with its serial mountain ranges and yawning valleys and drawing arbitrary lines between the dots of settlements. Then they went out and slashed and dug and bored and dynamited their way through, confronting a rough and merciless terrain that does not give up its miles easily.

California Route 33 Road of the Year 2024
The grinding forces of plate tectonics created the jagged landscape through which State Route 33 romps. In some places such as this blasted-out road cut near the 5160-foot summit (right), this geological upheaval is clearly visible in the distorted and twisted layers of rock and sediment.James Lipman

Those early road builders were pitted against a formidable foe: the ancient tectonic forces that lurk beneath California’s roiling landscape. The northbound Pacific Plate and the southbound North American Plate are experiencing a slow-motion crash, scraping against each other like two continent-size semis sideswiping over a double-yellow. The movement at their meeting point, the 750-mile-long San Andreas Fault, happens in famously rattling fits and starts, the bigger jerks making the national news.

The hills and granite peaks shoved skyward by this 30-million-year-old collision are like the wrinkles in a crumpled fender, and they are not easy to go under or around. So, California’s first road builders (as well as its current ones) mostly went over them, contouring their routes to the ridges and folds of this messy landscape and unwittingly creating thousands of apexes and on-camber thrillers for later generations to enjoy.

California State Route 33, about two hours’ drive north of Los Angeles (give or take, depending, as always, on traffic), is a perfect example. It squiggles and wiggles its way from the quaint village of Ojai up and over the Topatopa and Pine Mountains, rising to 5160 feet at the Pine Mountain Summit before plunging thrillingly into a gorge created by the Sespe Creek, eventually spilling out into the broad agricultural and ranching valley of Cuyama. If you don’t feel the need to immediately U-turn and run it backward, there’s an achingly beautiful option just to the east that recrosses the mountains to join up with Interstate 5 and the express route back to LA.

The snaking yellow line tells the tale of a road that must surmount numerous natural obstacles. Give yourself at least three hours to run the whole route from Ojai to I-5, with a stop for lunch at New Cuyama.Hagerty Media

This road has everything: technical challenges, gob-smacking vistas, relatively light traffic, generally hospitable weather, a very tourist-friendly walking town as its jumping-off point, and the option of returning to the same bed in LA from which you arose that morning. And if you prefer to overnight in Ojai and make an early start, we can highly recommend it, with accommodation choices ranging from relatively inexpensive motor lodges such as the Casa Ojai and the Hummingbird Inn to the ultra-ritzy Ojai Valley Inn and Spa. There’s even a NAPA auto parts store and a tire shop in town if needs arise, and a main drag fronted by old Spanish-style colonnades and lined with pleasant eateries and shops.

California Route 33 Road of the Year 2024
James Lipman

Just west of town, State Route 33 branches off Ojai’s main drag, or State Route 150, and heads north. Take on fuel here or elsewhere in town before heading out, as you won’t see another petrol pump for a long time. After passing a few subdivisions and bar/restaurant establishments popular in summer with the biker crowd, you’ll enter Los Padres National Forest and civilization will disappear in your mirrors.

The view forward won’t look much different than it did a century ago when state planners envisioned a wagon trail to connect the seaside village of Ventura with the inland valleys of the San Joaquin and Cuyama. In 1891, when the first stakes were planted for the route, the obstacles must have seemed overwhelming as the route climbed inland from the coast. From the village of Nordhoff (which sounded too German after the outbreak of World War I and was changed to Ojai, or “Valley of the Moon” in the native Chumash language), the Topatopas tower like a wall, leering over this serene enclave of orchards and horse farms like the mossy ramparts of an ancient castle. Behind this wall lay a vast wilderness ruled by mountain lions and circling condors that was accessible only via pack mules on old Chumash trails. No doubt this is why it took 45 years for State Route 33 to go from planning to reality.

California Route 33 Road of the Year 2024 aerial
James Lipman

With the Great Depression on and California flush with a substantial share of a $400 million national road-building fund, the state got serious about completing the route. It spent $1.5 million to construct the Maricopa-Ventura Highway, aka U.S. Route 399, aka California State Route 33, finally completing it in 1935. The road’s most ardent supporters (and its primary economic benefactors) were the ranchers of the Cuyama Valley, and they threw an epic barbecue to which 25,000 came to feast on some 67 cattle slaughtered and roasted for the occasion.


As the condor flies, it’s a mere 36 miles from Ojai to the T-junction with State Route 166 at Cuyama, but as the ’66 Mustang rolls, it’s about twice that distance, meaning you’re in for a lot of twists and turns over the next hour and a half. A series of tunnels bored and blasted through granite spurs welcomes you to Wheeler Gorge and the start of the rough country. One day in 1888, Wheeler Blumberg discovered the hot springs that burble from the rock here when he shot a buck that rolled down and parboiled itself in the warm waters. It’s believed the inhabitants of the nearby Chumash settlement may have cursed the invaders of their private spa, because after founding a successful resort in the canyon, Wheeler went mad, shooting 15 holes in the walls of his hotel before he was captured by a posse. He died in 1907 screaming in a padded cell. Successive owners of the resort have struggled through floods, falling trees, and repeated fires with limited success. After sitting abandoned for years, its latest incarnation is as a yoga retreat.

California Route 33 Road of the Year 2024
Tunnels blasted through granite spurs welcome you to Wheeler Gorge, where the road begins its first long climb over the Topatopa Mountains.James Lipman

From Wheeler’s place, the road begins its climb up the long, spectacular valley, hugging the canyon walls and tracing each fold in the earth with lovely constant-radius corners that feed into short chutes that lead to more corners. A circular gravel turnoff 15 miles up from Ojai affords an excellent picnic spot with a stunning view out to the distant Pacific Ocean. Many a car-magazine spread, including photos from our five-generations-of-Corvette feature story back in 2020, has been shot here.

The unusually stormy winter of 2022 may have proved that the Chumash curse still has legs; parts of State Route 33 disappeared under rock slides or simply slid down the mountain, and the road was completely closed for almost a year. Last December, Caltrans, the state highway agency, finally reopened it with five one-way sections controlled by traffic signals. Work with heavy machinery was evidently in progress when we photographed this story, and it’s hoped that the one-way sections will be gone by the time you read this.

California Route 33 Road of the Year 2024
Roadside waterfalls are not uncommon on State Route 33 during the wetter winters.James Lipman

Near the top of the Topatopas, the Rose Valley Campground offers tenting and RV options for the hardy. And for the truly adventurous, a foot trail and primitive camping network spreads from here into the vast Sespe Wilderness. This whole untamed area shows that much of California, even with its 39 million people, crowded cities, and astronomical housing costs, remains in many places empty and undeveloped, even this close to Los Angeles.

A descent down into Sespe Canyon leads across some bridges and through the gorge cut by the Sespe Creek, which the road tracks with now gentler and faster curves. Another climb hauls you up to a sign announcing the 5160-foot Pine Mountain Summit, after which it’s all downhill from here. Big-sky views at the turnouts supply grand vistas over the mottled green and brown hills and sandy valleys that form the arid landscape, the single road sluicing through it the only real evidence of human hands.

California Route 33 Road of the Year 2024
James Lipman

Eventually the writhing road comes to the U.S. Forest Service Ozena Fire Station, and the option to short-circuit the loop back to Interstate 5 by hanging a right on Lockwood Valley Road. However, this narrow, sparsely trafficked ribbon can be in even worse shape due to ever-present sand in the corners and tire-slashing rock falls. And you may have to wade through Reyes Creek, as it tends to spill over the road during wetter months.

Continue north on State Route 33 through the widening valley and past the pistachio farms and new-age meditation centers and you’ll run into State Route 166. Hang a left and run the few miles into New Cuyama to a restored 1950s roadhouse and inn called the Cuyama Buckhorn for some of its locally famous barbecue. Be aware: Though the bar serves food until 8:30 Monday to Wednesday, the restaurant is closed on these days, as are many hospitality businesses up here owing to the utter lack of traffic on weekdays.

Tanks refueled, you can either return to Ojai or keep going via our optional route back to Interstate 5. If you choose the latter, continue heading east on 166, past the State Route 33 junction you just came from (166 and 33 actually merge here, 33 eventually turning north, at times merging with other roads to finally terminate near Stockton, east of the Bay Area). Just a few miles on, hook a right turn at Hudson Ranch Road. This rural byway romps through empty meadows and shoots along high ridges, then roller-coasters around the fringes of 8800-foot Mount Pinos. Lofty views of California’s Central Valley to the east are in the offing on clear days, and when you turn around, you’ll see the mountains to the west that you just drove through on State Route 33, now from a new perspective.

California Route 33 Road of the Year 2024
James Lipman

The road plunges into a pine forest and passes through the Pine Mountain Club, a cluster of week-end-getaway-type homes (though surely some are year-round residences) centered on a small commercial strip with a general store, some cafes, and a bed and breakfast. If you’re here in winter, carry tire chains and be prepared for icy conditions. The mountainous section of Interstate 5 known as the Grapevine isn’t too far ahead, but even that mighty and vital thorough-fare is subject to closure by the California Highway Patrol during snowstorms, lest the traffic be stalled on the black ice of its steep grades.

There’s no end of adventure on this route, even once you reach the freeway. Which is why we selected California State Route 33 as our 2024 Hagerty Road of the Year. Now it’s time to go find your own best road, and if you can beat this one, tell us all about it. We need some ideas for next year.


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    Road of the year seems a funny thing to do but the road does look like a fun one. There are so many good roads out there but at 1 a year you’ll never get near telling us about them. This is better as a monthly or maybe weekly thing or just go for the Top 10 style list. Either way it’s going to be a long wait for the next one at this pace.

    Yeah, maybe there should be a Road of the Month and the Road of the Year is picked from that year’s monthly entries. Good idea, Gary.

    Another great highway is the Trans-Canada Highway (Hwy #1) that stretches 7,102 KM (4,413 miles) from Victoria, BC to St. John’s, NL. One of the longest highways in the world.

    Nicely done video Don; I’m sure it took a lot of editing for the final cut. And gorgeous 914 as well. I had the pleasure of driving Highway 33 a few years ago and you captured it well.

    33 is great. Try (for a much longer trip) taking the 33 to the 58 to 229 (aka Rossi’s driveway) and then head over to the coast up to Monterey. FYI 229 is much better suited for motorcycles

    I bought my ’01 Honda Insight 5 speed a few years ago (an $1800 impulse buy- it had 238k). I caught wind of a gen 1 Insight meet at the Blackhawk museum in Northern Cal soon after. I drove to Ojai, and took 33 all the way up to Coalinga. Great drive in the nimble little Insight.
    Coming from the south, I took Rte 126 to Santa Paula, then Rte 150 to Ojai. Orange groves give way to chaparral and a great view of the Ojai Valley at the summit.

    Nice !!! I’m glad you enjoyed it 😊 it’s a unforgettable experience. I been driving it for years, still can’t get enough.

    Perfect choice and 33 has been our favorite for many years! Living in Ojai makes it easy and early morning’s (preferably on weekdays with no traffic) enable spirited (Lotus, Mercedes SLK and Corvette) driving, particularly on North end of 33 where drivers can exercise their cars with miles of straight and un-obstructive viewing on both sides of road. It’s also fun seeing groups of newest model sports cars gathering in Ojai and then viewing/reading about journalist experiences on 33 in future magazine issues…

    I have several vehicles I use for performance and cruising, but for a twisty road, I take the SLK55. What a greal little car.

    I moved to Ojai when I was 10 in 1954 and still live here …have been up and down “399 or 33” driving, walking in 5 minutes leaving Ojai the next gas station is 50 plus miles away if it is still open …the rule was always leave Ojai with a full tank of gas…road is closed 1 10 24 should open 6 10 24 we all hope

    There are a number of good “country” roads around Los Angeles. However, with about 9 million folks in Los Angeles county many are packed on the weekends and one has to watch out for aggressive motorcycle riders.
    Route 33 is one I have not traveled yet. Maybe some week day. Thanks for the interesting write up.

    It’s a road well worth driving!! Frankly i hope it stays always, less driven or run down. Its not for non experience drivers, though. Especially, the traffic signals that are now being used on a one way road gaps, to let incoming drivers pass !! But the experience is unforgettable and breathtaking 😍 good luck on your adventures, also it’s a deadzone, pack full tank of gas, and always have tools.

    Highway 154 north out of Santa Barbara is also a good choice. The ‘San Marcos Pass’ will save you about 15 miles vs. 101. You also get to ‘see’ the filming error in the 1967 movie ‘The Graduate’. (There is no tunnel southbound on the 101). Look for ‘Gaviota Pass’ on Google…. Cal Poly Alumnus, 1974

    Yep! I lived in SOCAL for 30 years & worked for an oil company for 10 of those. We had a small refinery at Santa Maria & if I was going up there empty I would divert onto 154 just for a change of scenery. Went up through there on many old car runs too. As you come down to the intersection with 101 you can continue straight out to the beach on 154 or turn off 154 further up & go back roads past Vandenberg AF base on up to Santa Maria. All great roads.

    Turn right at the Ozena Station at Lockwood Valley Road heading through the Lockwood Valley for 3 – 4 miles to Camp Scheideck Road. Turn right and travel a couple of miles to the little community of Scheideck and Reyes Creek campground. At Scheideck there is a funky restaurant and bar that had a great hamburger the last time I was there. Very popular with bikers on weekends.

    1. California anything: nope. Not supporting insanity.
    2. You can’t have a first annual–until you have already had one event to make it “annual.” See the AP Style Guide if you have questions.

    And get off my driveway! 🙂

    John: nice stereotyping! ‘California anything…’ Sounds political to me; sure not religious! What’s your nominee?? BTW, Rt. 33 is ‘So-Cal’ to we ‘N-Cal’ folk, so I’ll probably never enjoy that drive. Hagerty, take note?!

    It’s a good road, but….there’s really a lot of serious road work and re-construction going on above Ojai, because of landslides (2 wet winters in a row). I think I’d wait a year or two – or maybe find another “Road of the Year”(ROTY). Was there only three weeks ago.

    I support a ‘ROTM’ award; it’s a big continent, after all! We have a few dozen in N. Cal. to nominate, also. Despite the ‘modern times’ we have inherited, there are a still good routes. Remember the old R&T faves?
    Just sayin’ Ole’ Wick

    Colorado CO-72 Peak to Peak Highway from Arvada through Boulder County to CO-7 Rocky Mountain National Park or the opposite direction any time of year isn’t half bad either.

    Was last on that road in the early nineties on my 85 Kawasaki 750 Turbo to see if the motorcycle magazines were right abut the 150mph top end. Once you drop down out of the mountains, where you could open it up, it became a straight ribbon of road where you can see for twenty miles in front of you. Nary another vehicle in sight. Got it up to 130 (indicated) and had to let off at that point as we had scant safety gear in those days. NO CHP to be seen as the force was thin even back then. I imagine it’s the same even today if you go on a week day. Great road. Hope it gets fixed soon………..

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