We must have driven this route more than a dozen times these past two years.
Interstate Highway 5…the main artery between Northern and Southern California, and the delicate thread of a lifeline that winds its way to our two little grandsons, one born during the throes of the pandemic; the other making his appearance just a few weeks ago.
It’s a road Herb and I have come to know quite well, a pathway filled with familiar landmarks and landscapes and highway signs. There’s Tejon Pass, the highest point along the highway; the cleverly named Smokey Bear Road; and the next-door-neighbors Lebec Post Office and Old Ridge Route Antiques, whose dusty-colored exteriors and old-fashioned signage look like a set from an old Western movie.
But it’s a sign for a place called Pyramid Lake that has fascinated me most of all. Maybe it’s the intriguing name. Or perhaps it’s because a stretch of the most beautiful turquoise water seems to appear out of nowhere amid the golden hills. Or maybe it’s the fact that a curious-looking pyramid-shaped piece of land shows itself for a very brief moment along the drive.
Whatever the reason, I knew that on this latest trek northward, it was time to get off the beaten path, even if only for a brief stop.
We exit Interstate 5 onto Vista del Lago Road, a short stretch of a roadway that leads to the Vista del Lago Visitor Center. Run by the California Department of Water Resources, the Visitor Center – meaning “view of the lake” – includes a wrap-around deck with panoramic views of Pyramid Lake and the surrounding mountains.
The Visitor Center has just opened when we pull into the parking lot at 9 a.m. The welcoming warmth of the late September morning makes our extra-early wake-up call feel not quite so early, a good omen perhaps that this venture off the beaten path will be worth our while. A friendly receptionist greets us and points the way to the outside viewing deck and the body of water we have come to see.
It turns out that Pyramid Lake is a reservoir formed by a California State Water Project called Pyramid Dam. Completed in 1973, the dam and lake were named after a pyramid-shaped rock that was carved by engineers in the 1930s while building U.S. Route 99, predecessor to Interstate Highway 5. That portion of U.S. 99 is now submerged under the lake. Pyramid Lake was designed as a water storage facility, and today it also serves as a recreational destination for boating, swimming and fishing.
Vista del Lago Visitor Center
Back inside, we wander through the Visitor Center, which does double-duty as a museum dedicated to almost everything you could possibly imagine about water. Colorful and creative interactive exhibits detail the process of how California gets its water – from its history to the science and engineering to current issues. The various exhibits weave seamlessly from room to room and are clearly designed to appeal to children as well as adults. There’s even a theater that features water-related films.
As we head back to our car for the next five-hour stretch, I am struck by the unusual juxtaposition of Vista del Lago and the desolate landscape of Interstate 5. It isn’t a place you would expect to find a lovely little museum dedicated to an important issue facing Californians. The state capital at Sacramento, maybe. Or a large city like Los Angeles, certainly. But at an exit off a major thoroughfare known as the fastest route for truckers and travelers on their way to somewhere else?
And then there is Pyramid Lake itself, another anomaly on this journey through golden hills and brown distant mountains. It would have been easy to have kept going, to have arrived on time instead of an hour later than the trip typically takes. But that’s what getting off the beaten path is really all about, isn’t it? Finding beauty in an unexpected place. Discovering something that we never knew existed. Expanding our minds and maybe even our hearts.
Getting off the beaten path may possibly be one of the greatest gifts of travel.