Bitterwater Road – an out of the way scenic drive on the backroads of eastern San Luis Obispo County. Green hills in the winter; wildflowers in the spring; golden fields of hay crops in the summer and a relaxing journey of discovery anytime. Stay alert for possible antelope sightings as well.
The rolling hills at the eastern edge of Central California – viewed from Bitterwater Road.
Photo by Linda Tanner
Bitterwater Road is one of those out of the way drives that takes a bit of driving to get to but is worth the extra effort.
View Bitterwater Road, San Luis Obispo County in a larger map
If you haven’t read our page on “How to drive backroads“, I would recommend you do so before setting out on this trip. It’s a great drive with outstanding scenery, AND there is very little in the way of civilization out there. It wouldn’t be a fun place to get stuck.
We’ve had some good rains already this winter and the hills are greening up nicely. That alone would be worth the drive, but if you are planning to be here in a couple of months, the wildflower display might be very good this year.
Bitterwater Road stretches 32 miles from Highway 58 to Highway 46. The 5 or so miles near the road’s junction with Highway 46 passes through some narrow valleys. This is where you will see the most trees.
South of this portion, the next 18 miles presents a view that opens a bit with wider valleys, rolling hills and fewer trees until there are essentially none to be seen.
Finally, the 9 miles nearest Highway 58 are a plain. This is the northernmost section of the Carrizo Plains. When I’ve traveled through here this is where I’ve seen the antelope most of the time.
The hills along the road are mostly used for growing hay and for grazing cattle. If you are traveling here in the summer, you will see the hay crop maturing, or it will already have been harvested with cattle gleaning what’s left.
Just as a side note – it takes at least 10 acres of rangeland to feed a cow/calf pair for a year.
With the American settlement of Central California after the induction of the state into the Union, the homesteads were much smaller than they are today. Normally, settlers would improve and gain title to 160 acres of land.
However, here and in other places around the area, that much land just wasn’t enough to truly sustain a family given the sparseness of rainfall and agricultural methods of the day. Those pioneering families that were able to stay on and thrive were the ones who bought up additional parcels and made a living with the additional land.
A century ago, there were far more people living out this way than there are today. This old general store is a testament to how it was back then. There were schools and post offices and a few amenities, but they are all gone now or crumbling into oblivion.
As you meander along with the winding Bitterwater Road, be sure to allow plenty of time for your trip. There’s no sense in rushing and that’s the point, isn’t it?
There may be places where the cattle aren’t separated from the road. There should be signs warning you of this, but don’t be surprised if you round a curve and cattle are napping in the middle of the road. They’ll do this especially in winter when the roadway warms quicker than the grass and stays warm longer in the evening.
Near the junction with Highway 58 you will see one of the largest solar power installations in the world – the Topaz Solar Farm. This generates 550 MW of power.
Pack a lunch (be sure to bring a wine opener) and enjoy your back road adventure.