LOS ANGELES (AP) — Motorists who spent a freezing night in their cars were on the move again Monday, nearly 24 hours after a winter storm turned Southern California mountain and desert roads into treacherous stretches of blowing snow and ice.
Hundreds of drivers returning home after the New Year’s holiday found themselves stuck after the Grapevine section of Interstate 5 was closed at about 12:30 p.m. Sunday at 4,160-foot-high Tejon Pass, the major route between Southern and Central California.
Highway workers toiled through the night to plow about 35 miles of road, and CHP units began escorting vehicles in groups of about 500 around midday Monday, said Officer Patrick Etchebarne.
Earlier blizzard conditions had eased to light snow flurries and then just cloudy skies.
Alejandro Aguilar, 16, of Bakersfield, wrapped himself in a blanket and waited near the closed roadway in Castaic for the all-clear.
He and four other family members bundled up in their car overnight.
“They said the 5 was gonna be closed right here, we figured we’d just wait here, take a nap, find a gas station. That was at 6 p.m. Sunday,” he said. “We were sleeping in the car with heater on. But it felt like camping so it was OK.”
Jerod Miller, of Porterville, his daughter and his girlfriend got off the road after a three-hour traffic jam Sunday but found no room at the inn.
“All the motels from here and 15 miles around were full. So we had to sleep in our car,” he said.
The pass closes a couple of times each winter, and last year about 1,000 cars were stranded at one time, Etchebarne said. This time, CHP officers decided to close the roadway early, and fewer vehicles were trapped.
An alternate coastal route, U.S. 101, was open but many motorists already were battling blizzard conditions in the middle of Tejon Pass when it was shut down Sunday afternoon.
“It took us two hours to go five miles,” said Charlie Crandall, a 55-year-old turkey farmer who tried to return to the Merced area after visiting relatives in San Diego.
He and a friend were lucky enough to get hotel rooms in Castaic, normally a 40-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles, but hundreds more didn’t get lodging and the cars kept coming.
“Even at 2 in the morning there were headlights (on the highway) for as far as you could see.”
State Route 58 between Bakersfield and Mojave in Kern County also reopened after a nine-hour closure Monday morning.
Freeways in the Antelope Valley, the populous high desert area north of Los Angeles, also were icy and a winter storm warning was posted.
Classes were canceled for many schools in the high desert, and in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges.
On Sunday night, motorists heading back to Los Angeles from Las Vegas spent hours on Interstate 15 crawling over snowy Cajon Pass. Repeated accidents dogged the icy drive over the nearly 3,800-foot pass early Monday.
The National Weather Service said snow was falling to elevations as low as 1,500 feet. On Sunday, suburban Santa Clarita just north of Los Angeles got a rare snowfall.
In Riverside County, two hikers who spent the night in sleet and freezing rain in the Cleveland National Forest were found safe shortly before noon Monday about a mile from where they vanished Sunday evening, sheriff’s Deputy Melissa Neiburger said.
Heather Johann, of the Venice area of Los Angeles, and Devin Jent, of Pasadena, did not need to be hospitalized, Neiburger said.
Drier, warmer weather could arrive by Thursday, said Bonnie Bartling, a National Weather Service forecaster.
The bad early January weather comes on the heels of heavy rains and snow in December that caused millions of dollars in damage to several communities. States of emergency were declared in 13 counties last month.
Recent storms have put parts of California well ahead of normal rain and snow levels. Downtown Los Angeles had recorded 12.28 inches of precipitation since the start of the rain year, which begins each July 1. That’s 8.23 inches more than normal for this time of year.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)