Up The Road: DIY California Earthquake Tour

Jul 11, 2018

The beautiful sights of the California coast. Highway 1.
Credit Courtesy of Visit California


If you’re a Californian you’ve probably had the experience of touching down elsewhere in this vast wonderland—somewhere in the Midwest, say, where tornados regularly tear things up, or on the Eastern Seaboard, famous for hurricanes—and the first thing people want to know is, how you live with all those earthquakes. How do you stand it? How do you live with the fear? If you’re like me, you don’t know what to say. Because you’re not that afraid. You haven’t personally experienced a major earthquake.

But it makes sense to be afraid. California is out there at the edge of the continent, part of the mythic Ring of Fire around the Pacific Ocean. Which is actually more like a horseshoe, an arch spanning continents, marked by volcanoes and earthquake faults where tectonic plates collide—reaching from Peru and Chile north to Alaska and then around and south to China and Japan.

In an average year there are more than 8,000 earthquakes of magnitude 1.5 or more in and near California. We don’t feel most of those, though. And there are hundreds of known faults—some 200 of those are potentially hazardous, based on their behavior in recent geological time, say, the last 10,000 years. According to the California Geological Survey more than 70 percent of us live within 30 miles of a fault where there could be a whole of shaking goin’ on within the next 50 years. Keep your go-bags ready, people.

Scientists tell us that the odds are good that California will experience a massive, catastrophic earthquake—up to magnitude 8.2—in the next 50 years, particularly near the San Andreas Fault, which runs 700 miles, roughly from the Salton Sea through L.A. and on to San Francisco and straight up the North Coast. The impact would be far, far greater than any California earthquake in historic memory—including the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, which caused an estimated 3,000 deaths and countless injuries.

How to fold those facts, and your own fear, into a DIY tour?

Start with the famous San Andreas Fault. Maps are easy to come by online, along with place-by-place lists and descriptions of damage done and buildings rebuilt or replaced. Best yet, given the fault’s length and sweep, visit open spaces where you can see and even touch it.

Channel Islands National Park shows the sheer power of tectonic-plate collision. Since they formed millions of years ago they have rotated clockwise about 100 degrees, and continue to rise and rotate. At Carrizo Plain National Monument, one of the world’s most significant geological sites, follow the Wallace Creek interpretive trail to see the tectonic plate boundary. The 1857 Fort Tejon Quake displaced the entire creek channel by some 30 feet, and the movement continues, about 1.3 inches a year. Touch the fault at what’s known as The Rosetta Stone of Paleoseismiology in Antelope Valley, the research trench at Pallett Creek. Even easier to see still is the CalTrans roadcut through the San Andreas Fault, on Highway 14 just north of Palmdale’s Avenue S.

Earthquakes don’t respect human time and remind us that we are powerless, so confront your fear collectively, on a group tour—such as the SF City Guides 1906 Earthquake walking tour, offered year-round, and the “Phoenix Rising” rebuilding tour, offered only in May and October. Walking tours are free but donations help keep these volunteer city guides going.

Until next time this is Kim Weir for Up the Road and North State Public Radio. For photos and links go to my-N-S-P-R-dot-org.