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Why are California rest areas closed?

California’s rest areas along its vast highway system have provided respite for weary travelers for decades. However, in recent years, many rest stops in the state have been closed, leaving drivers frustrated and without places to stop, rest, get information, and use restroom facilities.

The Closure of Rest Stops in California

Over the last 10 years, California has closed over 70 rest stops across the state, eliminating over 100 restrooms and parking spots. This represents over 30% of the state’s total rest areas being shut down. Some of the most notable closures include:

  • The Fawndale rest area on northbound I-5 near Redding was closed in 2012
  • The Gilman Springs rest stop on State Route 60 near Moreno Valley was shuttered in 2013
  • The Elk Grove Boulevard rest area on I-5 south of Sacramento was closed in 2015
  • The Cantua Creek stop on northbound I-5 in Fresno County closed in 2016
  • The Grover Beach rest stops on U.S. 101 near Pismo Beach were both closed in 2017

These are just a few examples of the dozens of facilities around the state that are no longer available to motorists. The closures have been implemented sporadically over the years, often with little notice.

Why Are the Rest Stops Being Closed?

There are a few key reasons why California has been shutting down its highway rest areas:

Budget Cuts

The primary driving factor behind rest stop closures is budget cuts. Funding rest areas with amenities like restrooms, parking, and informational kiosks is expensive. With California perennially facing budget shortfalls, maintaining these facilities has fallen lower on the state’s list of priorities.

Closing rest stops outright saves on custodial, maintenance and utility costs. In 2012, Caltrans estimated it was spending $30 million annually to operate just 40 rest areas. As budgets have been squeezed, cutting this expense has been seen as an “easy” way to realize savings.

Deferred Maintenance

Many of California’s rest stops are decades old. Their plumbing, septic tanks, and facilities have not been adequately maintained over the years. Once a rest area falls into disrepair, it becomes much more costly to bring it up to modern standards.

Rather than invest in renovating dilapidated rest stops, Caltrans has found it more cost effective to simply close them. They are then removed entirely, or mothballed for potential reopening later.

Crime Concerns

Some closed rest areas, like the Elk Grove Boulevard stop near Sacramento, have been shut down due to rampant crime and illegal activity. These stops effectively became unsafe for the public. Reports indicated they were havens for drug use, prostitution, and other crimes.

Without proper law enforcement, rest stops can attract seedier elements, discouraging law-abiding motorists from utilizing them.

Increased Efficiency

Caltrans has analyzed usage patterns at California rest areas in recent years. They found some stops to be underutilized, especially as more people opt for shorter trips close to urban centers.

By closing less frequented rest areas, resources can be consolidated into higher traffic facilities. This increases operational efficiency.

Impacts of Rest Area Closures

The mass closure of rest stops across California over the past decade has had a number of impacts:

Driver Fatigue and Safety

The circadian rhythm of drivers needs to be taken into account. Having ample places for motorists to take breaks improves alertness and reduces the chance of accidents caused by drowsy driving. With fewer rest stops available, drivers may push themselves to unsafe limits.

Truck Driver Woes

Truck drivers rely heavily on rest areas. California’s closures mean fewer parking spaces where large rigs can safely pull over and rest. Truckers are also required to take regular breaks and sleep intervals under federal Hours of Service rules. With fewer rest stops open, these regulations are harder to comply with.

Sanitation Issues

Bathroom facilities are vital when traveling long distances. With so many rest stops shuttered, motorists and truck drivers have fewer places to relieve themselves. Public urination and makeshift roadside restrooms become more common.

Economic Impacts

Rest areas provide informational kiosks spotlighting local attractions, restaurants, lodging, and more. Closing them negatively impacts regional businesses that relied on rest stop publicity.

Stranded Motorists

Well-lit rest areas serve as safe havens for stranded motorists at night. Should a driver break down after dusk, there are now fewer facilities where they can seek assistance.

Pet Relief

Rest areas provide grassy areas for travelers with pets. Dogs being transported over long distances need regular opportunities to relieve themselves, which is now harder to accommodate.

The Future of California Rest Stops

Looking ahead, what will become of California’s highway rest areas? Here are a few possibilities:

More Closures

If budgets remain tight, Caltrans may be forced to close additional rest stops. Up to 50 more are reportedly being considered for closure.

Private Partnerships

Public-private partnerships could save some rest areas. Under these arrangements, companies would operate rest stops, recouping costs through advertising, concessions, and more. Lockeford on CA-99 is an example already run this way.

Improved Technology

Rest areas could see more electric vehicle charging stations, solar power, LED lighting, and other green upgrades. This would cut utility and maintenance costs.


With California’s budget situation improving, there is hope some closed rest areas could eventually reopen. But the huge costs of renovating run-down facilities makes this challenging.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why were rest areas originally built?

Highway rest areas were constructed to improve roadway safety. They provide places for motorists to take breaks, reducing fatigue-related accidents. They also serve important needs like bathrooms, travel information, and parking.

Are rest stops closing in other states too?

Yes, California is not alone. Many other states like Arizona, New Mexico, Virginia, and Pennsylvania have closed rest areas in recent years due to budget woes. But California’s large highway system and huge number of closures make it stand out.

Are rest stops staffed?

Most rest areas in California have minimal staffing at best. Only facilities with visitor centers or fast food restaurants will have regular employees. Rest stops do not have staffed restrooms or other amenities.

What are common rest stop amenities?

Typical amenities include restrooms, parking, picnic areas, vending machines, pet walkways, trash and recycling bins, payphones, and informational kiosks. Larger rest areas may have visitor centers, fast food outlets, or filling stations.

Can rest areas be reopened?

It is possible, but extremely costly. Once water, power, and sewer systems are turned off and facilities begin deteriorating, repairing and reopening a rest stop can easily cost millions of dollars.


California’s once-expansive system of highway rest areas is shrinking. While budget cuts may save the state money, the closures create problems for motorists. With fewer places to stop and take breaks, safety and sanitation issues arise.

Creative solutions like public-private partnerships could help keep some remaining rest stops open. But California travelers will likely have to continue adapting to fewer and farther between places to rest when traveling the state’s highways.