Teaching a Teen to Drive – Canyon Driving, The Final Exam

Google map for Canyon Driving - The Final ExamA recurring theme in my teaching a teen to drive series is canyon driving. Navigating narrow roads and tight turns teaches invaluable handling skills. The skills are so fundamental that I focus on them early and often.

For drive number six, we’re going to take one more long drive dedicated to the canyons of Southern California. I consider this drive my final exam for canyon driving. In addition to navigating through three separate canyons, we’re going to go through what I consider one of the most challenging canyon roads in Southern California – Decker Canyon.

Decker Canyon is officially known as CA-23 South starting at the intersection of Westlake Boulevard and Potrero Road. Decker Canyon is narrow. The turns are tight. It has a challenging uphill drive and an even more challenging downhill drive from the center of the canyon to the ocean. It’s one of the few roads I’ve been on that when the sign says take a turn at 25mph, it means 25mph. In some cases, the sign suggests a more aggressive speed than even I’m comfortable taking the turns at, which says a lot.

Bottom line, I’ve found that if the teen driver can confidently navigate through Decker Canyon, there are few canyon roads, if any, that will make them feel uncomfortable.

If you need to catch up before moving on, here’s the overview, introduction, and first five drives from this series:

This drive uses the Camarillo Train Station as its anchor point. We’re going to make a left from the train station parking lot and follow Lewis Road to Potrero Road, where we make a right into our first canyon. This is the same canyon as Canyon Driving, Part 1, except we’re going the opposite direction through it. Follow Potrero Road until it ends at CA-23. We’re going to make a right onto CA-23 South and head into Decker Canyon. Be aware that the road is narrow and the corners are tight, so make sure the teen maintains a safe, controlled speed. It’s also not uncommon for trees and rocks to come right up against the shoulder of the road.

Follow CA-23 South until it ends at CA-1, better known as Pacific Coast Highway. We’re going to head left onto PCH and following it until it meets up with Kanan Dume Road just south of Zuma County Beach. Make a left onto Kanan Dume, where we will navigate our third canyon of the drive. Kanan Dume is a wide open canyon drive and a nice finish after the challenges of Decker Canyon. Kanan Dume Road will meet up with the US-101 in Agoura Hills. We’ll got on the US-101 going north (or west depending on your perspective), and follow it back to our starting point at the Camarillo train station.

Overall, the drive will take ~2 hours and covers 65-70 miles. While I would normally break up a drive of this distance, I recommend doing it in one shot if you can. It will depend on the stamina of the student and the teacher. If necessary, there are areas along PCH when approaching and going through the Zuma County Beach area where you can stop for a rest.

Here are some additional notes for the drive:

  1. I recommend doing the drive without stopping as this drive is as much a test of handling the car as it is a test of concentration, focus, and stamina. Doing it in one shot gives you the opportunity to see how the teen driver maintains their composure and alertness over an extended period of challenging driving conditions.
  2. Be certain to take this drive when road conditions are good, meaning dry with no moisture. The drive is challenging enough as is. I would not recommend taking it in the rain. I’m not even sure I would venture through Decker Canyon under wet road conditions given how tight the corners are and the lack of guardrails and safety restraints in many spots.
  3. Time of day isn’t critical, but I would only do this drive during daylight conditions. I would not do this drive at night, and I would avoid early morning or twilight/dusk conditions. Again, I would minimize factors that would make a challenging drive even more so.
  4. Other drivers like to use Decker Canyon to road test their vehicles, particularly motorcyclists. I would recommend using the turn-outs to allow these drivers to pass. Tailgating and rear-view mirror watching is not recommended on this drive.
  5. In addition to watching from behind, beware of approaching vehicles. There are many blind corners in Decker Canyon. With other drivers doing road tests, I’ve been surprised more than once by a motorcyclist, and occasionally a car, coming at me taking a corner in my lane. Make sure the teen driver is aware and knows that they may need to brake suddenly around a blind corner to avoid oncoming traffic.
  6. Finally, be mindful of the speeds on the road signs. I usually treat these as rough suggestions, except when traveling through Decker Canyon. More often than not, you will want to keep the vehicle at or below the recommended speeds on the signs in order to keep the vehicle comfortably under control.

Here’s the interactive Google Map showing the route for drive #6.

And with that, we’re done with the dedicated canyon drives. Of course, if you feel your learning teen driver is still a bit rusty handling and cornering a car, you should go back and revisit any of the canyon drives. Each of them are challenging in their own right and provide the teen driver with a solid foundation of skills they can build upon and use in many other driving scenarios.

As we head into the final drives of the series, we’re going to return to the urban areas, where the drives require a different type of skillset – mastering traffic and distractions.

Next up: Urban Driving, Part 2