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Riding the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway in Northern California

Paul R. RitterJanuary 27, 2017
A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com.

If you have traveled Interstate 5 between Oregon and California, you’ve probably seen one end of the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway. Eleven miles south of the Oregon-California border, I-5 drops into a wide valley where the Interstate crosses the Klamath River. As I-5 climbs out of the valley heading south, you can catch glimpses of a twisty two-lane road following the river westward. That winding road is California State Route 96.

Where Route 96 meets I-5 is the eastern end of the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway. I had seen it often in the 1970s and ’80s as I traveled between Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon. It looked like a marvelous motorcycle road. I promised myself I would ride that road someday.

A couple of motorcyclists skirt the Armco as the road crosses the Klamath River. (Photos by the author)

A couple of motorcyclists skirt the Armco as the road crosses the Klamath River. (Photos by the author)

And why the “State of Jefferson?” In the late 1930s, the citizens in the mountain areas of southwest Oregon and far northern California wanted to form a new state, the State of Jefferson. It was a serious political movement, but it was shelved in 1941, when the U.S. entered World War II and everyone’s energy turned to winning the war.

The movement hasn’t died out; some residents still want to secede to form their own state. Seven counties along the Oregon-California border form the core of the State of Jefferson, but there’s an expanded version with 27 counties. That’s a pretty sizable chunk of land, but not many people. There are, however, many nice riding roads in the area, on both sides of the current state border. One route is officially designated as the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway.

The State of Jefferson Scenic Byway attracts motorcyclists from around the region. These two hail from the Reno/Sparks area of Nevada, and take a riding vacation each summer to travel the motorcycle-friendly roads of Jefferson.

The State of Jefferson Scenic Byway attracts motorcyclists from around the region. These two hail from the Reno/Sparks area of Nevada, and take a riding vacation each summer to travel the motorcycle-friendly roads of Jefferson.

Eventually I kept my promise and took that ride. It is indeed a marvelous motorcycle road. I gassed up at Ashland as there’s no gas at the intersection of I-5 and Route 96, only a highway rest stop—no other buildings, no homes and no businesses. Appropriate for a state that doesn’t actually exist.

After rattling over a cattle guard I tried to push forward quickly, but it didn’t feel right. Roads have a rhythm and it’s best to find that rhythm and blend in. This part of the scenic byway follows the Klamath River—even though it passes through the fairly rugged Siskiyou Mountains it is a riverine road. Like the river it meanders. It features sweeping, medium-to-large-radius curves, mostly unmarked or signed with 30-45 mph recommended speeds. I soon settled on a pace that matched the rhythm of the road and river, roughly between 50 and 70 mph. That worked. It was like a waltzing pace; left sweeper, short straight, right sweeper and so on. The road sticks fairly close to the river, which drops gently and gradually as it flows westward. It provides a very pleasant ride, lots of nice curves linked by short, level, straight sections.

The eastern end of the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway is in very dry country near Yreka, California, with some cottonwoods near the river, sunburnt grass and sage-covered hillsides.

The eastern end of the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway is in very dry country near Yreka, California, with some cottonwoods near the river, sunburnt grass and sage-covered hillsides.

I started in very dry country but as I rode west the land became moister and the north-facing slopes were forested with pines. This gradual transformation from a dry, sunburned landscape to lush evergreen forest continued as I rode west. By the locale of Seiad Valley, about 50 miles from the start, I was passing through a real forest. At a highway rest stop I ran into a couple of serious riders and their Gold Wing GL1800s.

They were from the Reno/Sparks area of Nevada. Every year they came west, they told me, to ride the motorcycle-friendly roads of Northern California, er, I mean Jefferson. We talked about some other nice roads in the region. They had traveled down the Feather River Highway (California State Route 70) to Oroville, California, a pretty nice ride. Next they ran west on State Route 36, the one with the “Curves Next 140 Miles” road sign in Red Bluff. They were heading east toward their home, so we parted as I continued west on the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway.

A tribute to Bigfoot in the town of Happy Camp, this statue is about 10 feet tall. The Bigfoot Scenic Byway, another nice motorcycle ride in the State of Jefferson, starts here.

A tribute to Bigfoot in the town of Happy Camp, this statue is about 10 feet tall. The Bigfoot Scenic Byway, another nice motorcycle ride in the State of Jefferson, starts here.

Just east of the town of Happy Camp, the Scenic Byway climbs up and over a ridge, then quickly drops down to rejoin the river. Happy Camp is the biggest town on the route, and there are fuel and food available there. I had ridden a bit over an hour with one short stop since I started at I-5, and the longer pause was welcomed.

Route 96 swings south at Happy Camp and becomes the Bigfoot Scenic Byway as it continues to follow the Klamath River. I continued on the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway, turning northwest on Greyback Road, which is very narrow compared to Route 96. Also called Indian Creek Road, it runs uphill through the canyon containing Indian Creek, with tall, heavily forested hills on both sides. The forest is quite pretty and very dense. From the road I couldn’t see into the trees very far, just a narrow strip along the tarmac. It’s easy to imagine Bigfoot being able to hide out in these many square miles of mountains and dense woods that have very little human presence.

Greyback climbs rather slowly at first, mostly straight with gentle bends, still a waltzing rhythm. Twelve miles beyond Happy Camp, the mountains close in and the road becomes a true mountain road. We weren’t waltzing anymore as the short straights disappeared and curve followed curve: a quick uphill left then a sweeping right followed by a long uphill left horseshoe bend, a quick right, and on like that for miles. The waltz was over as the rhythm was now more like a moderately paced two-step.

The State of Jefferson Scenic Byway tops out at 4,800 feet, one mile south of the Oregon border, which is a good climb from the 1,200-foot elevation of Happy Camp. The contrast between the two parts of the Scenic Byway is striking. In the 65 miles from Interstate 5 to Happy Camp, I lost 800 feet of elevation, dropping slowly from 2,000 feet to 1,200 feet. The climb up Greyback, from 1,200 feet to 4,800 feet, happens in only 20 miles.

The road continues at this lofty height, staying above 4,000 feet well into Oregon, until the stretch I call The Plunge. The road was dropping gently downhill when I took a slow left horseshoe bend and it suddenly got steep. Very steep. My attention snapped sharply to the road and I stopped looking at the forest and focused on the tight and frequent turns. The Scenic Byway drops from 4,000 feet to 1,600 feet in about seven miles as it enters Oregon’s Illinois River valley. For a few miles the road was jitterbugging and I had to work hard to keep pace.

When the Scenic Byway reaches the valley floor, its name changes to Waldo Road and the waltzing pace resumes. I relaxed and caught my breath as the road, mostly level now, passed through some low foothills before ending at the Redwood Highway. The stop sign here marks the western end of the Scenic Byway. I sat on my bike at the intersection and looked around. Trees. Not a single building visible. The locale of O’Brien is nearby, so there are a few dozen homes in the area, but they are hidden in the forest. At this empty intersection you can turn north to the Oregon town of Cave Junction or south back into California, toward Crescent City.

Like the eastern end of the Scenic Byway there is little at the western end. It seems somehow appropriate that the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway, named for a state that doesn’t exist, should have such empty, open end points. Will there ever be a State of Jefferson? I don’t really care. I’m glad we have the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway, 107 miles of fun, winding river and steep mountain roads, starting at no place special and ending nowhere in particular.

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