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Land of Secession

Twisting Through the State of Jefferson

By Andrew Cherney

Most people have never heard of the State of Jefferson, but this curious little corner of Northern California is at least fairly accessible from a major Interstate; it's just off I -5, a stone's throw from the Oregon border. The remoteness and rugged mountain terrain of this land in the shadow of the Siskiyous make it a prime playground for riders.

So, what about the origin story? Well, Wikipedia will tell you that back in the day, the State of Jefferson was on track to become the 49th state in the Union - just ahead of Alaska. Seems the whole thing began with a maintenance spat, when one of the local mayors got fed up with the perpetually sorry state of his roadways. He vowed to form a separate government called the State of Jefferson, encompassing parts of southern Oregon and northern California.

Gold in Yreka

The ball got rolling in November 1941, when secessionists met in the gold-mining burg of Yreka to create a state seal: a gold mining pan with "The Great Seal Of State Of Jefferson" engraved into it, and two skewed Xs below. The Xs are known as the "Double Cross," and are meant as a dig against the state governments in Oregon and California.

Things got heated later that month when an enthusiastic group blocked traffic near Yreka, handing out a Proclamation of Independence to drivers. That day, the State of Jefferson 'seceded' from California and Oregon to form the 49th state of the Union. But the half-serious bid for statehood was forgotten days later when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7. Oh well.

Your best jumping-off point for this ride is Yreka, California, where the secession spark first ignited. Historic West Miner Street looks like it hasn't changed much since 1941, and you might even grab a bite at the Etna Brewery here before saddling up. Then you'll head north out of town along Main Street, which eventually turns into Hwy 263 and the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway as it rolls along the Shasta River. With nearby Mount Shasta providing an impressive backdrop, 263 uncoils over a series of 1930s-era bridges which were engineering marvels in their day. In a couple of miles you'll hit California State Highway 96 at the Klamath River; hang a left onto Hwy 96 (also called the Klamath River Highway), and hold on for a scenic 60-mile run west through the Klamath River Canyon along mostly moderately-arcing curves.

As you ride the canyon, the bridges keep coming, first over the Shasta, then the Klamath, then the Scott river, the water alternating between placid pools and roiling rapids. Hwy 96 itself is in surprisingly good shape considering it regularly gets pounded by rockslides, and the sweeping bends serve up nice views of the rushing water (there are River Access points off the road). On your run through the Seiad Valley, check the sky for soaring bald eagles, or herons along the river. The farther west you rumble, the greener the landscape becomes. Rolling past 100-year old working ranches, you'll notice green State of Jefferson flags proudly flying the Double Cross.

Bigfoot and Grayback

After that pleasant jaunt, you're in Happy Camp - a slightly scruffy former mining hamlet in the heart of Karuk Tribe ancestral territory. A sign insists that Happy Camp is the "Steelhead Capital of the World," but it gets its name from the easy gold pickings in the area back in 1851.

There's a can't-miss iron statue of Sasquatch looming at one of the main intersections, conveniently marking the continuation of the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway. From here, the Byway leaves Highway 96 and heads up 5,000-ft Grayback Mountain. It's well over an hour and a good 40 miles of nothing but old-growth forest until you hit civilization again at O'Brien (in Oregon), so best to fuel up here in Happy Camp.

[Route Option: You can continue on Highway 96 past Happy Camp, too. At this point the road becomes the Bigfoot Scenic Byway, twisting south and west along the Klamath River all the way to Willow Creek. From there, you can catch CA 299 (The Trinity Highway) east all the way into Redding, CA, and I-5, thus making a loop ride of it. Just be sure to check your provisions; this is mountain riding at its most remote with only occasional opportunities for gas and cell phone service. Yreka to Happy Camp to Willow Creek to Redding is a hard 260 miles, riding counterclockwise].

Turning right onto Davis Road in Happy Camp, however, puts you back on the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway for an eight-mile ascent up Grayback Mountain. Davis becomes Grayback Road, and while the pavement's in good shape, it becomes twistier as you climb and punctuated by ominous signs like "End of County Maintained Road." After about 10 miles, the mountains squeeze in and the road becomes a narrow path with dense forest on both sides and Indian Creek running below. The road's rhythm quickens as the straights disappear and curves build; a quick uphill left morphs into a sweeping right followed by a wide-radius left-hander, then a sharp right, and so on for miles. The Byway tops out at 4,800 feet just south of the Oregon border, where a turnout offers views of the Klamath River valley (and maybe even a Bigfoot or two).

From this point the asphalt hugs the ridgetop for a while, until, after a slow left-hander, the Byway goes into a 2500-foot descent down Grayback's flank in the course of about seven miles, forcing your attention to snap into overdrive. The bends become tighter and more frequent, and the road changes names at random, going from Grayback Road to Indian Creek Road to USFS 5828 to NF-48, before finally flattening out on the valley floor as Waldo Road and bumping into Highway 199 in O'Brien.

Breathe deeply and make a beeline north on 199 to Cave Junction - there's nothing in O'Brien. If you're done for the day and want to keep the rustic vibe going, check into the Junction Inn, a vintage-y place that looks like it hasn't had an upgrade since 1954.

The wild surroundings of the Jefferson area may feel like they haven't changed in 60 years, but at least the roads are better... even if they lead to nowhere.

Andrew Cherney is a seasoned moto journalist living in the Portland metro area. We're very excited to be sharing his work here in Sound RIDER!

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