VI. The State of Jefferson National Scenic Byway

Posted 7/10/2017

Let’s go for a ride. This is a rather odd one, however. We need to go to the State of Jefferson to get to the start. The State of Jefferson? There is no such state, you say? You are correct, there is no state called Jefferson, but there could have been. Allow me to present a little history before we ride.

In the late 1930s the citizens in the mountainous areas of southwestern Oregon and far northern California were unhappy with their state governments. They felt that their tax dollars were sent to Salem and Sacramento, respectively, and then went elsewhere. There was a serious movement to form a new state, the State of Jefferson. It’s not a crazy thing to do – West Virginia was once part of Virginia until they split up in the 1860’s, during the Civil War.

The State of Jefferson movement was serious political movement. There was a state flag, a man had been appointed as the first governor, Yreka, California was selected as the state capitol. Then there was the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the movement was shelved as everyone’s energy turned to winning the war.

The core of Jefferson State was originally the three northern counties of California, Del Norte, Siskiyou and Modoc, and their neighboring across-the-border Oregon counties of Curry, Josephine, Jackson, Klamath, and the western part of Lake County. Some would include the next set of California counties, Humboldt, Trinity, Shasta and Lassen, and the Oregon counties of Coos and Douglas. That’s a pretty sizable chunk of land, but not very many people lived in the region. The State of Jefferson movement has never seriously been reconsidered, but the sentiment has not died out and there are ways people show their feelings.

  • Along Interstate 5 about 30 miles south of the Oregon-California border there is a hay barn with “State of Jefferson” painted in very large letters on the roof.
  • Some businesses in the area display the State of Jefferson flag next to the U.S. flag.
  • The public radio station in Ashland, Oregon, calls itself “Jefferson Public Radio.”
  • There is a “State of Jefferson National Scenic Byway” (SoJNSB).

If you have traveled Interstate 5 from Oregon to California you may have seen the east end of the SoJNSB. In the 1970s and ‘80s I made frequent trips between the S.F. Bay area to Portland. About 11 miles south of the Oregon-California border Interstate 5 drops into the Klamath River valley. There is a very pleasant rest stop here; I would walk across a lawn and watch the Klamath River lazily flowing past. Leaving the rest stop heading south the freeway climbs steeply out of the valley, and as I looked to the right I would catch glimpses of a twisty two-lane road following the river to the southwest. Man that looks like a nice motorcycle road, I thought, and I promised myself to ride it someday.

The State of Jefferson National Scenic Byway. About 100 miles from A to B.

That day finally came in 1997. I was riding south from my home, now in Oregon’s central Willamette Valley, to Sears Point Raceway on the 20th anniversary of my AMA Superbike race victory. I packed some clothes, a sleeping bag and a backpacking tent on my Honda Hawk GT and headed south on I-5, getting fuel at Ashland and taking the exit for the SoJNSB.

The eastern end of the SoJNSB is California Highway 96, starting at its junction with Interstate 5. There is only the highway rest stop there, no other buildings, no homes, and no businesses. Appropriate for a state that doesn’t actually exist, I suppose.

This part of the SoJNSB follows the Klamath River, so even though it passes through some fairly rugged mountains it is a riverine road. It is full of sweeping, large radius curves mostly unsigned or signed with 45 or 35 mph recommended speeds. After rattling over a cattle guard I attacked the road, rushing through the turns. After about 15 minutes of this I thought, this isn’t fun – it’s more like work. I remembered that roads often have a natural rhythm and it’s best to cooperate with rather than fight the road. I settled on a pace that matched the rhythm of the road and river, roughly between 45 and 70 mph. The land here was very dry, some cottonwoods right along the river, a few pines but mostly barren or scrub covered hillsides. The few buildings I passed by looked to be ranch houses or vacation homes. The road doesn’t do much up and down as it sticks fairly close to the river, which drops gently and gradually as it meanders westward. The Klamath is not a white water river. It provides a very pleasant ride, lots of nice curves linked with short, level straight sections.

Smooth, Linked Curves

Highway 96 is pretty popular among motorcyclists. At one rest stop I met a couple of gents on full-dress Gold Wing GL1800s. They were from the Sparks/Reno area in Nevada and told me they came west every year to ride Highway 96 and other good roads of the area. We talked about some of the other bike-friendly roads in the area. They mentioned highway 3, running from Yreka south to its intersection of highway 36. I hadn’t ridden hwy 3, but I did ride highway 36, the rather notorious road between Red Bluff and Fortuna — American Motorcyclist readers ranked it 8th out of the top 15 roads in the U.S. At the mention of hwy 36 one of the pair becomes quite animated. “There’s this section where the road dips into a hollow, turns right, then climbs up the next rise and turns left right at the peak…” He’s holding air handgrips and moving his arms as if he’s pulling the bars left and right as he negotiates the turns. I have to look again at their bikes to confirm that they’re riding 6-cylinder Gold Wings, and not GSX-R1000s. Yep, they were GL1800 Gold Wings complete with saddle bags and boot cases. These guys are riders.

As I traveled westward the land became less dry, the north facing mountainsides became crowded with pines. This slow transformation from a barren, sun-burned landscape continued and by the time I reached the locale of Seiad Valley, about 50 miles from the start, I was riding through a real forest, surrounded by high peaks. The road continued to follow the river pretty closely, a
really nice collection of wide radius curves linked by short straight sections.

Someone’s idea of what Bigfoot looks like

Just before the town of Happy Camp Highway 96 climbs up and over a ridge but quickly drops back down to rejoin the river. I like Happy Camp, it makes a nice rest stop where a rider can get fuel and food, and it has such a cheerful name. Also there’s a big sculpture of a Bigfoot in the middle of town.

Happy Camp marks a significant change in the SoJNSB. Highway 96 continues to follow the river as it swings south, becoming the Bigfoot Scenic Byway. The Jefferson Byway goes northwest here, leaving Highway 96 and taking Indian Creek road towards Oregon. It climbs rather slowly at first, mostly straight with gentle bends, but after about 12 miles it gets serious, climbing much more rapidly and getting a lot twistier, becoming a true mountain road. It mostly edges its way up on the east side of Indian Creek, so there was a hillside on my left and a drop-off on my right. This is different than the smooth, curvy river road I had been riding. The road, now called Greyback Road, is clearly less traveled than Highway 96, and I thought, if I run off the road on the downhill side I might not be found for days. I slowed down a bit, taking the curves more gently.

Greyback Road climbed steadily to 4,000 feet where it continued upward but less steeply. It finally topped out at 4,800 feet, which is a pretty good climb from the 1,200 foot elevation of Happy Camp. The road passed through a saddle and started a gentle descent, with only a mile to go before the state border. This section is very pleasant, with nice curves, some short straights, and a little up as well as down. The road continues above 4,000 feet well into Oregon, until the stretch I named The Plunge. Winding its way downhill with some switchbacks and a number of hairpins the byway drops fairly rapidly from 4,800 feet to 1,600 feet as it approaches Oregon’s Illinois River valley. Its name changes to Waldo Road and it passes through some low foothills before ending at Highway 199, the Redwood Highway.


The Plunge, a rapidly descending, twisty section of the SoJNSB, dropping from 4,000 t0 1,600 feet in less than two miles. Image from Google Maps.

Like the eastern end of the Jefferson Scenic Byway there is nothing at the western end. I sat at the stop sign, engine idling, only to see … trees. No buildings at all. I knew there were houses in the area but they are hidden by the trees. It seems somehow appropriate that the State of Jefferson scenic byway, named for a state that doesn’t exist, should have such empty, open country ends. From this empty intersection you can turn north to the town of Cave Junction or south back into California to Crescent City. I turned south, taking the Redwood Highway to Highway 101 and on to Sears Point.

More State of Jefferson and other nearby good motorcycle roads:

• Highway 36 between Red Bluff and Fortuna (highly recommended).
• Highway 70, the Feather River highway, from Oroville to Lake Almanor, CA.
• Highway 199, the Redwood Highway, Grants Pass, OR, to Crescent City, CA.
• Crater Lake ring road, Crater Lake National Park, OR.
• The Bigfoot Scenic Byway, Highway 96 from Happy Camp south to Highway 299.
• Highway 299 from Redding to Arcata, CA.
• Trinity Scenic Byway, Highway 299 from Arcata, CA, to Weaverville, CA.
• Smith River road, Reedsport to Wolf, OR.
• Highway 3 from Yreka to Highway 299 at Weaverville,