As many people live in California as in the whole of Canada, so you'd expect the state to be pretty crowded. And around the major conurbations that's certainly true. But much of the Golden State's northern territory is wild, mountainous, thinly populated, and etched with roads that are just right for riding. Like the ones you find at the northern end of the Sacramento Valley, squeezed between the volcanoes of the Cascades and the coast, in the Klamath Mountains.
Five of us arrive at the cozy Rodeway Inn in Yreka, near the Oregon border, for four days of rambling around the roads of the Klamath Range. Jim has brought his R1150GS, and Alan is similarly mounted. Steve is riding his beautiful R100GS Bumblebee, while Dougie is on a K1200RS. I have perhaps the bike best suited to the sinuous "swervery" of the region: the excellent SV650S, on loan from American Suzuki.
Yreka is a great place to start. Nestled between the Coast Range and Klamath National Forest, the pioneer mining town beside I-5 has great restaurants and excellent accommodations. Over dinner at the Purple Plum in the historic downtown, we plan our tours of the region. Tomorrow we'll ride 96 west through Happy Camp as far as Somes Bar, turning south through Forks of Salmon, Cecilville and Callahan, and then we'll run back to Yreka through Etna. The day after, we'll take 3 to Weaverville, then 299 out to the coast at Arcata and overnight in Eureka. Day 3 takes in the Lost Coast Highway and the Avenue of the Giants and roams east to Redding on 36. On our final day, we'll explore more of the roads around Redding.
Forks of Salmon (210 miles)
We're heading north out of Yreka on the I-5 business route, and I get far enough ahead to take some snaps of the guys as they ride through. Our route turns left onto 96 for Happy Camp on an elegant modern bridge across a broad ravine. Jim is the first to roll by and I catch some shots of him turning. Then come Dougie and Alan, who are both intent on striking a good pose, and consequently they blow right through the intersection back toward I-5. It's a pattern Alan will repeat throughout the day.
Following the Klamath River downstream, the two-lane road scrambles along precipitous valley sides, switching back and forth over the river on a series of magnificent bridges. It seems extravagant of CalTrans to have spent so much money on such a lightly traveled route, but I'm not complaining as 96 next winds through leafy forest and by fields of hay toasted brown in the hot July sun.
By Happy Camp, our free continental breakfast at the Rodeway has worn off, so we squeeze around the last free table at the Frontier Café. I wash my corned-beef hash down with coffee that's as hot and strong as it gets in a frontier town. Back outside, the machinegun rattle of open pipes rends the air as a gaggle of cruisers depart on their run along the route we've already traveled. I need to refill the SV650's tank, but there's no gas station in town - just a cardlock: no card, no gas. Fortunately, the 87-octane-only pump also takes Canadian credit cards.