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Redfoot Express

According to my AAA TripTik, it's a 418-mile drive that should take roughly 8 hours and 25 minutes, but the automobile club computer obviously doesn't know we're driving a 21-foot, 1984 Toyota Ranger motorhome.

With a top speed of 37 mph going over the passes, actual drive time is probably close to twice their estimate, but who the heck cares? This loop — we call it the Redfoot Loop — is way too beautiful to rush.

If you're the kind of person who loves a long Sunday drive in the country — and you've got turn-hugging tires and an engine that doesn't whine on mountain climbs — go for it. You can leave Medford at 7 a.m. and be home for dinner, burning less than two tanks of gas on the way.

But you could just as easily take two weeks to complete this loop around the State of Jefferson and still be hungry for more exploration.

We call it the Redfoot Loop because most of the route follows the Redwood Highway and the so-called Bigfoot Highway, aka the Klamath River Highway. You'll see lots of redwoods, no doubt, but the Bigfoot sightings might be a little tougher to notch.

Then again, who knows?

Traveling in a counterclockwise direction, the Redfoot Loop includes just five highways. You'll take Interstate 5 to Grants Pass, continue 83 miles west on Highway 199 to Crescent City, Calif., then 78 miles south along the Pacific on U.S. 101 to Arcata, Calif., 40 miles along the Trinity River on State Route 299 to Willow Creek, Calif., 146 miles east along the Klamath River on Highway 96, then about 40 miles up and down the Siskiyou Pass on I-5 to home.

What this basic description doesn't say is that you'll pass about 100 too-good-pass-up stops that you'll have to pass if you intend to get home before the boss advertises your job online.

That means you won't be able to appreciate a detour to the Illinois River as you pass through the Selma area, a worthy stop on any trip. You won't be able to marvel at carnivorous plants in Darlingtonia fens or walk the boardwalk at the Eight Dollar Mountain Botanical Area. You'll have to blow by It's a Burl and Hampton's Rock Shop in Kerby, and a side jaunt to Oregon Caves National Monument is out of the question.

The harder part will be staying in the car as you travel through the Smith River National Recreation Area. The road twists like a gopher snake as it hugs the Smith River, just daring you to get out and hike one of the 50 or so trails visible from the road. You might be able to resist the allure of the upper Smith, but I dare you to stay behind the wheel when you reach the behemoths around Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

It seems somehow sacrilegious to speed past a cathedral of living fossils without at least getting out and touching one. Then again, it won't be your last chance, because you're now on the Redwood Highway, and they call it that for a reason.

Crescent City, Calif., probably won't tempt you, unless you happen to love looking at the ocean, or are easily seduced by attractions such as Ocean World Aquarium, where two beloved seals named Skully and Marina break tourist hearts every day. Or unless you forgot to pack a cooler, because Crescent City is full of merchants offering tasty beverages and nutritious sustenance.

As you leave Crescent City, you'll have to slow down, and not just because Highway 101 climbs up the steepest ascent you'll face on the coastal portion of this loop — our old Ranger chugs it at about 32 mph — but because you're passing through shadowy groves of ancient sentinels in Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park that were old when Spanish mariners discovered this coast, and now the trees are calling your name. And because the road is thoughtlessly littered with vistas and scenic turnouts where you have a good chance of spotting spouting whales. And also because highway crews are repaving this stretch of road and taking their good ol' time about it.

Once you top the rise and drop back down to sea level, you'll be tempted by the kitschy Trees of Mystery, which normally isn't hard to pass by, but now they have gondolas that allow you to see the trees from above, and that would be cool for a few minutes.

If you successfully navigate this stretch without losing time to senseless sightseeing, you will have time to take one detour that is well worth it and doesn't really add any time to the trip. About four miles south of Klamath, Calif., you'll see a sign for Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. The parkway parallels Highway 101 for 10 miles, taking you through a tunnel of redwoods dotted with numerous trailheads that lead through old-growth monsters to the ocean.

But don't stop ... unless you have plans to ignore the herds of elk around Orick that seem to suck tourists off the freeway and force them to run stupidly with cameras along the twisting, narrow-shouldered highway in the heart of Redwoods National Park.

Then again, you won't have time to ogle elk if you want to have time to appreciate the lagoons around Humboldt Lagoons State Park that are coming up next. The Oregon Coast doesn't have anything like these freshwater bodies that are separated from the ocean by a miles-long strip of beach just teeming with pelicans and seals and sea lions and dolphins.

All through this stretch you'll have other distractions, as well, such as trailheads with cool-sounding names, like the Skunkcabbage Trail, and alluring roadsigns, including the Ladybird Johnson Redwood Grove.

All of these stops involve investments of time, and you can't afford those investments if you're on a schedule. Then again, the schedule is likely to go out the window — and rightfully so — when you reach the turn-off for Patrick's Point State Park, where the beach is littered with agates and whales sometimes swim right up to Wedding Rock.

The old Ranger knows that park well and seems to shudder when we pass the exit without slowing, but we know what lies ahead, the seaside town of Trinidad, Calif., where you can get a great bowl of clam chowder at The Eatery, then wander down to Trinidad Harbor and watch the charterboat guys cleaning skads of lingcod, halibut and rock fish, or even rent a kayak and explore the sea stacks.

Then there's a string of beaches like pearls on a string — Trinidad State Beach, Moonstone Beach, Little River State Beach, Clam Beach — where surfers gather daily to slack the summer away.

But there's no time for such bourgeois wanderings, not if you intend to make the Rogue Valley by nightfall. Not when the college town of Arcata looms on the horizon, winking from the edge of Humboldt Bay like a streetcorner pusher, offering more cultural and rustic escapes from reality than a harried traveler can hope to explore in mere days, let alone hours.

The good news is that Arcata is the last real threat to your schedule, because this is where you turn your back on the Pacific and aim your grill at the mountains of Six Rivers National Forest. For the next 40 miles along Highway 299 you'll make great time, cause there's nothing to tempt you but mountain vistas and trailheads and turnouts and lakes.

At least until you reach Willow Creek and make your turn onto Highway 96, known to some as the Klamath River Highway, better known to others as The Bigfoot Highway, which will be your guide for the next 147 miles. This is where you'll make acquaintance with the Trinity River as it flows toward the Klamath, a watercourse that beckons at every hairpin.

You might run into some slow areas as you travel across the Hoopa Indian Reservation, where single-lane roads climb and dip through the mountains. But by the time you reach the Klamath River, you've left the tough driving behind, and all you have to do is follow the river, ignoring the osprey nests that clutter the strip between river and road, and the whitewater stretches and canyon walls and bald eagles that make your camera finger itch.

You can probably spare a stop in Happy Camp to chuckle at the Bigfoot statue, cause now you're only 64 miles from Interstate 5, and if you've stuck to your schedule this long, you're unlikely to be waylaid by the usual mundane sights common from the road, such as mountains, rafters, kayakers, fly fishers, deer, elk, or rattlers coiled on the shoulder of the pavement.

Unless, of course, the highway's namesake happens to lope across the pavement, giving you a chance to snap a photo that will earn millions from the tabloids.

If that happens, you'll be glad it's just a hop over the Siskiyou Pass and a relaxing glide down the asphalt to the boring old Rogue Valley, where you have to travel at least 15 minutes to reach the wilderness.

Reach Mail Tribune features editor David Smigelski at 776-8784 or dsmigelski@mailtribune.com.


A family finds time for a little dancing on Moonstone Beach south of Trinidad, Calif. - Nancy McClain photo