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Watershed Wonder Kicks on Route 36

This summer’s improvement to SR 299W on the crooked Buckhorn may have benefits beyond accident reduction, time savings and motion sickness relief. Perhaps flagman-caused delay might give motorists pause to seek alternative routes to the Redwood Empire.

State Route 36 is an almost secret treasure, as scenic as it is an engineering marvel in good condition. Though infrequently used, this short two lane highway ranks among the best in the Lower 48 for varied natural history of world class stature.

From Alton on US 101 to Chester via Red Bluff is a distance of just over 200 miles. SR 36 takes travelers to 12 major watersheds. Bridges and minor creeks are so numerous as to defy listing. The Eel, Van Duzen, Mad, South Fork of Trinity, Sacramento and Feather Rivers are the major watersheds.

Anywhere else in the arid west, Deer, Mill, Paynes, Beegum, Cottonwood and Hayfork Creeks would be rivers as well. Anyway, each of these has highly individual morphology; they all are lovely, mostly free-flowing and vital. “Take your breath away” vistas, unusual geology, mind numbing changes and variety in botany as well as topography, abundant wildlife are common to all of these compelling corridors.

Justifiably revered towering ancient redwoods, River of Life for California, the Sacramento and largest of its type in the world, Mt. Lassen are only the beginning of what is rare and important along this highway. The Lassic Trio, South Fork Mountain, Mad River Rock and wilderness areas where Ishi and other First Nation people would still feel home are among virtually unknown gems in this collection.

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Many locals journey thousands of miles in search of exotic terrain to see and experience. Meantime, some of the best are quietly waiting in their own backyards. Lassic Peak above the Van Duzen was named for Lassik, last chief of his tribe. Close by sisters, Red Mountain and Black Mountain stand as a trio of mute witnesses to long ago and rarely seen events. Each is unique, though related. Lassic is chert and gray wacky, Red Mountain is pillow lava and Black mountain is made of mudstone. These strata are only formed as deep ocean crust. During eons of unrecorded time, they have been moved hundreds of miles and lifted to 5,900 feet above sea level. South Fork Mountain, at 43 miles in length, is the longest single mountain in the nation. Serpentine is California’s State Rock, but it is not common in the world. Highway 36 seems to be cut from it for mile after shiny mile.

If Weaverville, Junction City and Willow Creek seem too big and busy, try some of the friendly hamlets along SR 36. If Forest Glen, Mad River, Dinsmore and Bridgeville are still too crowded, leave the road and try Peanut, Ruth, Zenia or Alder Point. Depending upon which end of Humboldt County is your destination, the journey only adds an hour or two from Redding.

Cognoscenti may argue about the vibrant beauty of warming May being superior to the autumn splendor of October. However, any time will give rewards not usually experienced anywhere in such brief travel.

If your present life is too crowded to use this road, then you should consider rearranging affairs to be sure SR 36 gets at least a half day of your time. It waits for you wondering why you do not favor Robert Frost’s “…the one less traveled by.”

Randy Smith is a retired physician who’s dedicated countless volunteer hours as a member of the City of Redding Planning Commission, Redding Rotary Club of the Redding Stream Team and untold other community projects.