Best Day Trip

Red Bluff

In a few weeks, Financial District suits will be holding their trench coat lapels two-handed against an icy fog. Newspaper and coffee vendors will be keeping their shutters closed, opening only to push merchandise into the chill. Gloves and ski caps will abound. Summertime will have landed upon San Francisco. Mark Twain's comment that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco is sometimes cited as if it were a source of pride. It's foolish pride. San Francisco's cold summers are an abomination. Even poetic local types begin to fantasize about warmer climes. Inevitably, there comes a time for drastic action, and there's no place more drastic for warmth seekers than Red Bluff, Calif. Three hours north of S.F., this pioneer farm town sits in the shadows of Northern California's two great snow-capped volcanoes -- Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen. Nonetheless, Red Bluff enjoys the distinction many days of being the hottest place in California. Cold refugees needn't check a weather report beforehand: Red Bluff averages 98 days of 90-degree or higher temperatures a year. In the summer of 1981, temperatures hit 121. A unique weather phenomenon, created when winds blow down the slopes of the 14,000-foot Mount Shasta, compresses the northern Sacramento Valley air and heats it. The air then sits in a sweltering pool, at the bottom of which sits Red Bluff. Of course, there's more to the town than hot air. On a weekend sightseeing trip, you might take a tour of Red Bluff's grand Victorian mansions. Or the Ide Adobe Museum, which highlights the history of the state's pioneers. Or the Chatterbox Cafe, a converted Victorian where locals go to chat and eat cowboy-sized breakfasts. The whole tour should take around an hour -- assuming you start at a cool 5 a.m. Otherwise, for those used to frigid S.F. fog, Red Bluff's midday heat will slow every step into a Matrixmovie moment. The air, hot and thick like prickly wool bunting, will press against every joint in your body, and your tour of the city will take four hours. By the end, drenched in sweat and breathless from the oppressive heat, you may want to skip the Chatterbox lunch -- though the cafe's air conditioning makes this a close call -- jump in your car, and turn the air conditioner on high. Then race down Interstate 5 to San Francisco, head to the Sunset District, burst onto the Ocean Beach boardwalk, and take a luxuriant breath of gentle, refreshing fog.

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