Some people think Happy Camp is only a campground, but that is so wrong. It is a real small town in the Klamath River Valley, at the northern edge of California. Another twenty miles, and we’d be in Oregon.
To get into Happy Camp during the winter there are only two routes. From Eureka there’s a three and one-half hour drive along the Bigfoot Scenic Byway. You’ll pass Bluff Creek, where Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin filmed a Bigfoot on October 20, 1967, only fifty miles west of Happy Camp.
The other way in is to drive west on the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway from Yreka and Highway 5. That takes two hours. Either way, you’ll be on Highway 96, the Klamath River Highway.
During the summer months you can drive south from Highway 199 near Cave Junction, Oregon. That route takes you forty miles over Grayback Mountain. In any case, be ready for plenty of curves and cliffs, beautiful scenery, and a long drive.
Some adventurous people come to Happy Camp during the summer via raft, on the Klamath River. The river is a major thoroughfare, though many do not stop in our town. Some people love rafting this river so much that they make a point of doing it every year. It has class one, two, and three rapids. Drifting down the river is one of the most peaceful, joyful experiences available to humankind.
There is one more way to access Happy Camp: the airport, which is appropriate for small planes and helicopters only. Mercy Flight helicopters use our heliport to take emergency patients to Medford or Redding. The US Forest Service uses the airport during the summer when there are fires nearby. There are campsites next to the air strip for summer travelers.
This town is isolated, and insulated from the mad rush of civilization by many miles of forest. Going to Happy Camp is like stepping back in time twenty or thirty years. Happy Camp is devoid of chain stores. There are no fast food restaurants, no department stores, no malls, no crowds, and no street lights at all, whatsoever.
Until recently there was no cell phone tower, and I’m very sorry one was installed. Still many tourists find that their cell phones and other electronic gadgets don’t work well here, or don’t work at all. I’ve seen people get frantic when they realize they’re unable to make cell phone calls. Many will leave in a hurry in hopes of a better signal elsewhere. Of course there’s a few pay phones, so communication is viable, if not convenient.
Sometimes when I leave Happy Camp to visit the outside civilization, I feel like I’m in culture shock. Things change out there where you live. New products are introduced into the stores while I’m not noticing. Food stores have changed considerably during the ten years since I moved into this small town in the middle of the Klamath National Forest, and I’m happy to see the trend is toward health food alternatives.
Happy Camp, population about 1200, has everything we really need. We’ve got one clinic, run by the Karuk Tribe, along with a dental office. We’ve got a grocery store and a smaller market combined with the liquor store and DVD rentals. There’s one mechanic, one card-lock gas station, and one auto parts store. This year there are four restaurants here. Two of them recently opened, giving the others extra competition in our very limited small town economy.
This brings me to the question, “Are people in Happy Camp happy?” I’d have to admit that some are, but many aren’t. Those that want to make a lot of money probably aren’t as happy as those who are content with humble living conditions. But isn’t that just like people everywhere?
Compared with people outside our little valley in the remote center of a forest, I’d guess that we have a lot more happiness. For most of us, there’s a lot less stress. There isn’t any traffic congestion, for example. Some have joked that a Happy Camp traffic jam is when five cars pull into the parking area in front of the post office all at one time – something you can count on every afternoon at four, when all the mail is available. There isn’t any street delivery of mail in this town; we all have post office boxes.
There are jobs here, and many Happy Campers work for a living. The largest employers are the Karuk Tribe and the U.S. Forest Service. Beyond that there are the public schools and the local market. And besides a few restaurant jobs, there is the creativity of those who find ways to generate money without employment.
The arts are big in Happy Camp. We have a huge metal Bigfoot statue, and what may be the largest dreamcatcher in the world. Many artists live here and there’s an art gallery on the main street of town. The artists have fund-raising dinners to generate money for an even larger art center which is planned, but not yet constructed.
Local community college extension classes include art classes and teleconferencing classes, as well as online classes we can participate in from our homes. The Karuk Tribe has a computer center that is shared with the local high school, and open to the public during afternoon hours. Every other Friday there’s a LAN game night there.
That brings us to the topic of Happy Camp night life. There isn’t much to do in the evenings unless you like parking on Highway 96 to watch foxes, skunks and raccoons cross the street. There’s a saloon for those who imbibe – with one pool table. Other than that, there’s not much happening! Once a month you can count on the art center to hold an exhibit grand opening, complete with pot luck dinner.
Happy Camp was originally settled by Native Americans of the Karuk Tribe. They call this place Athithúfvuunupma. Their administrative center is here in Happy Camp and there’s a People’s Center open to the public, with museum exhibits and a gift shop.
Gold miners chose the name Happy Camp in the 1850s, probably because they were happy to find a lot of gold here. The town depended on gold mining, jade mining, and the lumber industry for many years. In the 1990s the lumber industry closed down due to environmentalist lawsuits. Many people had to leave town and there was an era of depression when businesses failed and families suffered financially. This has turned around somewhat during the ten years I’ve lived here. Many of the dilapidated and abandoned commercial buildings have been renovated, and new businesses opened. These days most of the homes are once again occupied.
I’ve heard people from outside our town call this “Hippie Camp” or say we’ve got a huge drug problem. That is not a realistic image of Happy Camp. We do have a few hippies and some who use drugs, but there are also many hard-working people who don’t fit that description at all. A lot of the people are from families that have been here many decades. About half the people in town have ties to the Karuk Tribe. And most newcomers are business owners, retired people, or families raising children. I honestly don’t think there’s any more drug users or hippies per capita than any other California town you might go to.
Although it is true that some locals are not fully welcoming to strangers, most people here are very happy to meet newcomers and people visiting from out of town. There’s a visitor’s center in the forest service office.
What visitors can expect: a few decent motels, recreational gold mining, fishing opportunities, hiking, and some of the most beautiful swimming holes in the world (in the clean, clear creeks; not in the Klamath River!) Happy Camp is between three large wilderness areas: the Marble Mountain Wilderness, Siskiyou Wilderness, and Red Buttes Wilderness. This is a good place to come for access to any of those areas. We’re not far from the Pacific Crest Trail.
Who could not be happy in this town? If you need theaters and night life and crowds to be happy, you might not like it. But if you love nature, outdoor recreation, and being far from the busy streets of the city, this is definitely a place worth experiencing.
Learn more: http://www.happycampnews.com.