Perched atop peaks and ridgelines across Northern California, fire lookouts offer unparalleled views over some of the state’s finest National Forest land. Built primarily during the 1930s and 1940s, these towers allowed lookouts to keep an eye on the dry forests and give warning when the hillsides went up in flames, a critical role illustrated by the destructiveness of the 2016 fire season. At one time, the U.S. had over 4,000 lookouts that covered nearly every drainage of the National Forest.
Famous literary figures like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Norman Maclean were known to spend time as fire lookouts, drawing inspiration from the solitary and remote existence. While some of California’s fire lookouts have been retired and replaced by technology, many of these towers are still standing and available to rent for overnight trips. Promising 360-degree panoramas over forested peaks and unobstructed views of the night sky, a visit to a fire lookout makes for a great adventure—whether you go for a day or spend the night. Here is a list of five northern California lookouts to visit on your next adventure.
One of the few remaining lookouts in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the Girard Ridge Lookout gives you panoramic views over some of Northern California’s most striking wilderness areas. The cabin—raised 13 feet above its 4,809-foot perch—faces the jagged peaks of Castle Crags State Park, overlooks the Sacramento River Canyon, and provides unobstructed views of the snowcapped peaks of Mt. Shasta and Lassen. The cabin itself is a cozy 14 by 14 foot space with minimal amenities and maximum views from walls of windows and exterior catwalk. Though it’s accessible by car, Girard Ridge makes for a great basecamp for hiking nearby trails—a Forest Service road reaches a junction with the famous Pacific Crest Trail just three miles beyond the cabin, and you can also explore the nearby trails of Castle Crags. Girard Ridge is about 4.5 hours north of San Francisco by car. The lookout is available by reservation from June through October.
Sandwiched between the Tahoe National Forest and Plumas National Forest, the Calpine Lookout perches at 5,980 feet, with 360-degree views of remote forest and the Sierra Nevada range. The lookout itself is an elevated cabin structure with basic amenities and a wraparound porch to take in the unending views and stargaze into the night. The lookout is reservable for overnight stays during the summer and winter months, and is accessible by car in the summer. In the winter, the lookout is often accessible only by snowshoe or ski. From Calpine, you can hike to nearby lakes and explore the foothills. Calpine is a little under four hours from San Francisco, near Truckee.
In the southwestern corner of Mendocino National Forest, the Pine Mountain Lookout sits on the western shoulder of its namesake mountain. While many other towers have 360-degree views, this one is unique in that it has a western orientation for 180-degree views of mixed conifer forest from an outcropping at 4,400 feet. But you won’t be missing out—the cabin is perfect for standout sunsets. Visitors can reserve the lookout for overnight stays from May to October, and the cabin is outfitted with cots and a dining table, as well as a grill and fire ring outside. Pine Mountain is located in close proximity to hiking trails, the Eel River, and several of Mendocino’s best lakes. The lookout can be reached by driving about three hours from San Francisco.
If you are up for the drive, Black Mountain Lookout makes for a stunning retreat. Located on the eastern edge of Plumas National Forest, the deck provides stunning views over Honey Lake, the Diamond Mountains, and Last Chance Creek. The lookout is a one room cabin elevated on a 10-foot tower and at almost 7,000 feet, you are guaranteed a panoramic view. You can reserve the lookout from Memorial Weekend until October, and has electricity. Plumas National Forest has a variety of recreational activities, including swimming and hiking. Black Mountain is about a 4.5-hour drive from San Francisco, and the cabin is accessible by car.
A popular winter snowshoeing destination, the lookout sits just below the 8,742 summit of Martis Peak, and has impressive views of Lassen Peak, Lake Tahoe, and the western Sierra Peaks. You can reach the lookout in the winter by hiking a seasonal logging road for about 3.75 miles as it climbs 1,700 feet towards the summit. In the summer, the road is open to cars and you can drive to near the lookout—hikers can also access the lookout on the Tahoe Rim Trail, which adds about a mile to journey. The lookout is staffed in the summer, but winter adventurers can camp in the lookout or around it. Martis Peak is a little over three hours from San Francisco.
After a few days in the great outdoors, the last thing you want to do when you finally get home is tackle the task of cleaning your gear—we get it. But, as any outdoor enthusiast knows, gear is pricey stuff—and that’s if you buy it once. However, putting in just a little bit of time and effort into keeping your gear cleaned, fixed, and stored properly has big impact on its lifespan and performance.
Fortunately, many wear-and-tear issues can be eliminated with proper maintenance and storage, and most damage can be addressed without replacing the item. By getting into a “Repair > Replace” mindset, you’ll save money and be more environmentally friendly. Your used gear is already part of the waste cycle, and by repairing instead of replacing, you’re reducing the carbon output of the manufacturing process.
We’re stoked to see brands jumping on board with this. From Osprey’s All-Mighty Guarantee to Patagonia’s Worn Wear initiative, eco-conscious brands actually encourage customers to repair their gear. A great place to start is your local gear shop for a variety of repair kits, including waterproof patches, hammock and tent kits, seam tape, and more. And, if it’s a bigger fix you don’t feel equipped to handle, many brands have a warranty repair program.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be an expert to keep your gear in good working order; it just takes discipline and know-how. Here are some insider tips on how to clean, repair, and store your big-ticket items, which will keep more money in your bank account and raise your dirtbag cred at the same time.
Cleaning: Before breaking down your tent, pick the whole thing up and shake it out, removing potentially abrasive debris. For a more thorough cleaning at home, set up the tent and wipe down the fly and body with a diluted mixture of hand soap and warm water. Never use detergent or put the tent through the washing machine—it can damage any protective coatings.
Repairs: Silnet is a great product created specifically for treated nylon products like tents. It works like Super Glue and can be used for seam reinforcement or to fix pinhole tears. Small rips in the mesh can be repaired with mesh repair patches, which have an adhesive that allows you to fix the tear without a sewing kit. Clean fabric with rubbing alcohol beforehand, allowing sufficient drying time, to help the patches stay in place.
Storage: The first rule of thumb: Always store your tent flat and clean! Resist the urge to crumple it into the bottom of a stuff sack. Yes, it’s so easy to let camping gear get strewn everywhere after a trip, but take the time to lay your tent out and fold it along the seams, where it’s least likely to crack, and you’ll improve its lifecycle.
Down Jackets and Sleeping Bags
Cleaning: Experts recommend washing down items at least every season, which helps maintain the loft and warmth-to-weight ratio. Find a front-loading machine (the agitators in top-loading machines can damage the fill) and wash on a gentle, cold cycle with a small amount of down-specific wash. It helps to add a few other items in the machine to balance the spinning. Tumble dry on a gentle setting, checking often—if the dryer gets too hot, the face fabric can melt. When the item is nearly dry, add a few tennis balls to the dryer to break up any clumps of fill.
Repairs: A small tear in the face fabric shouldn’t be the end of a jacket or sleeping bag. Take a glance around any group of outdoorsy folks, and you’ll see gear decorated with patches of duct tape, which is all it takes to fix a small tear.
Storage: Always stash your down items at their highest loft possible, which means don’t compress them into tight bags for long-term storage. Leaving down compressed can degrade the loft and creates weakness in material treatment. Upon returning from your trip, remove the sleeping bag or jacket from its stuff sack and shake it out. Your sleeping bag likely came with a large mesh or lightweight bag—perfect for storage. If you don’t have the original, you can find one online or at a local gear shop.
Cleaning: Rain gear needs to be washed a few times per season, especially gear with an ePTFE membrane. ePTFE is an expanded plastic membrane with 9 billion pores per square inch. This technology creates a waterproof, breathable layer that prevents water drops from saturating, but allows the vapor to leave. ePTFE—utilized in garments listing Gore-Tex or eVent—is oleophobic, which means oils from your skin can clog the microscopic pores and cause the jacket to lose breathability. No matter what the waterproofing, rain gear has a Durable Water Resistant (DWR) treatment on the face fabric, and residue from campfires and other contaminants can reduce the effectiveness of the coating. Washing garments with mild powder detergent or a tech wash will revive it.
Repairs: Feel like your older raincoat is losing waterproofing? Make sure you’re not just sweating it out—the jacket might just need to be washed. Second, check along the seams. If you find a seam failure, a product like Seam Grip can come to the rescue. For small tears on the face fabric, a patch kit from the manufacturer or your local gear shop will do the trick. To revive an older garment, give it a DWR treatment and it’ll feel nearly good as new.
Storage: Store your rain gear out of direct sunlight, preferably hanging up and not crumpled. This will help prevent the laminates from cracking. And it should go without saying, but never shove the jacket into the closet when it’s still wet, which breeds mildew and other funky, damaging stuff.
Cleaning: While much of the backpacking world is migrating to synthetic trail shoes, leather hiking boots still hold a corner of the market. Keep yours clean and supple by scrubbing dirt off with mild soap and an old toothbrush, and treating with a leather cleaner every few months. Never put boots through the washing machine.
Repairs: If your waterproof boots are wetting out, apply a waterproofing agent, following the package instructions. If the outsole is beginning to separate, it might be a job for your local repair shop, or you can try to DIY by applying an adhesive like Shoe Goo.
Storage: When it’s time to put away the boots for the season, clean them thoroughly before storing them, removing all caked-on dirt. If the midsoles are removable, pull them out to allow ventilation.
Cleaning: Have you ever given your backpack a thorough cleaning? Probably not, which means the straps are caked with sweat, the bottom is filthy, and something spilled inside at least once. Hand wash the pack in the tub with mild hand soap, turning it inside out and scrubbing inside every pocket. If you run the pack through a front-loading washing machine, place it in a pillowcase to avoid getting the straps and buckles caught. Always air dry—dryers can wreak havoc on the synthetic material, zippers, and other features.
Repairs: There are a lot of things that can go wrong with a pack, and most don’t warrant a full replacement. Torn mesh, broken zippers, failing buckles, and fabric tears are all replaceable or easily fixed. Gear companies will likely send you the exact strap or buckle you need, and many will stitch mesh or fabric back together. Your patched-up pack will have way more personality.
Storage: This one’s easy. Just store the pack clean without anything nasty caked to the inside.
Cleaning: If you choose to wax your skis yourself, you probably have a good idea of what you’re doing. In short, you’ll clean up the edges with a diamond stone, apply a coat of wax with an iron, let it cool, then thoroughly scrape it from tip to tail with a scraper. Brush with a brass brush, then polish with a fiber pad. Not sure how to do it? Watch a video or ask someone at a ski shop before tackling it for the first time.
Repairs: Take care of any dings right away—minor damages to the base can be peeled off with a sharp knife to prevent catching and dragging. The gouge can be patched later.
Storage: Clean and dry your skis, and take care of any minor burrs that could result in rust. Store skis upright, preferably in a rack out of direct sunlight.
Cleaning: Self preservation means keeping load-bearing (i.e. life-saving) gear in peak condition. Keep as much dirt off the rope as possible by flaking it on a rope bag or tarp when climbing outside, and never step on it. When your rope gets dirty, wash it with warm water and a designated rope wash and rope brush, feeling for soft spots, which can mean that section is core shot. Rinse thoroughly until the water runs clear. Hang the rope in large loops over a railing to avoid annoying pigtails as it dries.
Repairs: The best way to repair a rope you’re unsure about is to not repair a rope you’re unsure about. Don’t risk it. Turn it into outdoorsy home decor by making a lovely rug.
Storage: After thoroughly cleaning and drying your rope, flake it loosely into a rope bag or tie it into a butterfly coil. Store in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight. When you take it out for the first use of the season, check the entire length up and down for soft spots.
Fiery Gizzard is a popular trail near Tracy City, Tennessee. Ranked as one of the top 25 trails in the country by Backpacker magazine, it has spectacular views, rocky river gorges, and plenty of waterfalls along the way. This route is a great training run for a technical ultramarathon, or for a trail runner who wants more of a challenge.
What Makes It Great
If you are looking for a long and challenging trail run with some technical aspects, this is the one for you. It happens to be one of the most gorgeous routes in the country, too, which might help to distract you from how hard you’re working.
You can start off Fiery Gizzard Road or off Foster Falls Road—both ways will have challenging terrain. From Fiery Gizzard Road south, warm up on the two-mile Grundy Forest Day Loop, or just head straight to Fiery Gizzard (the beginning is relatively easy anyway). It won’t take long before you’ll start to see some of the area’s waterfalls and other natural wonders, like the Black Canyon and Chimney Rock, a 20-foot-tall rock column.
Around the 1.5-mile mark, you’ll come across one of the connecting trails, Dog Hole Trail. You can follow the connector trail up to Raven’s Point Overlook, which is an easier route, or you can choose to stay on the Fiery Gizzard Trail and drop down into the canyon for a couple miles of rocky terrain. If you stay on Fiery Gizzard, be prepared for some of the most challenging running you’ll ever find in Tennessee. And you’ll still have a steep climb back up near Raven’s Point. Either way, Raven’s Point Overlook is one of the best views on the trail, so you’ll definitely want to take a break up there.
Continuing on from Raven’s Point, you pass some smaller waterfalls and an old moonshine still before a rocky descent into Laurel Branch Gorge. Once you reach the other side, you’ve still got 2.5 miles to go. The rest of the trail will follow a somewhat level path along the bluffs, and ending just past Foster Falls, where you can turn around and do it all over again or get picked up at the nearby parking lot.
Who is Going to Love It
Fiery Gizzard is a strenuous adventure with its steep terrain and 12.5-mile distance. If you take on the challenge, you’ll see a number of waterfalls including Foster Falls, Yellow Pine Falls, Blue Hole Falls, and Sycamore Falls. On the other hand, if the 12.5 miles isn’t enough of a challenge, you can jump on one of the connecting trails, like Dog Hole Trail and Grundy Forest, or add on the two-mile Grundy Forest Day Loop.
If you are new to trail running, you may want to hike Fiery Gizzard first (or at least plan to spend some time hi
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Fiery Gizzard Trail is accessible from US-41 through Tracy City. You can also come from I-24 at Monteagle.
Located along the Tennessee border in the corner of Southwest Virginia, Scott County is an Appalachian getaway known for its heritage music, artists, scenic trails, and historic mountain towns. A family-friendly trip to Scott County can be filled with both amazing outdoor experiences and a celebration of the area's Appalachian culture. For those looking to explore the region, here's a quick guide on escaping the everyday to unplug in this scenic region of Southwest Virginia.
While you can find incredible views throughout the county, the area's signature attraction is theNatural Tunnel State Park. More than 850 feet long and as high as a 10-story building, Natural Tunnel was naturally carved through a limestone ridge over thousands of years. William Jennings Bryan called it the "Eighth Wonder of the World." Other scenic features include a wide chasm between steep stone walls surrounded by several pinnacles, or chimneys.
The facilities at the park include a campground, cabins, picnic areas—and the recent addition of yurts for those who want to try a different kind of camping. There's an amphitheater, swimming pool, and a chair lift to the tunnel floor. The park also offers cave tours and canoe trips on the Clinch River, as well as the Cove Ridge Center, which offers environmental education, conference facilities and overnight dorm accommodations. Just outside the park, the family owned Appalachian Mountain Cabins offer fully furnished cabins that are perfect for everything from a romantic weekend to a family vacation. Most cabins are equipped with outdoor grills and fire pits, and you're located just minutes from Natural Tunnel State Park.
You'll find seven fairly short trails in the park but by interconnecting them, hikers can manage 4+ mile hike. Five of the trails are fairly level. The Purchase Ridge Trail climbs a little over a mile to an elevation of 2200 ft, the park's highest point. The climb is strenuous to a scenic overlook of the tunnel from a distance. The less than half mile Tunnel Trail leads down into the gorge for a close up of the tunnel itself. It's a steep hike back up.
The park also features a number of educational programs for children, in addition to a replica of the Wilderness Road Blockhouse. Built in the late 1700s, the original Anderson Blockhouse was designed to protect settlers from attacks by Native Americans. Located at the edge of the Wilderness Trail, it became an important stop-over for those traveling to Kentucky. Settlers would stay there until they had enough people and rifles to make the trip west. An estimated 300,000 people would pass through the blockhouse on their journey on the Wilderness Trail. In 2003, a replica of the blockhouse was built in the Natural Tunnel State Park, and an adjacent visitors center offers information on life in the 1700s.
The other major outdoor attraction in the county is theHigh Knob Recreation Area. Part of the Jefferson National Forest in Southwest Virginia, it sits at 3,800 feet above sea level, making it the highest campground in the region. Visitors can enjoy a 4-acre cold-water lake with a 300-foot long sand swimming beach, excellent hiking trails, and a lookout tower that offers a view of five states. But its small size (only 14 campsites are available) and relative remoteness means that it doesn't draw the crowds of other camping destinations. You'll find excellent access to hiking trails in the Jefferson National Forest, but you can stay in the recreation area and take advantage well-kept trails as well.
One of the area's best hikes is to Stony Falls in the Jefferson National Forest (make sure to stop at Mann's Farm in Fort Blackmore, Va., for the freshest strawberries). Takling the Devil's Fork Loop Trail is an option, but it's a strenuous climb where you can expect to get wet. Instead, the Little Stony trail offers footbridges over the creeks that avoid stream crossings, and at 2.8 miles the trail is a much more manageable distance—and you get the same amazing views. Take a break as you ascend 600 feet at the various bridges on the route and enjoy the rushing currents below and the hemlock canopy above.
The most popular paddling spot in the area is the Clinch River, one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the United States The Clinch is one of the top three cleanest rivers in the United States, and more mussel species exist in the Clinch River than any other river in the world. You'll find public access points created every 2-4 hours for visitor convenience. To help with a trip, theClinch Valley Outfitters can rent equipment or provided guided floating or fishing excursions on the more than 100 miles of waterways in Scott County.
In addition to its natural beauty, Scott County is known for its celebration of Heritage music. You'll find a number of places to experience jam sessions every week. Dungannon Music Night held monthly offers country, bluegrass or gospel music at the Historic Dungannon Depot. The Clinch Mountain Music Fest held in Gate City each June allows visitors to experience the best traditional music at a weekend long festival with unique events like a watermelon seed spitting contest, various bike races, geocaching, and a photography contest.
The most influential musicians to come out of Scott County belong to the Carter Family, and the Carter Family Fold was created to celebrate their role in the creation of what's become traditional country music. Founded by Janette Carter, one of three children of A.P. and Sara Carter, the Carter Family Fold honors the memory of her parents and Maybelle Carter, who played a historic role in helping give birth to Country Music.
The original Carter Family lived on this hallowed ground, right where the Carter Fold is today, in Poor Valley, at the foot of Clinch Mountain in southwest Virginia. Since 1974, the non-profit Carter Music Center has presented programs to promote old time and bluegrass music every weekend. Saturday concerts highlight the musical style made popular by the Carter Family and in keeping with the traditional music style, no electrical instruments are allowed (everything is acoustic). Carter Family Fold is an international tourist attraction on theCrooked Road historic music trail, which features venues throughout Southwest Virginia.
For more history, take a stroll down historic downtown Gate City. You can enjoy antiquing at the many shops along Jackson Street and grab a bite to eat at unique eateries such as The Family Bakery, The Blue Rooster Café, and
El Potrillo. The town was known as the gateway to the western frontier when it was founded in 1775 and it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Looking for activities that are more for the kids? TheCreation Kingdom Zoo in Gate City is the only zoo or animal habitat facility in the region featuring big cats. They also have a large collection of primates, some of which are among the rarest on Earth. In the fall, Pumpkin Patch Farms provides hayrides, a farm petting zoo and corn maze for a wonderful family outing. It's also home to the Allen Hicks' Jam Session is here every Friday night. At the Wilderness Road Blockhouse, you can experience what life was like on the 1775 frontier, through reenactments and hands-on demonstrations. Considered the start of the Wilderness Road, the blockhouse features educational programs on Saturday and Sunday.
You have plenty oflodging choices in the region—from historic bed and breakfasts to cabin camping. And you will find lots of locally ownedrestaurants to explore. So take a long weekend and unplug—you won't find a more scenic place to do it than Scott County.
Originally written by RootsRated for Southwest Virginia.
The endless Atacama desert laid before me, broken by salt flats and rugged mountains, bleak even in the soft light of dawn. I had a headache, pulsing in time with the bus’s engine, and I laid my forehead against the cool glass and watched the altiplano roll by. I felt terrible—a combination of sleep deprivation, dehydration, and altitude. The bus’s bathroom was out of order (a somewhat common issue), and I’d decided that deliberate, low-grade dehydration was better than waiting for a bathroom stop that wouldn’t happen anytime soon. The altitude wasn’t helping either—we were somewhere over 15,000 feet, the highest I’d ever been. In an hour, we would cross from Chile to Argentina, a border made up of nothing more than a few buildings and fences huddled together in the surrounding moonscape, split by a rugged two lane highway.
I flew into Argentina in January 2013. Customs “required” proof of exit (to keep aimless travelers like me from getting stuck in the country) so I’d looked over Google Maps just before buying my flights. I decided flying out of Argentina would be too easy, so I found a place on the other side of the continent and bought a return ticket from Quito, Ecuador for August. I did not check the distance or do any research whatsoever. I figured it couldn’t be too far. It was a bold plan considering I didn’t speak Spanish.
After five months of living and working in Puerto Madryn and Argentinean Patagonia, I bought a map of South America to plan my route, and suddenly realized just how far Quito was. As the crow flies, it’s about 3000 miles. By car, it’s 4,200 miles. For context, that’s around the same distance as driving from New York City to Fairbanks, Alaska. I was close to giving up and buying a flight, but instead I decided to make it even longer and travel by bus.
This isn't a specific travel guide. I didn’t travel with any specific destinations in mind. I barely even planned my trip, so I am in no way confident that I went to the best places, though I certainly enjoyed them. Instead, this is a blueprint for a different type of trip, governed not by final destinations but by full commitment to a method of travel: Pick a start date, an end date, and a method—the rest can evolve as you go.
I went wherever I felt drawn. My only rule was that I needed to get to Quito by August 1st (a month and a half out), and my only guideline was that each new stop ought to be either north or west, though I ignored this sometimes; I once went 16 hours completely out of the way to visit a mountain range I’d seen in a photo.
Bus travel was a perfect method of transport due to its ritualized simplicity—arrive in a town, purchase the ticket for the next trip (or wait and see how much I liked the new place), walk into town, find something to do for a day or two, get back to the bus station, and get on another bus.
I traveled around 6,514 miles by repeating this pattern for a month and a half.
Foreign bus travel feels sustainable because it’s so passive. After the frantic energy of finding each new bus station, I’d settle into yet another seat and give up all responsibility (for directions, traffic, and access to the outside world). I’d sink into the reverie of the bus, a waking dream filled with journaling, music, reading, and absurd Spanish dubbed movies which did very little to teach me Spanish. When the anxiety of inactivity rose, thrumming in my stomach, I’d shuffle around the bus, stretching where room allowed, before curling back into my seat. Bus travel is an endless exercise in managing monotony. Once I had enough practice, I was never bored. It was like meditating. I’d spend hours staring out the window.
I even came to look forward to the next bus. I’d find myself in yet another churning city, and by the end of the day, I’d look forward to the simple peace of my next bus seat. I’d arrive at the station, my daybag filled with snacks and water, and navigate through throngs of people to a bus, gently rumbling in the chaos. I’d hand my bags to the driver. He’d give me a claim ticket, and I’d give him una propina (small tips are customary for the luggage handlers), before climbing into the bus and finding a window seat.
The South American bus system is extremely impressive for its affordability and range. Almost every small town is accessible from some bus (though it may not run every day, and you may get stuck for a few days before you realize this). Buses are generally clean and spacious, though the more you pay, the more likely this will be true. The Argentinean and Chilean buses are especially impressive, with food and drinks served to your seat, and featuring a variety of seat types, from standard coach bus seats to “cama suite” in which the seat reclines to fully flat. In Argentina and Chile, I typically rode semi-cama or cama-ejecutivo, with seats that reclined around 40 degrees (almost enough to sleep comfortably). Farther north, the buses have less amenities, but cost significantly less.
Fact: bus times are only approximate. Arrive at the station 15 minutes early, but be prepared to wait for up to three hours, with few explanations. Once on the bus, do not be surprised by slow border crossings, breakdowns severe enough to require transferring to a new bus, and political demonstrations that may involve burning tires and barricades on all the roads into and out of a city. This last scenario will slow you down as much as seven hours. But don’t worry: you’ll get somewhere eventually.
At some point after getting on the bus (my shortest trip was around half an hour, and my longest was 31 hours), I’d arrive in a new town, a process I also ritualized. Since I often took overnight buses (to save on paying for places to sleep), I’d watch the sun come up, blearily staring through foggy windows. In the new light, people would emerge from their homes and begin their days. The bus would shudder to a stop at some bus station or curb, and I’d struggle out of the bus sore from immobility. I’d wrestle my bags onto my shoulders, turning slowly until I found a sign or map that led to “El Centro”, and I’d walk into town. At some point, I’d find a hostel, and if it was cheap and/or clean, I’d pay, put my things in a locker (bring a combination lock), and head out into the town for breakfast. After breakfast, I’d rent a bike and travel through the city, visiting markets and parks, feeling the rhythm of the town. If the town was small enough, I’d bike out into the countryside (and occasionally pop a tire and have to walk back). If it was big, I’d take city buses to the nearest nature preserve or park and wander till dusk.
At night, I’d return to my hostel, cook a simple dinner, and talk (or not talk) to the other travelers, a euphony of blending languages and accents. They’d tell me where they’d come from, and we’d compare notes over cheap beer and wine, trading tips like “Bolivia doesn’t actually check whether you’ve got a yellow fever vaccination card, even if it’s technically required”. Other travelers were the best resources, far more effective than any guidebook. I rarely met anyone I couldn’t talk to in either English, Spanish, or my broken French, though often conversations were strange mixes of accents and idioms.
When I started my journey northwest, I was never certain if I’d make it to Quito. If I’d ever grown sick of buses, I would have found another way to get back to the States. But the truth is, as I settled into the lifestyle, I loved it more and more. And while I’m not saying this method of travel is better than any other, I discovered something else in the endless bus rides and the countless small streets I wandered through. I found out why I travel: for freedom and spontaneity, to get lost and to see what happens in all its novel mundanity, to sit by a lake and read a book for six hours, to spend a few days living with new friends.
And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with making plans, I worry that they’re a way to try not to miss anything. But here’s an unavoidable truth: you’ll always miss something. I’m certain I missed incredible places on my way northwest. But I also know I found places and experiences that are integral to who I am, even now, four years later.
I reached Quito on the morning of August 1st, after an eight hour bus ride from the coast. My flight home would leave that evening. I wandered through the city, feeling lost in the knowledge that I’d be in another world the next day. I visited a botanical garden and looked up at North American trees that I’d soon see in the wild. I wandered through a market and felt all the particular qualities that made Quito unique and similar to all the other towns I’d visited. When the sun set, I found my final bus, a city bus, and rode the thirty minutes to the airport. The system of security checkpoints and baggage checking seemed overly complex. And when I was finally aboard the plane, listening to the turbines churning the air, watching the land pass far below, I missed the thrumming bumpy simplicity of a bus.
Along the banks of the mighty Klamath River in far northern California rests a sleepy mountain town. Steeped in history, fraught with lawlessness, altered by industry, and even haunted by the legend of Bigfoot himself, the oddly-named settlement of Happy Camp has beckoned eclectic groups of miners, adventurers, and mysterious lone wolves throughout its tumultuous history.
Located in proximity to nothing—the closest city of Yreka is over 60 miles and several hours away—and surrounded by the vast, rugged wilderness of the Klamath Mountains, Happy Camp remains one of the Pacific Northwest’s final frontiers. “The Heart of the Klamath” is aptly named. Situated on a large bar—an elevated plain of sediment—on the serpentine course of the 263-mile long Klamath River, this town of just over 1,000 people is nestled in the northwestern reaches of the 1.7-million acre Klamath National Forest. Its remote location and topographic isolation have gleefully worked in tandem to help it remain one of California’s best kept secrets.
With a struggling economy, seasonal forest fires, and isolation from many major services, Happy Camp is a rugged town with a strong survival ethic. Its economic profile is one dominated by outdoor recreation and the United States Forest Service, which maintains a regional ranger district and wildfire work crew headquarters in town. And it’s absolutely perfect for adventuring. Hardy explorers with a knack for self-sufficiency who prefer to trek off the beaten path will find just about everything to do in this town with seemingly nothing to do. Easy access to its pristine wilderness makes Happy Camp a hidden hub for backpacking, peak bagging, paddling, fishing, mountain biking, camping, and, yes, even Bigfoot hunting.
Happy Camp wasn’t always tiny, nor was it always happy—the town has experienced boom-and-bust in a frantic cycle befitting of its Wild West aura and roughneck way of life.
Although the area was settled by Westerners in the mid-1800s, the indigenous peoples of the Karuk Tribe called the Klamath River home and subsisted on its legendary salmon runs long before the recorded history of white men. Long before it became an incorporated town, the swath of scattered California Gold Rush camps was known as Murderer’s Bar due to infighting over gold claims and cultural clashes between miners and the Karuk.
A Not-So-Happy Camp
Several theories explain the bipolar switch from Murderer’s Bar to Happy Camp. One of the more detailed accounts states that Jack Titus named the mining camp in honor of his partner, James Camp, who, upon arriving to the Klamath, proclaimed that it was “the happiest day in my life.” According to a history of the area by local historian Gail Jenner, a party of miners simply proclaimed that the area’s prospects looked promising and declared their choice of settlement to be a “happy camp.” Some modern day locals will tell you that incessant crime and violence among miners ceased overnight when a massive gold vein was discovered, producing enough gold for every miner to strike it rich. The accounts conjure images of Spaghetti Western saloon brawls where mustachioed bandits pause, mid-punch, and began to hug each other as gold coins plink down on tables covered in frothy beer mugs.
The region’s next big movement picked up steam in 1941, during the calm before the storm of World War II. Fed up with environmental restrictions from state governments in Salem and Sacramento, disgruntled citizens of southern Oregon and northern California organized in the name of statehood. Banding together under symbolic rule of their own unofficial government, the rogues representing the southernmost Oregon and northernmost California counties aimed to secede and become the 51st state—the State of Jefferson. Just ten days after supporters staged an intimidating road block on the CA-OR border, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and national attention shifted toward unification and the war effort.
Although the movement was effectively silenced, supporters of the State of Jefferson still exist, and the green flag bearing a yellow gold pan with a double X is noticeable in and around Happy Camp. Souvenir hunters should keep an eye out for State of Jefferson T-shirts available around the area—these are sure to spark conversation anywhere you go. The road north from Happy Camp to Oregon that climbs over Grayback Pass was named the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway to commemorate the movement. The road, which is the most direct way to access the Smith River and many trailheads of the Siskiyou Wilderness, is worth a drive, and a pull-off with interpretive signage detailing the political history provides an epic view of the Klamath and Marble mountain ranges to the south.
Despite the bust of the California Gold Rush, Happy Camp continued to grow as a logging town throughout the 1900s. With millions of acres of old growth forest, loggers worked at a frantic pace to profit from the seemingly endless stock of timber. The town saw its heyday during the logging boom of the 1970s and 80s, when the population hovered around 2,500 and supported four saw mills that produced nearly 50 million board-feet of timber per year. According to the USFS River Ranger Dave Payne, who has paddled the Klamath for over 30 years, Happy Camp was a hoppin’ place with a handful of successful enterprises and a funky disco bar.
But, as is often the case with any extractive boom, the bust soon followed. When the spotted owl was listed as an endangered species in the mid-1980s, and an anemic 10% of old growth forest remained, a logging moratorium effectively signaled the end of Happy Camp’s happy days. The industry disappeared overnight, and the town’s population dwindled to its current state, taking the local economy with it.
The last sawmill shut down in 1994, and Happy Camp was a town divided. Miners and loggers clashed with environmentalists, and over half of the town’s households were on some form of public assistance. In the wake of the timber industry, gold mining saw a resurgence. Controversial in nature and rarely producing real economic benefit for anyone but the claim owners, gold mining on the Klamath River involved suction dredging—removing material from the riverbed, sifting for gold flakes and nuggets, and depositing the detritus in tailings along the river bank. This practice proved to be devastating to fisheries, and was halted by a 2009 moratorium put in place by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
What remains in Happy Camp? Not much, which is exactly why you should go. A grocery store, gas station, hotel, convenience store, saloon, café, pizza restaurant, and basic services like auto parts and a bank have survived tough times. Interestingly, a thriving arts scene exists, supported by a tight-knit band of environmentalists, hippies, and back-to-the-landers. The Klamath-Siskiyou Art Center is housed in a converted mechanic’s garage painted with salmon in emerald water, and proudly boasts a giant metal Bigfoot sculpture in the parking lot. The Karuk Tribe has maintained its tribal headquarters in Happy Camp, and has been at odds, in one way or another, with white settlers since their arrival during the California Gold Rush.
Adventure á La Carte
While Happy Camp is certainly not a tourist trap, the land surrounding it is reason enough to earn it a spot on your bucket list. It’s the gateway to a wondrous wilderness where old growth stands of a pine, fir, and cedar tower over twisty trails traversing steep slopes and crystal clear mountain streams.
Happy Camp is situated on the Klamath River about halfway down a fantastic whitewater stretch that’s ideal for multi-day packrafting trips. Running from the Tree of Heaven put-in all the way down to the mandatory takeout above Ishi Pishi Falls—a class VI drop that’s also the spiritual center of the Karuk world—over 100 miles of rapids and long, calm pools await adventurous paddlers. Most day trippers put on the Klamath right in Happy Camp at Indian Creek and run the stellar class III section to the Coon Creek take-out, including the Rattlesnake (III) and Dragon’s Tooth (IV) rapids, and a truly adventurous hike up Ukonom Creek to Ukonom Falls.
The true gems of the region, however, are the tributaries that flow into the Klamath—gorgeous emerald waters fill deep swimming holes carved through granite and schist where swimmers can see pebbles and fish meters below the surface. The best swimming holes are found on Elk Creek, on Dillon Creek just behind the Dillon Creek Campground, and along Clear Creek a mile or so down from the No Mans Trailhead.
Also known as the “Steelhead Capital of the World”, Happy Camp is a major destination for anglers. Whether casting with a spin reel or a fly rod, the deep pools of the Klamath and over 100 mountain lakes offer plenty of places to drop your line.
Because of the region’s rugged and remote nature, backpackers will find solace and solitude along the massive pine forests, rocky ridges, and alpine meadows of the Klamath Mountains. Highway 96 and the Forest Service roads that shoot up the mountainsides like veins offer amazing access to a wealth of trailheads. Hikers and backpackers can easily embark on multi-day outings in the Siskiyou and Marble Mountain Wilderness areas, providing access to over 400,000 combined acres of pristine wild lands.
Located entirely within the Klamath National Forest, the Marble Mountain Wilderness is the crown jewel of the Klamath. Craggy peaks of red and gray limestone and metamorphic rock give the range its name and a marbled appearance, and even offer entrance to the Bigfoot Cave—the ninth-deepest cave in America. The Pacific Crest Trail cuts through 32 miles of the Marble Mountain Wilderness, passing just below the 7,442-foot glacially-scoured summit of Black Marble Mountain. With elevations ranging from 400 feet to the 8,299-foot summit of Boulder Peak, peak baggers will have plenty of relief to explore. A lifetime’s worth of lakes—89 to be exact—and plenty of trout provide primitive relaxation for anglers and swimmers, so don’t forget your fly rod.
Primitive and staffed campgrounds are plentiful, meaning you’ll rarely ever have to worry about a campground being full. Bust out the two-burner stove and your biggest tent for excellent car camping in Curly Jack, Dillon Creek, or Sulphur Springs campgrounds. Cruise up the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway and set up shop at Kelly Lake, the closest mountain lake to Happy Camp, and the easiest way to access the Siskiyou Wilderness.
Sure, Happy Camp doesn’t have much to offer those looking for luxury amenities, restaurants, or nightlife, but that’s precisely what makes it perfect for adventurers seeking wilderness immersion with a pioneering vibe. While most people have never heard of Happy Camp, those who have spent time on the Klamath’s frothy rapids and have hiked among its old growth forests join the cult-like ranks of the Bigfoot-obsessed. So stock up on supplies, grab your maps, and head into the Heart of the Klamath. You’re sure to become a Happy Camper.