Full disclosure: I am no Bigfoot junkie. In fact, before strapping my mom, my 3-year-old and myself in the car and traveling north on U.S. 101 to Arcata, Calif., then swinging east on California 299 to the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of Willow Creek, I believed all things Sasquatch were laughable at best.
I knew that lots of honest folks did believe that Bigfoot or Sasquatch or, as crypto-zoologists call him, Gigantopithecus, not only exists but also thrives in Klamath River country between the Humboldt County coast and the Shasta Cascade. That was enough to pique my curiosity.
In Willow Creek, we headed to the China Flat Museum to meet the curator of its Bigfoot exhibit, Al Hodgson. Now 87, Hodgson carries his adoration for all things Sasquatch on his sleeve, showing me around the vast collection of unreasonably large casts of footprints (one of which Hodgson made in nearby Bluff Creek, site of the only known filmed Bigfoot "sighting"), as well as schooling me on the history of "sightings" in and around Willow Creek and the hoaxes.
Yes, tricksters have strapped on giant wooden feet and traipsed around the mountains in them. Levelheaded Hodgson explained the main signs of the big guy's existence: a woven nest of sticks and leaves, an amazingly horrid stench, piled rocks, twisted tree limbs and massive tracks.
Itching to get into nature, we drove along the aptly named Bigfoot Scenic Byway, which meanders along the Trinity and Klamath rivers, sinuously inching past peaks blanketed with verdant trees, yellow fields and dramatic lupines. For nearly 80 miles this byway took us as far from civilization as you can get in California without hiking into the backcountry.
We continued through the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, the largest in California, and home to people who believe the high country is sacred and should not be entered by anyone but the most revered medicine men.
Yet people did. When Forest Service crews were constructing the Go Road (now called Eyesee Road), just north of the Hoopa reservation, they would arrive at the project site in the morning to find their bulldozers turned over, 500-pound tires thrown down the mountain and giant footprints littering the scene. The Hoopa shrugged in the I-told-you-so manner of the knowing, but then the Bigfoot hunters began arriving like crazy. Eyesee Road was snowed in, so we continued north through the Marble Mountain Wilderness to Happy Camp, a former logging town rich with Bigfoot lore (or kitsch, depending on your perspective) and untouched natural beauty. Along the road we passed a baby black bear, a bobcat, herds of deer, a dense collection of birds, but no Bigfoot.
I learned from a local friend that there have been many Bigfoot sightings near Happy Camp's Elk Creek Bridge, so we stopped in an attempt to snap a picture. We were greeted instead by picture-postcard views of the river gushing through the forest, with shades of green unseen in even the most thriving botanical garden. It became clear why Bigfoot selected these particular mountains. Not only would it be easy for him to hide, but the landscape also puts Yosemite to shame.
Though battered by the economy, Happy Camp lives up to its name, with effusive locals eager to share their interactions with Sasquatch, whether it be at Bigfoot Towing, Bigfoot RV & Cabins or at Bigfoot Rafting. But that's not all they share. Give a shout and locals will take you to Clear Creek, the local swimming hole that rivals those in Tahiti, then guide you down the river on a raft to spot bald eagles (or Sasquatch, if you're lucky).
Just as we pulled out of town, there was Bigfoot standing in all his glory. Well — more like a massive junk metal sculpture crafted by locals eager to deliver a photo op for travelers. We finally saw the big guy, though, unfortunately, not the living, breathing one.