Happy Camp
Small-scale Gold Prospecting
Capital of the World

by Marcie Stumpf/Foley

Mining has played a major role in Happy Camp, California ever since its establishment in 1851. Local people tell of families who earned a living during the lean years of the depression by mining and, as recently as 1986, an active local major gold mine, the Noranda mine, closed after producing hundreds of thousands of ounces of gold. In the last few years, small-scale gold prospecting has increased in the area, as people travel from all over the world to seek Happy Camp’s rich gold deposits.

Today, Happy Camp is just about the same size as it always was, and is just about as rural as you can get in the state of California. It has the distinction of being too far away from anywhere to be able to commute, and local industry is extremely limited.

Happy Camp is very near the Oregon border, nestled in the heart of the Klamath River Canyon, on Highway 96. It is approximately 74 miles west of Yreka and Interstate 5, and is approximately 138 miles northeast of the town of Eureka on the coast. To the north are the peaks of the Siskiyou Mountains, with Grants Pass, Oregon about 70 miles distant, and to the south lie the peaks of the Marble Mountain Wilderness and the Trinity Mountains.

For those interested in small-scale gold prospecting and mining, this secluded setting is perfect. Not as close or accessible as mining areas in the Mother Lode, this area has not been as heavily worked. It is also an area where gold deposits are laid down in flood times in the many gravel bars, in layers—sometimes in a layer only a foot, or 18 inches below the surface of the material. Many of these gold deposits are very accessible, and have proven to be quite rewarding for people working with gold pans, sluices and motorized sluicing gear. These types of mining, besides dredging, are done all along the Klamath River from I-5 to many miles below the town of Happy Camp.

Dredging is accomplished with all sizes of dredges, up to eight inches. Although the Klamath is a fairly large river, there are many sections which have shallow bedrock areas, suitable for working with very small dredges. Another feature that dredgers particularly like is the fact that below the confluence with the Scott River, located about 45 miles upriver from Happy Camp, dredging is open all year long.

Many of the tributary streams in this area are gold bearing. Most have some gold dredging activity. They generally contain beautiful nugget gold, but most require boulder-moving equipment, and the gold deposits are usually contained in scattered pockets.

One of the newer methods of mining that is enjoying recent success in this area is electronic prospecting; or hunting for gold nuggets with a metal detector. Recent advances made in nugget detectors, which allow them to function more efficiently in heavily mineralized soil, have opened up an entirely new dimension for exploration.

Mining is not the only activity for vacationers in this area, and many families come here to enjoy an all-around vacation. River rafting is very popular, and there are several companies who provide trips lasting anywhere from a few hours, to several days, including gourmet cooking, and excellent experienced guides. Pack trips into the neighboring wilderness area are offered, and can provide an unforgettable experience for anyone seeking the natural beauty and serenity of the high mountain areas.

The Klamath River is a well-known area for its fishing, and fishermen are common all along the river. You can fish on your own for steelhead and salmon, or take advantage of professional guides who provide drift boat trips, and can even furnish all necessary equipment. Trout fishing is popular in the nearby streams and lakes, with Kelly Lake providing some of the best sport.

Happy Camp has stores that can provide almost all necessities. There are several motels, and both private and U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, all of whom provide comfortable and reasonably priced lodgings. You won’t find a McDonald’s, but there is a hamburger stand, and a pizza place. In addition, there are two restaurants, both providing good home-style cooking.

Happy Camp is not a glitzy, tourist trap town by any means. There are people here who actually make a living by mining for gold.

For those interested in rockhounding, Happy Camp is world famous for its jade, and has an actual working Jade mine. It is also known for the local deposits of gem-grade rhodonite. Garnets, platinum, and pyrites are also often panned-out, along with gold. Round, smooth jade pieces are commonly found along the riverbanks in the shallows, in a very wide variety of colors. Large sapphires have also been found locally, and the old-timers even found some diamonds!

As you can see, the area has much to offer, so whether planning your vacation or just a short outing, this is definitely an area you may want to try. The people are friendly, the gold is great, and the fun and relaxation offers something for the whole family.