How a California Small Town Became the Bigfoot Capital of the World

Hear the stories, see the proof, scour the woods—and decide for yourself.

a bigfoot statue outside a small museum
The legend comes to life in Northern California. | Ian Dagnall/Alamy Stock Photo
The legend comes to life in Northern California. | Ian Dagnall/Alamy Stock Photo

The first thing you need to know about Willow Creek, California, is that people genuinely believe. Some would go so far as to say that openly declaring you do not believe is a social faux pas; after all, why would you come to the Bigfoot Capital of the World if you didn’t hope to find Bigfoot? No—here, to be a skeptic is to sit on the home side and cheer boisterously for the visiting team. As far as locals are concerned, Sasquatch is roaming the hills as realistically as there are unknown species swimming in the depths of the ocean or hiding in the dense forests of the Amazon. And they might just be right.

About an hour from Redwood National Park and the Pacific Coast, the community of Willow Creek is tight-knit, comprised of fewer than 2,000 people. Everyone is an outdoorsy type; it’s what brings them to this part of the world, where your neighbors are miles and miles of backcountry, rushing rivers, and things that go bump in the night. Although big city amenities are few to none—you certainly won’t find any big-name hotels or scene-y bars out here—plenty of other things exist in abundance: campsites, rafting companies, hiking trails, fishing spots—not to mention places to come face-to-face with the beast.

“When I look into my ‘backyard,’ it is into Bigfoot Territory. It is into vast wilderness not occupied by humans,” shares Shannon Hughes, a longtime resident who recently joined the board of the town’s Bigfoot Museum. Before moving to Willow Creek, she completed a Master’s degree in natural resource interpretation; now, she works to document not just the history of the town, but of the potential evidence of Bigfoot discovered over the years.

“You could be wandering around back in the hills and exploring, and doing something totally different: mushroom hunting, deer hunting, bear hunting, mountain biking, whatever it might be. And those are the situations that people are in when they have encounters.”

Willow Creek is the beating heart of Bigfoot Country, where there have been more than 300 documented sasquatch sightings. The most famous is one you’ve likely already heard of or seen: In 1967 in Bluff Creek, about an hour north of Willow Creek in Six Rivers National Forest, a pair of campers shot 60 seconds worth of footage depicting a massive, ape-like creature. It walks along a riverbank—moving briskly, arms swinging—before glancing back at the camera for a split second. The videotape, watched by believers and skeptics the world over, became known as the Patterson–Gimlin film. Despite calls of fraud and rampant disbelief, to this day, it has yet to be officially debunked.

bigfoot artifacts
Willow Creek's Bigfoot Museum houses artifacts and encounter stories. | Gary Crabbe/Enlightened Images/Alamy Stock Photo

“It was the sound of a giant, howling and screaming”

“I get a thrill out of living in a place where I know that there are giants walking around,” says Rudy Breuning, the former Master of Ceremonies for the International Bigfoot Symposium, who became a believer while working in Alaska. There, he met an Indigenous elder who claimed that once, as a child, she’d been picking blueberries when she turned around to spot an enormous, hairy, humanoid figure lingering nearby.

In each village he visited afterward, Breuning would ask locals whether or not they’d seen such an animal. And in every village, locals were in agreement: there was something out there. By the time he made it to Northern California, Breuning was not merely “fairly confident,” but absolutely certain that the creature existed—and in fact, it was en route from the Last Frontier that he had his first encounter.

Breuning and a friend stopped to camp overnight on the border of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory at Liard Hot Springs—a beautiful, deep, turquoise blue natural pool with one unsettling abnormality. “The weird thing about the place was that it was pristine, except that the trails that led off into the wilderness were all covered up with plywood—like ramshackle, big walls of plywood blocking the trails,” Breuning says. “Then spray painted on there, it said ‘Extreme Grizz Hazard.’”

They didn’t think much of it. But that evening at a nearby bar, things took an unusual turn. “I was sitting in the bar and I was talking to the bartender. I go, Hey, so what’s the deal with the grizzly problem here? And he's like, Dude, it's not grizzlies. I said, What? And he said: It ain't grizzlies. And then he looked at me really funny,” Breuning says.

“I didn't quite know what he was getting at, but that night I had a real bad headache because I was super dehydrated from soaking too long [in the hot springs]. So I was up at two in the morning sitting there with a headache, and I heard the sound.”

“I lived in the bush in Alaska and I've lived in the wilderness ever since,” Breuning says. “I know every animal sound that's out there, and this is something that is so completely different from anything you'll ever hear in the wilderness,” Breuning says. “It was the sound of a giant, howling and screaming. It’s the only time in my life my hair actually stood up. I went in the next morning to talk to the bartender, and he was like, Yeah—now you know.

That encounter was what convinced him to pursue further research into the existence of Bigfoot.

a bigfoot track casting
Check out the evidence and decide what you believe. | Paul Juser/Shutterstock

What evidence of Bigfoot actually exists?

Whatever your opinion, existing data makes for a pretty compelling argument—if not for the straight-up existence of Bigfoot, then at least for reasonable confidence. It’s not unusual for scientists to newly discover animals and sea creatures that have gone thousands of years without documentation. The backcountry United States contains hundreds of miles of untamed wilderness, making it easy for isolated creatures to go undetected. There’s the documented existence of the gigantopithecus, an extinct genus of ape that closely resembles descriptions of Bigfoot. (Hell, it’s now widely accepted that we’re not alone in the universe—is it so unbelievable that, in all of nature, there’s an upright ape that’s difficult to spot?)

One particularly convincing piece of evidence you can see at the Bigfoot Museum: a plaster cast of an 18-inch Bigfoot track taken in the 1960s that, according to University of Idaho professor of anatomy and anthropology Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, is the real deal, the telltale sign being the presence of dermal ridges (essentially, the ridges on the palms of our hands and soles of our feet).

There’s also the yet-disproven Patterson–Gimlin film, which some researchers believe is also, in fact, real. After the footage was newly rendered, Breuning recalls Meldrum pointing out to him what appears to be a femoral hernia—an injury generally sustained by athletes or, in nature, large animals—on the animal’s right thigh, a rather elaborate and minute detail for anybody, let alone two woodsmen, to recreate for a costume.

Breuning also points out that the creature appears to have breasts—again, an unusual detail for two woodsmen to consider—implying that the sasquatch in the video is a female and may be attempting to lead the filmmakers away from her newborns. (At this point, you may be thinking that it all sounds far-flung, but I encourage you—seriously!—to look closely at the video and decide for yourself.)

“For every story that's out there…there's ten more that aren’t”

Still, despite logic and collected data, it’s perhaps the stories of those who’ve had an encounter that create the most compelling argument for Bigfoot’s existence. Whose stories you chose to believe and whose you don’t, according to Shannon Hughes, is case-by-case. While some are likely tall tales (”I have been shown a picture by somebody who claims to have seen Bigfoot, and I could not see what they were seeing in that picture,” she shared), others have shared more persuasive stories about the big, wooly beast.

The difference between fact and fiction can be subtle; hard “evidence”—like Hughes’ friend’s photograph or even the Patterson-Gimlin film—is as likely to be seen by skeptics as fabrication as a certain chill in a person’s voice is to be seen as a sign of truth. It all comes down to whether or not you trust the source.

Of course, credible sources can be academic, historic, or even cultural. Breuning has met with a wide variety of experts who specialize both in Bigfoot and the larger Hominidae family: the late researcher and journalist (not to be confused with TheFault in Our Stars author) John Green, who compiled a database of more than 3,000 sightings during his lifetime; scholars like Russian hominologist Igor Burtsev and Dr. Jefferey Meldrum; and even—yes—legendary primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall, who’s spoken multiple times on why she believes Bigfoot may be out there and herself was once slated to be a keynote speaker at the International Bigfoot Symposium.

But it’s local Native American tribes whose knowledge reaches back hundreds of years and—as the individuals most intimate with the nature that envelops Bigfoot Country—whose sightings and stories carry the most weight.

The term “sasquatch” is actually derived from “sásq'ets,” a word from the Halkomelem language of the Coast Salish nation, located in the modern-day Pacific Northwest and British Colombia. Translating roughly to "wild men," sásq'ets were described as hairy, enormous beings who were considered powerful but generally harmless. Also of note—though much further south—is the Tule River Indian Reservation in central California, home to one of the most fascinating pieces of Bigfoot artifacts in existence: a series of petroglyphs created by Yokut Native Americans depicting a group of large, shaggy creatures bearing an eerie resemblance to a certain hominid. Those images, located at a site called Painted Rock, are believed to be anywhere between 500 to 1,000 years old.

“A lot of our tribal members believe in it because we've seen it. And I've heard elders talk about it,” says Michelle Hernandez, a member of the Wiyot Tribe in Humboldt County, the same county as Willow Creek. “There are too many stories for it to not be real.”

Her father, a tribal leader, has had not one, but three encounters with the creature: once—like Breuning—in the Alaskan wilderness, and two other times in Northern California, not far from the reservation. One story, Hernandez says, found he and several other members out tending to the land when suddenly, they heard a loud knocking in the forest ahead.

“He looked out of the corner of his eye and he said he saw this huge, tall—oh God, it gives you the creeps—this huge, tall figure,” Hernandez says. “The knocking grew louder. And my dad looked at the [people he was with]. And he was like, ‘We got to go. We have to go now.’” Upon their return to the reservation, when Hernandez spoke to an elder about what he’d seen, the elder confirmed his suspicions that they’d likely encountered a Bigfoot.

Although encounters aren’t necessarily uncommon in this part of the world, they’re also not necessarily something to seek out. Why Bigfoot shows and hunters feel compelled to search for and harass a creature that clearly doesn’t want to be found, Hernandez says, is a mystery to her.

“As a native person, we are taught to respect things, and to not take what's not yours, and to not take too much,” Hernandez says. “Here in America, we've lost that [way of seeing] things, because we always want to find answers. I think there are certain things you just don't find the answers to. And I think Bigfoot's one of them.”

“For me, it's not this mythical, magical being; and I feel that's what media puts it out to be,” she continues. “There are enough stories to know that it's there. For me, it's just an animal that needs to be respected and left alone.”

footprint evidence
Don't be afraid: Willow Creek residents aren't. | Gary Crabbe/Enlightened Images/Alamy Stock Photo

If I see Bigfoot, what should I do?

In other states known for Bigfoot sightings, there are laws that dictate what to do if you encounter one; for example, in Washington State, if you come across Bigfoot or any disambiguation (Sasquatch, Yeti, et cetera) and kill it, you’ll be charged with a misdemeanor and subject to a fine, jail time, or both. According to Hughes, though, aside from the usual hunting ordinances and those inherent to dealing with wild animals, there are no set “rules” on how to react; rather, unspoken principles guide the community and any outsiders who believe they’ve had an encounter.

First, it might put you at ease to know residents of Willow Creek aren’t afraid of Bigfoot. It’s a cryptid, but not in a particularly monstrous way like Mothman or the Jersey Devil; otherwise, there’d be a lot fewer people reporting seeing the creature and living to tell the tale.

Still, Hernandez warns that although something is out there, it’s best not to tempt fate or go out of your way to mess with what is, ultimately, a wild animal. “If you think about bears and wild cats, they'll attack you if you don't leave,” she says. “You don't want to understand what fear is. And if you stay there and bug [Bigfoot], then you will understand what true fear is.”

Hughes agrees. “We all see Bigfoot as a creature that wants to keep to themselves and is not trying to get in our way; [Bigfoot] is just simply trying to exist,” she says. “More than anything, people would just feel unbelievable gratitude to be able to have an encounter and to see a Bigfoot. I don't think anybody would feel afraid. I think they wouldn't, of course, try to engage.”

If you think you’ve spotted something (or someone?) unusual in the woods, the area’s residents ask that you have reverence and let it go in peace. “[We] all know that you leave Bigfoot be. I think that's just kind of common knowledge, at least within the Bigfoot culture,” Hughes says. “Look and observe, stay safe, come back and tell us all what you saw.”

That last point drives home the only other ask: if you see something, say something. “​​For every story that's out there in the books, there's ten more that aren’t,” says Breuning. Some locals are working to remedy that: the Bigfoot Museum exhibits evidence and records of sightings that you can check out while you’re in town. As its collection of artifacts and memorabilia grows, it’s equally important to board members that the museum’s infrastructure—including data collection, improved spatial design, interactive and video exhibits, and even firsthand encounter story collections—grows alongside it.

How to embrace Willow Creek’s Bigfoot culture

Along with visiting and supporting (and, if you have an encounter, contributing to) the Bigfoot Museum, there are plenty of other ways to celebrate the local legend. Plan your trip around the annual Bigfoot Daze festival, when vendors, food stands, logging competitions, ax competitions, and pumpkin chucking take over Willow Creek. Hit up any number of Bigfoot-themed spots in town (murals, statues, a steakhouse, a motel, a bookstore). Or just enjoy the nature that surrounds you (including potential sasquatch hideouts), like the immense, ancient trees that make up nearby Redwood National Park.

And if you want to have a Bigfoot encounter of your own? Well, first and foremost—as Hernandez said—you probably shouldn’t. In any case, you’d need to commune with nature in a major way; sasquatch is shy, the forests are big, and if the creature’s avoided revealing itself to humanity thus far, it’s safe to say you’ll need to tread lightly and hunker down for a few nights in the woods for your best shot at a meet and greet. According to Hughes, though, if you want to dip your toes in, all it really takes is a quiet walk down a woodland path.

“There's a lot of forest roads that are well-traveled by the residents that live in this rural community. It's just about finding a well-worn forest road and then just going for a hike,” Hughes says. “You never know where Bigfoot's going to be.”

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Tiana Attride is Thrillist’s associate travel editor. She believes.