The Yurok Reservation stretches inland from the Pacific Ocean for nearly 50 miles along the Klamath River on California’s North Coast. It is a land of abundance, with salmon runs on the Klamath and California condors soaring above forests of towering coast redwoods and Douglas fir. For countless generations the Yurok people, now the largest California tribe with 6,000 enrolled members, lived in harmony with their ancestral lands. And the natural world remains central to Yurok identity, even as the tribe builds for the future.
Yurok Country is a region waiting to be explored, both for its spectacular landscapes and rich cultural traditions, and welcomes visitors eager to discover one of the state’s special places.
“We’re surrounded by the beauty of nature and we want people to experience that,” says Joseph L. James, tribal chairman of this federally recognized tribe. “As Yurok people, we welcome you to come visit us. We hope our visitors will be respectful and mindful and come in a good way and leave in a good way. We have created opportunities that fit well with who we are as a people and showcase them. It’s important for us as Yurok people to never forget where we came from and who we are today.”
James describes the Yurok as “a river people” and characterizes the Klamath as “our lifeline. It’s our heart, it’s our culture.” He says the Yurok take a special pride in the long-running effort that is leading to the removal of four dams on the lower Klamath, the largest project of its kind in U.S. history.
“It has been over 20 years and the dam removal is the key to bringing balance back to Yurok,” says James. “We pray for balance, so the salmon can reach their point of origin, where they come from and where they need to go. We can have a free-flowing river and return the Klamath back to its original state.”
The tribe’s strong environmental commitment has led to other recent milestones. Once nearly extinct and still in the early stages of recovering to historic numbers, California condors (Prey-go-neesh in the Yurok language) play a sacred cultural role, says James. In 2022 and for the first time in 100 years, condors are flying again over Yurok lands, thanks to the Northern California Condor Restoration Program. The collaborative effort between the tribe, federal and state agencies, and conservation organizations aims to reintroduce these magnificent birds to this area of their original range.
James, who describes himself as “a traditional person,” says that in addition to its environmental initiatives, the tribe has also taken important steps to preserve Yurok culture.
“At one point, maybe 30 years ago, we thought our Yurok language was going to dwindle and disappear,” he says. “Not now. We are flourishing and have an education department that has created a Yurok language program. It includes fluent speakers who provide language opportunities for Yurok tribal government employees, the tribal membership in the community, and at our schools. We have come a long way and even developed apps that can say phrases. We’re really proud of these efforts.”
Visiting Yurok Country
Your first stop should be the Yurok Country Visitor Center, which is in the town of Klamath about 63 miles north of Eureka. In addition to information about regional attractions, the center has a gift shop offering traditional crafts and exhibits about Yurok culture, including a redwood dugout canoe.
A pair of the rare dugout canoes are used for guided Redwood Yurok Canoe Tours, during which visitors can spend either two or four hours traveling with expert guides up a stretch of the Klamath. The tours offer a one-of-a-kind opportunity to experience the remarkable performance of these timeless canoes as guides introduce aspects of Yurok tribal culture and describe the ecology of the river and forest from a native perspective.
For a very different (and much higher octane) adventure, 45-mile roundtrip Klamath River Jet Boat Tours power upstream, with stops to photograph scenery and, with a little luck, such wildlife as bears, bald eagles, and ospreys. The trips take two hours, or you can opt for hour-long outings that explore the Klamath River estuary.
Another unique way to experience the Klamath is on salmon fishing outings with Yurok guide Pergish Carlson’s Blue Creek Guide Service. The fish play a major part in the Yurok culture and for nearly 60 years, the tribe has hosted an annual Salmon Festival, a great place to try salmon cooked in the traditional style—on stakes over an open pit fire.
Lodging in Yurok Country ranges from the Historic Requa Inn, which was built in 1914 and commands a point overlooking the spot where the Klamath meets the Pacific, to the contemporary Redwood Hotel Casino. The hotels are a great jumping off point for exploring the area’s Redwood National and State Parks, where trails lead into cathedral-like stands of redwoods and explore gorgeous coastal areas.
At Sue-meg State Park near Trinidad, you can explore forests of Sitka spruce and visit a village with traditional structures planned and built by Yurok tribal members. The tribe recently signed a memorandum of understanding with California State Parks that allows for traditional gathering within ancestral Yurok territory. Over at Klamath’s Trees of Mystery attraction, visitors can take gondola rides through redwood forests and explore along the Canopy Trail, a system of netted suspension bridges that run as much as 100 feet above the ground.
An Incomparable History
The Yurok people once lived in more than 50 villages along the coast and Klamath River. The land and water provided ample food sources, from salmon and mussels to the forest’s acorns and berries, as well as elk and deer. The Yurok built homes and communal structures out of fallen redwood logs and revered the giant trees as sacred beings.
When American trappers and traders arrived and settlement began in the early 1800s, the Yurok world dramatically changed, especially following the Gold Rush. The two cultures came into increasing conflict and according to the tribal website, 75 percent of the Yurok people died in massacres or from rampant disease.
In 1855, the federal government established the Yurok Reservation, forcing the tribe to live on just a fragment of its ancestral lands, which once spanned an estimated one million acres. The advent of commercial logging degraded the river and led to a decline in the salmon runs that had long sustained the Yurok, and the opening of canning operations further depleted the fish population.
The impacts weren’t limited to the Yurok environment. The forceable removal of children to distant boarding schools to assimilate them devastated families and the Yurok culture. But despite the hardships, the Yurok managed to keep alive at least some traditional practices and eventually the culture began to recover. Many tribal members are now hoping for a renaissance.
The tribe is also trying to expand and diversify the economic base to create new opportunities for the community. And as chairman James says, the tribe is ready to do what’s necessary to protect its lands and culture while building a prosperous future. “It’s an ongoing thing. No matter what the battle is, or where it’s located, whether in California, back in D.C., or internationally, the Yurok will travel and do what we have to do.”