Ghost towns of the desert
They went boom, then bust, but some of the desert’s early settlements haven’t entirely disappeared. Here’s a guide to five ghost towns near Mojave
Sun in your face and cold drink in your hand, singing along to Creedence Clearwater Revival: Who doesn’t love a road trip to the desert? But for many 19th- and 20th-century pioneers, the desert wasn’t just a place they wanted to visit—it was a place they wanted to stay.
Settlements were raised in the dry and unaccommodating desert for many reasons. Some, like Palm Springs, flourished, but countless others failed. Those that didn’t, that outlived their usefulness yet still exist, are now faded snapshots of the time and place when they were at their best.
The Curbed guide to Southern California’s desert
From storied ghost towns and and hardy, striking flora to iconic Palm Springs hot spots , we’re celebrating the divine desert landscape in LA’s backyard.
Below are our five favorite California desert ghost towns. Some have been re-purposed, some glamorized, some left to rot. They’re easy to drive to, fascinating to explore, and may leave you thinking about which one you’d like to live in, and which one you’d like to haunt.
Who knew a deserted, rough-and-tumble mining boomtown in the Wild West could be so delightful?
Calico is a desert ghost town, theme-park style. Just outside of Barstow in the Mojave Desert—designated the state of California’s official “silver rush ghost town” in 2005—Calico started its life as a lawless 19th-century mining camp. In the 1950s, it was reinvented by Walter Knott, the very man who brought us Knotts Berry Farm .
In 1881, John McBryde and Lowery Silver discovered silver ore in the dusty mountains near Wall Street Canyon. Calcium borate (borax) was found shortly after. More than 500 mines were soon in operation, producing the biggest silver load in California history. The mines had pithy names like the Bismark, the Burning Moscow, and the Waterloo. Soon, the new settlement of Calico in Wall Street Canyon sprang up, filled with young adventurers from places as disparate as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and China. According to the Los Angeles Times :
Calico was a rip-roaring town teeming with miners, boomers, promoters, gamblers and fortune hunters... Five thousand men swarmed up the canyons and gulches from their stone huts each morning to grab with picks and blast with powder for rich silver ore. A dog carried the mail in pouches strapped to his back. The justice of the peace chewed tobacco and swallowed the juice. And the gaudy colors in the mineral stained mountains which formed a backdrop for it all reminded someone of a piece of calico. So that’s what they named the place...
But the boom, as nearly always, was followed by a bust. By the 1890s, silver lost much of its value due to the discovery of bigger mines, and the dusty desert outpost was mostly deserted. By the mid-1930s, only four residents were left.
Calico’s second wind would come in 1951, when Walter Knott, whose uncle had made his fortune with a Calico mine, bought the collection of dilapidated shacks and mines that were left. In 1966, he donated the restored—and heavily sanitized—town to the county of San Bernardino.
Today, the picturesque tourist trap is all charm, with no true grit (or ghosts) in sight. You can take a ride through an old mine on a tram, pan for silver, take pot shots in the shooting gallery, and camp overnight under the Calico hills. In the general store on Main Street, there are fat peppermints and candy cigarettes. In the recreated print shop, a friendly skeleton wears an old-fashioned green visor and kitschy wanted posters of madams and madmen are displayed on the walls.
But by far the most compelling area is the Calico Graveyard, where mountaineers and prospectors from Calico’s past—and modern-day boosters and cowboys—are buried under handmade markers, their graves covered in desert rock. One faux-aged wooden marker reads: Here lies Jerimiah Mountain Man 1928-2005.
36600 Ghost Town Road Yermo, CA 92398 Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Ever have the hankering to experience a post-apocalyptic 1950s-kitschy hellscape? Then get your kicks off Route 66 (now the National Heritage Trail) in the ghostly midcentury modern nightmare known as Amboy.
Three hours east of Los Angeles, this small settlement in the Mojave started off as a railroad community. But when Route 66 passed through town, bringing vacationers looking for a bite to eat and a photo opportunity, Amboy found its true purpose. The iconic Roy’s Motel and Café opened in the 1930s, and for decades it was the domain of owner Buster Burris , “a rough-hewn entrepreneur with flinty eyes, sun-toasted skin and strong opinions about rowdy bikers and men with long hair.”
During the glory days of Route 66, Amboy was a popular tourist trap, where the all-American family could get a malt in the soda shop, have their tires rotated, and enjoy a peaceful night’s sleep before they got back on the road.
In the 1970s, the construction of new highways made Route 66 obsolete, and Amboy’s fortunes fell. Roy’s closed and much was abandoned, including the elementary school, now a fenced-in ruin.
Amboy passed through the hands of different owners before it was bought by Albert Okura, founder of the Juan Pollo restaurant chain, in 2005. Okura has a soft spot for Americana; he also bought the refurbished, original McDonald’s in San Bernardino. He promised to restore and reopen Roy’s, a goal which he seems to have minimally accomplished.
When you pull into Amboy today, the first thing you notice is the music. Saccharine hits from the 1950s and ’60s fill the dry desert air, providing a disconcerting soundtrack for an exploration of the once-bustling stop.
At Roy’s Motel and Café, an old man sits by the gas station: is he working? Waiting? Inside, an empty soda counter, straight out of Dobie Gillis, is preserved, and kitschy souvenirs appear to be for sale. Next door is the glassed-in hotel lobby, its cracked Mad Men -esque furniture fading in the sun. Two of the motel rooms are open. There’s a soiled mattress in one, and a strange art installation in the other. What looks like a food truck is parked in the driveway, the words “Research Flat Earth” painted on its side.
Across the street is an old post office, and an abandoned church where an organ sits in its back room, waiting to be played. There is a vacant, sunbaked house, with an overturned chair, peeling paint, and wallpaper that makes the walls look like a Rothko. In the dust-covered ’50s-style kitchen, you might glimpse a desert version of trapped Betty Draper standing at the window, staring out at the train tracks. The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” wafts through the air.
87520 National Trail Highway Amboy CA, 92304
Down an endless road, deep into the beautifully barren Mojave National Preserve, the wind pushes your car around, and your lips feel like parched sandpaper. Suddenly, it rises like a fairytale castle: a large Spanish Revival structure. This must be how 20th-century passengers on the Union Pacific felt when they first saw the railroad depot in Kelso. Finally, a place to stretch their legs, breathe some fresh air, and have a drink or 10.
The rudimentary depot first opened in 1905 to aid Union Pacific trains chugging across the desert to and from Las Vegas. “The steep 2 percent grade that trains had to climb from west of Kelso to Kessler Summit meant that extra ‘helper engines’ would need to be stationed nearby to help them up the grade,” a National Parks Service history explains. Of course, steam locomotives needed water. According to the history, “Kelso was perfectly situated to fill both roles, since it is located near the bottom of the 2,078-foot grade, and had a reliable water source from a nearby spring in the Providence Mountains.”
Soon a post office, cafeteria, and rudimentary homes for Union Pacific workers and prospectors sprang up in the isolated spot. In 1924, the grand Spanish Revival Kelso Depot and Clubhouse opened. The expansive structure included “a conductor’s room, telegraph office, baggage room, dormitory rooms for staff, boarding rooms for railroad crewmen, a billiard room, library and locker room.” The depot quickly became the social center of tiny Kelso, the site of “Christmas parties, square dances, church services and trials.” It was a beacon of hospitality in unforgiving terrain.
At its height during World War II, the population of Kelso reached around 2,000. But shortly after, it began to dwindle as nearby mines closed and the switch from steam engine to diesel rendered the depot’s purpose as a way station obsolete—since trains no longer needed assistance climbing steep grades. The once-bustling depot was closed by Union Pacific in 1985. During the 1980s and ’90s, Kelso became a virtual ghost town, with only a few residents. One was the boarded-up depot’s caretaker O.B. O’Brien, a grizzled Navy veteran. “I fell in love with the desert,” he said , echoing the sentiments of those who still called Kelso home. “I don’t want to be bothered.”
Union Pacific planned to tear down the depot, but it was saved by a group of historians and environmentalists. In 2005, the restored depot was opened as the visitor center for Mojave National Preserve. Once again, it serves as a friendly way station, selling maps, candy bars, and nostalgia to visitors battling the cruel desert sun. There is a restored lunch counter, telegraph office, and exhibitions that tell the history of the area.
Outside, however, is an entirely different beast. The dust in the air chokes. Across the street from the depot, the old post office is boarded up. There is a forlorn, abandoned basketball court, and a fireplace—all that’s left of a small house. Behind the post office is a small wood-frame house, where it appears someone still resides. See if you can find the good, fallen tree nearby, rest for a moment, and think of ghost trains gliding across the unforgiving desert.
Kelso Depot 90942 Kelso Cima Road Kelso, CA 92306
There is much to see in California City, in the Kern County desert, 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. There are roads laid out in a perfect grid. There are lots ideal for middle-class family homes. And there are real estate signs, dotting the empty roads, stuck in the weedy, barren lots, advertising that the land is for sale. Most look like they have been there for many years.
California City was the brainchild of a dapper Czechoslovakian sociologist named Nathan K. Mendelsohn. Inspired by the explosive growth of the San Fernando Valley, in 1958 he bought 82,000 acres of desert wasteland, intent on making it into the ideal industrialized American metropolis. “He would take people up on a hill overlooking the land and explain to them about the city that would be there one day,” his secretary Renate Saremba recalled . “They would just look at him. They could not see what he saw.”
Buses of potential buyers were brought to California City. Once they arrived, they saw a massive infrastructure campaign in progress, which would eventually make California City the third-largest city in the state by landmass, a title which it still holds. According to the LA Times :
An ambitious street system was designed and roads were cut into the brush, making the grid that can now be seen from the air. A sales office and model houses were constructed, and work was started on Central Park, an 80-acre recreational area that eventually included a 20-acre lake, outdoor swimming pool, playing fields, par-three golf course, picnic areas, tennis courts, indoor sports center and community building.
However, the industries and factories that Mendelsohn promised to lure to the city never came. By 1969, the year Mendelsohn pulled out amid a torrent of lawsuits and government investigations, California City had only 1,700 residents. Many lot owners, who felt they had been sold a false bill of goods, simply abandoned the land and stopped paying property taxes. Over the years, the roads were reclaimed by the city of Mojave.
Driving through California City today is an eerie experience. The town has grown over the years, now boasting around 14,000 people. Most work in the local jail, at nearby Edwards Air Force Base, and in the large Boron mine to the east. But it’s not nearly enough people to fill even a fraction of the land. Many neighborhoods have only three or four homes, with plenty of land in between. At dusk, an Oldsmobile driver turns his bright lights on to go down a perfectly straight road, with not a building or second car in sight. Driving out of town as the sun goes down in the huge, cloudless sky, you pass row upon row of empty dirt roads, like the imprint from a shoe.
The hills nearby are covered in sleek white windmills. Their green lights twinkle, a warning to airplanes taking off from a nearby airport. These friendly green aliens seem to outnumber the human residents of California City.
21000 Hacienda Boulevard California City, CA 93505
In 1946, Hollywood came to the high desert to stay. That year, a group of Hollywood investors, including cowboy stars Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, Dick Curtis, Bob Nolan, Russell Hayden, and Tim Spencer, bought 13 acres of desert land 25 miles from Palm Springs. Tired of the incessant travel that came with filming Westerns, they built Pioneertown as a permanent Wild West set. Complete with a false-facade Old West Mane Street (pun intended), comfortable motel, and stables, Pioneertown served as a location for more than 50 movies and TV shows. A small community of eccentrics and loners eventually grew around this fake old village in the desert.
Fast-forward to 2018, and new pioneers have come to town—trustafarians and Burning Man enthusiast types who co-mingle with the rough-hewn desert lizards that have long called the small community home.
Mane Street is a friendly place, not a grimacing desperado in sight. A woman smiles when you peek into the windows of the adorable motel’s reception office. The motel is owned by two millennial brothers named Matt and Mike French, and rooms are often booked months in advance. Farther down the dirt road, a modern-day cowboy sitting a spell on the porch takes off his hat, an old-timey gesture in front of the old-timey saddle shop. Buy a cowboy hat from the hip guy with an alt-country beard in another store (and pay over Venmo) and consider purchasing a beautiful earthenware mug in another.
In the town’s large barn, craftsmen are working. And on Mane Street, Old West cottages built for movies are being lived in by real people—and an art installation even adorns one private yard. The working post office shares an aged building with the town’s fake sheriff’s office, complete with a dummy and a makeshift jail.
Pioneertown’s influx of young residents has driven some people away. “It is a little too crowded for me,” longtime resident Jim Austin told the New York Times last year, having just sold his home to a couple from Oakland. “It was time for me to bug off rather than becoming that grumpy old dude trying to stop change.”
5240 Curtis Road Pioneertown, CA 92268
The Curbed guide to Southern California’s deserts
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California's Epic 395: Hidden Gems Along the Way
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Created by Knansea - July 10th 2016
Our family has traveled on I395 for over 50 years and we are off again to revisit favorites and discover new treasures. Highway 395 is most often used to travel from Los Angeles to Mammoth or on the way to Reno in a day. However the entire route is filled with enough natural and human history to warrant a multi-day trip. You pass through desert, by lakes, below soaring peaks, and past ancient volcanoes. Whether traveling 395 on the way to ski in the winter, hike in the spring or summer, or to watch the leaves turn in the fall, we always something new to explore along the way. We've been known to head up and back on the 395 a few times a year!
Most people start this route heading north on the I15 that is accessed by many roads in Los Angeles and Riverside Counties. Anyone from out of the area can even fly into Ontario International Airport (instead of LAX) and rent a car. There are actually 2 Holiday Inns next to the airport and another nearby at Ontario Mills Shopping Center! Even locals may want to stay here to get an early start and miss the LA traffic!
From here, follow the I15 north to Victorville, CA and the start of your journey after you go through the Cajon Pass.
There are obviously many good camping options along the way, but there are more civilized choices like the Holiday Inns in Bishop, Carson City, and Reno! We have learned to make reservations ahead of time on weekends. Lots of ideas on Roadtrippers. You can make this trip last as long as you want to with so much to do!
Victorville, California, United States
15620 8th St, Victorville, CA, US
Victorville Fire Department Museum
A quick stop for little kids and those who love shiny red fire engines! http://www.victorvilleca.gov/site/citydepartments.aspx?id=132
16825 D St, Victorville, CA, US
California Route 66 Museum
Victorville is not only the beginning of I395, it's also part of Route 66! The CA Route 66 Museum is a good place to inspire a future trip. It's full of vehicles and signs and maps and photos.
20635 Hwy 395, Adelanto, CA, US
Buddhist Meditation Center
As you drive through the high desert, you'll suddenly see an interesting assortment of statues and buildings. One is a 60 ton marble statue of this center's patron saint Quan Yin. This is a Buddhist Meditation Center that has classes on meditation and the fundamentals of Buddhism. Not exactly what you expect to find in Adelanto but at least good for a drive-by photo!
Kramer Junction, California, United States
Kramer Junction is the big crossroads of this area. It's got gas stations, a couple restaurants, and some great funky shops. You'll pass fields of solar panels outside of town.
14486 Borax Rd, Boron, CA, US
Borax Visitor Center
Take a quick detour for a fascinating look into the history of the area. Borax has been mined in this desert for over a century and is still a thriving operation. This free Visitor Center museum has exhibits on the history, uses, and current extraction of boron. Kids and adults both enjoy it. It's impressive when to see the mining operation from the air conditioned comfort of the museum. http://www.borax.com/about-borax/visitor-center
Randsburg, California, United States
There's a certain kind of mystery to the "living" ghost towns of Red Mountain, Johannesburg, and Randsburg. You see mine trailings on the hills and abandoned ghost town buildings, but it's obvious that people still live and even mine here. Just off 395 is the tiny town of Randsburg and it's worth a stop.
142 Butte Ave, Randsburg, CA, US
Randsburg General Store
Randsburg has a historic General Store with an old fashioned soda parlor that makes a great pit stop in the desert. There are also artists who call this little town home. It's a unique little community.
161 Butte Ave, Randsburg, CA, US
Randsburg Desert Museum
Only open on weekends, this small museum is a great resource in the history of the local Rand District mining areas, including Johannesburg, Red Mountain, and Garlock. You can also visit the cemetery in nearby Johannesburg.
"BLM Wild Horses and Burros" — Photo Credit: Animals' Angels
Ridgecrest, California, United States
Ridgecrest is just off the I395 and has many services. It's easy to zip past, but then you'd miss some interesting museums. There are also gas stations and grocery stores here.
100 E Las Flores Ave, Ridgecrest, CA, US
The Maturango Museum has displays on the natural and cultural history of the Upper Mojave Desert. This area is rich in human history and here are excellent exhibits on the Coso Petroglyphs and the people who made them. In the Spring and Fall the museum leads tours to the otherwise inaccessible rock art.
130 East Las Flores, Ridgecrest, CA, US
U.S. Naval Museum of Armament & Technology
Ridgecrest is next to China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station. To visit the museum you need to be cleared by security, which can be done at the Visitor's Center at the entrance to the base.
2565 California 14, Inyokern, CA, US
Indian Wells Brewing Co.
Another short detour takes you to a historic spot where the 20 mule teams from Death Valley would stop to water their horses at an artisanal spring on the way to deliver Boron. Now, there's an acclaimed tasting room for the Indian Wells Brewing Co. and the adjoining restaurant.
Cinder Rd, Inyokern, CA, US
Fossil Falls Scenic Area
Time to stretch your legs and find out more about the changing desert landscape outside. Fossil Falls isn't a fossilized waterfall, and there aren't any fossils, but it is the remains of an enormous basalt lava flow that was carved and shaped by later river flow. Stop here and then start paying attention to the cinder cone hills you'll see along the way later.
US 395, Olancha, CA, US
Ranch House Cafe
This is one of the few places to eat in this area if you don't want to wait until Lone Pine.
Olancha, California, United States
Olancha and Cartago were important places during the Coso mining days of the late 1800's. The Coso mines were across Owens Lake to the east. Now it's just a dry saline flat. There are still remnants of stamp mills and charcoal kilns. Look for historical markers. Look for metal sculptures and a giant lemon house! Also, you'll pass the factory that bottles the Crystal Geyser water from local springs.
US 395 & SR136, Lone Pine, CA, US
Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center
The Eastern Sierra Interagency Center is an essential stop for anyone visiting the area. There are displays, free guides, and a book store with all of the local information you need. The rangers are on hand to answer questions about the local area, Mount Whitney, Death Valley, and the Bristlecone Pines (the highest and the lowest and the oldest!). The weather and current conditions of roads and trails is available. They also have nice rest rooms and you get your first full view of Mount Whitney here.
701 S Main St, Lone Pine, CA, US
Lone Pine Film Museum
Welcome to Lone Pine! The movie capitol of the Eastern Sierras. You're not as far from Hollywood here as you may think! Here, under the shadow of Mount Whitney, countless films have been made in the area. The Alabama Hills were the setting from such classics as Gunga Din, Hopalong Cassidy, John Wayne Westerns, and even Iron Man. The Lone Pine Film Museum many displays and a self guided driving tour to help you visit the sites of your favorite scenes!
You can continue on to the Holiday Inn in Carson City or the one in Reno! The I395 goes back into California much farther to the North. But that's another epic trip! You'll find plenty to keep you busy. We already have plans for new adventures on this route!
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Calico Ghost Town
Top ways to experience Calico Ghost Town and nearby attractions
Calico Ghost Town - All You Need to Know BEFORE You Go (with Photos)
- Calico Ghost Town Tour from Los Angeles (From $320.00)
- 2 days Sequoia-Calico-Mojave Desert, San Francisco to Las Vegas (From $450.00)
- 4 Days-LA to California Coast, San Francisco, to Las Vegas (From $595.00)
- 3 Day-San Francisco-Sequoia-Calico, San Francisco to Las Vegas (From $695.00)
- 4 Day Tour From San Francisco-Sequoia-Bryce-Zion To Las Vegas (From $795.00)
- (0.12 mi) Calico Ghost Town Campground & RV Park
- (8.84 mi) Rodeway Inn On Historic Route 66
- (8.47 mi) Best Western Desert Villa Inn
- (8.71 mi) California Inn
- (8.83 mi) Super 8 by Wyndham Barstow
- (0.04 mi) Calico House Restaurant
- (3.39 mi) Peggy Sue's 50's Diner
- (8.89 mi) Lola's Kitchen
- (8.80 mi) DiNapoli's Firehouse Italian Eatery
- (8.70 mi) Los Domingos Mexican Restaurant
- (0.00 mi) Dorsey's Dog House
- (3.27 mi) Eddie World
- (9.54 mi) Route 66 Mother Road Museum
- (9.38 mi) Rainbow Basin Natural Area
- (3.45 mi) Liberty Sculpture Park
Calico Ghost Town Information
8 Spookiest Ghost Towns in California
A California ghost town might be the kind you think of, an abandoned mining camp with tumbleweeds blowing down a deserted main street, past a long-disused saloon or general store, toward the old cemetery. You can find those in the Golden State, but there’s more: Abandoned reminders of a grand social experiment, the remains of internment camps, and what’s left of a medicine man’s so-called “health resort.” Some of them may even be spooky, with stories of hauntings and restless spirits.
Know this before you go: Some ghost towns are at high elevations. Others in the desert are hot in the summer, with no shade. They often don’t have water and other amenities. The terrain in a ghost town may be uneven, and you might encounter snakes and other animals. Take sturdy shoes, water, a hat, sunscreen, and snacks. And be sure your vehicle is up to the drive.
If you only see one ghost town in California, Bodie is the one to visit.
Bodie was a gold-mining town the started in 1876. At its peak, more than 10,000 gold-seekers lived there. The wild, wide-open mining town was so wicked that some people thought even God had forsaken it.
Today, Bodie is a pilgrimage site for people who love ghost towns. It has almost 200 structures still standing, kept in a state of "arrested decay." The large site with so many things to see is unparalleled among California ghost towns.
Bodie is also said to be not spooky or haunted but cursed. Legend has it that any visitor who dares to take anything—even a rock—from this Gold Rush ghost town, isolated beyond the eastern Sierra, will be punished. But in fact, the curse was invented by park rangers, who wanted to keep people from stealing things.
Bodie is a California state park, located east of the Sierras, 13 miles east of US Highway 395 between Lee Vining and Bridgeport at 8,500 feet elevation. The paved section of the road to it takes about 15 minutes to drive. The last three miles of rough dirt road will take you 10 minutes or more to cross. In the winter, the road becomes impassable, except by snowmobile.
GeoStock/The Image Bank / Getty Images Plus
Some people say Cerro Gordo is a better ghost town than Bodie because it's less crowded with sightseers. To offset that, it has far fewer buildings, and it's harder to get to.
Cerro Gordo is privately owned, and the only way to get a look around is to take a guided tour. You can get tour tickets at the Cerro Gordo Mines website . Structures still standing include a hotel, bunkhouse, the 1877 Hoist Works, a private residence, and other buildings. The old general store doubles as a museum.
Cerro Gordo's silver mining history began in 1865, but it was almost as hard to get to then as it is now. Mule-drawn wagons had to haul the ore 275 miles to Los Angeles, an expensive process. Only high-grade ore could make a profit. By 1868, the richest veins played out, silver prices fell, and mining ceased.
Over the next 50 years, the mines produced silver, lead, and zinc. By 1938, Cerro Gordo was abandoned. But today's caretakers say they may have left a few stray spirits behind . Don't worry about it being spooky; they are only seen at night.
It's just outside the boundary of Death Valley National Park at 8,500 feet elevation and eight miles east of Keeler off California Highway 136. The road is steep in places and not for vehicles with low ground clearance.
GeoStock/The Image Bank / Getty Images Plus
Purists might complain that Rhyolite is technically in Nevada, but it's only 10 miles from the state line and well worth a stop if you're touring California ghost towns.
In its heyday, Rhyolite had three train lines, three newspapers, three swimming pools, three hospitals, two undertakers, an opera, and symphony and 53 saloons. It lasted from 1905 through 1910.
The thing that makes Rhyolite unique are its buildings made from permanent materials rather than canvas and wood. Also worth a look is the nearby Goldwell Open Air Museum and its collection of sculptures.
Rhyolite is between Beatty, Nevada, and Death Valley National Park off Nevada Highway 374, which becomes California Highway 190 at the border. It is open to the public with no admission free.
wsfurlan/iStock / Getty Images Plus
Calico is one of the easiest California ghost towns to get to, just off Interstate Highway 15 between Barstow and Las Vegas.
Calico's 1881 silver strike was the largest in California history. The price of silver declined in 1896, and by 1904, it was abandoned.
Walter Knott, who also started Knott's Berry Farm , purchased Calico in the 1950s. He restored all but five original buildings to look as they did in the 1880s. Today, Calico is part-authentic ghost town, part-regional park, and part tourist attraction. Don't turn up your nose and let its overt commercialism keep you from visiting. There's plenty of history if you take the time to look for it.
Gold mining at the Malakoff Diggins near North Bloomfield started in 1851. During the town's heyday, it had nearly 1,500 inhabitants and more than 200 buildings.
By the 1860s, the easy-to-reach gold was depleted. MIners depended on hydraulic mining techniques to get to the gold ore, washing away entire mountains in the process. That was what led to the town’s final demise. When hydraulic mining was declared illegal in 1883, the town went into a slow decline.
Today North Bloomfield is in Malakoff Diggins State Park . You can see the former mining sites and original historic buildings along North Bloomfield Road, including a church, school, barbershop, and fire department.
North Bloomfield is in California’s Gold Country, northeast of Sacramento off California Highway 20 near Grass Valley and Nevada City.
Stephen Saks/Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images Plus
Allensworth holds a unique place in California history. Founded by former slave Colonel Allen Allensworth in 1908, it was to be a place where African Americans could live and thrive without oppression.
The all-Black town’s success was featured in many national newspaper articles around the turn of the twentieth century. By 1914, it had more than 200 inhabitants. Soon afterward, the town water supply started drying up, and the Great Depression came in the early 1930s.
Public services shut down, and residents moved to the cities to look for work. The Post Office closed in 1931. By 1972, the population was down to 90, and it later dropped to almost zero.
Today, Allensworth is a California state park where you can see then restored buildings, including a library, church, schoolhouse, and hotel.
Allensworth is in the Central Valley, north of Bakersfield and west of California Highway 99.
R. Litewriter/iStock / Getty Images Plus
In 1944, radio evangelist Curtis Howe Springer got title to a piece of the Mojave Desert as a mining claim. He named it Zzyzx, which he said was the last word in the English language.
Instead of digging for minerals, Springer created a small camp around a palm-lined, natural spring. He bottled the water and sold it to travelers. He also operated a health resort (or so he called it).
In 1976, the U.S. government reclaimed the land. Today, it is home to the Desert Studies Center of the California State University system. You can see the springs and a few abandoned buildings.
Zzyzx is a few miles southeast of Interstate 15 at the Zzyzx exit, near the town of Baker.
Rick Gerharter/Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images Plus
If you think of a ghost town as a place that was busy in the past but is now empty or nearly empty, the former internment camp at Manzanar
More than 10,000 Japanese Americans lived at Manazar from 1942 until the end of World War II in 1945. Unlike the people who flocked to the other ghost towns in this guide, Manzanar's residents were more likely to try to get out (or so some people thought). Military police with submachine guns stood watch in eight guard towers around the perimeter of the camp.
Today, you can learn more about Manzanar's history in the visitor center and visit Block 14, where you will find two reconstructed barracks and a mess hall. You can also take the self-guided loop drive and see the cemetery. Even if Manzanar doesn't have ghosts, it can give you a spooky feeling to think of its former internees.
Manzanar National Historic Site is nine miles north of Lone Pine off US Highway 395. There is no admission charge.
If you loved these ghost towns, you might also want to visit:
- Silver City , near Lake Isabella, which is more like a museum of ghost towns, created from more than 20 historic buildings moved there from mining camps.
- The Lost Horse Mine at Joshua Tree National Park is known for its well-preserved stamp mill.
- For a rare look at the mercury mines that supported California's gold rush, visit New Almaden , near San Jose.
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