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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.