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Houses abandoned overnight, clothes left on hangers, meals interrupted and never finished — no, this isn’t the setting of a post-apocalyptic movie, but the reality of how many of California’s more than 3,800 ghost towns were deserted and left to rot. Creeped out? Intrigued? Somewhere in between? No matter your feelings, you have to admit ghost towns are pretty awesome; and many are integral to understanding the rise and fall of the Gold Rush era in California.
Today, many of these ghost towns have been completely or partially restored, offering us a unique window into one of the most important and interesting periods of California history. Our family decided to visit ten of the most popular ghost towns in California. We found them fascinating, eerie, and a little sad, but never boring. And, to be honest, I can’t imagine a better way to get kids to love learning over summer vacation without them even knowing it!
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Cerro Gordo Mines
Location: Lone Pine, CA
Drive From LA: 213 miles; 3 hr 45 min
The Cerro Gordo Mines, meaning “Fat Hill” in Spanish, is a collection of abandoned silver mines that once served as a “silver thread” to Los Angeles, contributing to the town’s growth and prosperity. So the legend goes, silver was originally discovered in Cerro Gordo in 1865 by a man named Pablo Flores. As news of the rich silver vein’s discovery spread, more and more prospectors flocked to the region, eager to cash in on the purportedly high-quality ore.
By 1869, Cerro Gordo was the largest producer of lead and silver in the United States. In 1875 however, things at Cerro Gordo had taken a turn for the worst. Supplies needed for smelting, such as wood and water, became scarcer; the richness of the silver vein deteriorated, and the price of silver began to fall. These, among other setbacks, eventually led to the abandonment of the Cerro Gordo Mines in 1877.
Today, the town of Cerro Gordo is considered one of the most untouched mining towns in California. Having reserved a tour, we had a blast walking among the buildings where the miners lived when not working the silver mines. For more information about visiting the Cerro Gordo Mines, please visit their website here.
Location: Death Valley National Park
Drive From LA: 214 miles; 3 hr 39 min
Lawless and desolate: when it comes to California ghost towns, Panamint City is the real deal. Three stagecoach robbers, using the area as a hideout, happened to discover a vein of silver running through the hills. Naturally enough, they purchased the land and later sold their claim in 1872 to the highest bidder: in this case, a Nevada senator. A measly four years later, the silver mines were mostly depleted, spelling the end of Panamint City and the small town that had sprung up to support it.
Located in Death Valley National Park at the end of a dirt road, it’s a five-mile hike from the parking lot just to reach this former mining town. Once there, you’ll find rundown cabins and mines, as well as a load of artifacts left by prospectors when they abandoned the site. This ghost town is best reserved for older kids who won’t mind the strenuous hike in. We did it with our eldest girl, and she loved exploring the dilapidated buildings and crumbling smokestack—the only remnant standing of a former mill.
Shasta State Historic Park
Location: Redding, CA
Drive From LA: 550 miles; 8 hr 24 min
Once the “Queen City” of northern California’s mining district, only a few crumbling buildings, dirt tracks, and unkempt cemeteries remain of Shasta, CA. From the 1850s to 1880s, “Old Shasta” was the largest town in Shasta County and a bustling commercial metropolis and nexus point for mule trains and stagecoaches. Sadly, this prosperity wasn’t destined to last.
In 1873, the Central Pacific Railroad decided to bypass Shasta in favor of its neighbor Redding, just six miles to the east. This was the first nail in the coffin for the former commercial center. As trade dwindled, Shasta became a ghost town, ultimately losing its county seat to Redding. Need I say more than that Redding has a website and Shasta doesn’t? K then.
Shasta is a fun and informative ghost town, perfect for kids of all ages, with interesting exhibits, blacksmithing demonstrations, and a refurbished county courthouse to explore. Our girls enjoyed walking among the crumbling ruins, holding hands and trying to imagine what life was like for kids living in Shasta in the 1800s. I like to think that visiting this by-gone western town for themselves has sparked my kids’ interest in California mining history far more than any picture book or television documentary ever could have.
Bodie State Historic Park
Location: Bodie, CA
Drive From LA: 362 miles; 5 hr 58 min
We often think of ghost towns as small, remote villages clustered ’round a mine or river, separated from our modern cities by time and space. Not so with Bodie, CA. If you can believe it, in 1880, Bodie, CA was the third largest and most populous city in California. The third! With over 10,000 residents, Bodie was well on its way to becoming one of the state’s greats like LA or San Francisco.
So what happened? Well, for starters, the population dwindled dramatically during the first half of the twentieth-century, falling to just 120 people by 1920. Inhospitable weather conditions were partly responsible for this mass exodus, with winds in the area blowing as strongly as 100 mph! Frost was also a big issue, consistently killing off all attempts at growing local produce. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Bodie was a mining town, and what’s the most important thing about mining towns? That their mines produce ore. Well, Bodie’s stopped, which killed most people’s interest in the place and, as we’ve seen, led to its abandonment.
For $8, we were allowed to wander among the ruins of this once great town, reflecting, as we did so, that all great things come to an end.
Calico Ghost Town
Location: Barstow, CA
Drive From LA: 126 miles; 2 hr 27 min
Unlike many of the ghost towns on this list, Calico, CA is more of a living museum than a decrepit relic. Coming to prominence in the 1880s due to the abundance of ore in the nearby hills, Calico was quickly abandoned after the price of silver fell, reducing it to little more than a ruin. Calico was one of the lucky California ghost towns, though.
While many of its sister cities were left to rot quietly, Calico was purchased by Walter Knott in the 1950s and restored (mostly) to its former splendor. Only five buildings were left in their original, or should I say former, ruined state, as a reminder that this was, in fact, still a ghost town.
Today, tourists come from all over the world to marvel at Calico’s refurbished buildings, almost theme-park-like in their perfection. We had a pleasant time exploring the museum, silver mines, “mystery” shack, saloon, shops, and even took a ride on the train. This ghost town is ideal for younger kids who’ll appreciate the fun and whimsy of the place.
Spark your kids’ imagination when you visit the top 10 ghost towns in California this summer! 👻☀️😎☠️
Location: Ballarat, CA
Drive From LA: 194 miles; 3 hr 29 min
Named after Ballarat, Victoria in southern Australia, Ballarat, CA was founded in 1897 by an Australian immigrant, George Higgins. Remote though it was—supplies like timber and water had to be brought in—Ballarat prospered, reaching a population of between 400 and 500 during the late nineteenth century. As so often happens, the mines around Ballarat began to run dry, and shortly thereafter, nothing but ruined houses and rats remained.
For a ghost town, however, Ballarat seems to have had its fair share of curious characters. One fellow, the last person to be interred in Ballarat’s cemetery, was a hermit called “Seldom Seen Slim.” After his shelter finally eroded away, Slim appears to have lived out his days in an old Volkswagen on the edge of town.
More residents came in the 1960s in the form of the infamous “Manson Family.” They took up residence in a ranch just outside of town and left graffiti on some of Ballarat’s dilapidated buildings. Thankfully for everyone, they didn’t stay long.
The only current resident of Ballarat is a fellow named Rocky and his two dogs. We met Rocky at the general store, which he runs, and got to meet Potlicker and Brownie in the bargain.
Location: Bombay Beach, CA
Drive From LA: 168 miles; 3 hr 27 min
Not every ghost town has to be mining related. Just look at Bombay Beach, CA, a former resort town from the 1950s and 1960s. Situated next to Salton Sea, a fancy name for a small lake that’s a product of accident rather than design. In the early twentieth century, the Colorado River burst its levy, flooding the region with life-giving water. Voila! A “sea” was born.
Well, naturally, people were curious about this “Miracle in the Desert,” and before long, Bombay Beach was hosting half a million tourists every single year. That is until the lack of drainage caused dead fish to start piling up. That rather dampened people’s interest in the area, and by the 1970s Bombay Beach, CA had gone from boom to bust.
Unlike many of the spots on this list, Bombay Beach, CA is a ghost town of relatively modern buildings, which give an eerie, almost apocalyptic feel to the town when you visit. We had a pleasant time wandering among the businesses, houses, and docks that once dotted this miraculous if short-lived, resort town.
Location: North Bloomfield, CA
Drive From LA: 459 miles; 7 hr 49 min
According to legend, North Bloomfield was founded by three miners who discovered gold in the surrounding hills. Sent to town for supplies, one of the miners couldn’t keep his yap shut and was followed by over 100 prospectors eager to capitalize on the good diggings. Try as they might, though, none of them could find a speck of gold in the region, leading to the area being named “Humbug” or deceptive.
With the invention of hydraulic mining techniques, however, “Humbug” became a bustling, and prosperous, mining town, with an estimated 2,000 residents calling the newly christened “North Bloomfield” home.
You’ve probably caught on to the fact that these “prosperous mining towns” have a way of not lasting, so it shouldn’t surprise you that, with the outlawing of hydraulic mining in 1884, North Bloomfield quickly emptied of prospectors.
Today, the little town still has many of its buildings left intact; and many more have been restored to their mid-nineteenth-century quality. Our family really enjoyed visiting North Bloomfield: It’s set amongst a lovely grove of trees; the buildings are quaint and homey; and the exhibits are instructional and fun. We’ll definitely be making another visit to this quirky ghost town in the near future!
Location: Goffs, CA
Drive From LA: 255 miles; 4 hr 53 min
It’s amazing how many ghost towns are a result of capricious transportation routes. Take, for instance, Goffs, CA. Founded in 1883, this desert rail junction served as the sole supply line to a little up-and-coming town known as Las Vegas. Goffs, CA maintained this prestigious duty up until 1931 when Route 66 was realigned, bypassing poor Goffs altogether.
Well, I bet you can guess what happens next. People, furious at no longer having easy access to transportation, decided they’ll dang well go and live elsewhere, dagnammit! And when the people go, well… that’s pretty much the end for any town.
Goffs is one of those sad ghost towns that’s a mix of old-timey deterioration and semi-modern decay. It’s fun to visit and see the restored school house, library, rail depot, etc. I’d definitely recommend visiting Goffs if you’re a train or transportation enthusiast, as that’s where most of the interest lies. I think my girls lost a bit of their enthusiasm once they learned there wasn’t going to be a train for us to ride on. Be that as it may, Goffs, CA is still an interesting little footnote in the history of Las Vegas and the state of California in general.
Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park
Location: Allensworth, CA
Drive From LA: 154 miles; 2 hr 41 min
One of the most interesting and often overlooked ghost towns is Allensworth, CA. Founded by black men in 1908 to establish a community where people of color could be free of racism and oppression, Allensworth, CA is truly one of a kind. The name Allensworth comes from the town’s most prominent founder: Allen Allensworth. Born into slavery, Allensworth escaped and became a Union soldier, eventually reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel — the first black man ever to do so.
Sadly, Lt. Col. Allensworth perished in a motorcycle accident in 1914; and his dreams of a town free of oppression and the remnants of slavery went with him. A few years later, the Pacific Farming Company shut off the town’s water supply, and that, as they say, was the end of that.
Despite being short lived, Allensworth, CA has endured as an early example of African American self-determination. Today, a volunteer org called the Friends of Allensworth has become the town’s steward, helping to repair buildings and having an annual Juneteenth celebration.
When You Go
All of these ghost towns are within driving distance of downtown LA; although, to be honest with you, it might be best to stop over in San Francisco for a night for some of the longer drives.
If you’re not from the LA area, no problem! There are two main airports that you can use to get here. The biggest and best-known is LAX. This is the central hub of LA flights and is probably where you’ll fly into if you’re coming from far afield. Located near the coast, LAX is a convenient jumping-off point for anyone interested in driving to see some nearby ghost towns.
The second option is the Hollywood Burbank Airport. This lesser-known but still popular airport is located near Hollywood, Pasadena, and Beverly Hills. This is the place to fly into if you’re coming from any of the nearby cities such as Las Vegas, San Diego, or San Francisco. It’s where our family always flies when visiting family from the Bay.
Anexcellent discount site for flights (and cars, hotels) is Expedia!
Where To Stay
Book a front row seat to the beach when you stay at the Hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica. With stunning views of the Pacific Ocean, three world-class restaurants, and elegant guest rooms, this luxury hotel is the perfect jumping-off point for any family adventure.
Located in the heart of Burbank, CA, the Los Angeles Marriott places you at the center of the city’s top attractions. Within driving distance of Universal Studios Hollywood, the North Hollywood Arts District, and the Burbank Town Center, you’ll never be at a loss to find something fun and interesting to do!
Cute and quaint, the Belamar Hotel Manhattan Beach is ideal for families looking for a fun time without busting the budget. Conveniently located near the Manhattan Village shops and restaurants and Manhattan Beach Pier, this little-known oasis is a beachside Shangri-La just waiting to be explored.
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