The Little Known Histories of 12 California Ghost Towns
With history that ranges from lawlessness to the Gold Rush Era, the stories behind California’s most famous ghost towns will fascinate you.
The United States has over 3,800 ghost towns—hamlets that were once-thriving villages, eventually deserted by their inhabitants for one reason or another, and left to decay over time, with no hope of anyone ever coming back to claim them as home. These abandoned towns are all over the country, but many are a result of the Gold Rush-era expansion into the Wild West, which means that California still has more than 300 that remain in some shape or form of arrested decay.
So how does a place go from one of California’s most populous cities to a population of zero? From a bustling metropolis to Ghost Town, USA? Try everything from outlaws and flash floods, to 100 mph winds and a shoreline filled with dead fish.
Here are the wild stories behind 12 of California’s most famous ghost towns and what you’ll find today if you work up the nerve to visit them.
Distance from SF: 225 miles; four-hour drive
It’s hard to believe this row of crumbling brick buildings was once the “Queen City” of California’s northern mining district, but from the 1850s to 1880s, it was the largest settlement in Shasta County and a major shipping point for mule trains and stagecoaches. Unfortunately for those who lived there, the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad bypassed the town in favor of nearby Redding, and that, coupled with several fires, sealed its fate. Today, you can walk “inside” of the roofless 1850s brick structures and get a close look at the iron doors and shutters (materials used when people rebuilt after an 1852 fire destroyed most of the town), as well go inside the County Courthouse, which has been restored to its 1861 appearance (including the jail and gallows), see blacksmith demonstrations, and more.
Distance from LA: 215 miles; 3.5-hour drive
Cerro Gordo, Spanish for “fat hill,” was home to the first major silver discovery in Owens Valley by Pablo Flores, who began mining there in 1865. The quality of silver was impressive, which brought over 4,000 people in its heyday, but the town was known for being lawless—like literally, law enforcement just didn’t show up despite there being frequent shootouts and an average of one murder a week. The shootouts were so frequent that miners would surround their beds with sandbags to deflect stray bullets. (You can still see more than 150 bullet holes in the floor of the saloon.) There was also a mine collapse in the 1870s that trapped 30 Chinese miners who were never rescued. Today, it is privately owned by two friends working to restore and preserve the town (including one who moved there full-time and is documenting the wild experience on YouTube). It’s open for guided tours of the original buildings and artifacts year-round.
Distance from LA: 230 miles; 3.5-hour drive
Goffs was founded in 1883 as a desert rail junction town that was once the sole supply line to a tiny Nevada town called Las Vegas. The town prospered until Route 66 was realigned in 1931, bypassing the town by just six miles, enough to turn it into a ghost town by the end of WWII. Today, you’ll find a restored 1914 schoolhouse, a library, the rail depot, a windmill, a cemetery with unmarked graves, as well as random artifacts, like stoves, cars, mining equipment, and glass bottles, strewn about.
Distance from SF: 250 miles; five hours by car
One of the original mining towns, by 1880, Bodie was California’s third-most populous city, with 10,000 residents. There were plenty of brothels, gambling halls, opium dens, saloons (65 to be exact), and even a vigilante group which was notorious for taking the law into its own hands. Bodie’s population dwindled to 120 people by 1920 thanks to terrible weather—Bodie is 8,000-feet above sea level, the winds can get up to 100 mph, and there has never been one month on record where frost was not recorded—and exhausted mines. It was a destructive 1932 fire, however, that sealed Bodie’s fate as a ghost town. It’s now a National Historic Site and State Park, and visitors can pay $8 to wander the town. One of the most popular spots is the grave of Rosa May, a sex worker who died after caring for sick miners. Her red light still hangs in the town’s museum. A word to the wise if you do visit Bodie: don’t take anything with you. Legend has it that bad luck latches on to anyone who steals from the town. The luck is so bad that the park rangers receive stolen items in the mail every month from visitors trying to escape the horrible hex.
Distance from LA: 215 miles; 4.5-hour drive (followed by a strenuous five-mile hike)
Panamint City, once called “the toughest, rawest, most hard-boiled little hellhole that ever passed for a civilized town,” came to be when three stagecoach robbers who were using the area to hideout discovered silver there in 1872. They sold their claim to a Nevada senator in return for amnesty and soon the area was flooded by hundreds of prospectors. A dozen saloons, stores, a red-light district, and a population of more than 2,000 people popped up in what became known as a lawless town where more than 50 shootings occurred in just a few years. By 1876, the major mines in the area were depleted, and a flash flood that washed away most of the buildings sealed its fate as a ghost town. Today, you can still see the foundations of the town as well as a crumbling smokestack from a mill.
Distance from LA: 195 miles; 3.5-hour drive
The mining town of Ballarat was so barren that everything had to be brought in, including water, timber, and food. Still, in the early 1880s, the town had more than 500 residents, seven saloons, three hotels, a post office, a morgue, a school, and a jail. When the mine shut down in 1903, the town was quickly abandoned, with almost all of the residents having moved away by 1917. (Currently there is only one full-time human resident—a man named Rocky who lives there with his two dogs and runs the general store.)
Ballarat is also known for Barker Ranch, a ranch built in the late 1930s by a retired couple who wanted to live in solitude and try their luck at mining. After the husband died, the ranch was sold to James and Arlene Barker, who purchased it as a second home for family gatherings. Fast forward three decades, and it’s also where the Manson family lived in 1968 and 1969. Arlene Barker gave them permission to stay there in exchange for a Beach Boy’s gold record given to Charles Manson by Brian Wilson. The Barker Ranch is also where Charles Manson was arrested in 1969 (not for murder, but for setting a National Park Service tractor on fire). Even more intriguing is the fact that Manson almost escaped arrest that day. The police thought they’d rounded everyone up, but when an officer returned to the house to use the bathroom, he saw some hair sticking out of a small cabinet. That hair belonged to Charles Manson. The main structure burned down in 2009, a year after the police spent a week digging up the ranch looking for four bodies, but you can still visit the site today as well as some old miner’s cabins.
Distance from LA: 170 miles; three-hour drive
In a story that seems almost too weird to be true, in the 1950s and '60s, Bombay Beach was a thriving resort town on the Salton Sea, a desert lake that exists only by accident. In the early 1900s, the Colorado River breached its levees and flooded a dried-up lakebed creating a 15-by-35 mile lake dubbed “a miracle in the desert.” Luxury hotels, yacht clubs, and homes soon popped up along the shores, and Bombay Beach catered to over half a million visitors every year. But by the 1970s, the lake, which had no drainage outlet and almost no rainfall, became so polluted that piles of dead fish were rotting on the shores. And just like that, the tourists stopped coming. Though there are still a few people who live in Bombay Beach, the number of abandoned businesses and homes gives visitors a good idea of what life will look like after the apocalypse. Stop by the Ski Inn for a drink and no-fuss meal.
Distance from SF: 160 miles; three-hour drive
A couple of miners discovered gold nuggets on the San Juan Ridge in 1851, and one of them was sent into town to get supplies, with explicit instructions to keep his mouth shut. He probably should have kept it shut to the booze that was flowing at a local saloon as well because after a few drinks he couldn’t help bragging about their discovery. When he went back to the creek to find more, he was unknowingly followed by nearly 100 other prospectors who wanted in on the loot. When none of them found any gold, however, they named the creek “Humbug.” Shortly thereafter, the advent of hydraulic mining allowed miners to find decent amounts of gold and turned Humbug into a “bustling” town of about 2,000 people, at which point it was renamed North Bloomfield. By the early 1880s, North Bloomfield had eight saloons, five hotels, several grocery stores, a couple of breweries, a church, a school, and a butcher shop. However, when hydraulic mining was made illegal in 1884 due to environmental concerns, the town was abandoned. The ghost town is located in Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park and most of the buildings are in great shape, making this abandoned spot one of the most eerie you can visit.
Distance from LA: 150 miles; three-hour drive
Silver City is unusual in that it’s a composite town of historic buildings from nearby mining camps. These structures were slated to be demolished in the 1960s and '70s until Dave and Arvilla Mills saved them by moving them to the current site. It’s now a museum where the buildings sit in arrested decay, and there are thousands of artifacts on display throughout the property. You can even go inside some of the buildings, including the original Isabella jail where gunslinger Newt Walker was locked up in 1905. However, what makes Silver City especially fascinating is the fact that it’s haunted. Like, a miner's lunch pail flying 12 feet across a room, bottles floating in the air, and a violin that plucks its own strings, haunted.
Distance from SF: 250 miles; four-hour drive
Distance from LA: 155 miles; three-hour drive
This all-Black farming community was founded in 1908 by a group of men who wanted to create a place where African Americans could be free of racism and in control of their own destiny. It was the first and only if its kind to ever exist in California and was named after its most prominent founder, Allen Allensworth, who was born enslaved, escaped and became a Union soldier, and was the first African American to reach the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. By 1912, the town was a voting precinct and had its own school district with a one-room schoolhouse built by donated funds, a direct reflection of the importance the town put on education. The town’s economy depended on agriculture and became a thriving community, home to more than 300 residents and written about by newspapers across the country. Unfortunately, Lt. Colonel Allensworth was killed by a motorcycle in 1914, and though the town continued to prosper, the lack of leadership was felt by residents. The final blow occurred when the town’s irrigation supply was cut off by the Pacific Farming Company (despite an agreement where it promised to provide enough water for irrigation), which made farming nearly impossible. Today, you can explore Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, where you’ll find restored and reconstructed buildings, including the historic schoolhouse, furnished as it would have been in 1915. Friends of Allensworth, a group of dedicated volunteers, work to increase public awareness about the town and its founder, including hosting an annual Juneteenth festival.
Distance from LA: 125 miles; 2.5-hour drive
By far the most touristy ghost town in California, Calico was a silver mining town that flourished in the 1880s. There were hotels, general stores, bars, brothels, and a population of more than 1,200 people. However, the enactment of the Silver Purchase Act made it so the mines were no longer viable and the entire town was abandoned by 1907. Walter Knott (yes, of Knott’s Berry Farm) bought the town in 1951 and began restoring it. Today, it’s a State Historical Landmark and part of the San Bernardino County Regional Parks system. In other words, $8 will get you in for the day to explore the museum, authentic silver mine, “mystery shack” full of optical illusions, 14 shops, saloons, and restaurants, and even a ride on a train similar to those used back in the day (for another $5, of course).
Distance from SF: 40 miles; 45-minute drive
Remains: A few huts, some of which are partly submerged
In 1876, a small cabin was built on Station Island for the drawbridge operator who used a hand crank to open and close the Southern Pacific Coast Railroad’s two drawbridges. The drawbridge operator started inviting his friends to stay the night and go duck hunting, and by the 1880s, there were hotels, cabins, and a thousand visitors on the weekends. By the 1920s, Drawbridge had 90 private homes and was divided by two communities, the Protestants and the Catholics. Unfortunately, zillions of gallons of water and raw sewage were being pumped into the wetlands by the city of San Jose and soon people were forced to move away. The last train stopped there in 1955 and the final two residents moved away in 1979. Today, the town is part of the US National Wildlife Refuge. It’s also slowly sinking, with a current elevation of 7 feet. While it’s off-limits to the public, it can be viewed from trains that pass by and a vista point on the Mallard Slough Trail Spur.