Being out in the Mojave Desert a couple of weekends ago exploring old mining and homesteading ruins in Joshua Tree National Park reminded me of a topic I’ve wanted to write about for several months: ghost towns.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, human settlement expanded into the remotest parts of the western states. People experimented with living in inhospitable landscapes because of the promise of mineral resources, the potential to establish farms and ranches, support and maintenance of communication and transportation routes, and because the federal government sought to protect settlers by stationing the army throughout the territories.
Although the government declared the frontier closed and all the major American gold rushes ended more than 100 years ago, there are still a few places where the relics of pioneers can be seen.
I’ve always been fascinated by exploring abandoned places. For anyone who has a similar interest and enjoys history or photographing interesting locations, here are my recommendations for the best ghost towns:
Bodie State Historic Park – Hands down, the best-preserved ghost town in the west is Bodie. Most residents left by the early 1930s, and a caretaker chased away vandals and thieves until it became a state park in 1962. Since then, it has been preserved in a state of “arrested decay” – the park maintains it to appear much as it would have 50 years ago.
About 100 buildings remain, and you can look in the windows to see what the former residents left behind.
The museum and a couple of other buildings are regularly open to the public, and you can sign up for guided tours of the Standard Mill, one of the most intact stamp mills in existence.
Located in a high mountain valley east of Yosemite, the picturesque town is one of the most photographed historic sites in the nation. Generally only accessible by car from May or June until the first major snowfall, you can get up-to-date information by going to www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=509 or calling 760-647-6445.
Rhyolite – A desert boomtown from 1904-07, Rhyolite is unique among California and Nevada ghost towns for the durability of its buildings.
Its settlers certainly expected it to be permanent, erecting concrete buildings and a famous “bottle house” built entirely of old beer and liquor bottles and mortar. The lonely concrete shells remain, providing plenty to explore and photograph.
Rhyolite is located east of Death Valley National Park in Nevada. The site is protected by a Bureau of Land Management caretaker and is open to the public during daylight hours. For information, go to nps.gov/deva/learn/historyculture/rhyolite-ghost-town.htm.
Angel Island State Park – Angel Island isn’t a typical ghost town – it doesn’t have a mining history and isn’t totally abandoned, but it does have several historic, abandoned structures that are fun to photograph and explore.
Although some are fenced, the lower levels of many are open. You can see most of them by hiking the 5-mile loop around the island, which is accessed by regular ferry service from Tiburon, San Francisco, Oakland and Vallejo.
For information, go to parks.ca.gov/?page_id=468 or call 415-435-5390. The island is generally open to the public from 8 a.m. to sunset, and you can reserve campsites for overnight visits.
In addition to the abandoned structures, there are several restored ones you can tour, including the historic immigration station, military officers’ homes and a visitor center.
New Almaden Quicksilver County Park – Located in the foothills west of San Jose, New Almaden was one of the world’s most productive mercury (quicksilver) mines. Operating from 1846 until the 1920s, it was eventually transformed into a county park.
Lots of crumbling buildings and mining relics are scattered along the trails, and interpretive signs explain what it was like as a vibrant community. The ruins are probably the least impressive of the ghost towns I’ve recommended, but there are many of them and it’s a nice place to walk, especially in the spring.
The town was one of the major settings of Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Angle of Repose.
The former home of the mine superintendent is now an impressive museum of the area’s history.
For information, go to sccgov.org/sites/parks/parkfinder/Pages/AlmadenPark.aspx or call 408-268-3883. For information about the museum, visit newalmaden.org/#Museum or call 408-323-1107.
In addition to these abandoned places, I can’t close without mentioning Columbia State Historic Park, the best-preserved ghost town that is still inhabited. With streets open only to pedestrians, no modern buildings, several buildings restored as museums and historically themed shops and restaurants, Columbia is the best place to see what a California Gold Rush town might have been like during its heyday.
For information go to parks.ca.gov/?page_id=552 or call 209-588-9128.
If you have a favorite ghost town that wasn’t included in this list, please send me an email and let me know.
Adam Blauert: email@example.com