Ghost towns are the one roadside curiosity I can never pass up—they offer the perfect combination of wilderness escape, temporary time travel, and strange, slightly unsavory Americana.
Like a lot of bookish kids, I spent most of my childhood reading about fantastic worlds just on the other side of the looking glass or the wardrobe door. Walking down an abandoned Main Street still gives me a little bit of that feeling—especially if I’m the only person there. Over the past decade, I’ve become an accidental connoisseur.
While ghost towns are tucked away all over the West, I’ve done most of my reconnoitering in California. If you’re anywhere east of Sacramento, you’re probably within a 30-minute drive of a ghost town. Of course, they come with their own risks: they’re remote, they’re occasionally spooky, and the hills surrounding them are usually dotted with unmarked mine shafts.
Here are three destinations that make for an excellent ghost town tour of California—starting with a visitor-friendly town that’s accessible by car and ending with a truly varsity-level expedition.
Even in its heyday, Bodie was renowned for its inhospitable setting: it’s 8,000 feet above sea level, on an arid plain containing no trees, screaming gusts of wind, and a sub-arctic climate (nighttime temperatures dip below freezing year-round). In other words, it’s a wretched place to camp, but it makes for a great spooky day trip.
Bodie has a pretty typical backstory for a Western ghost town: it started out as a small mining camp in the 1850s, saw explosive growth after miners struck gold in 1879, and then began to empty out in the 1920s. At its peak, Bodie had a population of 10,000 people, with its own Chinatown and red light district.
Lots of Bodie’s original buildings were consumed by fire, but what remains is pretty impressive: you can poke your way through about 100 buildings, and lots of them are still stocked with goods that the residents left behind. One of the old houses has been converted into a cabin for the (surprisingly chatty and well-adjusted) live-in ranger, so there’s always at least one other person around.
Details: Bodie lies just 13 miles off of Highway 395, between Bridgeport and Lee Vining, which makes it both accessible by car and remote enough to feel eerie—the vehicles in the parking area are the only signs of modern life. The park is open year-round with a $5 visitor’s fee, though the main road is usually closed to cars during the winter season (you’re welcome to ski or snowshoe in, though).
Ghost Town #2
Malakoff Diggins/North Bloomfield
Ready for an overnighter? North Bloomfield (formerly known as Humbug) is your spot. It’s a tiny little ghost town nestled in the middle of Malakoff Diggins State Park, just a short drive from Nevada City. Back in the 1850s, North Bloomfield acted as home base for an enormous hydraulic mining operation. Instead of digging for gold, miners blasted the hillsides with giant water cannons and then sorted through the gravel for riches.
Over the years, they wore a 600-foot-deep canyon into the Sierra foothills. You can still wander through it today, picking your way through piles of rusted mining equipment and crawling through drainage tunnels. The park is also a short hike from the Yuba River, one of the best swimming spots in Northern California.
The town itself has a two-block main street with an old general store, a church, and a frontier-style graveyard featuring hand-carved wooden headstones. Even better: three of the old miner’s cabins are available to rent during the summer, complete with tables, wood stoves, and bunks for four people. For about $120, you can have an entire ghost town to yourself for the night. Once the ranger goes home around six, you can stroll the main street, ring the old fire bell, and spook yourself silly in the graveyard.
Details: Malakoff Diggins State Park is a 20-minute drive from Nevada City in the Sierra foothills. The park is open year-round, but the miner’s cabins are only available from May through September. There’s an $8 day-use fee and a $40 fee for cabin rentals. Don’t forget to say hi to Ranger Debbie.
Ghost Town #3
The Holy Grail of ghost towns isn’t actually a town at all—it’s an abandoned mining camp high up in the White Mountains, a range just to the east of the Sierras. The miners here were after andalusite, a material used to make automotive spark plugs. It’s remote, somewhat treacherous to reach, and absolutely enchanting. You’ll remember this trip for the rest of your life.
Even though the mine was active well into the modern era, the terrain was too treacherous for road-building, so everything was hauled in and out via pack mule. Sparkplug was abandoned in the 1940s, but it’s been lovingly maintained by volunteers ever since. About half a dozen cabins are still furnished with twin beds, wood stoves, old books, and assorted camping supplies. There’s also a large mess hall with sinks and a wood-burning cook stove, plus a one-room museum stocked with old paraphernalia from the mine, including some super-authentic century-old denim.
The camp sits on the shoulder of White Mountain Peak, directly facing the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west—you couldn’t ask for a better view. During the day, you can scramble another 2,000 feet up to the high camp to explore some of the remaining mining tunnels. If you’re feeling energetic, you can even continue past the bighorn sheep and bristlecone pines to summit 14,252-foot White Mountain Peak, the third-highest mountain in California.
There are no reservations, fees, or other bureaucracy at Sparkplug—anyone willing to hike in is welcome to stay the night. If you visit, it’s customary to bring along some supplies for future visitors (anything from toilet paper to batteries or shelf-stable snacks).
Details: Sparkplug is just inside the Inyo National Forest, and it’s only accessible by foot. To get there, follow Highway 6 north out of Bishop, then turn onto a long, rutted dirt road (a quick Google search will give you the exact coordinates). The road dead-ends at a trailhead after about four miles, but unless you’re driving a high-clearance truck, be prepared to ditch your wheels sooner and continue on foot. Next, you’ll follow a narrow footpath about 2.5 miles up the mountain to reach the camp (the old telegraph poles will help you find the way). The trail is easy to follow, but there are some death-defying sections that are barely wider than your boot.