When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, the excitement attracted hundreds of thousands of migrants to California. These early settlers came from across America, Europe, and Asia. They included adventurers like John Marshall Harlan, who left behind a wife and children in Kentucky; farmers looking for new land; businessmen hoping to strike it rich; and families seeking better lives.
Most settled along rivers and streams, building log cabins and frame houses. By 1850, San Francisco had become the largest city west of New York City. Gold mining boomed throughout California until the mid-1850s when prices began falling due to overproduction.
Thousands abandoned their claims, leaving only ruins behind. Today, these forgotten places still tell stories of hard work, greed, love, and heartbreak.
California has many fascinating old abandoned towns scattered throughout its vast landscape. Here are 10 of the most intriguing ones to visit. Each contains unique stories behind why they were left empty. Learn about these forgotten places through history books and local museums.
Take time to wander around and explore before heading off into the wilderness to enjoy nature at its finest.
California has many ghost towns that have been abandoned due to economic problems. Why visit these places?
California has many interesting historical sites. These include museums, old mining camps, historical buildings, and much more. Visit these locations during off-hours to explore their past glory. Many are open 24/7. Be sure to check before visiting any location. Also, read up on each site beforehand. There are often explanations available at these locations.
These cities are located all over the state, and you can easily add one or two too many different California vacation plans.
Empire Mine State Historic Park, California
The Empire Mine was once one of the deepest, longest, widest, and highest mining operations ever attempted in North America. At its peak during the late 1800s, the Empire produced almost five times as much gold as any other mine in the state.
Today, visitors enjoy walking through the old workings of the Empire Mine along paths lined with historic structures, including houses, tunnels, mills, smelters, and stamping batteries.
There are several big draws at Empire Mine Park, including:
- Old mines have been revitalized into beautiful parks and miles of abandoned tunnels.
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- Easy Hiking On 14 Miles Of Forest Trails.
Getting to Empire Mine Park: Located just 7 miles south of Nevada City.
There aren’t any RV parks nearby, but there are plenty of places to stay near Empire Mine State Park. Use these tips for staying at campsites around the park.
Darwin is another of the ‘almost’ ghost towns in California. The town borrows its name from Darwin French, a prospector who visited the area in 1850. The adjacent canyon and falls are also named after him. The first settlement in Darwin came up in 1874, in the wake of lead and silver mining in the region.
The town remained operational because of the Eichbaum Toll Road. But the town was isolated in 1933 when Death Valley became a national monument. When they created access to the park, the new road bypassed Darwin, ensuring its decline.
Darwin still has about 40 residents, who are somewhat skeptical of folks visiting, so please be respectful of the private property.
Additional Features Include:
- Mining towns were built around old mines.
- Art galleries.
- Desert Living
- Getting to Darwin: It’s located 30 minutes west and south of Panamint Springs.
Where to Stay Near Darwin: The same advice would apply to Bendigo.
Shasta State Historical Park, California
Shasta is located in Northern California. It lies south of Mount Lassen National Park along Highway 89 through Mineral Creek Canyon. Shasta State Historical Park includes the ruins of the original mining camp, post office, hotel, schoolhouse, jail, and cemetery. Several trails lead around the site.
Here are a few things to do while at Shasta State Historical Park:
- Take a tour of the beautiful Old Courthouse Museum, where you’ll see stunning paintings by local artists.
- Visit the jail, complete with a replica gallows out back.
- Visit the Blumberg bakery for a glimpse into the history of baked goods and their evolution throughout time.
- Getting to Shasta State Historical Park: The park is just six miles away from Redding.
There aren’t any campgrounds near the state park, but several hotels/motels are nearby Redding, California. One of my favorites is the Hope Inn, located just outside town. I love its old-fashioned charm.
Calico’s rise in 1881 was spurred not by the discovery of gold but by massive amounts of silver ore. The town had a busy red-light district and 22 saloons at its peak. Mining declined when the price of silver fell, and the town was nearly desolate by 1929.
In 1951, Walter Knott purchased Calico and moved some of the buildings to Knotts Berry Farm. In 1966, he fully restored the remaining five buildings at the original site near Barstow. Knott’s involvement explains why Calico is set up as more of an attraction than the kind of dusty, crumbling California ghost towns that typify the rest of this list.
Some of Calico’s attractions include;
- Ghost tours and the Lucy Lane Museum.
- The historic train ride, Mystery Shack experience, and gold mining activities.
- Nearby mountain biking, hiking, and campgrounds and cabins.
- Getting to Calico: It’s located in Barstow on I-15 and is equidistant between Las Vegas and LA.
Where to Stay Near Calico: San Bernardino County runs a campground in Calico. The Home2 Suites hotel in Barstow is well-rated and has a lovely patio area and pool.
Pioneer Town is located just off Highway 62 at mile marker 170. It has been featured in many movies, including “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid,” “True Grit,” “Wild Wild West,” and “Red Dawn.”
There were plans to build a casino here, but those never came to fruition. Pioneer Town offers visitors a chance to experience life during the Old West era.
Bodie is easily one of the best ghost towns in California. While it’s not explicitly being restored, it’s fairly well preserved and is protected as a state historical park. In 1859, Bodie was a small mining camp named after William Body, a local miner.
Two decades later, 9,000 other hopeful prospectors arrived at the site, digging over 10,000 pounds of precious metals from its 30 gold mines. By 1882, the town’s boom had flickered out. Then the devastating fire of 1902 and 1932 eventually did Bodie in.
Bodie’s is known for:
- It feels authentic, decrepit, dusty, and abandoned.
- 110 Silent Houses in Town You Can Visit On Self-Guided Walking Tour.
- Old Gold Mining Equipment & Interiors Full Of Original Items
Bodie State Historical Park: Located just off Hwy 395 at the junction of CA 128/CA 120
There aren’t any campsites here, but many places are near us. There are plenty of options from Lee Vining and down towards Yosemite National Park. Check into the covered wagons at the Virginia Creek Settlement Motel for something unique.
Bodie was once a thriving mining camp during the California Gold Rush days. Today, visitors enjoy hiking through ghost towns and exploring abandoned buildings and mines.
Ballarat is a little boomtown in the Mojave Desert’s Panamint Valley. Bendigo rose at the tail end of the 19th-century mining rush of 1896. It was a mining supply station and a source for whisky and water, both in scarce supply in this arid desert.
At its peak in 1897, the town was home to 500 people and had a post office, morgue, and jail. As the lodes dried up, the post office shut down in 1917, ending the town’s heyday.
Most buildings at Bendigo are slowly melting to the ground, but some highlights include:
- An old cemetery and the gravesite of one of the last of the Rainbow Seekers – Rarely seen Slim.
- The general store is owned by the ghost town’s sole resident and his dog.
- Manson’s Old Truck.
Getting to Ballarat: It’s located 40 minutes directly south of Panamint Springs and an hour west of Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley National Park.
Where to Stay Near Ballarat: RV spots and glamping options are nearby(ish) Panamint Springs. If you are headed south of the area, check out the motels in Ridgecrest.
Cerro Gordo, California
Cerro Gordo, Spanish for “Fat Hill,” there are still traces of its past life as a bustling community. Founded in 1866, the town served as a way station along the Butterfield Overland Mail route until it closed in 1880.
Today, visitors can explore abandoned buildings, including homes, saloons, shops, churches, schools, hotels, and banks. There are over 200 historical structures left standing today.
At its peak, 1,500 people filled the camp, and it developed a reputation for lawlessness. However, like the other towns listed here, the mine’s production and profitability ultimately fell; by 1920, Cerro Gordo had only ten miners. The site is now a privately owned 336-acre ghost town that you can visit with a reserved booking.
Things to see in Cerro Gordo include:
- Experience the authentic feeling of a 19th-century mining town tour.
- Experience hoisting houses and assays.
- The area’s scenic beauty.
Getting to Cerro Gordo: Located 41 miles southeast of Lone Pine off Highway 395.
Where to Stay Near Cerro Gordo: If you have a van or RV, stay in the nearby Alabama Hills. It’s one of the best places to boondock in California. If you’re tent camping, try Diaz Lake. If you want a roof over your head, try the Muir Cottage, which has a full kitchen and is right downtown. Or, head up the road to Independence, and stay at the well-rated Mt. Williamson Motel & Basecamp
Malakoff Diggins State Historical Park, California
Malakoff Diggins is located at the base of Mount Diablo State Park in Contra Costa County, CA. It was founded in 1862 by John W. Rucker after discovering gold there. Mining continued until 1888, but the boomtown soon faded into history. Today, the community has been preserved as a living museum.
Below we have listed several activities available to participants during their stay here at Malakoff Diggins State Park.
- View the massive 600-foot cliffs on the hillside, which hydraulic water pumps have sculpted.
- Visit the North Bloomfield Park Visitor Center today.
- Take hikes, swim laps, picnic, camp, or fish in the park.
Malakoff Diggins State Park is located approximately 26 miles south of Nevada City.
There is a campground right in the state park. If you want a roof over your head, you should check out the Historic Broad Street Inn in downtown Nevada City. It’s a lovely Victorian confection with a wraparound porch.
If you get to Cerro Gordo from Lone Pine, you pass through Keeler, and it’s worth a stop. The town is now a part of the ‘almost’ ghost towns in California, with a human population of 66 and a low number of abandoned buildings. Keeler grew on the shores of Owens Lake in the 1870s as a freight terminal.
By 1880, a mill was built to process ore from the Cerro Gordo mines, and a rail spur was laid to help move the ore. Keeler went through several highs and lows because it was tied to Cerro Gordo’s fortunes. Ultimately Cerro Gordo dried up, and then the nearby lake dried up, killing the town and driving away most of the residents.
Things to see in Keeler include:
- Architect Henry Hobson Richardson built the historic Old Post Office building between 1892 and 1895. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
- Owens Lake Silver Co. is a historic landmark.
- Keeler Cemetery, the old train depot, and other mining buildings.
Getting to Keeler: It’s located 15 miles south of Lone Pine, on the western road into Panamint Springs and Death Valley.
Where to Stay Near Keeler: Use the above advice for Lone Pine. Or visit Keeler, head into Death Valley National Park, and get your lodging there. If you are tent camping, use our Death Valley campground guide. If you want hotel/motel lodging, use our Death Valley visitor’s guide.