Sun in your face and cold drink in your hand, singing along to Creedence Clearwater Revival: Who doesn’t love a road trip to the desert? But for many 19th- and 20th-century pioneers, the desert wasn’t just a place they wanted to visit—it was a place they wanted to stay.
Settlements were raised in the dry and unaccommodating desert for many reasons. Some, like Palm Springs, flourished, but countless others failed. Those that didn’t, that outlived their usefulness yet still exist, are now faded snapshots of the time and place when they were at their best.
Below are our five favorite California desert ghost towns. Some have been re-purposed, some glamorized, some left to rot. They’re easy to drive to, fascinating to explore, and may leave you thinking about which one you’d like to live in, and which one you’d like to haunt.
Who knew a deserted, rough-and-tumble mining boomtown in the Wild West could be so delightful?
Calico is a desert ghost town, theme-park style. Just outside of Barstow in the Mojave Desert—designated the state of California’s official “silver rush ghost town” in 2005—Calico started its life as a lawless 19th-century mining camp. In the 1950s, it was reinvented by Walter Knott, the very man who brought us Knotts Berry Farm.
In 1881, John McBryde and Lowery Silver discovered silver ore in the dusty mountains near Wall Street Canyon. Calcium borate (borax) was found shortly after. More than 500 mines were soon in operation, producing the biggest silver load in California history. The mines had pithy names like the Bismark, the Burning Moscow, and the Waterloo. Soon, the new settlement of Calico in Wall Street Canyon sprang up, filled with young adventurers from places as disparate as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and China. According to the Los Angeles Times:
Calico was a rip-roaring town teeming with miners, boomers, promoters, gamblers and fortune hunters... Five thousand men swarmed up the canyons and gulches from their stone huts each morning to grab with picks and blast with powder for rich silver ore. A dog carried the mail in pouches strapped to his back. The justice of the peace chewed tobacco and swallowed the juice. And the gaudy colors in the mineral stained mountains which formed a backdrop for it all reminded someone of a piece of calico. So that’s what they named the place...
But the boom, as nearly always, was followed by a bust. By the 1890s, silver lost much of its value due to the discovery of bigger mines, and the dusty desert outpost was mostly deserted. By the mid-1930s, only four residents were left.
Calico’s second wind would come in 1951, when Walter Knott, whose uncle had made his fortune with a Calico mine, bought the collection of dilapidated shacks and mines that were left. In 1966, he donated the restored—and heavily sanitized—town to the county of San Bernardino.
Today, the picturesque tourist trap is all charm, with no true grit (or ghosts) in sight. You can take a ride through an old mine on a tram, pan for silver, take pot shots in the shooting gallery, and camp overnight under the Calico hills. In the general store on Main Street, there are fat peppermints and candy cigarettes. In the recreated print shop, a friendly skeleton wears an old-fashioned green visor and kitschy wanted posters of madams and madmen are displayed on the walls.
But by far the most compelling area is the Calico Graveyard, where mountaineers and prospectors from Calico’s past—and modern-day boosters and cowboys—are buried under handmade markers, their graves covered in desert rock. One faux-aged wooden marker reads: Here lies Jerimiah Mountain Man 1928-2005.
36600 Ghost Town Road
Yermo, CA 92398
Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Ever have the hankering to experience a post-apocalyptic 1950s-kitschy hellscape? Then get your kicks off Route 66 (now the National Heritage Trail) in the ghostly midcentury modern nightmare known as Amboy.
Three hours east of Los Angeles, this small settlement in the Mojave started off as a railroad community. But when Route 66 passed through town, bringing vacationers looking for a bite to eat and a photo opportunity, Amboy found its true purpose. The iconic Roy’s Motel and Café opened in the 1930s, and for decades it was the domain of owner Buster Burris, “a rough-hewn entrepreneur with flinty eyes, sun-toasted skin and strong opinions about rowdy bikers and men with long hair.”
During the glory days of Route 66, Amboy was a popular tourist trap, where the all-American family could get a malt in the soda shop, have their tires rotated, and enjoy a peaceful night’s sleep before they got back on the road.
In the 1970s, the construction of new highways made Route 66 obsolete, and Amboy’s fortunes fell. Roy’s closed and much was abandoned, including the elementary school, now a fenced-in ruin.
Amboy passed through the hands of different owners before it was bought by Albert Okura, founder of the Juan Pollo restaurant chain, in 2005. Okura has a soft spot for Americana; he also bought the refurbished, original McDonald’s in San Bernardino. He promised to restore and reopen Roy’s, a goal which he seems to have minimally accomplished.
When you pull into Amboy today, the first thing you notice is the music. Saccharine hits from the 1950s and ’60s fill the dry desert air, providing a disconcerting soundtrack for an exploration of the once-bustling stop.
At Roy’s Motel and Café, an old man sits by the gas station: is he working? Waiting? Inside, an empty soda counter, straight out of Dobie Gillis, is preserved, and kitschy souvenirs appear to be for sale. Next door is the glassed-in hotel lobby, its cracked Mad Men-esque furniture fading in the sun. Two of the motel rooms are open. There’s a soiled mattress in one, and a strange art installation in the other. What looks like a food truck is parked in the driveway, the words “Research Flat Earth” painted on its side.
Across the street is an old post office, and an abandoned church where an organ sits in its back room, waiting to be played. There is a vacant, sunbaked house, with an overturned chair, peeling paint, and wallpaper that makes the walls look like a Rothko. In the dust-covered ’50s-style kitchen, you might glimpse a desert version of trapped Betty Draper standing at the window, staring out at the train tracks. The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” wafts through the air.
87520 National Trail Highway
Amboy CA, 92304
Down an endless road, deep into the beautifully barren Mojave National Preserve, the wind pushes your car around, and your lips feel like parched sandpaper. Suddenly, it rises like a fairytale castle: a large Spanish Revival structure. This must be how 20th-century passengers on the Union Pacific felt when they first saw the railroad depot in Kelso. Finally, a place to stretch their legs, breathe some fresh air, and have a drink or 10.
The rudimentary depot first opened in 1905 to aid Union Pacific trains chugging across the desert to and from Las Vegas. “The steep 2 percent grade that trains had to climb from west of Kelso to Kessler Summit meant that extra ‘helper engines’ would need to be stationed nearby to help them up the grade,” a National Parks Service history explains. Of course, steam locomotives needed water. According to the history, “Kelso was perfectly situated to fill both roles, since it is located near the bottom of the 2,078-foot grade, and had a reliable water source from a nearby spring in the Providence Mountains.”
Soon a post office, cafeteria, and rudimentary homes for Union Pacific workers and prospectors sprang up in the isolated spot. In 1924, the grand Spanish Revival Kelso Depot and Clubhouse opened. The expansive structure included “a conductor’s room, telegraph office, baggage room, dormitory rooms for staff, boarding rooms for railroad crewmen, a billiard room, library and locker room.” The depot quickly became the social center of tiny Kelso, the site of “Christmas parties, square dances, church services and trials.” It was a beacon of hospitality in unforgiving terrain.
At its height during World War II, the population of Kelso reached around 2,000. But shortly after, it began to dwindle as nearby mines closed and the switch from steam engine to diesel rendered the depot’s purpose as a way station obsolete—since trains no longer needed assistance climbing steep grades. The once-bustling depot was closed by Union Pacific in 1985. During the 1980s and ’90s, Kelso became a virtual ghost town, with only a few residents. One was the boarded-up depot’s caretaker O.B. O’Brien, a grizzled Navy veteran. “I fell in love with the desert,” he said, echoing the sentiments of those who still called Kelso home. “I don’t want to be bothered.”
Union Pacific planned to tear down the depot, but it was saved by a group of historians and environmentalists. In 2005, the restored depot was opened as the visitor center for Mojave National Preserve. Once again, it serves as a friendly way station, selling maps, candy bars, and nostalgia to visitors battling the cruel desert sun. There is a restored lunch counter, telegraph office, and exhibitions that tell the history of the area.
Outside, however, is an entirely different beast. The dust in the air chokes. Across the street from the depot, the old post office is boarded up. There is a forlorn, abandoned basketball court, and a fireplace—all that’s left of a small house. Behind the post office is a small wood-frame house, where it appears someone still resides. See if you can find the good, fallen tree nearby, rest for a moment, and think of ghost trains gliding across the unforgiving desert.
90942 Kelso Cima Road
Kelso, CA 92306
There is much to see in California City, in the Kern County desert, 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. There are roads laid out in a perfect grid. There are lots ideal for middle-class family homes. And there are real estate signs, dotting the empty roads, stuck in the weedy, barren lots, advertising that the land is for sale. Most look like they have been there for many years.
California City was the brainchild of a dapper Czechoslovakian sociologist named Nathan K. Mendelsohn. Inspired by the explosive growth of the San Fernando Valley, in 1958 he bought 82,000 acres of desert wasteland, intent on making it into the ideal industrialized American metropolis. “He would take people up on a hill overlooking the land and explain to them about the city that would be there one day,” his secretary Renate Saremba recalled. “They would just look at him. They could not see what he saw.”
Buses of potential buyers were brought to California City. Once they arrived, they saw a massive infrastructure campaign in progress, which would eventually make California City the third-largest city in the state by landmass, a title which it still holds. According to the LA Times:
An ambitious street system was designed and roads were cut into the brush, making the grid that can now be seen from the air. A sales office and model houses were constructed, and work was started on Central Park, an 80-acre recreational area that eventually included a 20-acre lake, outdoor swimming pool, playing fields, par-three golf course, picnic areas, tennis courts, indoor sports center and community building.
However, the industries and factories that Mendelsohn promised to lure to the city never came. By 1969, the year Mendelsohn pulled out amid a torrent of lawsuits and government investigations, California City had only 1,700 residents. Many lot owners, who felt they had been sold a false bill of goods, simply abandoned the land and stopped paying property taxes. Over the years, the roads were reclaimed by the city of Mojave.
Driving through California City today is an eerie experience. The town has grown over the years, now boasting around 14,000 people. Most work in the local jail, at nearby Edwards Air Force Base, and in the large Boron mine to the east. But it’s not nearly enough people to fill even a fraction of the land. Many neighborhoods have only three or four homes, with plenty of land in between. At dusk, an Oldsmobile driver turns his bright lights on to go down a perfectly straight road, with not a building or second car in sight. Driving out of town as the sun goes down in the huge, cloudless sky, you pass row upon row of empty dirt roads, like the imprint from a shoe.
The hills nearby are covered in sleek white windmills. Their green lights twinkle, a warning to airplanes taking off from a nearby airport. These friendly green aliens seem to outnumber the human residents of California City.
21000 Hacienda Boulevard
California City, CA 93505
In 1946, Hollywood came to the high desert to stay. That year, a group of Hollywood investors, including cowboy stars Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, Dick Curtis, Bob Nolan, Russell Hayden, and Tim Spencer, bought 13 acres of desert land 25 miles from Palm Springs. Tired of the incessant travel that came with filming Westerns, they built Pioneertown as a permanent Wild West set. Complete with a false-facade Old West Mane Street (pun intended), comfortable motel, and stables, Pioneertown served as a location for more than 50 movies and TV shows. A small community of eccentrics and loners eventually grew around this fake old village in the desert.
Fast-forward to 2018, and new pioneers have come to town—trustafarians and Burning Man enthusiast types who co-mingle with the rough-hewn desert lizards that have long called the small community home.
Mane Street is a friendly place, not a grimacing desperado in sight. A woman smiles when you peek into the windows of the adorable motel’s reception office. The motel is owned by two millennial brothers named Matt and Mike French, and rooms are often booked months in advance. Farther down the dirt road, a modern-day cowboy sitting a spell on the porch takes off his hat, an old-timey gesture in front of the old-timey saddle shop. Buy a cowboy hat from the hip guy with an alt-country beard in another store (and pay over Venmo) and consider purchasing a beautiful earthenware mug in another.
In the town’s large barn, craftsmen are working. And on Mane Street, Old West cottages built for movies are being lived in by real people—and an art installation even adorns one private yard. The working post office shares an aged building with the town’s fake sheriff’s office, complete with a dummy and a makeshift jail.
Pioneertown’s influx of young residents has driven some people away. “It is a little too crowded for me,” longtime resident Jim Austin told the New York Times last year, having just sold his home to a couple from Oakland. “It was time for me to bug off rather than becoming that grumpy old dude trying to stop change.”
5240 Curtis Road
Pioneertown, CA 92268