Strange Geographies: Ghost Towns of California

Ransom Riggs

I live in Los Angeles. I moved here in 2002 from a smaller, saner part of the country to go to film school and work, a lifestyle which became so all-consuming that for my first two or three years here, this sprawled-out behemoth of a city was all I knew of California. When you spend all your time hemmed inside its concrete borders, it's easy to imagine LA's low-slung jungle extending forever in all directions -- but it doesn't. Drive two hours to the north or the east and you'll find yourself in some of the most desolate country you can imagine; deserts and dry lake beds and mountain ranges stretching into the unfathomable distance. Turn down a neglected state road and you might not see another vehicle for fifty miles.

But, as I discovered on a recent road trip into a few the blank spots on California's map, many of its wild places aren't untouched -- they're deserted. California is a land of booms and busts, of big dreams and big failures, and its deserts and open spaces are littered with the leavings of dried-up towns that didn't make it. I went looking for them, and this is what I found.

Of course, I couldn't visit every ghost town in California -- there are hundreds -- but the ones I found are a fairly representative sampling. Larger versions of these photos are here.

Death Valley Junction

It's twenty miles east of Death Valley, right on the Nevada border, and smack in the middle of nowhere. It used to be a railroad town: the Death Valley Railroad headquartered there and its trains carried borax (and borax miners) from 1914 to 1928, but by the 40s the railroad was defunct and the town in decline. From a population of about 100 at its peak, the city limits sign lists just four people living in Death Valley Junction.

Death valley junction 3
Death valley junction 3 /

The opposite wall reads "Because I have an alarm clock that runs on happiness."


Lockhart 1
Lockhart 1 /
Lockhart 2
Lockhart 2 /
Lockhart5 /
Lockhart4 /

Not far away is Harper Dry Lake, where Howard Hughes used to test planes. An F-22 crashed into the lakebed earlier this year, killing the pilot.


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Not far away (but totally inaccessible to my 2WD sedan) is the Burro Schmidt Tunnel, which an enterprising (some would say crazy) old man named "Burro" dug through a mountain -- miles and miles of tunnel -- by hand. They say that somewhere in his bizarre warren of tunnels is a "chandelier room," hung with all manner of elaborate lighting fixtures. Enter very much at your own risk.

Randsburg Mining District

This is a close-knit cluster of ghost and semi-ghost towns, all centered around what used to be some very productive mines in some very inhospitable country.

Atolia /
Red mtn
Red mtn /
Red mtn 2
Red mtn 2 /
joberg playground
joberg playground /
Randsburg2 /
Randsburg /


Ridgecrest paintball
Ridgecrest paintball /
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Ridgecrest paintball2 /
Ridgecrest paintball3
Ridgecrest paintball3 /
Ridgecrest house
Ridgecrest house /


No, Trona's not a ghost town. But for every house that's occupied, there's one that's abandoned -- and seems to have been viciously defaced and vandalized. Trona is a desperate little town one valley over from Death Valley -- a lifeless, dust-blown sulfate mining town, named for trisodium hydrogendicarbonate dihydrate, or trona, which is what they pull out of the ground around there. If you live in Trona and are reading this, sorry to dis your 'burg -- but it just might be the ugliest and most depressing stretch of road in California.

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Nope. Just some old cartons of beer and a couch meth-heads had set on fire. I can't believe the house didn't burn, too -- though from the moldy state of things, most likely the fire department had put it out.

Between Here and There

Abandoned gas station for sale
Abandoned gas station for sale /


Keeler trailers
Keeler trailers /


Laws train
Laws train /
Laws whiskey sign
Laws whiskey sign /
Laws broken piano keys
Laws broken piano keys /


Bodie vista
Bodie vista /
bodie car fix
bodie car fix /

See what else Ransom Riggs is up to here.