Please explore responsibly. While “SoCal Wanderer” continues to uncover the region’s local gems and not-to-miss destinations, these are uncertain times with public health guidelines changing constantly. We encourage our readers to stay curious and cautious.
When visiting the area known as “Death Valley,” you’d expect to encounter a ghost or two.
Death Valley National Park and its environs are full of mysteries, surprises, and communities that went from boom to bust so quickly they’re all but forgotten. Most of these towns were built for some kind of mining endeavor, and when the industry dried up, so did their thriving populations.
While you might stumble across some of these “ghost towns” on your way somewhere else — say to Leadfield in Titus Canyon — others take a bit more work to find.
Some require a four-wheel-drive to reach them by roads, which run the risk of being washed out from recent rains in the area. Some towns have nothing left but a historical marker, while others are completely inaccessible by car.
Here are five great ghost towns worth hunting down in and around Death Valley:
The most famous and accessible Death Valley ghost town is probably Rhyolite, even though it’s not actually in the park or even in California. It’s just off of nearby border town Beatty, Nevada, and from 1905 to 1911 it was known as the “Queen City.” When you drive down the old unpaved Main Street, you’re surrounded by rubble and scrap metal – the vestiges of abandoned homes and businesses that are currently unrecognizable, sometimes with only a pile of stones remaining. But you can still see the old railroad depot, the “Rhyolite” sign double-painted with “Rhyolite Ghost Casino,” and the old general store. And as a bonus, there are even more ghosts living in Rhyolite than the prospectors and miners who rushed over for gold and fled just as quickly. At the Goldwell Open Air Museum at the gateway to Death Valley, shrouded figures reenact “The Last Supper” and ride a bicycle in Albert Szukalksi’s sculptures, which were installed here in the 1980s.
Death Valley Junction
There aren’t a lot of places to stay overnight in Death Valley National Park aside from camping, so you could spend an uneventful night in the popular stopover town Beatty. Or you could choose a far more remote and interesting location. Spend the night in Death Valley Junction, a ghost town whose only remaining business is the Amargosa Opera House & Hotel.
Amargosa, now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, was originally built in the 1920s as a borax company town for local workers. It had residences, a coffee shop, a hospital, a rec hall, a store, and a garage across the street. In the 1960s, actress and dancer Marta Becket moved from New York City to Death Valley Junction and rented out the original hall to turn it into an opera house. She painted its walls with murals, and illuminated the house with lights that she’d handcrafted out of coffee cans. Once the performance space was to her liking, she performed dances and mimes there for over 40 years. The hotel rents out their no-frills rooms by the night, and the opera house still has occasional performances by other dancers and musical acts. Although Marta is now retired, you can still see her dance – on the TV screen in the lobby, which shows old VHS tapes of her performances.
Just outside the west side of the park as you pull off on Surprise Canyon Road, you reach what’s left of some lower-canyon remains of the mining history of the Panamint Valley – namely, Novak’s Camp, which is the gateway to the silver mining ghost town of Panamint City. In fact, the only way to get to the former boomtown run by outlaws is by taking a seven-mile hike uphill from Surprise Canyon. It flooded and washed away in 1876. But the wagon roads that were built up the canyon to reach it were amazingly still navigable by motorized vehicles until the early 1980s. Now, that’s the way to hike up to it. The road passes the stamp mill while nature has overtaken the rest of the remains of the lower mining camp, thanks to being closed to off-roading vehicles that once disrupted the soil and scarred the bedrock. Now, it’s surprisingly wet (hence its name) and thick with vegetation, so the trip all the way up to Panamint City by foot is likely a full-day affair, and probably requires an overnight stay amidst the ruins.
Novak’s Camp (previously known as “Chris Wicht Camp”) at Surprise Canyon used to be quite a successful private operation, and because of that, Rocky Novak and his father George resisted their camp being absorbed into the designated wilderness area to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management. When Novak’s Camp burned down in 2006, the Novaks blamed the BLM, accusing it of arson. The BLM denied it of course, and with everything gone, the Novaks moved to nearby ghost town Ballarat, which was founded in 1897 as a supply stop for nearby miners. George died in 2011 at the age of 90, at which point his son Rocky (also known as “Rock” and “Roc”) became its only official resident and unofficial “mayor” – the sole caretaker of the dwindling town that once had hundreds of residents (and multiple saloons). Its other big claim to fame was as a haunt for Charles Manson and his “family” – and there’s a junked-up old truck still parked there, reportedly having belonged to some member of the family, if not Manson himself. If you stop to take a photo, make sure you buy a soda or water from Roc and say hello. If he’s feeling chatty, you’ll get a priceless ghost town experience.
Rand Mining District was initially comprised of several towns and several different mining operations including Randsburg, Johannesburg, Red Mountain, and Garlock. It was first organized in 1895 during the first mining frenzy, and it touted a total of nearly 30 mines, producing $25MM of gold in its 50-year history (according to 1920s pricing). It was mostly a tent city at the time, but it was most certainly a boomtown. Now, there are only about 60 or 70 residents left in Randsburg, but you can stay the night in the B&B or one of the cabins at Goat’s Sky Ranch — as a solo traveler, or with a bunch of buddies.
Goat is a former professional motorcycle racer who doesn’t really need to run a B&B for the money, but he takes ramshackle cabins and restores them way beyond their original splendor simply for enjoyment. Whether you’re stopping over for the nearby OHV trails or you’re just getting away, be sure to check out the old jail, the church, and the cemetery – which was established in 1896, with the burial of William Davis, who was shot and killed in a gambling dispute. Just watch out for the dangerously high levels of arsenic — over 400,000 times higher than a healthy level — which might either be a byproduct of mining, or a very good sign that there’s still gold to be found in those hills.