Why You Should Visit Bodie — The Best Ghost Town in the West
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Back in 1878, America was still looking west. Dreams, opportunities, riches, beauty, adventure, survival and hope were surely lying out there just over the western horizon.
Folks living in places like Philadelphia, Macon, Meridian, St. Louis or Independence heard tales of gold-filled streams, vein-rich mountains and overnight rags-to-riches stories. It’s easy to see why some eventually hitched wagons to their horses and rode west. While there were plenty of destinations in the western states calling out to those seeking fortune, Bodie, California might have been calling the loudest.
Largely (and quickly) abandoned for the last century, Bodie is no longer the boom town it once was, instead it has become one of the best ghost towns to visit in all of the US. Here’s what made Bodie special then and why it’s worth a visit for travelers today.F
Bodie Called to Those Seeking Fortune
Located in the northeast part of California in the Sierra Nevadas, Bodie was one of the classic boom towns that mining had a way of creating and encouraging. It tempted the young, the yearners, prospectors and dreamers.
If luck was on their side — the weather cooperated, and a wagon wheel didn’t fall off, etc. — there were probably some beautiful sights along the way across the country.
Eager for a new (golden) opportunity, a few miles from arrival, these early travelers might have heard an almost rhythmic metallic drumbeat of a noise — muffled at first, but with each turn of the wagon wheel slightly more pronounced and alarming.
After arriving in Bodie, these new residents soon learned that the noise happening 24/6 was coming from huge stamps in the mills as they slammed into unprocessed ore.
Booming Life in Boom Town
The norm in Bodie was a small room in a boarding house. The hillside was void of vegetation, but full of houses and mining operations. This was a concentrated, eclectic, and often harsh life lived day-to-day by thousands — all brought together because of the shared lure of gold. It was pretty dense urban living and the town and its inhabitants burned the candle at both ends.
The long and wide main street housed shops and stores, hotels and eateries, doctors, funeral parlors, performance halls, blacksmiths, banks, lawyers, newspapers and saloons. At one time, Bodie had five competing newspapers and 65 rival saloons. There were houses of worship and houses of ill repute and every kind of house in between. At its peak in about 1880, Bodie was home to between 7,500 and 10,000 people — which at the time was about the same population as Los Angeles.
Life could be hard in Bodie, but attempts were made to civilize, soften and enrich the daily struggles with entertainment, shows, union halls and baseball teams.
Winters varied from cold and long to colder and longer. Bodie’s elevation and open plain topography lends itself to having very cold nights throughout the year. Firewood was a precious and required commodity that had to be brought in from the valley below. A 25-mile train bed was built just for the purpose of transporting wood for fuel and construction.
Time in Bodie was measured in gold years. Each year spent searching was like a dozen spent elsewhere. Before long, Bodie’s life went from robust and healthy to uncertain and questionable. People moved out as fast as they had moved in, because the end of the rainbow was now reported to be on another hill in another boom town.
Mining continued in Bodie for another 50+ years, but the population steadily declined and the demographics changed from primarily young, single and restless to more of a family-oriented hometown. Two significant fires altered the structural landscape from several thousand buildings to less than a hundred by the time the last mine was forced to close in 1942. The town was soon virtually deserted, with only a handful of citizens remaining. Many left town with only the clothes on their backs, abandoning possessions, materials, merchandise and memories.
So, there Bodie sat. It was unprotected and vulnerable, but spared from rapid deterioration thanks to arid conditions and its remote location. Some vandalism and theft did occur, but the primary landhold discouraged such action by keeping a few caretakers on site to monitor comings and goings. The State of California eventually took over stewardship and made Bodie a state park in 1962.
The working model since then has been to preserve and protect the town, with restoration and reconstruction as needed. The term most often applied is “arrested decay.”
Why You Should Visit Bodie Today
And that brings us to today.
We know why people first came to Bodie, but why should you go now?
Bodie is like an open-air museum where the many still-standing buildings give you an authentic and reflective peek into the heart and soul of a town that thrived some 125 years ago. Both the occupied and the now-vacant lots stir the imagination and give you free contemplative rein as to what once stood there. The air is full of stories of those whose lives played out in the quest for more.
The streets are now mostly quiet, even when the parking lot is full and cars are backed up at the entrance station. The sound visitors create just sort of gets lost in the vast expanse. Each visitor plots his or her own course through the dusty history of Bodie.
About 75 significant structures dot the otherwise vegetatively barren hillside. Most visitors that stroll the two main streets, or who wander across the open fields, seem to do so slowly. Some of this might be thanks to the high altitude (8,402 feet), but most slow down to absorb what they are experiencing.
Visitors can walk down the remains of the once wide and business lined main street and peer into the windows of the IOOF Hall where they will see various pieces of vintage athletic workout equipment hanging from the ceiling and sitting on the dusty wooden floors.
Next door is the DeChambeau Hotel, where lacy tattered curtains still gracefully cover the upstairs windows.
Further down the street, the shelves of Boone’s Store and Warehouse are still stocked with goods and provisions from an era when needs were simpler and life was more basic.
A gaze into the schoolhouse that once offered instructions to as many as 600 children provides a peek at a classroom that seems to be emptied for recess, rather than abandoned for decades.
A stroll into some of the open houses provides a look into the daily life and living conditions of a century ago. The multiple levels of peeling wallpaper and the faded and chipped layers of paint tell a story of the occupants, their families and their place in the history of Bodie.
Coffins still line the walls of the mortuary, and ledgers and typewriters still await the next guests who will never arrive at the Bodie Hotel.
The bank safe still stands in its ornate grandness, surrounded by the vault’s remaining and crumbling bricks.
Tips for Visiting Bodie
If this ghost town calls to you, as it has to us, here are some tips for making this trip through history a reality.
Most visitors to Bodie will likely make this half-day of ghost town prospecting part of a larger adventure in the region. Bodie State Park is essentially on the California/Nevada border off U.S. Hwy 395, about 135 miles south of Reno. South Lake Tahoe is only about an hour away, and when Tioga Pass is cleared of snow, Yosemite Valley is only 110 miles to the west. Further south, Mammoth Mountain is 60 miles away, Death Valley is 281 miles and Las Vegas is 354 miles.
Bridgeport, California, is about 20 miles away and offers tremendous fishing opportunities with lodging and food options. Mono Lake and its iconic limestone Tufa Towers are just minutes away from the road to Bodie.
Mammoth Yosemite Airport is the closest major airport, though if prices there are higher there than you wish, then look to Reno. Further afield, the Bay Area airports are other options.
When to Visit:
While Bodie is technically open year round, roads are not plowed in the winter and access is generally best from late May through October. In other months, check road conditions before making the trip.
A visit to Bodie costs $8 per adult, $5 children for 4 – 17; children 3 and under are free. Only cash or checks are accepted at the park entrance station.
What to Bring:
To facilitate the window peering that is a major part of a trip to Bodie, we highly recommend taking a black umbrella. By placing the open umbrella over your shoulder and behind your head, you will greatly reduce reflections and glare in the windows and significantly improve the overall experience both in person and in photos. An umbrella will also provide shade from the often intense sun during the summer months.
In the summer, Bodie stays open late — until 10pm, with three special 90-minute ghost walks offered. Dates are sold out for this year on the actual walks but the free star stories might still be an option.
Bodie is widely recognized as being the best ghost town in the American West and it has achieved an almost cult and legendary status with its fans and followers. The ghost town has its own Facebook fan page, Friends of Bodie, with a few thousand members.
We can’t guarantee that there’s gold in thar’ hills, but we can guarantee that there are stories held within the abandoned walls of Bodie waiting for you to uncover.
All photos by the author.