Johannesburg, CA
Did you know that Johannesburg and Randsburg are only a few hours drive from Los Angeles? Way out in the dusty desert on the edge of Kern County, gold and silver were discovered in 1895 and, according to legend, the locations were called Johannesburg and Randsburg by men who had mined in South Africa and found it to be bountiful in minerals, like Witwatersrand. Miners, gamblers, and the like poured into Randsburg bringing the population up to 2,500 at the peak of the gold rush. Nice family folk set up just around the bend in the town of Johannesburg. Today, “Jo-burg” as the locals call it, has a population of 176 with a one-room elementary school for the seven children in town. Randsburg has a population of 80.

On a continuing search for the quintessential Old West town, we drove out to Randsburg one recent Sunday and found, at the end of an undulating two-lane highway, a curious place with many of its original buildings. I spoke with the shopkeeper of an antiques store set up in the old town bank about living in such an isolated place (otherwise known as “yehupitz.”) She said that she and her husband had always wanted to retire to Johannesburg and that the townsfolk are very close knit. You had better get along with everyone in a town of only 176 people. The nearest grocery store is in Ridgecrest, which is also where the high school students have to be bused every day. Ridgecrest is about twenty minutes away. Like most ghost towns, Randsburg is primarily a main street with a few residential side streets dotted with little cottages and shacks, sometimes built on the frames of miners’ tents. The term “ghost town” by the way, seems to refer to any old mining town that maintains its original facades. Randsburg, then, is a “living ghost town” with an impressive collection of authentic structures (residents sniff at Calico with its many reconstructed buildings, not to mention the fact that no one actually lives there.) There is a public bathroom in the park next to the town museum, but you will notice lots of outhouses around. That’s right, very little has changed in Randsburg, including the plumbing, and residents still use outhouses. Jo-burg has the indoor bathrooms.

The Randsburg Museum is in a little house and has a few interesting items, including a table set with rocks that look vaguely like different foods. The pictures of the schoolhouses and students who lived there over the years were especially memorable.

A road around the side of a hill leads to Johannesburg, where most of the locals live, and if you want to see some affordable housing in Southern California, there it is. Frankly, there isn’t much to see in Johannesburg, so we continued up highway 395 and cut back on Garlock Road, which passes the “ghost town” of Garlock. When we passed this tiny spot, I began to re-evaluate the source that inspired this trip: a free map I’d picked up touting tourist sites in Kern County. Whenever we visit museums I like to pick up the free literature in order to collect information for future reference. This particular map listed many special attractions and historic landmarks in Kern County, and, well, some of them turned out to be less than the brochures declared. Case in point: the “ghost town of Garlock” which was basically a plaque on some guy’s property.

The map also highlighted the opal mines in the Red Rock Canyon State Park where visitors, for a small fee, could search around the mines for their own opals. We took Redrock Randsburg Road back to highway 14 and found the ranger’s station in the state park. The ranger gave me a map of the park and showed me where the opal mine was that we could explore, at no charge. It sounded great. Then she asked if we had 4-wheel drive. I said we did, and so off we went. When we turned off the highway onto a sand road and saw signs warning “no OHV” (off road vehicles) and positioned at confusing angles so that I wasn’t sure if the signs were meant for us or not (they weren’t), I should have known this also wasn’t quite what the Kern County tourist map made it out to be. Yes, we had 4-wheel drive, but this road had deep banks of sand, ruts, and pits, and I found myself gripping my car seat and wondering whether we could possibly tip over, or get stuck in the sand. Not surprisingly, we got lost, had to turn around, and head another mile down an even rougher road. By now it was getting late, and I’d had enough of off-roading, so we stopped and had a look around at the rocks all around us. This area is a veritable Toys R’ Us for kids who like to collect rocks and minerals. Opals are found in volcanic rock and there was plenty of that around. We picked up some interesting specimens, but no opals. If you have a vehicle that can handle rough, sandy roads, and you think you would enjoy a few miles of jostling and bouncing, then give it a try and let me know if you find any opals. Considering how hard it was to get there, and that we didn’t see another car the whole time, there are probably lots of opals still there for the finding.

Red Rock Canyon State Park itself is an area of unusual red rock formations and eroded strata that looks like drip castles, so for rock buffs, this is a neat place.
But is it worth five hours of driving to get to there? Well, I would recommend Randsburg to anyone who is intrigued by the Old West and favors that period of American history. This is a small but authentic mining town where gold is still being mined today. Combined with an interest in rocks, this corner of Kern County makes for an out-of-the-ordinary road trip, and if you go during the one full day of Chol Hamoed Pesach, you will likely be the only one eating matzah in this Johannesburg (unless everyone reading this goes.)

Notes:

Randsburg/Johannesburg is about 2 ½ hours from Los Angeles taking the 5 N. to the 14 N, then Redrock Randsburg Road into Randsburg. The Randsburg Museum is only open on weekends, but the antiques shops are open during the week.

Red Rock Canyon State Park is on the 14 N. a little ways past the exit for Redrock Randsburg Road.

See websites for maps at details: www.randsburgcalifornia.com, www.parks.ca.gov, www.desertusa.com.

Always pack water, sunscreen and hats in your car.