Ghost Towns

Ghost Towns&Museums&Nature Walks&Outdoors01 Mar 2008 12:00 pm

There are a lot of towns in the middle of nowhere in this giant state we live in. Some more nowhere than others. Why this intrigues me, I couldn’t exactly tell you. Or what it is about the world of old trains that draws me, I’m not sure. But there is a forgotten town in the Mojave National Preserve, that piqued my curiosity on several counts.

The Kelso Depot was built in 1923 to provide a full service stop for railroad workers and passengers on the Union Pacific railroad. The key ingredient to Kelso, which began in 1905, was the nearby spring water, required for running the steam engines that came through. At one point Kelso had up to 2000 residents as folks interested in working in the various mining operations in the area (including boron, iron, gold and silver) moved into the desert town.

Abandoned back in the 1980’s, the train depot was recently fixed up and turned into a museum, with national park rangers running the facilities. The most prominent feature of the building is the restaurant (no longer in use) for train passengers to have a meal or cup of coffee and slice of pie from one of the pie cabinets. There is also, within the building, a ticket counter and telegraph office, the storage area for luggage of those just passing through, and upstairs, the boarding rooms for Union Pacific workers. Here, in this distant desert depot, men who worked the railroads could live for a time, sleeping in sparsely furnished bedrooms and even reading the newspaper in the small but adequate lounge. While there are a few bedrooms to view, most of the upstairs has been turned into museum exhibit areas and office space for the rangers. The lounge is still available to sit and read books about railroads or the history of the Mojave area. There are little biographies within the exhibits, and stories about some of the towns in the area.

The ranger at the front desk will show you a short film about all the natural attractions within the Mojave preserve if you ask. Everything is spread out, though, and would require a greater time commitment than a day to visit.

Within the tiny town of Kelso there still remains the old post office, now boarded up, a rickety wooden schoolhouse, now boarded up, and, by the train tracks, a two cell iron jail. This was an endless source of entertainment for any children saw it and probably ended up in as many photographs as the depot itself. It seems that if there were any troublemakers of a criminal sort on the trains coming through, they were put in this holding cell until other arrangements could be made.

Noticing that there was a modest collection of trailer homes on the other side of the tracks, I asked one of the rangers if people lived there. After all, as far as I could tell, there were no functioning buildings for miles around besides the depot museum. The ranger told me that, in fact, there were eighteen Union Pacific railroad workers living in the town. I ventured that real estate is probably more reasonable out there than in Los Angeles.

Back down the sun baked old road we drove up is the Kelso Dunes. This truly is a wonder of the desert, a gathering of sand, blown mostly from the Baker area (which is 35 miles north of Kelso) and planted in a soft heap in the Mojave. The general floor plan of the Mojave is a dry, tan, dirt with small forms of plant life like yuccas and sagebrush. The dunes are pure soft sand. We began the trek out to the highest peaks of the dunes, hoping to hear them sing the weird rolling melody I had read about. These dunes are called “booming dunes” because, when one runs down the dunes, causing the sand to slide like a small avalanche, a sound can be heard. We walked and walked, passing people along with pieces of cardboard in their hands to use for sleds. The dunes were farther away than they appeared. Realizing we would have to walk all the way back at some point, we stopped on one of the lower dunes and began running along the ridge, hoping to hear the “booming.” The conditions apparently weren’t right that day. No one else hiking in the sand claimed to hear the mysterious dune sounds. Some reports say it has to be windy. Some say it has to be very dry. It was a fun experience just to walk on these dunes, which had been deposited in the middle of this nowhere. My husband said to my daughter that this must be like the sand that hid the Mitzri for Moshe Rebbeinu.

It is out of the question to visit this place in the summer. The temperature was lovely and mild for our winter day trip, but still so dry that carrying water is necessary even for a short walk. And then there’s that one teeny tiny factor that might make this a less than ideal road trip… it’s 226 miles to Kelso from Los Angeles.
Perhaps, if this sounds a bit much for a day trip, you might consider driving through Kelso on your way somewhere else. Kelso is, after all, on a wavy two-lane stretch, aptly named Kelbaker Road because it leads from highway 40, through Kelso, up to Baker. Baker is on the 15 freeway. Also, there are some other sites in the preserve like the “Hole-in-the-Wall” which is a hiking and camping area of volcanic rock that has been turned into swiss cheese by the wind, and Mitchell Caverns, which offers guided tours of the region’s limestone caves. Both are for experienced hikers.

So if you are on your way to somewhere in Arizona, or on your way back from Las Vegas, you could take a slight detour into this national preserve and have a stop at a train depot from yesteryear, before continuing on past the Joshua trees toward home.

Notes: Bring hats, sneakers, sunscreen, food and water. There is a gift shop in the depot with water in case you run out.

For more information on Kelso Depot and the Kelso Dunes see: Mojave National Reserve:

Ghost Towns01 Apr 2007 12:00 pm

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.)


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:,,

Always pack water, sunscreen and hats in your car.

Ghost Towns&Outdoors01 Dec 2006 12:00 pm

When driving through the desert on the way to somewhere else, there’s a tendency to think the desert is a whole bunch of nothing; miles and miles of dried up earth and brownish plants all around. But then, that’s what makes a place like Calico such a curiosity. How is it that a town was built around a dry and desolate hill in the middle of nothing? How did anyone happen upon this particular hill when there are so many that look just like it in the Mojave desert? Somehow it happened that silver was discovered in 1881 on a crop of hills just north of Barstow and a town was built called Calico. Actually, the main hill of Calico does look a little different than the other hills along the highway; it is mottled red, green and gray from minerals in the ground, hence the name Calico.

Calico is located a mile from the I-15 E., going toward Las Vegas, another mysterious town in the middle of the desert. But, unlike Las Vegas, Calico was only briefly populated with folks who came to work the silver mines. Later, in the early 1900’s due to nearby Borax mining (which we will IY”H discuss in the near future) the town continued, but by 1930, it had gone the way of so many other mining towns around the West. In fact, the Barstow Chamber of Commerce lists eight such mining ghost towns in the Barstow area. Calico is unique among them because it was bought by Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm and turned into the tourist attraction it is today. While five of the buildings are original, the rest are said to be replicas based on old photographs of the town. Frankly, the overall flavor is fairly touristy, especially considering that “Main Street” is heavily paved for your convenience and lined with gift shops. And compared to a remarkably well kept, dynamic, and historically packed town like Tombstone, Arizona, Calico isn’t much.

So the question is, why do I like Calico? Because there really was a small mining town right in that place, in the middle of nowhere. 1200 people lived there at one point, and, as the turn on the Calico & Odessa Railroad illustrates, the area in which these people lived was small and sparse. Looking out across the dusty ground which was once packed with small family homes and is now just a few stones from one foundation, it’s hard to imagine men, women, and children going about their business in such a blazing hot place. We are fortunate to be able to visit the desert in the winter, when the temperature is comfortably cool, but the residents of Calico lived day to day in the unforgiving desert sun. I didn’t find out where the town water came from, but that is a good question. The coolest place to be was deep in the mines, and this can be experienced with a tour of the Maggie Mine. For a small fee you can walk inside and through one of the hills next to the railroad. Throughout the tunnel there are larger rooms visible behind fences where miner mannequins have been set up in mining poses to give one an idea of what it might have looked like to be working in there. Carved into the side of the hill are cave-like homes made by some of the miners. Perhaps these primitive houses offered some respite from the heat, as the mines did. Considering that $86 million in silver was extracted from the Calico area, the desert heat must have been worth the trouble to some.

Other attractions include a craft shop where children can decorate their own ceramic medallion necklaces and a shop with old-fashioned clothes to dress up in and take a sepia toned family photo. Then there’s the “mystery shack,” a house in which the interior is a collection of optical illusions. I hear tell of an old west “shootout” that happens on Sundays, but we didn’t see any action while we were there so it’s probably a good idea to call first if your visit requires some cowboy gun-slinging.

Calico is only two hours from Los Angeles and worth the trip. I liked it so much I look forward to going again soon—but only in the winter, of course.

Ice Skating in Pershing Square

It’s that time of year again, when the park and recreation department transforms Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles into a winter wonderland, of sorts. From now until January 15, 2007, an ice skating rink is set up with skates for rent in all sizes. It’s really neat to skate on a little rink in the middle of the big city, getting a view of city life while gliding across the ice. Don’t miss it.


Calico Ghost Town, Yermo, CA 92398, phone: 1-760-254-2122
open daily 8am – dusk (5pm.)
admission: adult $6, child (6-15) $3, child 5-under FREE

Pershing Square Ice Skating:
532 S. Olive St. (parking garage underneath, for a fee)
cost: $6 per half hour skating session
$2 skate rental