Travel

The 12 Creepiest Abandoned Places in California

Ghost towns, roadside attractions, a zoo, and more.

Flickr/Thomas Hawk
Flickr/Thomas Hawk
Flickr/Thomas Hawk

California doesn’t have the kind of architectural history you’ll find in Greece or Egypt, or, hell, even New England, but it has been around long enough to see its fair share of booms and busts, disappearing natural resources, and obsolete industries, all of which resulted in abandoned places that have fallen into ruin or decay due to the whims of nature and time. From mining towns to deserted train tunnels to a zoo, read on to discover 13 abandoned places in California that, because they have been devoid of human occupation (and often interference), have transformed into places that are utterly eerie but also eerily beautiful.

(Just keep an eye out for zombies and ghosts and werewolves and goblins because if we were one of those things, we’d for sure call one of these places home.)

Flickr/mlhradio
Flickr/mlhradio
Flickr/mlhradio

Ballarat ghost town

Ballarat
In 1899, the gold mining town of Ballarat had 500 residents. Today it has one. Ballarat popped up right as California’s gold mining heyday was starting to wind down. It had seven saloons, three hotels, a bank, a school, a jail, and a morgue, but by 1917, the post office closed and only a few people remained. In the 1960s, it was visited by Charles Manson and members of his cult who lived nearby on Barker Ranch and left their graffiti all over the town, as well as a 1942 green Dodge that still sits on the roadside. You can also still find the crumbling remains of several adobe structures (there was no timber for houses in this desert town) and the cemetery, but the most interesting stop is the wooden shack that serves as the incorporated town’s “general store.” Stop in for one of only two or three items sold: soda, beer, and (allegedly) moonshine, and chat with the town’s only permanent resident, Rocky Novak.

Flickr/Brenna
Flickr/Brenna
Flickr/Brenna

Hobbiton, USA

Phillipsville
Once upon a time, you only had to go to Northern California’s Humboldt Redwoods State Park to walk through J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Built in the mid-1970s, “Hobbiton, USA” was a roadside attraction that paid tribute to The Hobbit via lumpy cement statues of characters and building tableaus and button-activated speakers to explain which part of the book you were seeing. It shut down in 2009, and a landslide destroyed most of the remains, but if you look closely, you can still find Gandalf standing next to the green doors of Bilbo Baggins’ hobbit-hole, as well as the remnants of other hobbit dwellings. Get a two-for-one experience by also visiting the Living Chimney Tree, a 78-foot tall redwood that was hollowed out by a fire in 1914. You can actually go inside of the 12.5-foot wide base and look up and see the sky.

Flickr/el-toro
Flickr/el-toro
Flickr/el-toro

Salton Sea

Thermal
In the spring of 1905, an irrigation canal caused the Colorado River to flood and fill an ancient dry lakebed with water, effectively creating a brand new lake named the Salton Sea. It should have eventually dried up, but the farmers kept letting excess water from the river flow into the lake, and in the 1950s, the “Salton Riviera” became an incredibly popular getaway (more popular than Yosemite) where people went to swim and fish. Only problem? This accidental lake didn’t have an outflow, which meant no natural stabilization system, which meant it eventually (in the 1970s) became saltier than seawater and contaminated from runoff, which meant almost all of the fish died (as well as the birds who depended on them for food). Dead fish carcasses replaced the throngs of tourists on the beach, and by the ‘90s, when the water started to recede (resulting in clouds of toxic dust from the lake bed), pretty much everyone fled the scene. Now, the beaches surrounding it are home to those aforementioned fish carcasses, boarded-up motels, and abandoned buildings. There is an effort to improve conditions, but basically, if you want to know what it will look like after the apocalypse, this is the only place you need to visit. (Or, you know, just stick around wherever you live for another couple of years.)

Flickr/el-toro
Flickr/el-toro
Flickr/el-toro

Rock-A-Hoola Waterpark

Newberry Springs
Californians love to ignore the fact that a desert is, by definition, a place that lacks water, which is why no one should be surprised that in the 1950s, a businessman named Bob Byers built a private waterpark in the middle of the Mojave Desert for his family to enjoy. It opened to the public in the ’60s, but dwindling crowds forced its closure in 1990. That wasn’t the end of the water park where there’s very little water though. It reopened in 1998 after millions of dollars were spent adding tons of new features, but when an employee was paralyzed after going down one of the slides and sued for millions, the waterpark closed for good-to everyone except skateboarders and graffiti artists who have no problem ignoring the “No Trespassing” signs. Unfortunately, an arsonist also ignored those signs, and a few of the structures were destroyed in 2018. A private firm bought it with plans to rebuild it starting in 2022-though as of summer 2021, it’s back on the market, which means it’s up-for-grabs for anyone with an affinity for lazy rivers and $11 million in the bank.

Flickr/Larry Myhre
Flickr/Larry Myhre
Flickr/Larry Myhre

North Bloomfield Ghost Town

Malakoff Diggins Historic State Park
North Bloomfield was originally called “Humbug City” due to the fact that miners who settled there in 1951 did not strike gold. However, a few years later, hydraulic methods helped a second wave of miners find enough gold to justify settling there. That’s when the post office said the town name had to be changed because there were just too many other towns named “Humbug.” The townsfolk went for Bloomfield next, but that was also taken. So they threw a North in front of it. Turns out miners weren’t the most creative when it came to naming places, but that’s okay ’cause they were rich (hopefully). The town grew to over 2,000 people and had eight saloons, five hotels, three lodging houses, and even a few breweries. (Any town with more saloons than anything else is a good town to us.) Eventually, thanks to lawsuits in 1884, hydraulic mining came to an end, and Humbug City-turned-Bloomfield-turned-North Bloomfield became an abandoned ghost town not much later. Today, it’s one of the most well-preserved ghost towns in the state with the church, school, barbershop, fire department, and other buildings still standing, which lends itself to maximum eeriness in the best way possible.

Flickr/Miles Sabin
Flickr/Miles Sabin
Flickr/Miles Sabin

Chemung Mine

Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest
Mystery abounds when it comes to the Chemung Mine’s sordid past. What we do know: 1) It served the town of Masonic (basically as far east as you can go from the Bay Area before you hit Nevada) from 1909 to 1938, 2) its owner was allegedly thrown into a mine shaft for cheating his employees, and 3) his ghost is not super happy about it, though he seems to save his rage for Saturday nights. It’s also easy to access if visiting abandoning mines is your thing (you can even crawl through some of the tunnels), just be careful not to fall into any open shafts.

Evan Thompson/Thrillist
Evan Thompson/Thrillist
Evan Thompson/Thrillist

Bayshore Roundhouse

San Francisco
Built between 1907 and 1910, Bayshore’s brick roundhouse was used to house and service locomotives on their way into SF. As the Southern Pacific line grew, so did the Bayshore facilities-at one point, there were 25 outbound tracks, 39 inbound tracks, and even a hospital for the 3,000 employees. The rise of diesel engines meant steam facilities became obsolete, and the roundhouse was fully abandoned in 1982. A fire in 2001 demolished half of what was left of the roof of the roundhouse, but the bones of the structure are still intact and covered with colorful graffiti, which you’ll only be able to see up close and personal if you ignore the “No Trespassing” signs and aren’t scared of a little barbed wire fencing. While there were once over 200 roundhouses in California, Bayshore’s is the last standing brick roundhouse in the state, though perhaps not for too much longer as there are plans to transform it into a housing and commercial development. (Of course, this is the Bay Area, so a lot of metaphorical barbed wire fences will have to be climbed over to make that happen.)

Flickr/Samantha Stott
Flickr/Samantha Stott
Flickr/Samantha Stott

Griffith Park Zoo

Los Angeles
Opened in 1912 and closed in 1966 (because of the opening of the much fancier Los Angeles Zoo), the abandoned site of the Griffith Park Zoo still features the ruins of animal enclosures, including all kinds of cages and the large animal exhibits that housed lions, tigers, and bears. You can explore all of them (legally, even), and some of the cave enclosures even have picnic tables and grills, so you can get a good idea of what it was like to be an animal in a zoo in the mid-1900s (save for the part where you’re feasting on hamburgers and hot dogs).

Flickr/Indecent Exposure
Flickr/Indecent Exposure
Flickr/Indecent Exposure

Cement Ship

Aptos
Launched in 1919 (too late to see service in WWI even though that’s why it was built) and retired just ten years later, the SS Palo Alto was a concrete ship that was supposed to serve as a tanker. Unfortunately, concrete ships fell out of favor after the war, and so instead, she was towed to Aptos, where the Seacliff Amusement Corporation built a pier leading out to her and refitted her as an amusement ship, with amenities including a dance floor, a swimming pool, a café, and games of chance. (Including, allegedly, a few below deck games that could be played for actual money while sipping cocktails during the Prohibition.) In 1932-after just two summer seasons-the company went bankrupt, a storm cracked the ship’s hull, and she was stripped of all the fun stuff, sold to the state for $1, and left floating next to the (now) weirdest fishing pier in the state. As abandoned ships tend to do, it deteriorated over the years, but winter storms in 2016 and 2017 pushed the wreck on its starboard side, broke its rear half-open, and tore the stern off. Though humans can no longer dance there, it still acts as an artificial reef for local marine life.

Grant Marek/Thrillist
Grant Marek/Thrillist
Grant Marek/Thrillist

Fannette Island tea house

Lake Tahoe
The only island in Lake Tahoe, Fannette still houses the stone shell of a one-time tea house built in the late 1920s by Lora Knight, the clearly super-rich lady who owned Vikingsholm-a 38-room castle along the Emerald Bay shore. After arriving on the island via motorboat, Mrs. Knight and guests would be served tea in the 16-by-16-foot room that was outfitted with a small corner fireplace, large oak table, and four oak chairs for a rustic yet charming appearance. Today, you can get there by kayak, jetski, or any other floating device that transports humans. It’s just a short climb to the top-and some incredibly truly one-of-a-kind views.

Flickr/Alex Weimer
Flickr/Alex Weimer
Flickr/Alex Weimer

Bodie ghost town

Bodie
In 1880, Bodie was California’s third most populous city. Today, it has a population of zero since the one-time mining town-turned-ghost town was slowly deserted as the supply of gold dwindled and the wintertime sub-zero temps and white-out conditions no longer had reason to be endured. By 1914, Bodie was almost completely abandoned, though a few stayed on (the post office operated until 1942). Today, 100 structures remain, including the old general store, the Methodist church, a saloon, a bank vault, and the cemetery. It’s now a National Historic Landmark and state park, and you can pay $8 to check out the town, preserved in a state of remarkable arrested decay.

Flickr/ChiefRanger
Flickr/ChiefRanger
Flickr/ChiefRanger

Donner Pass Summit Tunnel

Truckee
The first railroad line to traverse the Sierra Nevada range, this nearly 1,700-foot tunnel was completed in 1867 by Chinese workers and the first train passed through it in 1868. The last train passed through in 1993 when the route was changed to a new location that looked nowhere near as cool as this. Today, you can hike through them and see petroglyphs, the historic 75-foot hand-built Chinese Wall, and lots and lots of graffiti.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Grant Marek is Thrillist’s senior cities director and he totally wants to kayak out to the tea house the next time he’s in Tahoe. Follow him on Twitter to more cool abandoned stuff at @grant_marek.

Daisy Barringer is a freelance writer in SF whose dream road trip destination is Bodie, California. Follow her on Twitter @daisy.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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