Bodie: A Wild West Ghost Town
It’s a long bleak road to Bodie, a ghost town left abandoned in the arid high desert plains of the Eastern Sierras, California. It’s a day trip out of Mammoth Lakes on the Scenic Highway 395 North. The lonely 13-mile stretch of dirt road to Bodie clings to the edge of the dreary desert ridge, as you climb to 8,375 feet. The landscape is dry, barren and feels hostile. There is not a tree in sight. One little girl, who headed to the town with her parents in the late 1800’s, wrote in her diary: “Goodbye God, I’m going to Bodie”. The phrase became renown throughout the West.
Bodie appears out of this bleakness and hangs on a hillside in stark contrast against the sagebrush backdrop. The abandoned weather-beaten wooden buildings include churches, shops and saloons and create an impressive sight as you round the last corner of the dirt road. Preserved gold mine shafts are dotted around the edge of the town and tell the story of a very different Bodie that once prospered in the late 1800’s.
If you love the history of the West, you will love a day spent at Bodie. Gold was discovered in Bodie in 1859, and in a short ten-year time span, Bodie grew to be a bustling town of bordellos, bad men, wickedness, opium dens and wild saloons. Everyone came in search of gold after the rich discovery at Virginia City and soon enough Bodie, became a bustling town of 10,000 residents in the middle of nowhere. In its heyday the town hauled in over 100 million dollars from the gold and silver mine operations.
This once gun-slinging town is now an unrestored State Historic Park and the beauty and uniqueness of Bodie is that is has been left in its original condition. Nothing has been touched or altered. You are free to wander around the weathered buildings, many in good condition, some falling down, and others in a state of disrepair. The dirt streets are laid bare and the churches, residential houses and numerous buildings are still standing, as they were left.
The town’s 65 saloons and numerous gambling houses saw a lot of action. Killings, robberies and stage holdups occurred regularly. The mill area is hazardous and is closed to the public, but many fine buildings still remain, including the old Methodist Church. The last service was held here in 1932.
Spend the day exploring over 60 houses, barns, banks, union halls, stores, warehouses, a graveyard and a barbershop. The town jail, which posted bail at $5, is on the corner of Bonanza Street, also known as “Virgin Alley”. As it is an unrestored town you have to watch for broken glass, splinters, discarded rusty tins, nails and other hazardous debris strewn about the place. Nothing has been cleaned up.
The schoolhouse, built in 1879 is worth a look. Dust is piled thick on the frayed yellowed, tattered books, which lay on the desks. Mrs Belle Moore was Bodie’s first schoolteacher however her first teaching post was not at the school that stands today. A juvenile bad boy burnt that one down!
Old furnishings left dishevelled and in tatters, historic layers of dust, old jackets thrown over chairs decaying into their interwoven threads of history, left as they were over 140 years ago, takes you back in time that is somehow mesmerising, compelling and hauntingly fascinating. The detail in an old broken potbelly stove, and a wicker baby bassinette sitting next to a wire wove bed, springs petrified and frozen in time, create a feeling of nostalgia and wonder of how life was in Bodie.
Bodie was a foreboding place. In the long winter months temperatures dropped as low as minus 20 degrees and conditions were harsh. High winds regularly swept across the valley at close to 100 miles per hour.
The park is open year round however it’s always worth calling the lone ranger who guards the town and mans the Bodie Park Office to check on visiting hours. In the winter months access is only by snowshoe, skis or snowmobile.
The town of Bodie is maintained in a state of “arrested decay”. It is a genuine ghost town and if you have a love of history and the wild west, then to wander the streets and go inside the houses, buildings and churches will take you back to a place in time where life reeled out of control over money, fights and pride. The history can be “felt” in the lonely streets and decrepit buildings that still stand in its original condition today. The silent graveyard speaks of a time gone by. “And now my comrades all are gone; naught remains to toast. They have left me here in my misery, like some poor wandering ghost.”
What & Where:
Bodie State Historic Park
From Mammoth Lakes, California 60 miles. Take the Highway 395 North and turn off on the Highway 270
From Yosemite, California 43 miles
Elevation: 8,375 feet
The park is open year round. (Check official website for opening hours)
Summer months – 9.00am to 6.00pm
Winter months – 9.00am to 3.00pm
Points of Interest
Walk time – 1-3 hours for a self-guided walking tour of town
Available for purchase – official guide including map and building descriptions
Bodie Museum – exhibits of memorabilia
Where to Eat
Lee Vining – 32 miles South of Bodie on Highway 395
In keeping with the authentic experience of visiting Bodie, there are no food or drink facilities. Pack some drinks and picnic food if you plan to stay all day. There is a very good general store at Lee Vining, which sells homemade soups, salads, fresh sandwiches and deli items.
Lunch Stop – June Lake – 62 miles South of Bodie, Highway 158
Tiger Bar and Café serves good burgers, hearty food and is well priced. It’s a classic western bar and if you check YELP, which is a mobile phone App, you can read current reviews. Do not ask for Jason, the popular waiter who gets numerous rave reviews. Our waitress told us “He don’t work here no more. He got a promotion and works on the ski fields at Mammoth. He is big time now. But you gotta’ meet Truck. He is the bar man over yonder. He makes a wicked-spicy Bloody Mary”. I tried it and it was indeed very good.
Photos by David Metcalf