Soaring red hills. Vibrant periwinkle sky. That warm yellow sunshine that California seems to do like no place else I know. And a trip back in time to capture a unique glimpse of America’s legendary Wild West – with Starbucks.
Welcome to Calico Ghost Town, California.
We stumbled upon Calico en route to Las Vegas, driving from Anaheim, California. As the red hills rose above us Greg mentioned that he had Googled places to see along the way and Calico had popped up. Did I want to check it out?
An hour earlier, we had filled up on bottomless refills of coffee at the iHop in Baker. There’s no such thing as free coffee in Australia so we were still high on the novelty of it. Accordingly, I needed a pit stop, so I eagerly agreed. (Note to self: if you are doing a six-hour road trip through the desert, do not eagerly avail yourself of free refills of coffee.)
Calico is located off the I-15, 4.8 km (3 miles) from Barstow and 4.8 km from Yermo. We followed the road directly from the exit. It was easy to find, even for two Aussies driving on the wrong side of the road.
What I found took my breath away.
The historic energy rippling through that place was palpable. Surrounded by the spectacular natural beauty of the glorious Mojave Desert and humming with history, Calico stands at once proud yet humble, a quiet stoic whisper of its own existence. Though some poetic license has been taken to make both modern adjustments (the town has a Starbucks) and to “fill in the gaps” left by buildings that have long since been relocated or destroyed, Calico remains an historical village, a testament to a town full of hardy folk who rushed into a stark and harsh and isolated desert in search of the promise of a brighter future, and there is a potent feeling that the town yet gently cradles the dreams of the occupants who have long since abandoned her.
All the Important Bits
36600 Ghost Town Road
Yermo CA 92398
I-15 at Ghost Town Road Exit
Opening Hours: 9 am to 5 pm every day except Christmas Day
Camping Reservations: www.sbcountyparks.com
Entry fee: $8
In 1881, four prospectors left Grapevine Station (located in present-day Barstow) for a calico colored mountain peak where they struck silver – but not just a little bit. This was the largest silver strike in California’s history and just like that, Calico’s silver mine and town were born. Calico was still just a baby when they abandoned her in the desert, deeming her worthless, yet in her short 12-year lifespan the mine produced $20 million in silver ore.
Not long after her discovery, Calico’s silver mine soon became a bustling little town. Families and prospectors moved there in droves to begin mining for silver. A post office was established in 1882 and the Calico Print began publishing. In her glory days, Calico was home to three hotels, five general stores, a meat market, saloons, brothels, three restaurants and boarding houses. A school district, a telephone/telegraph service, and a voting precinct was established. The town had a deputy sheriff, two constables, two lawyers, a justice of the peace, five commissioners and two doctors.
Between 1883 and 1885, Calico was home to over 500 mines and 1200 people. The population comprised a mixture of Chinese, English, Irish, Greek, French and Dutch as well as Americans. The town’s star continued to rise. The discovery of the borate mineral colemanite a few years after settlement boosted its popularity even more.
But Calico’s promise was short lived. In 1890, the Silver Purchase Act drove down the price of silver significantly and silver began losing value fast. By 1896, Calico’s silver mines were no longer commercially viable and people began to leave the town in droves. The post office closed down in 1898, with the school closing its doors soon after. The town was completely abandoned in 1907 following the end of borax mining.
Many of Calico’s original buildings were moved to Barstow, Daggett, and Yermo nearby. Soon, the town began to fall into disrepair. But that was not the end of her story. Walter Knott purchased Calico in the 1950s. He architecturally restored her to look as she would have in her silver rush era, before donating her back to San Bernadino in 1966. Calico became State Historical Landmark 782.
Whilst many original buildings have been removed and there have been some additions made to her in the restoration, Calico yet retains a lot of its history and original landmarks. These include Lil’s Saloon, the town office, the home of resident Lucy Lane, Smitty’s Gallery, the General Store and Joe’s Saloon. The schoolhouse is a replica of the one that originally stood in the very same spot.
The brevity of our visit, a quick stop on our way to Las Vegas, did not do Calico the justice of our time that it truly deserved. We stayed for a few short hours. The town is quite a bit bigger than meets the eye at first. Whilst we didn’t get to see it all, what we experienced was enough to leave a footprint in our hearts.
We strolled through the main street, lined with museums, gift shops, and saloons, with the looming mountain soaring above us bearing white painted letters spelling “CALICO” above it. As we did it became clear to us that Calico was unlike any historical village we had visited. From the still-intact mines and miner’s cottages roughed out in the hills to the home of resident Lucy Lane with well-preserved artifacts and furniture from the height of her heyday, we connected with history. It was at once a familiar scene from a Wild West movie and yet so unbelievably real. This was how it really was. Wild and crude and stark and unforgiving and yet tame, subtle, exquisite in its simplicity, to reach back and touch the fingers of people who lived 200 years ago, their voices shouting in every preserved object, every building wrought by hopeful hands: “We lived. We were here. We hoped and dreamed and toiled and loved and we yearned for our lives to matter, just like you.”
Things to Do
We had limited time here. We spent what little time we had poking around, exploring, and soaking up everything with our eyes that we possibly could. However, if you do have more flexibility in your schedule, we highly recommend staying a while. Calico hosts campsites, so you can park up and linger overnight or longer. Whilst you’re there, you can really snuggle in deeper and explore more fully. Note that many of the attractions are additional to the entry fee.
Maggie Mine Tour
Maggie Mine was a fully operational silver mine in the 1880s. It is now the sole remaining mine that is safe for visitors to experience. The 1000-foot self-guided tour will take you from a black light display of the natural minerals still present in the rock through the mine drift, showing you how the miners worked and the process of extracting silver from the ore.
Calico Odessa Railroad
Installed in 1958, the railroad takes you on an eight-minute trip around Calico’s hills to see historical sites, and mining equipment. You will also hear stories about Calico’s history. The train ride costs $4 pp (11 and over), $2 for children (5-10) and children under 5 free.
Experience for yourself how miners in the gold rush days would pan for gold. You will get to pan for and keep iron pyrite (or fools gold) and take your souvenir home in a glass vial.
Calico is as famous for her ghost stories as she is for her history (more on this below). Ghost tours to explore its most haunted places run on Saturday nights with a selection of three to choose from. Choose from a look at the haunted places on Main Street, a walk through Maggie Mine or an eerie education on the ghosts of the old school house. Tours run every Saturday night at 6:00 pm and 7:30 pm and go for about 60 to 75 minutes.
Our Favourite Spots
The Bottle House
This amazing little house was built in 1951 during Walter Knott’s restoration of Calico Town using more than 5,000 bottles. It is a representation of the bottle house phenomenon that was popular in the mining boom era. Building materials were scarce and expensive. To eke out living quarters, miners had to use whatever materials they could get their hands on. As saloons were often the first commercial structures in the mining camps (hey, priorities, right?), discarded bottles were in plentiful supply.
This place was my personal favorite! The warm California sun and the dry desert air soon parched me (not to mention the bottomless refills of coffee). I was seeking shade and something to slake my thirst. I stepped up the wooden steps onto the saloon porch. My sandaled feet not quite making the same stomping and jangling sound as a pair of silver spurred cowboy boots but still speaking to a secret dream none the less, I pushed through those swinging wooden doors into a real Western saloon. I felt my breath catch a little as I mentally ticked it off that bucket list.
A group of people was sitting at a card table playing cards, ragtime music played, portraits of famous cowboys hung on the walls and a waitress stood behind the counter before a mirrored wall and asked me what I wanted to drink. I asked for bottled water and it felt jarringly out of place. I felt like I should have asked for whiskey.
Lil’s Saloon was at once fun and eerie. Every single one of the hairs on the back of my neck stood up on end. It felt surreally real: like those swinging wooden doors had transported me back in time and yet thrown into sharp relief the unforgiving harshness of the passage of time and the richness of history. Forgotten but not gone; I felt the eyes of every man who had stood at that bar after a hard day of mining watching me carefully. Their energy was stagnant in the air and yet humming reverently as if their bodies had left the town but their spirits remained forever.
Later, I learned that Lil’s Saloon had had its fair share of hauntings and I would have believed it. Though there were many places in the town that seemed to thrum with energy, it was here I felt it most. I could have lingered here all afternoon with a sarsaparilla, playing cards and listening to ragtime and letting the history of this place wash over me.
At the end of Main Street, you can walk a trail uphill for a spectacular panoramic glimpse of the whole town. From here you can see the whole town, the railroad and the cemetery and the view is spectacular.
The Lucy Lane Museum
Filled with artifacts, photographs, documents and furniture from Calico on its heyday, the Lucy Lane museum portrays life in Calico’s silver mining days from the perspective of one of its oldest original residents: Lucy Lane. Lucy and her husband, Robert, ran the General Store in town. They moved away when the town depopulated but returned in 1916 after the town was abandoned. Lucy Lane’s ghost is apparently one of the more popular hauntings in town. People claim to see her in the black lace dress she was buried in, walking between her home and the general store or standing behind the counter at the general store. At other times, the rocking chair in the museum dedicated to her slowly rocks back and forth without a breeze.
The School House
Located on the outskirts of town and accessible by bridge, the School House was built in the 1950s at the original site of the Calico schoolhouse, which had been built in 1885. The architecture was closely followed and the accuracy of the replica was carefully preserved using photographs, although the schoolhouse is one third less than the size of its original counterpart. The ghosts don’t seem to know any differently though. This is one of Calico’s most famous places for ghost sightings. People claim to have seen teachers staring out the windows, a little girl aged around 11 or 12 who randomly appears and then disappears as fast and red balls of light commonly being seen moving around inside the house.
At once stirring, exciting, fascinating and haunting, Calico Ghost Town is an absolute must-do stop if you’re making the long journey across the desert from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. We could have spent much longer here than we did, panning for gold, wandering the mine shafts and soaking up the rich history and glorious natural beauty this town offered. Not altogether unlike the original residents who once inhabited Calico, I was there for little more than a moment: but Calico left her indelible mark on my heart and a part of my spirit chose to linger there forever.