Want to experience the wild west? Would you like to feel like you just stepped into a western? No time-traveling stage coach is necessary. You can be transported back in time a hundred years, by visiting the best-preserved ghost town in America: Bodie, California.
Bodie is located off US 395, south of Bridgeport and north of Lee Vining, California (and the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park). From US 395, take California 270 east. The road is paved for 10 miles, then suddenly turns to dirt for the final 3 miles into town — but it’s easy to drive in any vehicle.
My first visit to Bodie came around the time I was 13 years old, during one of our intense, hyper-fast-paced family road trips — where we managed to cover thousands of miles in just a couple of weeks, and just barely sampling some of the greatest places along the way. I remember us passing by a sign that said “Bodie Ghost Town” as we headed up US 395, and absolutely begging for us to go see it. Fortunately, my pleas were heard, and we did something that was mostly unthinkable on our family trips — we took a detour.
I visited again in 2005, and then again, in 2015. 27 years after my first time in Bodie, this ghost town remains virtually the same — just as it has for a century.
Bodie is a California state park, and as such, you’ll need to pay an admission fee ($5 per person, as of 2015). The area gets buried in snow during the winter months, but you can still snowshoe, cross-country ski, or snowmobile out to it.
In 2005 and again in 2015, I spent half a day in Bodie, then headed into Yosemite National Park for the remainder of the day. It’s a good way to split-up your time, especially if you’re spending a couple of nights in Lee Vining. During my most recent visit, I shot nearly a thousand pictures here in just a few hours — enough to exhaust 2 and a half camera batteries. I included some of the best pictures in the slideshow, above. I’ll also mention some of the highlights below.
A visit to Bodie inevitably begins with this picture. This giant flywheel is on display next to the parking lot.
You’re also bound to take a few shots of the old gravity-fed gas pumps next to a 1927 Dodge Graham truck. As you can see from my retro photo from 1988, it’s been parked there for a long time.
Bodie’s boom began in 1877 and continued through 1880. It would have been a rough place to live back then, given the constant noise from the mining operations, the rough winters, and the rampant lawlessness. One surprising benefit, though — by the early 1890’s, Bodie became one of the country’s first electrified towns.
By the early 1900’s, most of the population had left, and in 1932, a fire destroyed a large portion of the town. But Bodie was never completely abandoned, which means it was never technically a ghost town. The family that owned much of the town kept security guards on-site, which discouraged vandals and thieves.
That’s why so much of the town truly appears to be frozen in time. When the gold mines ran into trouble, people simply left. They didn’t bother taking their meager possessions. If you peer into windows of homes, you’ll see that plates were left on countertops…
… belongings remain on tables…
… and many rooms are still fully furnished.
One store still has shelves stocked with goods…
… and mining equipment.
The old Methodist church is still ready to hold services — except the door is blocked. You can’t go inside.
You can go inside the old Miners Union Hall, which now serves as a museum and visitor center. Here, you can sign up for a guided tour of…
… the Standard stamp mill, on the east side of town. The tour takes about an hour, and costs an additional $6 per person (2015 price).
On the way out of Bodie…
You’ll be treated to a stunning view of the Sierra Nevada range, as you look west, towards Yosemite. It’s worth the drive out to Bodie, just for this view.
The Bottom Line
If you have any interest in western history, the gold mining rush, or you just want to wander around dozens of abandoned buildings, you need to visit Bodie. While you could spend a full day here, a half-day visit will be enough to satisfy most visitors.
Here’s a look at the time-lapse drive from Lee Vining to Bodie…
… and Bodie back to Lee Vining: