Bodie CA: An ‘Arrested Decay’ Ghost Town Gives Kids a Real Look at History

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Bodie CA ghost town
The buildings of the Bodie CA ghost town are all locked, but most have windows and doors do you can peek inside. Photo credit: Silvana Clark

If you’re looking to step into history and explore a gold-mining ghost town, head to Bodie CA. This isn’t a cute living history museum with quilts and lace on display. You won’t be dressing up in costumes like at the Baker Heritage Museum in Oregon. Instead, you’ll wander through an entire town of structures frozen in time since the Gold Rush.

The California State Parks Department keeps Bodie State Historic Park in a state of “arrested decay.” Buildings are not restored, yet also not allowed to disintegrate. The idea is to do just enough maintenance so the buildings don’t collapse. That’s why you’ll see buildings with new-looking shake or corrugated metal roofs.

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Where is Bodie CA?

It’s safe to say that going to Bodie will require some patience and a sense of adventure. Located over an hour from Yosemite National Park and roughly 3 hours from Mariposa, a popular area for Yosemite visitors to stay in – Bodie is remote. Its location near the border of Nevada puts it closer to Reno (2.5 hours) than Sacramento (4.25 hours). Tahoe-area visitors can reach Bodie in about 2.5 hours.

History of Bodie CA

The town was founded in 1859 by William “Waterman” S. Bodey, who discovered gold near what is now called Bodie Bluff. A mill was established in 1861 and the town began to grow.

By 1880, Bodie was home to an estimated 10,000 people including families, miners and store owners as well as robbers, gunfighters and prostitutes. The town had a red-light district that included brothels, gambling halls and opium dens.

As the miners found less and less gold, they headed on in search of more profitable mining camps and left behind most of their possessions.

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old looking buildings are scattered in a valley with blue skies and hills in the background in Bodie CA ghost town
Wear comfortable shoes. Bodie CA is BIG historical site. Photo credit: Silvana Clark

Bodie is Bigger Than Expected

As you round the corner and see Bodie’s entrance, the size of the ghost town is surprising. I was expecting a few ramshackle houses and barns. Not here!

Bodie consists of more than 100 buildings spread over a hillside. What is left of the town is only a small percentage of the former 2,000 buildings. There’s a bank, church, barber shop, saloons, school, pharmacy and all the other buildings that make up a community.

Helping Kids Enjoy Bodie

Let’s face it…most kids will look at two or three “old” buildings and declare, “I’m done.”

I’d suggest buying the $3 Bodie brochure, which explains the history of Bodie along with a map highlighting key structures.

I watched parents with two elementary-aged kids keep their kids thoroughly engaged. Using their Bodie brochure, they had the kids take turns finding a building on the map and reading the description as the family peered through doors and windows. They stayed over an hour, as kids looked with interest at the artifacts.

While peeking into the one-room schoolhouse, their dad asked, “What are some things in this classroom that are different from your class? What things are similar?” I watched as the kids took time to study the room in order to answer their dad’s questions.

a woman stands in a doorway with no building around it in the ghost town of bodie ca
While the California State Park Department tries to keep buildings in Bodie’s ghost town from falling down, sometimes all that is left is a door frame. Photo credit: Alan Clark

How Did Bodie Become a Ghost Town?

Bodie, one of about 3,800 ghost towns in the United States, is a history lover’s dream. The California gold rush turned Bodie into a boom town with 2,000 buildings.

At its peak between 1879 and 1881, Main Street was a mile long. That included 60 salons and dance halls, leading to many gunfights among the patrons. A local pastor, the Reverend Warrington said, “Bodie is a sea of sin lashed by the tempests of lust and passion.” (No need to share that quote with your kids!)

The Standard Mining Company in Bodie, produced more than $18 million in gold and silver after discovering a large vein of gold ore. The mine continued successfully mining for 25 years. After that, as the mine produced less and less gold, the prospectors followed the Gold Rush in search of more profitable mining camps.

They left behind most of their belongings. That’s why Bodie is such an accurate representation of life during the Gold Rush. By 1915, Bodie became an official ghost town. In 1962, Bodie was established as Bodie State Historic Park. The Bodie Foundation helps maintain the structures.

a man stands arms crossed in front of a dilapidated wooden building that is leaning in bodie ca
Buildings are in various states of “arrested decay.” Don’t expect perfectly aligned houses. Photo credit: Silvana Clark

What Will I See in Bodie CA Besides Old Buildings?

As you look inside each building you see the remnants of life that was. Let your imagination flow while you see a miner’s living room with a cast iron stove now covered with pieces of ceiling insulation. Some family used to sit at that table which today has crumbling legs and remnants of a bird’s nest on top. A faded calendar hangs on the wall next to a broken lamp barely clinging to the ceiling.

You’ll see empty pickle barrels and cans of beans still on display from when the general store did a booming business. The mortuary still has caskets inside. There’s a pool table inside another building.

Strolling through Bodie gives you a snapshot into the past. We found the remnants of the Wells Fargo bank with its crumbling walls. The safe was completely intact, though. Obviously, they needed a secure safe to hold all that gold!

Even with the Wild West mentality of living in Bodie, the residents built two churches. While the Catholic church burned in 1930, the Methodist church still stands for you to see.

In between buildings, we saw discarded trucks and wagons scattered throughout the town.

Unfortunately, the stamp mill of The Standard Consolidated Mining Company has been deemed unsafe and visitors may no longer enter except as part of a guided tour.

Speaking of tours, Friends of Bodie runs several. Be sure to check the event calendar to see what might be happening during the time you’ll be there.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Watch where you’re walking. It’s easy to trip over the many leftover pieces of mining equipment and ordinary household items.

Is the Ghost Town of Bodie Cursed?

With all the artifacts strewn around the ghost town, tourists started taking a part of Bodie home with them. This resulted in the loss of many precious artifacts. Thus began the “Bodie Curse.”

Legend has it that if you take even a tiny shard of broken glass, a nail or other remnant of mining life, bad luck will follow. Yes…take a piece of scrap metal and your life will take a turn for the worse, accompanied by nightmares.

(Don’t tell anyone, but that is a rumor started by California State Park staff to discourage visitors from taking mementos home. It seems to work because theft of items has dropped significantly.)

Tips for Visiting the Bodie Historic Site

  • Bodie is BYO. This is an actual ghost town minus a fancy gift shop and nearby latte stand. You won’t even find a vending machine, so bring plenty of water and snacks.
  • Wear comfortable closed-toe shoes. Paths are bumpy and strewn with discarded metal pieces, so leave the flip-flops behind.
  • It’s not stroller-friendly. Unless you have a tough stroller ready to take on the Baha, this is a place for baby-wearing.
  • Use the facilities before you walk into the ghost town. There’s a modern restroom in the parking lot before starting your ghost town exploration.
  • Lather up with sunscreen. And wear a hat. Remember, you’re in the desert!

SheBuysTravel Tip: Bodie is “technically” open all year. However, because of the high elevation (8,375 feet), it is accessible only by skis, snowshoes or snowmobiles during winter months. In addition, Highway 395 is blocked off by a gate during impassable and snowy months.

Getting To Bodie CA

Visiting Bodie isn’t just a quick stop on a California road trip. Getting there takes some effort. The ghost town is located in a remote area in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountain range, close to Bridgeport, June Lake and Yosemite National Park. It’s in Mono County, about an hour north of Mono Lake on Highway 395. The last 13 miles to Bodie on California 270 is a bumpy but drivable road.

However, and this is a big however, the last three miles consist of a dirt road with washboards. While we admire physically fit people with sculpted washboards on their chests, these washboards make driving extremely difficult. We drove our RV and actually had two screws come loose and several drawers pop open from the jostling and bumping.

I was told the California State Park department doesn’t pave the last three miles to keep the authentic atmosphere of traveling back in time.

Silvana gets the urge to travel when she’s been home more than a month. To date she’s visited 66 countries and shows no sign of stopping. The author of 12 books and over 300 articles, Silvana encourages people to travel creatively and on a budget. This means housesitting, doing home exchanges and finding bargains. She’s also been a full-time RV’er and has tips for people just getting into the RV camping world. As a professional speaker, Silvana also presents travel-related workshops to groups around the country.
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