Calico’s Silver Lining
California’s Old West mining town unearths a mother lode of history and good old-fashioned fun with a narrow-gauge railroad, gold panning and ghost tours
Mention the words “ghost town,” and most of us probably think of an old haunted town, one devoid of humans and inhabited by nothing but otherworldly beings. Ghost towns are often wonderful places to photograph rickety old buildings or pursue para-normal experiences, but not much else.
To the contrary, there’s a ghost town in the Mojave Desert of Southern California that offers much to see and do. At Calico Ghost Town you can shop, take a self-guided mine tour, pan for gold, ride a train, eat a nice meal, hike or mountain bike a nearby trail, and even hunt for ghosts. Better yet, Calico has a campground from which you can settle in and explore. It’s right off Interstate 15 but far enough away to be free of highway noise.
Situated 126 miles northeast of Los Angeles and 148 miles southwest of Las Vegas, Calico Ghost Town is just a few minutes east of Barstow in Yermo. On a recent visit, my husband, Mike, and I parked for a couple of days in the campground’s full-hookup section. We had a great time walking to the ghost town from our campsite and venturing out on our mountain bikes.
I first visited Calico when I was a kid. I grew up in Southern California, and my folks used to enjoy taking my brothers and me to places like Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park. When they heard about Calico and its ties to the Knott family, they packed us up in the car and went to check it out. That was a long time ago, so I don’t remember much, but I know we had fun because we always did.
Calico Ghost Town was born in March 1881. Once a bustling community filled with prospectors intent on striking it rich, the Calico Mining District possessed one of the richest silver deposits in the state. During its run, the mine was the greatest producer of silver in Southern California, digging up $86 million in silver and $45 million in borax. The region had more than 500 mines between 1881 and 1907, including the Silver King, Odessa, Waterloo, Garfield, Oriental, Bismarck and Maggie mines.
In its heyday, the town had a population that grew from 40 people in 1881 to 1,200 in 1887. Lots of folks meant lots of saloons, and by 1887 there were 22 of them, plus brothels, of course, and even a China town. Around 1907, the price of silver plummeted from $1.31 an ounce to 63 cents, and Calico was on its way to becoming a ghost town. Today, fewer than a dozen people live there.
In 1910 young Walter Knott worked briefly in the mine while homesteading nearby with his wife, Cordelia. Four decades later, Knott inherited his uncle’s silver mill in Calico, and in 1951 he proceeded to purchase the entire town. He moved some of the buildings to the ghost town attraction at Knott’s Berry Farm and restored and rebuilt the remaining structures to appear as they did in the 1880s. The town became a California Historical Landmark in 1962, and in 1966 Knott donated it to San Bernardino County. In 2005 then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed Calico California’s official Silver Rush Ghost Town.
Now a regional park, Calico Ghost Town resides in one of the most colorful desert settings around. The brilliant reds, golds, greens and blues of the Mojave — a real myriad of colors — provide a beautiful backdrop. RVers can enjoy both the town and the surrounding landscape while camping at the adjacent Calico Ghost Town Campground (see “Camping at Calico” on page 25). Those staying at the campground have free access to the ghost town and can explore to their heart’s content but have to pay extra to pan for gold, tour the Maggie Mine, visit the Mystery Shack and ride the Calico & Odessa Railroad.
The best way to visit old Calico is to take a self-guided walking tour. We picked up a brochure at the park office and found descriptions of some of the oldest buildings. For instance, Lane’s General Store is thought to date from the early 1880s. Restored for use by Walter Knott, the building’s original cellar is still being used. The Bottle House, built by Knott in the 1950s, has been restored and is now called Dorsey’s Dog House, a place with gourmet treats for pampered pets.
The whole town is dog friendly.
Walking around Calico a couple of times, we imagined what life was like back in the 1800s. We visited the jail and the old-time photo studio, along with various shops for crafts, candles, sweets, woodwork and leather goods. We dined on hamburgers on delicious homemade buns while sitting on the back porch at the Calico House Restaurant, drinking iced tea from mason jars and watching the train pass by.
The excursion train is reminiscent of the narrow-gauge railroad used both inside and outside Calico’s mines during its boom years. The most well known was the Daggett & Calico Railroad, which from 1888 to 1903 spanned about 7 miles to carry silver ore from Calico down to the Waterloo Mill in the Daggett area.
In reading more about Calico and its rail systems, we learned about the Western Mineral Company’s “gravity railroad.” Morning after morning, mules would haul empty ore cars up to the mine at nearby Odessa Canyon. Miners would load the cars and descend by gravity 1½ miles to the refining plant in the valley below the town. At the end of the day, cars would be saved to transport both the miners and the mules back down. Seeing the mules riding in an otherwise empty car must have been a sight to behold!
Although there are many old mines around, the only one that is safe to visit is Maggie Mine. For a fee you can take the self-guided tour. Before you begin, be sure to look at the photos and displays in the exhibit area.
In addition to exploring the town, Mike and I hiked the East Calico Trail where we looked for plants and animals native to the Mojave. Though we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, we searched for rattlesnakes and desert cottontails. We found desert holly and learned that old-timers used the plant with the holly-shaped leaves and red berries for decorating at Christmastime.
We found plenty of old roads to ride our mountain bikes on, and also took our bikes to the cemetery where we left them at the gate and walked around to look at all the old markers. In the wall surrounding the cemetery, we found a large desert lizard called a chuckwalla peering out from its shady space. Although we don’t have an off-highway vehicle, those who do can explore the OHV trail that runs from the campground to the Bureau of Land Management riding area.
Whether on foot, bike or OHV, or even from the comfort of your RV, it’s easy to enjoy the colorful realm of Calico Ghost Town.
Camping at Calico
Tucked in the Calico Mountains, Calico Ghost Town Campground has 250 campsites in two sections. The closest section to the ghost town rests in a narrow canyon below the town and offers everything from primitive campsites to ones with full hookups. The other section sits west of the park entrance and has mostly non-hookup sites, though a few have partial-hookups sans sewer connections.
Campground amenities include showers, dump stations and water. In addition to accommodating RVs and tents, the campground rents six camping cabins and a large bunkhouse with heat and air conditioning.
Calico Ghost Town is open from 8 a.m. to dusk daily, except Christmas. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and shops and attractions are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The entry fee is $8 per adult, but it’s free for those who have paid to camp. Overnight camping runs $30 without hookups and $35 with full hookups. Seniors pay $25 to $30 per night, Sunday through Thursday.
Reservations are recommended during the Civil War re-enactment (Presidents Day weekend), Calico Spring Festival (early spring), Calico Days (Columbus Day weekend), Ghost Haunt (late October) and Holiday Fest (Thanksgiving Weekend).