If you’re a fan of the Wild West, Calico Ghost Town is a must for you, especially if you live in the southern California/ western Arizona/ southwest Nevada region. Ita was real mining town that existed from 1880 to about 1915; however, not all the buildings are originals. Walter Knott (Knott’s Berry Farm) purchased the town in the 1960s and brought some of the buildings to his amusement park. Replicas replaced the buildings, and they did an great job (although I was slightly bummed learning this).
Located at 36600 Ghost Town Rd, Yermo, CA 92398, Calico is located inside the vast Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, near the town of Yermo, California, about an hour’s drive east from the Inland Empire or about 2 hours from L.A. It’s about a 10-minute drive from the 15 Freeway; you pass it no matter what, on your way to Las Vegas. It’s not difficult to get to in the slightest; the road you exit is called ‘Ghost Town Road’ and you stay on that the entire time. There is a big cowboy cut out about 100 yards from the freeway exit ramp, which points you in the right direction. ‘CALICO’ is written in humongous letters on the side of the mountain, and you can see it on the freeway from very far away. The actual town is located directly below these letters, so if all else fails, just head towards the giant ‘Calico’ written on the mountainside.
Calico Ghost Town is open daily, from 9am to 5pm, except on Christmas. Entry fees are $8 for adults, $5 for children aged 4-11, and free for children under 3. You can also pay to hook up your RV, rent a cabin or bunkhouse, do group camping, or rent a few of the facilities like the campground amphitheater or schoolhouse. Just understand, this place is located inside a desert, and deserts get hot. We went last week, during April, and it was already 95 degrees. During the peak of summer, the temperatures can reach upwards of 120 degrees, so definitely plan accordingly based on your preferences and tolerance of hot temps.
When you reach the entrance to the road that leads to the ghost town, do not be deceived. It will appear as if nobody is there and you will have the place to yourself. In reality, Calico Ghost Town is actually a fan favorite of international tourist groups/visitors, local school-children groups, and local tourists. The first time I visited Calico with Kristi on our way to Las Vegas in July 2017 there were, at minimum, 5 tour buses in the parking lot. On this trip, there were only a couple tour buses and school buses for the local children, and this was only because we came on a Wednesday. On the weekend, and especially in the summer, expect this place to be packed.
When we arrived, the first thing we did was head to the Mystery Shack. It’s one of those optical illusion, gravity-induced mystery-type places. It costs $3 per person, and the guide gives tours of the shack about every 15 minutes, so you’ll never have to wait long. I had never been to one of these “mystery spots”, so I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I would just walk in, be able to walk up the wall and onto the ceiling, and call it a day. It’s more like being stuck on a ship that’s rocking violently to one side; you cannot get off, and you want to vomit. Not only did I have to deal with the inherent elements of the Mystery Shack, I had to do it while carrying my 17-month-old daughter, since my mother, stepfather, and I toured the shack at the same time and there’s no way a stroller can make it through that place (if you manage it, then kudos to you, because I couldn’t). Had I not been carrying my daughter and trying my hardest to not fall over the entire time, I probably would have enjoyed the Mystery Shack more than I did. It’s very bizarre, weird, and head-scratching. The guide gives a mini-tour of the shack’s “paranormal abilities”, like standing a broom up on its head, rolling pool balls “upwards” into the top hole, being able to stand horizontally while walking down a ramp, and dumping water into a trough and watching it flow “upstream”. I won’t ruin the experience by telling you why these things are possible, but I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. Either way, I definitely recommend the Mystery Shack, but only if you do not get dizzy easily or are not carrying a small child.
Once we left the vertigo-inducing Mystery Shack, we were almost to the very top of the town, so we decided to explore that part before heading back down. Calico is built at the base of a mountain, so the entire town is built at an upwards slope. You don’t necessarily have to go all the way up to enjoy what the town has to offer, but the Mystery Shack, school house, look-out point, a few shops, and Old Miner’s Cafe are all located up there. The trail to the look-out point starts out as easy stone steps but halfway through, the steps disappear and you find yourself suddenly doing some off-road walking. It’s not a very long distance to the top at that point, but if you’re clumsy or have trouble walking over uneven, rocky terrain, be advised.
Once you reach the look-out point, you can see for miles, as well as see the entire town spread out before you. Up there is where I was able to locate Maggie Mine and the train station, two places we wanted to visit. When you’re up there, it’s very easy to place yourself back in the late 1800’s- early 1900’s, and imagine what it looked like back then. It was crazy to think that all those decades ago, nothing but this town existed for miles, as if it was just plopped in the middle of the desert. It really makes you reflect on just how difficult life must have been for the people living there back then.
Next we ventured off to the schoolhouse, which sits by itself, almost hidden from view and could easily be missed if one isn’t aware that it’s there. It’s at the very top, behind Old Miner’s Cafe, and you can only spot it if you are standing at the top since the cafe obstructs any view of it. Unfortunately, the doors are locked and you can only view the inside from looking through the glass window on the door. Also unfortunately, the schoolhouse is one of the replicas, built in the early 1950’s. However, it is a good educational tool to teach people what single-room schoolhouses were like. One cool fact – the very last school teacher to teach at this school is buried in the Calico cemetery (a place we sadly missed because it’s off to the side and easily forgotten).
After exploring as much of the schoolhouse as we could, we needed lunch. There are 3 places one can find a bite to eat at Calico: Old Miner’s Cafe, the Calico House Restaurant, and Lil’s Saloon. We settled on Old Miner’s Cafe because Kristi and I had eaten at the Calico House Restaurant on our previous visit, and I wasn’t impressed (I thought the meals were a bit overpriced for the quality of food).
I really enjoyed the food at Old Miner’s Café, however. All three of us ordered the club sandwich with french fries. It was way more food than expected, and very tasty. It costs about $6-$7 per meal; however, it doesn’t come with a drink, so that is separate, but refills cost only $1. They have a few tables on the inside, but also have a much larger, covered wooden deck with benches. We chose to eat out there because there was no A.C. inside and it was sweltering.
Once we were finished lunch, it was time to start making our way down the hill, while also stopping in at the various shops along the way. Some of the shops include Dorsey’s Dog House (dedicated to dog products like leashes, collectibles, and treats), Lane’s General Store, R & D Fossils & Minerals, Granny’s Calico Crafts, The Sweets Shop, and Calico Art Gallery. Many of these shops sell authentic Native American items, as well as many hand-made items from other numerous, talented people. The first time I went to Calico I bought a hand-painted saw blade, and this time I bought hand-painted Native American pottery. The prices for these two items ranged between $15-$18 (I can’t remember exactly), but there were more pricey items for sale as well. I believe it’s better to spend a little more money on something authentic, original, and not mass-produced, than buy some cheap, generic stuff at Walmart or Hobby Lobby, but to each his own.
After meandering around the shops for a while, we made our way down the hill enough to come to the train station, Calico Odessa Railroad. There’s only one, single train engine with 3 carts behind it, and as luck would have it, by this time all the international tour groups and school children had left, so we had the entire thing to ourselves.
The path the train takes you is interesting, and certainly worth doing at least once, but it was A LOT shorter than I expected it to be. For some inexplicable reason, I expected it to go under or through a part of the mountain, and that’s just not the case (maybe because I thought it would take us through a mine, I don’t know). It’s a quick, maybe 10-minute ride just outside the edge of town, and an automated voice plays overhead telling the passengers information about the town and the mines. The conductor will stop briefly from time to time to point towards whatever the automated voice is talking about, but that’s about it. It’s a nice little way to learn some quick history about the town and about the mining that once took place there.
Maggie Mine is located literally right next to the train station, and is like a 15-second walk. It costs the same as the Mystery Shack ($3 per adult), and I reckon that it’s well worth the price. It’s the smallest and most well-preserved mine at Calico, which is why it’s the only mine open to visitors on a daily basis (there is a second mine visitors can tour, but it’s by reservation only. More information on that at the end). It’s extremely easy to walk through, because the inside is now all paved and I could easily push my daughter’s large stroller with zero difficulty. There are lights installed, so you are not walking in complete darkness, but it’s still dark enough to enjoy the experience. At the very beginning, there is a large glass display with various rocks and minerals found throughout the mines.
As you walk down the long tunnel of the mine, you come to a Y; one way ends up at a dead-end, and the other ends at a steep staircase, which spits you out at the top of the town. Usually people have to go out this way because of crowds, but since we were the only ones in there (besides one other family) and we had the stroller, we were allowed to turn around and just walk back out the way we came. My stepdad took the staircase; I think he regretted it because he didn’t realize he had to walk all the way back down again (lol).
There are various exhibits throughout the mine, and they offer a pamphlet at the beginning that has information about each exhibit (although it’s a tad bit difficult reading it because of the dim lighting). These exhibits include information about a pair of brothers who used to live and work in the mine, areas where the miners would work, the dangers of the mine, and the hardships the miners faced down there. I was a little bit put off by the mannequins they use, because they can be rather alarming and maybe even scary to very young children (they certainly didn’t splurge for Madame Tussaud-quality mannequins).
After exiting the mine, my daughter was starting to reach her limit, as we had been at Calico for several hours and it was stupidly hot all day. We began to make our way towards the entrance, passing some more areas of the town. These areas include a building made of bottles, “China Town” (where the Chinese migrant workers lived), a small stage with an old-fashion salon-style backdrop that is routinely used for weddings and special events, and various, crumbling buildings that look like they’ve been there since the town was founded (I’m not sure if they have, but I want to believe it). The building made of bottles is called The Bottle House, and was sadly closed when we were there. The original was built in 1902 and is believed to be the earliest house in the so-called Bottle House craze. The original sadly couldn’t stand the test of time, so Knott built the replica Bottle House in the 1950’s and it’s been used for various stores since. This place is so unique and popular that it’s listed on multiple “weird road-side attractions” websites and lists.
Some of the locations and items available at Calico that I haven’t mentioned and/or didn’t go to are: the cemetery, Lucy Lane Museum, gold panning, nighttime ghost tours (I want to do this so badly!), mine tour of the Silver King Mine (the only other mine you can visit other than Maggie Mine), a mule team off-road tour, mountain bike trails and off-road vehicle trails, as well as “signature events” like a Civil War re-enactment, bluegrass musical festival, “Calico Days”, a “ghost haunt” during Halloween time, and Holiday fest during the Thanksgiving weekend. You can also book weddings, and they offer various locations for that.
*Please be advised that gold panning, nighttime ghost tours, the Silver King Mine, and mule team off-roading all require reservations and aren’t offered daily as part of the normal ghost town experience. You can find the phone number and information on how to reserve these on the Calico Ghost Town website*
Overall, I’m a huge fan of Calico Ghost Town, but I’m a huge fan of ghost towns in general. I’ve been to Goldfield Ghost Town located in Apache Junction, Arizona (near Phoenix) and I would really like to visit the ghost town of Bodie, California, located near Yosemite, by the Nevada border. There’s just something so mystical and engaging about the Wild West and how they used to live, plus if you read my Waverly Hills Sanatorium blog, you know I’m a huge fan of ghosts, so combining the two is heaven for me!