BODIE — Two things will strike you as you approach what is arguably the most unusual unit in the California State Park system — you are traveling on the poorest excuse for a state highway and what person in their right mind went looking for gold in this forsaken remote valley?
Bodie State Park — less than a four-hour drive away when either Tioga Pass (Highway 120) or Sonora Pass (Highway 108) is clear of snow and open — is where you will find what is arguably the best example of an old mining camp ghost town kept in “arrested decay” — a term the state coined to describe its mission involving the preserved piece of California history on the east side of the Sierra. Simply put, structures are maintained in a matter that won’t allow them to fall over or further deteriorate in a major fashion.
Rest assured this is not Old Sacramento, Virginia City, or even Columbia State Park. It is the real McCoy of a mining town from the 1800s and early 1900s that the state basically stopped from decaying any further in 1962 when the park was created. When the legislature passed the Bodie Protection Act in 1994 after a Canadian mining firm wanted to strip mine on a bluff above the threatened town site, it allowed the purchase of mining claims surrounding Bodie to further protect the structures.
As a result it is considered to be one of the nation’s best preserved ghost towns as well as one of the largest.
Bodie is accessed off Highway 395
between Lee Vining, Bridgeport
Access to Bodie is via Highway 270 off of Highway 395 either seven miles south of Bridgeport or 14 miles north of Lee Vining and Mono Lake. The last three miles of the 13-mile Highway 270 that ends in Bodie is an extremely rough dirt road. It’s doable in a typical car as long as you go slowly.
The valley and surrounding hills are about as bare as you can get. Factor being at 8,375 feet and you can understand why strong winds are a common occurrence (the fastest recorded are in excess of 100 mph) and sundown temperatures this time of year can dip down below zero while summers warm up into the 80s.
The park access is now closed due to snow. Bodie in an average year gets three to six feet of snow with drifts as high as 20 feet.
Keep that in mind if you visit in warm weather. If you think it is Spartan living when it’s warm imagine the challenges residents faced in the winter in the 1800s when the only thing to warm the homes and businesses was firewood hauled in from miles away after everything in the surrounding hills had been clear cut for lumber and warming fires.
Gold and silver was discovered in the Bodie Hills in 1859 by W.S. Bodey. From 1860 to 1877 there were few toiling in the mines due to richer strikes elsewhere in nearby Nevada such as the Comstock Mine in Virginia City and others in Aurora.
A big strike by Bunker Hill Mine delivered rich veins of gold and silver prompting a surge in Bodie residents that helped extract nearly 10,000 tons of gold and silver from the one mine over the course of 25 years that had a value of almost $15 million of the $34 million worth of precious metals taken from mined ore in Bodie.
Big strike triggered
Wild West mentality
That, of course, triggered a Wild West atmosphere when combined with the remits and rugged locale.
At the peak of the boom in 1879, Bodie sported 2,000 buildings and nearly 7,000 residents.
There were at one point 65 saloons lining Main Street. As a result barroom brawls were daily occurrences with murderers and stagecoach robberies not far behind.
It is what prompted one 10-year-old girl, as legend goes; when being told her family was headed to Bodie at the height of the boom penned an entry in her journal reading “Goodbye God, I am going to Bodie.”
It’s a view shared by the Rev. F.M Warrington who relates in correspondence that Bodie “is a sea of sin lashed by the tempests of lust and passion.”
By 1910 the population of the Mono County township had dropped to 698. The population consisted primarily of families that decided to stay in Bodie instead of moving on to new and more prosperous strikes. There were 90 people residing in Bodie as late as 1940. A Congressional order to close all non-essential gold mines due to the war in 1942 sent Bodie’s population plummeting to three by 1943. By the time 1950 rolled around, people no longer lived in Bodie.
So what remains in Bodie today?
Some 110 structures
are still standing
There are roughly 110 structures still standing including one of the many once bustling mines.
What makes Bodie interesting is the fact things were left as they were when structures were abandoned. Stores have stock that was left behind. Furnishings weathered and broken with time can be found in the remaining homes along with small chards of china dishes.
Peeking into the houses through windows that often are now devoid of glass make you feel somewhat of a trespasser looking at the relics of what were the lives of miners and families.
It makes you think twice about how tidy you keep your home just in case for some reason your home is abandoned as it is today and remains relatively untouched for decades until 80 years from now when it is part of a state park with tourists taking peeks at what is left.
I’ve taken two trips to Bodie — one with my brother Richard who was an architect by trade whose specialty besides designing schools and banks was restoring historic buildings including some in Placer County. I’d be misleading you if I told you that excursion was enjoyable as he wanted me to help him photograph numerous nuances of structures. To give you an idea on how far gone he was on historical buildings he spent two summers while attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on projects that involved producing working blueprints of structures for future use in restoration efforts. One summer it involved one of the beer baron mansions in Cincinnati, The other it was historic outhouses in Wyoming. He returned to Bodie at least three times to gain better perspectives on how late 19th century structures were built,
A trip to Bodie is a great
excuse to take a pleasant
day trip taking in numerous
That first trip got me interested in the isolation, solitude and striking hills of Bodie, something I couldn’t explore with my brother.
Combining Bodie with a visit to either nearby Mono Lake, Bridgeport or Lee Vining can make for a prolonged robust daytrip that could be an eventful 16 hours.
If you’re not into ghost towns too intensely spending two hours in Bodie is worth the trip. It could be combined with an easy and flat hike exploring the surreal Mono Lake tufa towers and landscape complete with brine flies that will buzz you but not land on you that is on the southern end of the salt-laden prehistoric lake just off Highway 120 east of Highway 395.
Lee Vining itself has several restaurants including Mono Cone — and old-fashioned drive-in — that has the best veggie burgers and soft serve cones I’ve ever had. (OK, it could be because it’s where I stopped before heading back to my motel room after a 14.8 mile round-trip day hike out of Mono Village Resort to Barney, Robinson, and Crown lakes with a 2,759-foot elevation gain.)
Lee Vining besides having two gas stations is also home to the Save Mono Lake Committee that operates a tourist information center with my favorite bookstore given its rich inventory of books on water politics.
Bridgepoint has its share of dining options as well. If you want to make it an overnight trip both communities have lodging.
If you’ve never really been through the Sierra high country and over passes, I’d suggest a loop going through Yosemite via Tioga Pass —that at 9,943 feet is the highest paved highway in the state — and coming home via Highway 108 via the second highest stretch of pavement when it summits at 9,623 feet.
That way you can take in a drive-by tour with some easy to moderate walking to see the likes of Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, Tioga lakes and canyon just east of the park, Mono Lake, eastern Sierra scenery, Bodie, pass the Marine Corps mountain training base as you head west and up Highway 108 that offers some steep grades including a brief pitch of 26 percent before descending down past the turnoff to Kennedy Meadows where the Stanislaus River meanders along the highway for three or so miles with plenty of great spots to stretch your legs before heading down to Sonora.
Keep in mind when the Tioga Road (Highway 120) opens after the snow clears in late spring, you will need to pay a $35 entrance fee to Yosemite National Park that is good for seven days.
Info on visiting Bodie
There are a few things to keep in mind when you visit Bodie.
Everything in Bodie is fully protected. Nothing can be collected or removed from the park. Metal detectors are not allowed.
There is no camping in the state park although there are nearby campgrounds in the Inyo and Toiyabe national forests.
For safety, certain areas of the park are closed to visitors and are posted accordingly.
Winter hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. through March 31. Highway 270 is closed due to snow for now meaning your only way in until it clears is a snowmobile. Summer hours from April 1 to Nov. 3 are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Each summer there is a series of evenings when you can stay later for Bodie Ghost Walk and Star Stories that sell out quickly. They are offered on June 29, July 27, and Aug. 21. On those nights the park closes at 10 p.m.
The 1.5-hour Ghost Walk is $40 per person while the Ghost Mill Tour is $25 per person. The star stories are free. Tickets go on sale on March 29.
If you want a killer experience with eerie photographs and an incredible view of the heavens (the nights selected have minimal moonlight), it’s a perfect night for you. Information on the star nights as well as other tours and photo workshops is available by going to bodiefounation.org by calling (760) 616-5040.
Entrance fees still apply. The Bodie museum/visitor center is open from mid-May to mid-October. Hours can vary due to the weather and season.
Restrooms are located at the parking lot and picnic area.
Park closure hours are strictly enforced to protect the historic structures and artifacts.