The I-15 drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas can be somewhat monotonous considering it’s four solid hours of red rock, jagged mountain, cactus, and tumbleweed. No doubt, it’s beautiful and fascinating, particularly if you’re seeing for the first time. But after a while, it all looks the same.
Many people that drive the route do so for business purposes so they’re not overly concerned about being entertained, nor are they disappointed that the run of highway offers very few towns along the way. However, tourists making the trek might be looking for something to do, and if there is if you’re interested in returning to the Wild West.
Approximately 3 miles from the town Barstow, travelers can see CALICO written in huge white letters on a mountain peak. Below sits Calico Ghost Town, the community that was established in 1881 during California’s largest silver strike. The town quickly populated as miners and their families flocked to the region’s 500 mines, which produced $20 million in silver ore during a 12-year run. However, when the value of silver eventually crashed, the people of Calico moved on and left behind a ghost town.
A sign posted in the town features the wax and wane of the population with the year 1881 boasting a mere 40 people and increasing to 1200 residents by 1887. Three years later the decline was apparent with a count of 800 citizens, and by the early 1900’s the town was barren.
Calico remained abandoned and deteriorating until the 1950’s when Walter Knott, the founder of California’s amusement park Knott’s Berry Farm, decided to restore all but 5 of the buildings. Eventually, the site became a State Historical Landmark, as part of the San Bernardino Parks System, and is open every day of the year with the exception of Christmas.
Built on the side of the mountain, the main street incline is as steep as the history, with buildings including the town hall, hotel, general store, fire hall, and saloon, complete with swinging half doors that look like they’re straight out of a western movie. The old jail is built right into the mountainside, though it’s doubtful it would contain anyone these days. And to add to the authenticity of Calico, there are mining carts still on the tracks, a burned out wagon, and ruins that once belonged to the town’s Chinese residents. It’s no wonder this historic site has inspired songs and stories and has been used as the backdrop to movies and music videos.
A lookout area offers spectacular views of Calico and the desert, but signs and fencing prevent tourists from exploring outside the perimeters of the town due to safety issues connected with the abandoned mines.
There was a time when Calico featured only the ghost town that tourists could stroll through. A Panning for Gold experience was also present, though it was actually Fools Gold (iron pyrite) that was purposely planted there for the purpose of being ‘discovered’. The ghost town seemed a little more genuine then.
Since that time, 3 restaurants have been added to the premises along with 14 unique shops. And the expansion has continued with gunfight shows, tours of the mine, and a short ride on the Calico & Odessa Railroad. Now that its essentially a park, Calico offers overnight camping, a spring festival, and a Ghost Town Haunt in October.
However, some tourists claim that the month of Halloween isn’t the only time the town is haunted. Legend has it that a few ghosts reside there year round and their presence can be felt in certain buildings. But we’re not surprised that deceased town folk may have decided to stick around given the appearance of the cemetery – it hardly looks like a place to rest in peace. And with so many vultures flying overhead, Calico does have a tendency to be a bit eerie.
The $8 price of admission does not cover the added attractions, which include a ride on the railroad, panning for gold, and a tour of the mine. Luckily, none these things are over $4 each, and the park offers a 3-attraction bundle at $7 in order to save some money. Call us crazy, but we think it would be easier for the park to charge an all-inclusive $15 right off the bat.
Our personal feeling is that Calico felt more authentic without the addition of shows, events, shops, and restaurants. However, given that there is nothing else in the area, it’s easy to understand how the demand for these things was inevitable. It is, after all, a tourist attraction.
At the end of the day, Calico is an up close and personal look at the Old West and will likely open your eyes to the hardships faced by the miners and their families. The heat and dust of the desert certainly come to mind. Buildings like the jail and saloon will bring many a western movie to mind and you’ll come away with a multitude of interesting photos, as well as a vivid image of life during the silver strike.
So if you happen to be cruising I-15 and see Calico written on the mountain peak, stop in for a while to see what it’s all about. Your prospects look good for a memorable time.