Death Valley ghost town: gold-mining history at Rhyolite in Nevada
Don’t miss a side trip to Rhyolite ghost town in Nevada on a road trip that takes in Death Valley National Park. No tourist haven, just an authentic decaying ghost town. Also, visit the spooky Goldwell Open Air Museum with its otherworldly sculptures there.
Even if you head to Death Valley National Park for outdoor adventures, sand dunes and the salt-encrusted Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the United States, don’t miss a side trip to Rhyolite ghost town in Nevada.
Yes, I did say “in Nevada,” although Death Valley is in California. That’s part of the weirdness. Death Valley counts Rhyolite as one of “its” ghost towns although the former town site is in Nevada. Oh, never mind. Just get yourself off the beaten path in Death Valley National Park and head up to the decaying ghost town.
Rhyolite ghost town dates back to 1904’s gold mining boom and went bust when the lights were turned out, literally, on the town in Nevada in 1916. That’s not even 11 years of a town that at one point had several thousand residents who enjoyed opera, baseball games and the local ice cream parlor, all in the middle of a rather desolate desert landscape.
Love ghost towns? See Rhyolite in Death Valley
If you are a fan of ghost towns, Rhyolite should be on your list for your next Southern California road trip. For one thing, it is not some touristy haven with souvenir shops selling kitsch T-shirts and keychains. There are no services (bring plenty of water in the summer and any snacks or picnics), no rangers or signage (download maps before going), no lights (stash a flashlight or headlamp), and make sure you have plenty of gas. Since this Nevada ghost town sits at 3,800 feet, you’ll also want to carry a sweater for possible chillier summer evenings; when I was there in early November, I pulled on a couple of light layers.
What you will find in Rhyolite in the Bullfrog mining district is nothing more than a crumbling, uninhabited, fascinating collection of buildings in the middle of nowhere, waiting hopefully for funding to offer some repairs before even the bones are lost to time, decay, weather and disrespectful vandals.
How was Rhyolite founded? In short, like so many desert towns, the rush was on when quartz with gold was found in the area in 1904. Soon, there were more than 2,000 claims in the 30-mile-area of the Bullfrog Mining District. The town itself blossomed around those claims, with a grand three-story bank, a busy red-light district, plus a stock exchange, hotels, a school for 250 children, and other supporting businesses for a population that hit about 8,000 at its peak. The tall bank building cost nearly $90,000 to build back then – equal to nearly $3 million in today’s dollars.
Literally, the town went from boom to bust; the financial panic of 1907 sucked the town of its businesses, and no businesses means no people. By 1916, with a population of just a few hundred remaining, light and power were shut off in the town. Meaning Rhyolite went from sand and sagebrush to a bustling town, back to nothing in about 11 years.
Getting to Rhyolite ghost town
There are no maps of Rhyolite, just a dusty grid of streets. Just follow the signs and information on Death Valley National Park’s website. Rhyolite is 35 miles from Death Valley’s Furnace Creek Visitor Center, although the burg of Beatty, Nevada, is only nine miles away and will offer the closest services. Once at Rhyolite, you can’t miss the tall remaining walls of the bank building or a train depot (this intact building is privately owned and securely fenced).
My suggestion is to get to this ghost town before the sun sets so you can get the lay of the land – it’s not a large area but without lights it can be confusing. Then plan to stay after dark if you can, because that’s when things really do get a bit spooky. Many buildings are fenced off, especially the larger ones that are crumbling and could pose a risk, but some smaller former homes or businesses are not. One building called Tom Kelly’s Bottle House – with bottles embedded in the walls — was restored in 1925 by Paramount Pictures so, no, it has not held up all this time.
Goldwell Open Air Museum at Rhyolite
The other thing to do before sunset is to visit the Goldwell Open Air Museum nearly on the same plot of land. This museum is basically a homage to the late Belgian-Polish artist Albert Szukalski, although there are vintage photos and memorabilia from Rhyolite in its heyday. There is a small volunteer-run museum visitor’s center, and it might be open. Or it might not be. Volunteers have random hours. However, there is some signage outside to peruse, usually brochures in a box at the door, and frankly the eyebrow-raising sculptures are the highlight and they are accessible outdoors 24/7.
No tour guides are really needed at Goldwell museum at the Death Valley ghost town. Just take a walk around the rather spooky, sometimes odd, sculptures. Some were created by draping real people with cloth soaked in plaster of Paris. After the cloth dried enough to stand on its own, the models crawled out. Which makes the sculptures appear practically human, quite ghostly and like they will move. When I was there, a friend swore she saw one moving and kept saying, “Did you see it, did you see it?” No, I didn’t, I’d reassure her. Still, if you like to play games, just say “Boo” at a companion, and he or she may just jump and scream. Oooo, sounds like a great game if you are there after dark. Or maybe you want to keep your friends.
A couple of popular creations at Goldwell are Ghost Rider, a draped sculpture with a bike, above, and The Last Supper, a series of sculptures posed much like The Last Supper painting. The Last Supper art was the first one on the site, installed in 1984.
And of course, taking advantage of the dark skies for stargazing in Rhyolite is a given since Death Valley is a certified Dark Sky Park – at the time of this writing, one of 195 Dark Sky places in the world that attracts Dark Sky tourism, a growing trend nurtured by the International Dark Sky Association. If you time your visit right, you can also see the Milky Way floating overhead or try your hand at astral photography, too.
Have a Death Valley road trip planned? Of course, you must take in the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, explore the old mining structures at Harmony Borax Works and Furnace Creek, and not miss sunrise at Zabriskie Point. Then get off the main road in Death Valley National Park and head out to the abandoned structures that were the town of Rhyolite in Nevada.
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