The ‘living ghost town’ of Randsburg yields rich mining history, a relaxed vibe — and timeless hospitality
It’s 6:25 a.m., windy, and cold. I’m not sure how cold, exactly, but it’s sufficiently chilly that I’ve put my camera under my shirt to keep the batteries warm. The only creature out and about is the scruffy dog guarding The Joint, the saloon across the street from where I’m waiting for the sun to light up the picturesque façade of the general store. Why am I out here alone on the main street of Randsburg at dawn? Like thousands before me, I’m hunting for gold. The only difference is, I’m after the kind that reflects on windows for a few fleeting moments at sunrise. My predecessors were seeking the other, more durable variety. A number of them found it, too, making this erstwhile boomtown the heart of one of the richest mining districts in California.
These days, I’m not the only one taking a short detour off Highway 395 to discover and photograph Randsburg’s charms. While only a handful of hearty souls call this “living ghost town” home, winter is the ideal season for soaking up the gold rush ambience the residents have worked hard to preserve and are proud to showcase.
Nestled in the hills a little more than 200 miles from Las Vegas and about 20 miles south of Ridgecrest, Randsburg offers a unique weekend retreat for Southern Nevadans. Not only can visitors tour the museum, check out old mining operations, and browse the shops and galleries that line the main street, they can also leave the 21st century behind in a couple of other ways. While Verizon cell phone service is available up the highway in Ridgecrest, Randsburg has none. There wouldn’t be any Wi-Fi for visitors, either, if it weren’t for the entrepreneurial hospitality of a legendary motocross champion and a fourth-generation Randsburg native.
Todd R. “Goat” Breker and his wife “Scrappy” are your hosts at Goat’s Sky Ranch (randsburgcottagehotel.com), a hostelry that, in addition to offering comfortable lodging, truly merits the adjective unique. Traditional bed-and-breakfast accommodations are provided in the charmingly restored historic hotel once known as the Cottage Inn. For those who (like me) want to experience the ambience of a real miner’s cabin, Goat and Scrappy have restored and updated four historic dwellings around town. Now equipped with full kitchens, comfy furniture and all modern amenities, the cabins would make a forty-niner drool. The weathered siding, vintage windows and corrugated roofs, however, allow guests to soak up the feel of boomtown days.
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So far, Goat and Scrappy have restored four cabins of varying sizes, and they’re working on a couple more. I stayed in the Hill Street cabin, which has panoramic views of the surrounding rugged countryside. Since the two bars in town close early (if they open at all) — and most visitors leave and the 60 or so locals disappear into their homes — Randsburg is dark and quiet as soon as the sun goes down. This makes for spectacular stargazing, made even more wonderful by the big deck on the Hill Street cabin. In less than 20 minutes, I counted a dozen falling stars.
All uphill from here
By day, it’s fun to explore the hills around Randsburg. Just to the south of town are tailings left from the area’s first mine. Back in the spring of 1895, three prospectors discovered a seam of gold that resulted in a multi-million dollar operation they dubbed the Yellow Aster. By December of the same year, the Rand Mining District had been organized, and the resulting gold rush brought instant prosperity to Randsburg. By late 1897, the town boasted 50 buildings, including a church, a bank and a hotel that served hundreds of meals a day. The district’s first stamp mill was crushing gold ore around the clock.
“It was noisy,” says J. Bart Parker. Parker is Randsburg’s historian and curator of the Rand Desert Museum (randdesertmuseum.com) in the center of town. Also an antique dealer, Parker recently brokered the sale of a pair of Levi’s jeans a local found in a deserted mine shaft.
“They were in mint condition,” he says. “Still in their original package.” The Levi’s sold for $30,000.
Parker took me on a driving tour of Randsburg’s environs, which are covered with skeletal buildings, tailings, tunnels and other relics of the area’s mining past. Some mines were still in operation as recently as 2006, and fresh mining activity is always a possibility. The Yellow Aster is now owned by Goldcorp, one of the largest gold mining companies in the world.
“The district produced nearly a billion dollars of ore in today’s dollars,” Parker says. The ore produced not only gold, but silver and tungsten, too.
Back in town, Parker showed me the collection of artifacts on display in the museum.
“History is to be shared,” he says, and the exhibits in the two-gallery building reflect this firmly held belief. Old newspapers are carefully protected, but they’re on display for visitors to enjoy, along with mining claims, mineral samples, high school yearbooks, mining tools, even clothing, housewares and toys. Among the museum’s most valuable holdings is a collection of rare photographs donated by a descendant of one of the founders of the Yellow Aster Mine. The photos offer a priceless glimpse of the town during its glory days.
Part of the reason old photos are so valuable is that Randsburg has suffered through more than its share of devastating fires. Wooden buildings, dry wind and a source of ignition are all it takes, more than one local explained. While a Kern County Fire Station on the town’s main street has reduced the threat in recent years, fast-moving wildfires keep Randsburg and its charming buildings perennially at risk.
Among the buildings that have survived since the town’s original “boom” is the imposing First Bank of Randsburg. Currently owned by Randall “Hoot” Smith, the bank is now a fine art gallery showcasing artists whose work reflects the history and natural beauty of the area. It’s Smith who summed up another facet of Randsburg’s evolving personality.
“Randsburg is to dirt bikes as Sturgis is to Harley Davidsons,” Smith says. Because of its location in the heart of an area revered by off-road enthusiasts, the town is a popular pit stop for folks on dirt bikes, dune buggies, sand rails and four-wheelers. The Randsburg General Store (randsburggeneralstore.com) serves up breakfast and lunch at long tables, and classic milkshakes are available at the old-fashioned soda fountain. Two bars, The Joint and The White House, are open when the owners are in the mood, which is most likely on weekends.
Treasures near and far
Because the day-tripping off-roaders leave town before dark, visitors staying in town must fend for themselves for dinner. One option is to make advance arrangements with Scrappy at Goat’s Sky Ranch, and another is a quick drive into Ridgecrest, where I discovered some great grub and friendly service at Casey’s Steaks and BBQ (760-446-8000).
Along the main street are a number of antique stores, including Charlie’s Ore House, “the best little ore house in Randsburg” (760-374-2238). Browsers are welcome, but, given the eclectic array of quirky merchandise available at every price point, it’s difficult to limit yourself to window-shopping. Nearby, a photo studio with costumes lets you dress up in the styles of yesteryear for your portrait. Another building worth a quick visit is the town jail at the edge of town. (It’s always open — just yank hard on the door.) For an additional bit of colorful history, head to nearby Johannesburg, where you’ll find the final resting place of Evelyn Ann “Tonie” Seger in the Mountain View Cemetery. You’ll recognize it by the big brass bed.
Scenic wonders unrelated to mining but worth a detour are the Trona Pinnacles, a collection of spiky tufa formations — some nearly 150 feet tall — accessible by a gravel road about 37 miles from Randsburg. As you approach these odd spires — dusk, dawn and a night with a full moon are the most photogenic times to visit — you might get a sense of déjà vu. Dozens of shows and films including “Battlestar Galactica,” “Star Trek,” “Lost in Space,” and “Planet of the Apes” have all used this unusual landscape to evoke alien worlds. But with Randsburg nearby, more down-to-earth pleasures are never very far away.
The fastest route from Las Vegas to Randsburg is via I-15 through Barstow, then north along California Highway 58 to US Highway 395. For the return trip, consider driving through Panamint Valley. Keep an eye out for military fighter jets practicing low-level flying before heading over Towne Pass and dropping into Death Valley and back to Las Vegas.