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Former mining town once boomed in the Sierra mountains, now it's a must-see for history buffs

LON AUSTIN - Bodie, California, is in the high country of Northeastern California, on the border with Nevada. The former mining town is preserved as a state park. Here, an old Dodge truck sits in front of the DeChambeau Hotel and Miner's Hall. Lower left, a 19th century structure.

Bodie State Historic Park, in the eastern portion of Northern California, is a true ghost town. The park is a partially preserved mining town.

Gold was found in Bodie in 1859, and despite a fire that destroyed much of town, mining continued into the 1900s, with the town school remaining open until 1942.

Preserved by the California State Park system in a state of suspended preservation, shelves are still filled with wares, and mining apparatus are still strewn around the grounds.

Bodie is a place that I have wanted to go for some time. It and Bannack, Montana, are probably the best-preserved mining towns in the United States. Twice I have detoured on trips to Nevada just to see the town and both times it has been closed due to weather. That despite the fact that the town is normally open seven days a week for the entire year.

So, on a recent trip to Nevada to photograph southwestern scenery and petroglyphs, we once again detoured into California to try to see Bodie.

The night prior, we stayed in Stateline, Nevada, on the shores of Lake Tahoe, just over 100 miles from the park. It is possible to stay in either Bridgeport or Lee Vining, California, much closer to the park. Located on a side road off of Highway 395, Bodie is located at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet, so if you decide to go there, make sure you have appropriate clothing.

This time as we approached the road to Bodie, it was open. The park is currently open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. That is, the portion of the park that is open. Due to COVID, the California State Park System is allowing visitors into the park, but not into any of the buildings that are normally open to the public. Seeing that some of the buildings were not open was disappointing, but that soon changed as I discovered the silver lining of the situation. With the closures, very few other people were in the park.

Just 5% of the buildings from Bodie's heyday between 1877 and 1881 still remain, but that is still plenty of buildings to look at. At one time, Bodie had 30 different gold mines as well as nine stamp mills. Unfortunately, the state park system deems the only mine that is still standing to be a dangerous area and it is only open to guided tours. With the visitor center and museum closed, there were no guided tours when we visited the sight. Still, there was plenty to see.

Walking into Bodie is like stepping back in time, or walking into the set of a Western movie. An old pool table still sits in the hotel. The barber shop sits vacant, with a barber chair that I could never have even hoped to sit in because of its small size. A grocery store's shelves are still lined with canned goods from the 1940s. An old globe of the world and a skeleton adorn the schoolhouse. Things in many of the buildings look just like they were the day everyone left town. It is truly an eerie sight, but very interesting.

The portions of town that still remain seem to divide into three distinct time periods. The oldest buildings date to the 1870a, another group of buildings come from the 1920s, and the most modern buildings, which include gas pumps and the schoolhouse, were used into the early 1940s.

Each group of buildings is filled with artifacts from their time period. But that doesn't mean that the buildings look like museums. Far from that. The older buildings have furniture that is rotting in place. Dust covers everything and most of the buildings are locked up tight with the only views of what lies inside coming from peering in the windows. Windows that are often too high for most people to look in. The solution that someone has come up with is to pile rocks under some of the windows for people to perch on. Fortunately, being tall, I could see in all the windows, including some that most people could never reach.

Most of the town is located in a relatively small area. However, there are portions of the park that require some walking. It would be easy to spend a full day at the park, but even a couple of hours is worth the time. The town is an incredible look into the past, and I highly recommend it.

Also of interest in the area is Mono Lake, which is known for its unique limestone columns that were formed under water, but are now visible above the surface as the lake has shrunk in size in recent years. Also in the area is Tioga Pass, the eastern entrance into Yosemite National Park, which goes to an elevation of more than 10,000 feet, offering beautiful and unique views of the granite formations in Yosemite. If you choose to try to see Tioga Pass, keep in mind that it is not open all year, and that in order to limit visitors to the park, the National Park system is currently requiring reservations to drive the road.

Whatever side trips you decide to make on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada range near the Nevada border, there is plenty to see from history to natural beauty. Especially for history buffs, it is more than worth the trip.

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