Since the Gold Rush days of the mid-19th century, California has been a destination for those hoping to realize the American Dream and the opportunity and prosperity it promises. While many of its residents do manage to achieve the wealth and success they seek, just as many see their dreams crumble—due to personal shortcomings, natural disaster or economic headwinds.
As a result, the Golden State is a motherlode of interesting abandoned places, including derelict infrastructure, shuttered businesses and deserted residences. To help you narrow your list of locations to visit on your next trip, we’ve compiled the following guide to the 10 best abandoned places in California.
The Best Abandoned Places in California
Note: If you’re looking for lists from specific cities in California, we urge you to check out the following two guides:
- Finding The 7 Best Abandoned Places In Los Angeles
- Finding The 8 Best Abandoned Places In San Francisco
Rock-A-Hoola Waterpark (Newberry Springs)
This now-defunct waterpark in the heart of the Mojave Desert began in the early 1960s as a private escape for wealthy businessman Bob Byers and his family and friends. The original construction consisted simply of two large steel slides that carried riders into a 273-acre man-made lake named for Byers’ wife Dolores. In May 1962, a public campground next to the lake opened, and eventually the waterpark opened to the public as well.
Over the next several decades, Byers added new attractions to the property, including eight 150-foot slides mounted at a 60-degree angle, sending float-riding passengers bouncing across the lake; two V-shaped slides that sent vertically-oriented riders shooting into the water; three high dives, three trapeze-style swings and a zipline into the lake; a group raft ride; a JetSki racetrack; a traditional swimming pool; and a “lazy river.” The park peaked in popularity in the late 1970s and mid-1980s, but declining attendance forced its closure and sale in 1990.
The group that bought the property planned to reopen it with a retro 1950s theme, and renovations continued through 1998, when the park reopened under the Rock-A-Hoola name. After just three seasons of operation, the park was millions in debt, its financial condition exacerbated by a successful lawsuit filed by an employee who was paralyzed after riding a slide into a partially-filled pool. The employee was awarded $4.4 million in damages, and the park filed for bankruptcy in 2000 and closed for good in 2004.
In the years since, the harsh desert sun has cracked and faded the brightly-colored slides and attractions, and scavengers and vandals have looted the abandoned park of anything of value, leaving the remaining dusty, graffiti-covered structures to resemble a sad mirage in the midst of the Mojave. It should come as no surprise that the Rock-a-Hoola Water Park made it onto our list of abandoned places in California.
Old Los Angeles Zoo (Los Angeles)
From its humble beginnings in 1912 as the location of a former ostrich farm, the Griffith Park Zoo never really found its footing as a legitimate zoological park. It initially opened with just 15 animals in its care, and with insufficient funding for proper enclosures, the park simply put up stockades meant to prevent the animals from escaping and hoped for the best. During World War I, meat shortages forced caretakers to resort to feeding the animals horse meat, which resulted in the deaths of multiple large cats as well as members of other species.
During the 1920s, the closure of the nearby Selig Zoo—owned by film producer William Selig and used primarily as a source of non-human talent for movies—swelled the population of the Griffith Park Zoo, which took in many of the creatures housed at Selig’s facility.
Over its half-century in operation, the zoo housed a variety of interesting and infamous residents, including Old Topsy, a camel who retired from the Ringling Brothers Circus after both of his humps were flattened during a train accident; an irascible polar bear named Ivan the Terrible who ultimately killed three of the zoo’s other polar bears, including his mate; and the pet elephant who occasionally boarded at the zoo when his vaudeville actor owner went out of town.
Though the city-supported zoo was relatively popular with guests due to its free admission, the facility was widely criticized for providing questionable levels of care to its inhabitants. In 1958, Los Angeles voters approved an $8 million bond measure to fund a new zoo, and Griffith Park’s animals were relocated to the recently completed Los Angeles Zoo in 1966.
Most of the structures at the former Griffith Park Zoo were left in place, including animal cages, caves and habitats, although some had their bars removed. Benches and picnic tables were added to the site, and it became a quirky recreation destination that remains popular with locals and tourists alike; it also served as a filming location for the 2004 film Anchorman, starring comedian Will Farrell.
To investigate the old zoo for yourself, take I-5 to Crystal Springs Drive and Griffith Park Drive, where parking is available in the Spring Canyon area. Several aging caves and other enclosures are easy to spot from the parking area, and you can stroll the paved path through the park to access additional cages and remnants of the facility.
Chemung Mine (Masonic)
At the turn of the 20th century, a transplant from the state of Illinois named Stephen Kavanaugh tapped into a gold vein near the California-Nevada border. The mine, which opened in 1909, was named the Chemung Mine after Kavanaugh’s hometown, although he never received a cut of the profits. Over the next decade, the thriving town of Masonic grew up around the mine, with its own general store, mill, bunkhouse and other businesses.
The mine continued to produce rich yields of gold and silver for the next 30 years, outlasting many of the other mines in the area. In 1938, the last handful of miners exited the shaft, and Chemung Mine was sealed off permanently. Most of the town’s inhabitants, nearly all of whom were associated with the mining operation, eventually left for better opportunities.
In the 1950s, a prospector named Elton Heinemeyer attempted to revive the mine, probing the long-vacant tunnels for additional ore, but his efforts were generally fruitless, and he abandoned Chemung Mine again in the 1960s.
Today, the abandoned mine and the ghost town of Masonic stand frozen in time, their weathered collapsing after decades of neglect and the effects of the harsh desert climate. Many of the original wooden buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes where they have been used for target practice.
Rockhaven Sanitarium (Glendale)
Due to its temperate climate and calming scenery, California was a popular location for sanitariums in the late 19th and early 20th century (and indeed, remains the home of hundreds of mental health treatment centers, the modern version of the sanitarium). Many of these pioneering facilities have been abandoned over the decades, perhaps most notably the Rockhaven Sanitarium just north of Los Angeles.
Founded in 1923 by a psychiatric nurse, Rockhaven Sanitarium has the distinction of being the first mental health facility in the U.S. established by a woman. Agnes Richards had spent her prior career working in state-operated asylums and sought to create a more humane alternative for treating mental illness. Rockhaven opened with a single residence and soon expanded to occupy a three-acre campus, attracting wealthy and well-known clients like actress Billie Burke, who played Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, and Marilyn Monroe’s mother.
A private hospital group purchased the Rockhaven facility in 2001, shuttering it just five years later due to underperforming profit margins. When it closed its doors in 2006, it was the last of the original sanitariums, providing compassionate care to patients for more than 80 years. Fortunately, the City of Glendale saved the treatment center from demolition, and it remains in relatively good condition thanks to the efforts of a nonprofit organization that offers tours of the site and assists with maintenance.
Visitors can still reap the healing benefits of strolling past the old residential cottages and through its calming gardens, which are accentuated with charming fountains, stone pathways and arches. It should come as no surprise that the Rockhaven Sanitarium made it onto our list of abandoned places in California.
Underground Tunnels (Los Angeles)
When the 18th amendment halted the sale of alcohol throughout the country in 1919, the citizens of Los Angeles weren’t fazed—they simply got creative. Using 11 miles of underground service tunnels, the city maintained a thriving network of speakeasies and supply chains that took its cues directly from the Mayor’s office. While the rest of the country was forced to go dry, underneath Downtown Los Angeles the party never stopped.
Behind seemingly-innocent storefronts, venues like King Eddy Saloon were able to maintain a law-abiding appearance and continue to prosper, remaining in business at the corner of 5th and Main streets a century after Prohibition was repealed. If you take the stairs to the basement, you can still see the remains of the old network of tunnels, marked with vandals’ graffiti and chunks of crumbling brick.
Though many of the tunnels have been blocked off by the city for safety reasons, a few remain accessible to the public and see a variety of uses, including as film sets and as a weatherproof pedestrian walkway for city employees and joggers.
To visit the tunnels that are still open, take the elevator in the alley behind the Hall of Records on Temple Street. Iron gates limit access to areas considered at risk of collapse in case of an earthquake, but you’ll still have plenty of gloomy, graffiti-festooned passageways to explore.
Bayshore Roundhouse (Brisbane)
As the only brick roundhouse still standing in the state of California, the Bayshore Roundhouse is a rare piece of railroad history. These structures numbered in the hundreds during the height of the Railroad Age, providing a space for maintaining and repairing steam engines, which could then be moved in and out via the massive rotating turntable just outside the roundhouse.
Completed in 1910 by the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Bayshore Roundhouse featured 17 covered stalls and 23 outdoor stalls on “whisker” tracks, named for their resemblance to the feline facial feature. A 90-foot turntable completed the facility, which serviced steam engines for freight trains in the region, while passenger train engines were handled by the railroad’s Mission Bay Roundhouse.
Business at Bayshore remained steady until the mid-20th century, expanding to 25 outbound and 39 inbound tracks along with a freight yard, storage buildings and even a medical center to serve the site’s 3,000 employees. However, as steam engines were replaced by lower-maintenance diesel engines—which could also be operated in forward and reverse and therefore didn’t require a turntable—roundhouses started to become a relic of the past.
After a quarter-century of dramatically reduced operations servicing diesel engines, the Bayshore Roundhouse finally closed down in 1982. The rail lines were removed and many of the buildings torn down, but the brick roundhouse itself remained standing when the property was sold in 1989. However, a 2001 fire demolished a sizable chunk of the structure, and weather, vandals and street artists have further defaced it in the years since, leaving it a dilapidated skeleton of its former self.
Año Nuevo Island (Pescadero)
Though difficult for the general public to access, Año Nuevo Island is one of the most fascinating locales along the northern California coast. Previously linked to the mainland by a thin strip of land, Año Nuevo became a true island after rising sea levels established a permanent channel between them. At that point, the handful of human inhabitants abandoned it, leaving behind a few aging residences and a lighthouse, which was demolished in the early 21st century due to its precarious structural state.
Once humans left the island, it was overtaken by a thriving wildlife population, including elephant seals and sea lions. The island has become one of the world’s primary breeding grounds for the elephant seals, who have reproduced so prolifically there that the species has managed to claw its way back from the edge of extinction.
Today, the 4,000-acre island is maintained by the University of California Natural Reserve System in partnership with the California Department of Parks and Recreation. A few of the existing buildings have been repurposed as research facilities, but the island’s rocky shores and coastal landscape are dominated by the wide variety of marine life that makes its home here. It should come as no surprise that Año Nuevo Island made it onto our list of abandoned places in California.
Sutro Baths (San Francisco)
Established by former San Francisco Mayor and wealthy engineer Adolf Sutro, the Sutro Baths were just one example of Sutro’s lifelong ambition to offer affordable, family-friendly recreation to the residents of the area.
Born in Germany in 1830, Sutro arrived in the U.S at age 20 with an engineering degree, which he used to redesign the tunnels of Nevada’s Comstock silver mines to prevent the devastating floods that took the life of one miner for every ounce of silver yielded by the mine. The engineering feat not only dramatically improved mine safety, but also facilitated the production of vastly greater stores of silver, making him a millionaire in short order.
Nearing the end of the 19th century, Sutro began amassing land along the northern Pacific coast; he filled the 22 acres with lush gardens open to the public and built his iconic Victorian mansion Cliff House near the site of his future “aquarium.” What started as a small man-made tide pool adjacent to the residence eventually grew into plans for a vast collection of public baths.
The $1 million development included six seawater pools covered by massive glass arches, with a raised promenade used to display the global artifacts Sutro acquired on his travels, including taxidermy, rare plants and even Egyptian mummies. Several hundred dressing rooms and a 3,700-seat amphitheater rounded out the lavish facility. An ice rink was added in the 1930s.
The baths were at first wildly popular, but over time the cost to maintain the massive facility began to overtake the revenue it generated, and the pools closed in the mid-1950s. The campus was slated for demolition in 1966, but a suspicious fire destroyed most of the structure before it could occur. Though the main building no longer stands, the outlines of several of the pools are still easy to make out, and the deep diving pool is instantly identifiable with its ladder supports and flashes of blue paint.
The property is now under the purview of the National Park Service and is easily accessible via established paths and a cave tunnel that runs through the mountain. The artifacts collected by Sutro are now on display in the collections at San Francisco State University.
16th Street Station (Oakland)
Of three grand train stations built at the height of the Bay Area’s Rail Age, the crumbling 16th Street Station in Oakland is the only one still standing.
The 16th Street Station was completed in 1912 and shared by the Southern Pacific Railroad (which owned the ground-level tracks) and the East Bay Electric Lines, which operated the Interurban Electric Railway (IER) on the elevated track. The sweeping Beaux Arts-inspired design was a crown jewel in the city’s beautification campaign, which incentivized the construction of aesthetically distinctive buildings in the downtown area.
As the rail industry began a nationwide decline in the mid-20th century, traffic at the 16th Street Station dropped significantly, and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused significant structural damage to the building, resulting in its abandonment.
The station stood empty and deteriorating for two decades until it was renovated and reopened as a private event space in 2019. Fortunately, the developers opted to preserve much of the graffiti and industrial elements that came to define the building in its vacancy, resulting in a unique and distinctive destination for weddings, parties and other gatherings.
Donner Pass Summit Tunnel (Truckee)
Armed with a vision to establish a railroad through the Sierra Nevada range, civil engineer Theodore Judah began surveying the region and securing the funds to make his Gold Rush-era dream a reality.
Unfortunately, as crews consisting largely of Chinese immigrants labored to build the tunnels through the rocky landscape, Judah contracted yellow fever and died before the project could be completed. Indeed, it took more than five years of excruciating effort, including the use of hand drilling and dangerous explosives, to carve out the route linking Omaha, Nebraska to Oakland, California. The first train completed the trip in 1868.
Judah’s legacy lived on for more than a century afterward, with the tunnels used by railroads until 1993, when a new route was constructed through the region, passing through Mount Judah, named in tribute to the ambitious engineer. The abandoned tunnels remain in place and are named for the Donner Party, the infamous group of explorers that unsuccessfully attempted to navigate the region during a severe blizzard and ultimately resorted to cannibalism for survival.
The property is owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, and although “No Trespassing” signs are posted near the tunnel, enforcement is spotty, making the tunnels and several adjacent snow sheds a popular destination for hikers and urban explorers. It should come as no surprise that the Donner Pass Summit Tunnel made it onto our list of abandoned places in California.
Our Final Thoughts on Abandoned Places in California
Those who are into urban exploration in the California area, and wanting to explore abandoned places in California, should get comfortable with California trespassing laws. Luckily, in the state of California, the laws are easy to understand and are pretty cut and dry.
For these cases, you should familiarize yourself with x. For more about obtaining permission to explore abandoned places in California, check out our guide Explore Abandoned Buildings: How To Get Permission.