Spaces all around the Bay Area have deep histories and have undergone unforeseeable transmutations. You’d be foolhardy not to expect that haunting feeling from time to time, especially in some of its long-since abandoned spaces.
You don’t have to be midway through a graveyard séance to get that creeping sensation that you’re not alone. There are a handful of places tucked away in and around the Bay Area that can leave you feeling equally unsettled. Here’s a list of destinations worthy of a visit, in all their decrepit glory. These are locations that are fascinating in their ability to remind us that many of the spaces we now inhabit may hold forgotten histories of their own. Explorers beware!
Structures take on new identities over time often because we’ve disregarded them. Later, we find them transformed into living canvases, by the native plant life and nature’s effect over time, as well as by graffiti artists.
The Bay Area doesn’t always hold onto its abandoned spaces the way other areas might do—some meet the fate of future condos while others are immortalized through photographers mesmerized by urban decay.
Beyond a penchant for ghost stories, archaeology buffs should take note: these places are packed with tons of history, each with a perhaps rapidly disappearing story to tell.
Overview of Byron Hot Springs (Photo by Mountain House Photography)
Byron Hot Springs, Byron, CA
Discovered by Spanish explorers prior to the 1800s, this area became revered for the health benefits of its waters, attracting visitors from far and wide to bathe in its restorative waters and spa-like amenities. Years later, this resort hotel doubled as “Camp Tracy,” one of several West Coast interrogation centers used by the U.S. Army to hold German prisoners of war secretly against the Geneva Convention. In 2005, a grass fire caught hold of the building, which was both a piece of early American tourism and military history. You can read more about its history here.
Crumbling structures in Bodie, CA (Photo by CA State Parks)
Bodie Ghost Town, Bodie, CA
What’s better than an abandoned building? An entire town with a whopping population of zero. Unlike many of the rogue destinations that get added to the to-do lists of urban explorers, Bodie is a wholly legal spot to wander and even encourages a family venture. Designated a State Historic Park in 1962, this ghost town is a slice of California’s mining past frozen in time. Although it looks like your typical scene from the wild, wild west, it’s unlikely you’ll run into many other folks out here. It’s quite a haul to get to this location, which is sandwiched between four national parks and an untraveled corner of the Nevada state line. Find out more about this intriguing ghost town here.
Mad Mouse roller coaster (Photo by Troy Paiva)
J’s Amusement Park, Guerneville, CA
Online rumors fly high around this abandoned theme park. However, word on the street is that this dusty old thrill park officially closed for business back in 2003 for financial reasons. It now sits abandoned on land the Skaggs family has owned since the 1950s. In a small patch of woods tucked away outside the quiet town of Guerneville, the area has been a prime location for their annual Halloween bash, as well a campground called “Camp Outback” that’s frequented by day trippers from nearby Russian River. It’s been said that on a moonlit night you may indeed hear a cacophony of screams—it will just be from overnight guests partaking in the usual shenanigans. Read more about the park here.
Bathrooms in an abandoned hospital on Angel Island (Photo by Jonathan Haeber)
Angel Island Hospital, Angel Island, CA
On Angel Island, often referred to as the Ellis Island of the West, there are a few particularly off-putting fixtures of history still accessible to the public. Several abandoned hospitals dot the island, known for processing over 175,000 Chinese immigrants back in the day. History here dates back to both the Cold War and both World Wars, which also helped elevate the site as barracks for military missile troops. Immigrants were often quarantined for days, months or even years here. Unfortunately, the fate for a good deal of this immigrants was not as easy as just entering the mainland. Many died of diseases here or, in some cases, committed suicide prior to 1946 when the island was abandoned. Learn more about the island’s history here.
Empty seats on Mare Island (Photo by Sam Clerici)
Mare Island Shipyards, Vallejo, CA
Not only is this place a photographer’s heaven—if that’s your kind of thing—but it’s also an example of the symbiotic relationship that can exist between industry and the cities that rely on them. In the mid-1800s, the U.S. Navy began building the first West Coast naval base on Mare Island. Over the next 140 years or so, it encouraged construction of over 500 additional ships, thousands of housing units, a power plant, hospital, warehouses, offices and shop buildings. As industry dwindled, so did the activity on the island and, when it shuttered doors in 1996, inadvertently put over 41,000 people out of work. This precipitated the slow decline of the surrounding Vallejo community and eventually led to the city declaring bankruptcy in 2008, becoming the largest city at the time to do so. Learn more about its history here. Please note: entry into these building is not allowed.
Dilapidated bus on Bombay Beach (Photo by Climate Action Reserve)
Salton Sea, Bombay Beach, CA
Maybe the most frightening aspect of Salton Sea is the effect the decline of this lake has had—and will have—on the animal and human inhabitants within its ecosystem. Described as a post-apocalyptic riviera, you’ll find skeletons of modern life. The lake’s decline was the accidental outcome of an earlier failed irrigation decision, which left the sea too salty for its own good. As the water recedes and salinity increases, officials predict that much of the species that reside here will be entirely wiped out. Efforts to revitalize the Salton Sea are currently underway. Read more here.
Graffiti lining the walls of the Roundhouse (Photo by Shawn Clover)
This rounded structure once housed trains that serviced commuters between San Francisco and its southern neighboring cities. The Bayshore Roundhouse was constructed in 1910 as a holding place for steam-powered freight engine maintenance. This area became quite the industrialized facility, employing hundreds of people and shipping produce worldwide. As diesel trains grew in popularity over the years, the roundhouse fell to disarray and was ultimately abandoned. However, last year, there was talk of revitalization. You can find more to that story here.
Feline grave dedication (Photo by Troy Paiva)
Presidio Pet Cemetery, San Francisco, CA
The Presidio Pet Cemetery is creepier if you’ve seen Stephen King’s classic horror film Pet Sematary. You’ll find teetering makeshift gravestones at this abandoned space. Many date back several decades to when the Presidio was home to over 2,000 army families. According to one legend, the site was originally a burial ground for either nineteenth-century cavalry horses or guard dogs that served in World War II. Regardless of its true history, its location, which is partially positioned under the old Doyle Drive multi-lane freeway, makes for an added fear factor. The elevated structure is in the process of being rebuilt and efforts have been made to preserve the historic cemetery, so it will probably be sticking around for a while. Even though the ghosts here would probably be the friendliest ones you’d ever come across, adventurers might still feel unsettled here. More information on the cemetery can be found here.
The Old Alma College, Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, CA
The Sacred Heart Novitiate of Los Gatos bought this land back in the 1930s to build Alma College, the first Jesuit theological seminary in the West. However, much of the community and academia eventually relocated the college to Berkeley. The old vineyard and the surrounding buildings were purchased by millionaire Wells Fargo Bank President Lloyd Tevis. One New Year’s Eve night, the main Swiss Chalet-style mansion caught fire and burned to the ground. According to records, wine from the previous landowner was used to douse the fire. The land was later transformed into Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve—which is a pretty nice place for a hike. In the solitude of the woods, there are some questionable areas to explore what’s left of the old Alma College. You can find more information about hiking through the preserve here.
Corner cell in Fort Ord (Photo by Scott Haefner)
Fort Ord, Monterey County, CA
Occupying over 27,000 acres of beachfront property, roughly the size of San Francisco, this fort was in a prime location during the rapid expansion of the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII. The army was buying up land to train and employ the nearly two million draftees. After D-Day, thousands of German prisoners of war were brought to Fort Ord. The Fort grew in importance during the Vietnam War when it became a diverse training hub for the nation’s soldiers. With escalating opposition to the war and Nixon’s expansion into Cambodia, thousands of war demonstrators also flocked here during that time. The base was closed in 1994 as part of a nationwide reorganization project that was enacted in order to save the government some money. You can find more about the reuse and cleanup attempts happening at this still sprawling ex-fort here.
Editor’s Note: There are plenty of locations to explore throughout the region. We do not encourage trespassing. Stating the obvious: Don’t damage or take what’s not yours. We encourage you to share and discuss some of the most interesting sites you’ve seen or visited in the comments below.