Skiing to a ghost town? You might want to call ahead first

Story and photos by Leonie Sherman

There are no lukewarm plans hatched in hot water. You get your brilliant flashes and your ridiculous ideas and very little in between. Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. Thus it was with the idea to ski out to California’s favorite little ghost town, Bodie.

We’d woken shivering, in the icy coffin of a Toyota 4 Runner. The pain of emerging into the dazzling frosty dawn was quickly forgotten when we slipped into the steaming tub at Travertine Hot Springs. Soon we were watching the rising sun cast a peachy glow on the Sawtooth Range and the Matterhorn, contemplating our next adventure.

It is so easy to exaggerate your tolerance for discomfort when seduced by the rising vapors of an East Side hot spring. Concrete concepts like frozen ski boots, frostbitten fingers and howling blizzards seem abstract. Memories of previous disastrous oversights dematerialize until you are left with only a warm fuzzy feeling of invincibility.

I can’t remember who first proposed that we ski out to Bodie, but in our ignorance the idea seemed perfect. The turn-off for Bodie State Historic Park is located just six miles south of where we were soaking. Ten miles down a paved road and another three on rough dirt brings you to the site of a gold-mining town that once boasted two banks, four volunteer fire departments, several daily newspapers, and 65 saloons. Only 170 buildings remain, preserved in a state of “arrested decay” — assisted partly by the dry desert air and partly by the Park Rangers.

Bodie was an unremarkable mining camp until the discovery of a large deposit of gold ore in 1876. Within three years, Bodie had a population of nearly 10,000. By 1880 other mining towns lured many of the original prospectors away, and Bodie began the long slide into decline. Despite a few hundred determined souls, and an operating post office, Bodie was already a “ghost town” in 1915. By 1943 only three people remained.

In 1961 the site was designated a National Historic Landmark. Bodie, situated on an exposed plateau of shallow rolling hills at nearly 8,400 feet (2,200 feet higher than Tahoe), consistently ranks as the coldest town in California; the lowest recorded temperature is -36 F. For that reason, over 95% of the 200,000 annual visitors arrive during the summer.

We didn’t know any of that at the time. We knew precisely two things about Bodie: It was 13 miles from Highway 395 on a closed road and my friend Lee really enjoyed a day ski in the vicinity. We just put the idea of Bodie together with our backcountry skis, pulled out three-days’ worth of food and 20 pounds of winter camping gear and two hours after the idea was spawned we were strapping on our skis.

That kind of reckless enthusiasm can produce marvelous adventures, but also miserable, pointless ordeals. Meticulous planning can also lead to marvelous adventures or miserable, pointless ordeals. The trick is to find the balance between adventure and ordeal, preparation and impulsiveness, freedom and constraint. After 20 years of serious adventuring, I’m still chewing on that distinction, but I wouldn’t trade the joys of the occasional victory and the agonies of my frequent defeat for anything.
There was no gate and no padlock, so the “Road Closed” sign was practically an invitation. After a mile or so we came upon a piece of paper taped to a signboard informing us that we went further at our own risk. On we drove, chattering away, until a white pick-up truck loomed ahead. We braced ourselves for a scolding and eviction as a ranger pulled alongside us and rolled his window down.

“How you folks doing?”

“Um, OK. We were hoping to ski out to Bodie …”

“Sounds fun! The road is plowed for the next five miles, so it will only be a seven-mile ski in. We ran a snowmobile out there a bit ago, so you should have an easy track broken, too.”

This excellent news was well received and five miles later we set out on one of the most enjoyable ski tours on the East Side. The road was a constant mellow grade with jaw-dropping views in every direction. Half-buried road signs lent a pleasant post-apocalyptic feel. The Mono Craters, Mono Lake and the Sierra crest unspooled as we worked away along a low ridge and up to a saddle. Mild temperatures and clear skies buoyed our spirits.

One final long sweeping climb brought us to the crest of a hill where we could gaze into the valley where Bodie lies. Beside a boarded-up entry booth we saw a decrepit sign indicating entrance fees and hours of operations, half buried by snow. We ignored the sign the same way we had ignored a similar one at Tioga Pass the week before.
In front of us lay decaying homes, stores and the Methodist church, the poignant remnants of a once thriving town. We skied down to the outskirts and poked around some buildings before settling on the steps of the church, laughing and congratulating ourselves on our achievement. We were in the process of spreading peanut butter when a movement on Main Street caught our eye.
Striding toward us, adjusting his hat against the glare of the sun was khaki-clad Mark Langner, the Park Supervisor. Before we could issue salutations, he barked.

“Sorry folks, the park is closed.”

We gaped at him, incredulous.

“Park’s open from 10-3. Didn’t you see the sign?” he demanded.

Josh explained that we did not actually know what time it was.

“Well, it’s just now 4,” Langner explained, glancing at his watch. “Because today is the start of daylight savings time. You need to leave.”

“OK,” Josh got up and dusted off his pants. “We’ll just camp around here and come back in the morning.”

“It was 10 below here last night; I wouldn’t camp out if I were you. But if you do decide to stay you’ll need to go at least two miles in any direction to get out of the park boundaries. And we don’t open until 10 a.m. tomorrow. If I catch you here a minute before then I will fine and cite you.”

There are three rangers posted at Bodie during the winter, charged with giving tours and protecting the buildings and artifacts that remain. I’m sure that rabid snowmobilers would have hauled away everything but the pilings without the attention and care of these dedicated professionals. I’m glad the park is open all year round.

But in the four months before we visited, only one group of snowmobilers and one journalist bothered to visit the place. Even though we were an hour late, we were the first visitors of the season to arrive under their own power. Couldn’t one of those rangers have given us a tour and maybe even a cup of tea before sending us on our way?
Apparently not. So Josh and I skied the seven lovely miles back out to our car, without ever seeing too much of Bodie State Historic Park. That thwarted trip was one of the most memorable of the season. Partly because of the sheer beauty, but mostly because I’d rather find the park closed than never venture down the road in the first place.

Writer and self-defense instructor Leonie Sherman lives in Santa Cruz. She still does not carry a timepiece on her backcountry adventures, but she almost always brings a map and a compass.