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California City is Huge (and a Huge Failure)

California City is the biggest American city you’ve never heard of. Spanning 203 square miles, this suburban metropolis is the sprawling brainchild of an ambitious city planner.

But this isn’t just any typical California town. Largely abandoned since the 1970s, the city was once a dream community but is now a gridlocked wasteland.

How did California’s third-largest city become a ghost town? We’ll dig into the history to find out.

Let’s hit it!

About California City

The idea for California City was conceived by Nat Mendelsohn in 1958. Mendelsohn was a Columbia University sociology professor hoping to cash in on the post-World War II economic boom. 

As someone who studied the structure of cities, Mendelsohn figured building his own made sense. He bought 82,000 acres of land in the Mojave Desert and began carving out house lots, streets, and utility infrastructure.

But in the early 1970s, Mendelsohn’s experiment failed. The Federal Trade Commission sued his development team for dishonest advertising and ordered them to refund investors’ money. Although California City now has a population of 14,000, Mendelsohn’s dream community never came to life.

Today, California City’s largest employer is the California City Correctional Facility. There’s also a small airport, a golf course, and a couple of test tracks owned by car companies. But the street grid and infrastructure from Mendelsohn’s failed development are still there. Visitors often steal street signs from the empty neighborhood as souvenirs.

Where Is California City?

California City sits 100 miles north of Los Angeles. It’s on the west end of the Mojave Desert, which spans 31,000 square miles. The city is about 200 miles west of the Mojave National Preserve and about 100 miles southwest of Death Valley National Park.

The climate in the Mojave Desert is typical of high desert environments. Winters can be extremely cold, while summers are scorching. Most precipitation falls in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The rest of the desert receives between two and six inches per year.

Due to the harsh climate, California City has experienced drought conditions for the last 50 years. The town’s unused plumbing infrastructure continues to deteriorate, wasting valuable water. Under these conditions, it seems unlikely that California City will grow bigger than it is now.

Pro Tip: Visiting California City will be a more unique experience than visiting these Most Overrated California Tourist Attractions.

Woman in California desert
Brave the California heat to visit the desert and ghost town of California City.

Is California City a Ghost Town?

California City is clearly a shadow of what Nat Mendelsohn dreamed it could be. But can you call this failed housing development a ghost town?

Ghost towns are abandoned cities, towns, or villages with empty buildings and other remains as common features. They’re usually the result of rapid economic growth that went bust or petered out. Over-harvesting natural resources like gold or oil can turn cities into ghost towns. Similarly, road closures, infrastructure changes, and natural disasters sometimes lead to deserted towns.

California City doesn’t fully qualify as a ghost town. After all, it has 14,000 residents and a functioning city government! But its eerie, abandoned street grid definitely makes it feel deserted. So it’s no surprise that this would-be utopia became a popular destination for ghost town explorers.

What Is There To Do in California City?

This strange town may be partially abandoned, but there’s still quite a bit to do and see in California City!

Visitors can explore Central Park, which features a playground, swimming pool, and fishing pond. The Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area offers an opportunity to observe the desert tortoise in its native environment. Additionally, the nearby Air Force Flight Test Museum is a great destination for anyone interested in aviation.

Good food isn’t hard to find in California City. Gloria’s Mexican Restaurant is a local favorite serving margaritas, fajitas, and other Mexican favorites. Foxy’s Landing has an extensive menu with a little of everything, including breakfast dishes, burgers, and pizza. Additionally, you can even satisfy your craving for Chinese at Green Tea Garden, an Asian restaurant and cocktail bar.

California desert
Take some time to enjoy hiking and camping near California City.

Best Hikes Near California City

California City may be a deserted suburb, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do there! This pseudo-ghost town is home to some of the most unique hiking trails in the American west.

Red Cliffs Trail

The Red Cliffs Trail is a one-mile trail loop located about 15 miles north of California City. It’s generally considered an easy route that takes only about 30 minutes to complete. This is a scenic hike that’ll take you past the same red cliffs the trail is named for. The area is so beautiful. It’s even served as a set for several movies and TV shows.

The Red Cliffs Trail is rocky and may prove difficult for visitors with mobility issues to navigate. Dogs are welcome on this trail, and there are a few areas where they’re allowed off-leash.

Hagen Canyon Nature Trail

The Hagen Canyon Natural Trail sits about 17 miles north of California City. It’s a little over a mile long and a relatively easy route that takes about 30 minutes to complete. Hagen Canyon is a unique area that was once completely underwater. Hikers can view cliffs filled with layers of colorful sediment that washed down from the Sierras over many centuries.

This trail is popular year-round, so it tends to be busy. However, it’s a good route for both children and leashed dogs. Wildflowers and native species are frequently visible along this trail.

Pro Tip: While in California take some time to explore these 5 Incredible California Castles.

Best Camping Near California City

California City’s remote location is ideal for campers looking for some privacy. You’ll be able to commune with nature, explore the neighborhoods that never were, and venture out to nearby parks!

Red Rock Canyon State Park

Red Rock Canyon State Park sits about 24 miles north of California City. The park features beautiful scenery, including rock formations, cliffs, and buttes. The area was once home to the Kawaiisu tribe, who left drawings and petroglyphs for future people to view. Wildlife, such as birds, lizards, and squirrels, are abundant.

The park welcomes RVs up to 30 feet long. Each campsite features a picnic table and fire pit. Additional onsite amenities include toilets, trash service, and drinking water.

Borax Bill Park

Borax Bill Park is about 10 miles northeast of California City. It’s named after Borax Bill, who was one of the first representatives of the Borax company. This product was delivered by a 20-mule team. That fact is still part of Borax’s marketing slogan today.

Borax Bill Park’s amenities include shade structures, barbecue pits, showers, bathrooms, and RV hookups. Dump stations are also available. This park is open year-round.

Is California City Worth A Visit?

California City is a unique destination. This failed suburban utopia has become one of the most fascinating examples of urban decay in the U.S. Nat Mendelsohn’s lofty dreams never came true. But for explorers and artists, California City is a goldmine. This surreal landscape continues to inspire artists, travelers, and everyday folks more than 60 years later.

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