One of the most desolate stretches of highway in California is the section of road on Highway 178 from Ridgecrest to Highway 190. To the North are the uninhabited regions of China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station and the Coso Wilderness. To the East are the high peaks of the Panamint Mountain range, and not one, but two salt flat laden valleys, the Searles Valley, and the Panamint Valley. There is only one “town” – in this area, and that is Trona, and it has seen better days. There is no cellular service on this stretch of highway, and during the summer, temperatures regularly exceed 115 degrees. The area is wild, and beautiful in a desolate, endless desert type of way. Along with the town of Trona, the area is also littered with places and things that time has forgotten, like the Trona Pinnacles, and various old mines and mining claims.
Ballarat, as a thing fits neatly into this place of the planet that remains unknown to a majority of the world. Ballarat calls itself a ghost town, but in reality, it is a place that the world has passed by, and is one that is on the verge of disappearing. Founded in 1896 as a supply center for nearby mines in the Panamint Valley, Ballarat was named for its larger, and more successful sister city, Ballarat, Australia. Unlike its Australian version, Ballarat, California peaked at a population of several hundred people in the early twentieth century, before settling into a steady pattern of decline with the closures of nearby mines. In 1917, the post office in Ballarat closed, which lead to the final exodus of most of the town’s residents. Today, the town has one resident, who operates the general store and only a few buildings.
This gets us to whether Ballarat is indeed a “ghost town”. Indisputably, Ballarat is a town of ghosts, with more history than future; but Ballarat is also a place with few structures. Unlike Rhyolite, for example, which was another boom-and-bust mining town on the edge of Death Valley, Ballarat has only two remaining structures, which the desert is attempting to reclaim as soon as possible. Visitors expecting to see a plethora of Bodie –like buildings, in near pristine condition, will be disappointed. Visitors that are interested in the oddities of this region, its people and its history, will want to pay Ballarat a visit, as it was the home to the Ballarat Bandit, and Charles Manson for a time.
Directions: Ballarat can be found twenty-five miles to the North of Trona and is located directly off of Highway 178. From Highway 178, it is a 3.5 mile drive on a graded dirt road to the “town”.
Tips: The Ballarat General Store is literally the only location around for a great distance with cold drinks, or any services at all for that matter, and is an interesting spot to stop if one is passing through the region. The best thing about Ballarat, per the sign on the outskirts, is that it is a “free zone”, where one can “camp, party, make movies, or take photos, etc.” for free. So, if you’re in a need of a spot to stop and take a nap along this part of Highway 178, or if you’ve dreamed of camping where Charles Manson and the Ballarat Bandit lurked, there will always be a spot open, and it will be free. Visitors to this area however, should be prepared during the summer months for the temperature extremes, especially as there is no cellular service in or outside of Ballarat.