Deep in the middle of the Mojave Desert, in the Bullfrog Hills of southwest Nevada and east of Death Valley National Park, lies the rather impressive ghost town of Rhyolite, a former gold mining town that operated for just a little over a decade at the turn of the century.
The town was formed in 1904 as part of the gold rush in the area, but declined quickly, as start-up funds were limited after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, where most of the mining investors were located. By 1911, mining operations in the area closed down, and the town didn’t last much longer afterward. What remains are the crumbling ruins of several cement buildings, some wooden houses, an old brothel, and a kitschy tourist trap, the Goldwell Open Air Museum, a gaudy collection of strange installation art, including a parade of plaster ghosts, a naked pink pixelated statue of a woman, and a couch made of colorful tiles.
Access to the town can be found via Nevada State Highway 374, reached via the East Entrance to Death Valley National Park, or via Highway 95 from Las Vegas. It’s remote, and therefore not entirely well traveled, so on the day I explored it, there were few other people there, which is always a bonus when wandering abandoned towns.
The first thing one notices upon entry into the town is the Goldwell Open Air Museum. A new addition to the area, the museum was created in 2000 after the death of the original sculptor to the area, a Belgian artist named Albert Szukalski. His ghost sculptures are the most recognizable pieces from the museum, but several other pieces stand prominently, and gaudily against the desert backdrop.
As you pass the museum, the town proper comes into view. Several crumbling cement structures line the north end of the town, including the two story school building and the most prominent structure, the Cook Bank Building.
Cook Bank Looms
The school is actually the second such structure built in Rhyolite, after the first, a wooden building, was blown away in a wind storm. It is the last building built in Rhyolite, dating to 1909, and was obsolete as soon as it was completed, as most of the families in town had already moved away to other places. It stands now as an impressive crumbling ruin, its lower sections dark and forboding, with collapsed roofs and debris littering the floors, its upper level exposed to the sky, shattered walls ending in jagged spires.
Further on, the Cook Bank stands as a shattered ruin of its former glory. Once the largest building in town, it is now the most recognizable structure in town, featured in dozens of movies, including Michael Bay’s The Island, and is in a decidedly poor state. Originally costing over $90,000 to build, with marble floors and rich mahogany woodwork, now it is a decrepit, jagged concrete ruin, with stairs leading to nowhere, and a gaping chamber in the lower level where the two vaults were once held.
Inside the Bank
From the Vault
At the far end of the main road sits the old railroad depot, complete with an abandoned and disused Union Pacific train caboose, once used as a gas station, now left to weather away in the desert. Peeling paint and rusted metal mark this rather cool vestige of the town’s past.
Side of the Caboose
Bathed in Light
Inside the Train
The houses of Rhyolite stretch toward the south, near the mines still visible on the slopes of the Bullfrog Hills. An old brothel, a jail, and several cool looking stone and wood houses dot the desert through this area, and though I didn’t see it myself, a house made entirely of old glass bottles sits somewhere out in this area.
This Old House
Broken Plaster Wall
Jail Cell Window
The Wall Still Stands
Rhyolite is towards the top of my list of cool photographic finds the past few years. The crumbling concrete structures juxtaposed against the bright blue sky and washed out desert lend themselves beautifully to black and white photography, and it’s one of the highlights of any Death Valley trip, lying only an hour away from Furnace Creek.