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Haunted Getaways

Backcountry Travelogues by Phil

hy waste money on expensive costumes and play dress-up when you can venture into the backcountry and get a true Hallow’s Eve scare? Instead of telling ghost stories, choose one of California’s haunted locales naturally equipped with supernatural legend…nothing staged or setup with specific intent to frighten you.

Throughout California, the densest haunted locals are concentrated in rougher-necked Sierra foothill mining communities. But certainly other haunts are around, based on Native American spirits or just plain folks who either encountered misfortune or seemed to cherish a certain place or person. Some haunted getaways are spirits or myths connected to natural geology. Halloween…perfect time to reflect on the unusual, paranormal, mythological, and even spiritual legend.

Lava Tube, photo by Phil Flip Akers
There’s beliefs that lava tubes are gateways to Gods living within the earth. These Gods can get very angry and destructive.
Phil Akers on a trail toward Lewis Stringer Camp.
Author on a trail toward Lewis Stringer Camp.

There’s a large horse camp in the Golden Trout Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada called the Lewis Stringer campsite. It’s used by both backpackers and horse packers alike and the source of many strange, unexplained events. Many campers have been scared to the point of aborting their trip, even hiking out in the middle of the night…abandoning their gear. So many bizarre events prompted re-routing the trail away from the haunted campsite. You can still visit the campsite but it’s no longer on the main trail…the original trail is still discernible if you know where to look.

A spirit resides at this old campsite and believed to be the wife of Sam Lewis who ran sheep in the area in the late 1800’s. Each summer for many years he and his wife camped at this location and this was her favorite place. When she died Sam had her cremated and spread her ashes at this camp she loved so dearly. Then, the strange events…

Many report sounds of a woman talking and/or singing, also reports of a glowing campfire and sometimes the figure of a woman dancing around the campfire glow. If you investigate, the image fades as you inch closer. During the night, some are awakened to a weird presence and a cold chill filling their entire body. Additionally, visitors tell of finding camping items in the morning re-arranged from where they were left the night before. Some report missing items from their camp. One group of horsemen reported both reins coming unsnapped from the bit. Nothing can explain one rein coming unsnapped let alone two. This group also reported missing items from their camp, experienced the campfire glow, and heard the soft sound of a woman’s voice. Every camper experiencing this spirit (which is in no way evil) has vowed never to return.

Before you discard the Lewis Stringer camp stories, scoff them off as heretical nonsense, realize the source of these stories. Many are very seasoned backpackers and horse/mule packers, Wilderness Rangers, Forest Service employees, and trail crews. These user groups are intimately familiar with the normal sights and sounds of the wilderness. I’ll tell you what, go on a solo trip into the Golden Trout Wilderness and camp at Lewis Stringer. Go see for yourself.

Smoke or spirits floating around the campsite, photo by Phil Akers
Like many, we didn’t experience anything unusual, but I cannot explain what appears to be smoke in this photo. It was the middle of the day, no campfire, no fog, and this wasn’t noticed until I reviewed the photos days later.

Yosemite is full of haunted legend. The Miwok Indians believed the waterfalls are haunted by Po-Ho-No, an evil spirit that allures hikers to the edge, then a cold wind nudges them into the water…swept over the falls to certain death. Another Yosemite Miwok spirit is at Grouse Lake, reached by an 8.5-mile hike up the Chilnualna Falls trail. A Miwok child drowned at this lake and the desperate cries of a small child can still be heard coming from the water. But heroes who venture into the chilly depths to assist the child are pulled under and never return. There’s other supernatural events, told by credible witnesses, and watch out for the spirit of a woman who was murdered on the trail to Mirror Lake.

Built in 1846 and one of the most recognizable places of Del Norte County, the iconic Battery Point Lighthouse, is an active lighthouse with a resident keeper. It’s open daily for public tours April through September (weekends only outside these dates) but visits are only possible when low tides expose a 200-foot isthmus between the mainland and the island. The lighthouse tour includes climbing into the light tower! The tour also treats you to furniture and maritime artifacts dating back to the 1850’s, along with photos, and documents that chronicle the history. You can learn stories of Native American legend of the island on which it stands. There’s ghosts! To this day, many visitors report being touched by an unseen presence, witness objects moving on their own, and hear large footsteps traversing the lighthouse stairs. Coastal Living ranked this the seventh most haunted lighthouse in the country.

Old ghost town, Mother Lode, photo by Phil Akers
Ghost stories are told throughout the Mother Lode.
hotel frontage, photo by Phil Akers
In addition to the gold rush history, just about every hotel in any sizeable mining town has a ghost story, and paranormal events occur to this today.

Throughout the Mother Lode, many haunted locations and paranormal events await. The old mining towns along the Highway 49 corridor are full of interesting history and ghost stories. Prior to 1848 when gold was discovered in Coloma, there was a nearby town known as Dry Diggings which became a major hub for mining operations. In 1849, the town was nicknamed Old Hangtown because of the many hangings carried out there. In 1854, Old Hangtown became an incorporated city and was officially named Placerville after years of pressure from local church groups to change the name. The county seat was then moved from Coloma to Placerville in 1857.

The Cary House Hotel, also known as “The Jewel of Placerville” was the finest hotel in the Mother Lode, and the most popular hangman’s tree in town was out front of the hotel. It‘s been welcoming guests since 1857 and home to the second oldest elevator west of the Mississippi -- which makes trips up-and-down the four-story building without human intervention. The ghost of a hangman, Darrell, with a very remorseful spirit, walks between the Cary House and the Chamber of Commerce where another hangman’s tree was located. The spirit of a horse and wagon cowboy haunts room 212 where he died. But the most popular ghost is the spirit of Stan, the hotel’s desk clerk back in the late 1800’s. An impish character, Stan really liked the sauce (brandy and whiskey his favorite) and really liked the ladies, but, he was not a ladies man. Being short, thick, and balding, he had a terrible cough and never received much attention from the ladies. He always flirted though and was the hotel’s social butterfly. Story goes Stan also had a liking for men (never had luck with them either) and one day he made a pass at a man on the main staircase. The stranger didn’t find Stan funny…stabbed him to death…right there on the stairs. The ghost of Stan still lives at the Cary House where you can sometimes smell faint cigar smoke and hear his coughing. He’s also known to pinch unsuspecting visitors on the behind while they stroll through the lobby.

Spectral residents are also present at the haunted Georgetown Hotel in Georgetown. This is a vintage saloon-style hotel from the same time era as the Cary House. The bartender told me stories of many paranormal events and said the place is full of ghosts. Visitors claim seeing a woman apparition in windows and hallways. Additionally, there are cold spot locations and sounds of footsteps which cannot be explained.

The National Hotel in Jackson is the longest continuously operated hotel in California. It deserves a 5-skull rating for its creepiness. Ghost hunters and physics report high levels of activity and many orbs have appeared in photos. Room 74 is supposedly the most haunted room…so, this room (also called the Bordello Room) is where you want to stay when visiting.

A themed room at the Groveland Hotel, Photo by Phil Akers
Rooms at the Groveland Hotel are themed. There’s the Queen’s Room, the Elvis Room, etc. If you go, book Lyle’s Room...if you dare.

On the Today Show in 2009, travel detective Peter Greenburg mentioned paranormal activity at the Groveland Hotel. This hotel is located in the historic Mother Lode community of Groveland, and home to several ghosts. If you stay here, request a room on the second floor – Lyle’s Room. Lyle was a gold prospector who died in Room 15, now named after him. He died in his sleep and lie in bed for many days before being discovered – the stench of his dead body finally prompted investigation. Lyle tends to knock things off the bedroom dresser, especially perfume and cosmetics. If you stay here, be careful, don’t place anything fragile on the dresser. Also, be prepared for the water in the bathroom turning on-and-off without human intervention. Charlotte is another of the hotel’s ghosts and she primarily haunts the dining room. Charlotte owned her own hotel across the street. Her and Lyle had a thing going on…so to speak, and not knowing that Lyle was dead, she became so distraught over Lyle standing her up on a date that she killed herself. The spirit of Charlotte re-arranges things. After a period without ghostly activity in Lyle’s Room, it is believed he is away seeing Charlotte.

Lyles Room at haunted hotel, photo by Phil Akers
Hotel staff really fluff up the bed and pillows. There's a lot of attention to detail in their work. But when checking on Lyle’s Room, they often notice the bed is somewhat messed up and the pillows smashed.

The Hotel Jeffery in Coulterville, CA was built in 1851 as a saloon and fandango hall. It has been in continuous operation since 1899 with the exception of re-modeling and fire damage repairs – it’s currently being repaired from a fire that occurred last year. There’s at least 17 ghosts here! In the 1850’s a female jilted lover rented a room and was later found hanging from the ceiling. Visitors have reported seeing her in the room and wandering the hallway. Many unexplained sounds and events occur here such as doors opening and closing on their own, camera batteries and electronic equipment go dead, compasses are unreliable, and orbs have appeared in pictures. Customers of the saloon report smelling perfume when nobody is around. And, like many other haunted destinations, items are re-arranged from their previous locations. One particular story is credited to a friend of mine, Ruth Ann Keller, who was employed at Hotel Jeffery. One day she briefly stepped out of the dining room and upon return discovered all the dining room chairs were turned facing backwards from the table, and the silverware had been re-arranged. Such a large dining room, this was not humanly possible given the short amount of time she was away.

Haunted house at Chinese Camp, photo by Phil Akers
Because of the many unexplained figures caught on camera, this is one of the most popular structures in Chinese Camp.
Abandoned store at haunted Chinese Camp, photo by Phil Akers
Chinese Camp was simply left to die, a true ghost town.

Walking down Main Street in Chinese Camp, it’s hard to believe some 5,000 Chinese miners called this place home. They’re no longer here, and with the exception of a few ramshackle homes around the outskirts of Main Street, the place is completely abandoned. The town’s name, first Camp Washington, then Chinese Diggings, and finally Chinese Camp is certainly about the history because according to census records, no person of Asian decent has lived here since 1930. When population was at its height, struggles for control of the town started between two Tong groups. Violent clashes between the rival Yan Woo and Sam Yap Tongs led to a final standoff. Although it was war, both sides followed strict rules…the fight was to be up close…no guns…swords was their preferred weapon. Unlike being shot with a gun, or hung by rope, death was more painful and prolonged.

Chinese Camp is also known as “The Town With Eyes” because many visitors have either photographed or have video of images in the windows of the abandoned buildings. It feels like you are being watched! The old church on the hill is equally as creepy. Thousands of vacationers drive within a hundred feet of this ghost town without stopping…hammer down, on their way to Yosemite, oblivious to what they are missing. The Discovery Channel did an investigational report at Chinese Camp and found high levels of paranormal activity.

Forlornly perched on a hill outside Chinese Camp, the St. Xavier Roman Catholic Church, Photo by Phil Akers
Forlornly perched on a hill outside Chinese Camp, the St. Xavier Roman Catholic Church was established in 1849. The last service here was in 1920! The church is now preserved by private funds.
There’s tombstones all around the church dating mid-to-late 1800’s. Some are within inches of the church’s foundation, and all are right outside the windows. Photo by Phil Akers
There’s tombstones all around the church dating mid-to-late 1800’s. Some are within inches of the church’s foundation, and all are right outside the windows.

A common phrase spurred from a little girl whose family was moving to Bodie. She was overheard praying: “Goodbye God. I’m going to Bodie.” When gold was discovered in Bodie in 1877, it attracted hundreds of miners, hundreds of saloon and hotel keepers, hundreds of gamblers, and hundreds of prostitutes. It also attracted hundreds of violent types…making a living gambling, gun-fighting, stage-robbing, and other outlaw activities. The common moniker for these outlaws was “Bad man from Bodie” and the mining town’s bad reputation was due to lawlessness more than it was about the gold. Murders were a very common occurrence. Hundreds turned into thousands, and two years after the discovery of gold, Bodie’s population had grown to ~12,000 people and more than 800 buildings – second largest city in California behind San Francisco.

In 1962, Bodie was taken over by the state and is now Bodie State Historic Park. For good reason, Bodie is known as California’s Official Ghost Town with copious legends and haunted structures. Perhaps the most popular ghost in town is associated with the Cain house. Jim Cain was a businessman who made a fortune bringing lumber into the desert mining town. He built a home at the corner of Green and Park streets and soon hired a Chinese woman to be the family maid. His wife fired the maid, however, when rumors blew through town of Jim having an affair. This left the maid feeling rejected, depressed, and she committed suicide. The maid’s ghost still haunts the house which has served as Park Ranger quarters and is part of the park’s haunted tour. It’s the Park Ranger’s families, especially the children that have experienced the most unexplained accounts. One particular wife of a ranger experienced a frightening scare, actually fighting with a ghost…the tussle leaving her on the floor. Years later, another ranger’s wife had the same tussling experience in the same room.

Another house of mention is the Mendocini house where a ranger reported hearing loud partying noises he thought was coming from outside. Stepping outside to see what the party was all about, he discovered the noises were actually coming from inside…and the noises became even louder. Many tell of hearing laughter and partying voices and noises. When Bodie awakes from a harsh winter sleep, and the park is re-opened for the season, it is said the Mendocini house smells of Italian cooking. Truth is, the folks these particular ghosts represent loved to cook.

Bodie ghosts are said to connect more with children than adults. Families report seeing their kids laughing and interacting with something unseen and unheard. Believed to be responsible for a large portion of child encounters is “The Angel of Bodie.” A child herself, her name was Evelyn Myers and died in 1897 when struck accidentally in the head with a miner’s pick. Her grave’s in the Bodie cemetery, the one with the large child angel sculpted of white marble.

Perhaps overshadowing all paranormal activities in this high desert town is what’s called “The Curse of Bodie” that haunts those who remove anything – regardless the size – until the stolen item is returned. The belief is, Bodie spirits want to protect all that remains of the ghost town, and those who remove items will be cursed, suffering repeated strings of horrible luck and misfortune until the item is returned. According to current Park Rangers, the curse exists today and they still receive previously pilfered items in the mail, some unmarked, and some with letters of apology and hopes that their luck will finally change.

Abandoned haunted house, photo by Phil Akers
Nothing beats a real ghost town where every day is All Hallows Eve.

Wrapping this one up, and leaving many stories untold…Fiddler’s Green in Modoc County, the “Little People” of Mt. Shasta, and the ghost of Sarah Norton at Black Diamond Mines. Get away this Halloween, expose yourself to the supernatural, and if you don’t experience anything unusual don’t think legend doesn’t exist. It’s like fishing, just because you don’t catch anything doesn’t mean fish don‘t exist. Go on a solo Halloween getaway to Room 212 at the Cary House, or Lyle’s Room at the Groveland Hotel, or backpack to Lewis Stringer. Imagine being all alone in a small hotel bedroom, placing your smart phone on the dresser, then, while your back is turned, the phone hits you in the back. Have fun, be safe, and keep an open mind I suppose.

Phil “Flip” Akers is a diverse angler and outdoor adventurer. For over 20 years he has backpacked, packed llamas and fly-fished the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, venturing into the farthest reaches of our wilderness areas pursuing quality trout and solitude. He enjoys sharing his experiences including tips, techniques, outdoor cooking recipes, and storytelling. He is certified in wilderness first response and rescue including swiftwater rescue, technical rope and technical animal rescue.

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