Text and photos by Gabe Meline
The North Bay has an abundance of incredibly nice destinations, with plenty of nice parks, nice museums, nice restaurants and nice hotels. But for a growing population known as urban explorers, niceness is passé. Who wants something fancy and new, the urban explorer asks? Graffiti, urine, broken glass, hazardous chemicals and crumbling bricks—now you’re talkin’!
It might sound crazy to some, but urban exploration has recently exploded as a bona fide weekend hobby, fueled by online message boards and websites like Urban Explorers Network, Infiltration and Urban Exploration Resource. The Discovery Channel recently aired a five-part series called Urban Explorers, focusing on five cities throughout America, and numerous books have been devoted to discussing the access methods and showcasing the photography of urban exploration.
Urban explorers are those who look at a dilapidated pile of junk in the middle of nowhere and emit three gallons of envious drool. The ones who start hopping up and down in the car seat, exclaiming “Oh! Oh! Oh!” every time they drive by an old run-down building. The ones who’ll walk five miles down a dirt road on a third-generation rumor that maybe there’s a funky-ass piece of busted farm equipment that a friend’s brother once saw 12 years ago so they can stare at it and wonder what it’s doing there and take a picture and say they saw it.
It’s a strange affliction, this love of broken-down stuff. But somewhere deep down, everyone’s got an itch for trespassing, treasure-hunting and traipsing through history. So for the urban, suburban and exurban explorer in all of us, here’s our unofficial guide to the North Bay’s best abandoned buildings, forgotten structures and empty portals of the past, with all secrets revealed as to how to get there and (some) classified info on how to get in.
Editor’s Note: Concern about injury has turned us into a one-woman version of the Department of Homeland Security. Classified is classified. Sorry.
NSGA Skaggs Island
What it is A total Area 51–type spot containing the almighty mother lode of mystery.
What it was Skaggs Island was a Naval communications base built in 1941 specializing in cryptological functions, classified satellite communications and high-frequency radio intelligence-gathering on the Soviets. In other words, hardly anyone knows exactly what went on there, and the ones who do ain’t talking. It was decommissioned in 1993.
What you’ll find Where to start? Skaggs Island was an entire village of duplex residences served by a huge auditorium, bowling alley, barracks, swimming pool, tennis court, gym, fire station, construction hall, gas station, mess hall, baseball field, nightclub, theater, basketball court and barber shop, all of it now open for exploring, spread out over 60 acres of land in the middle of nowhere. Everything’s overgrown, vandalized, raided or otherwise in a disheveled state of abandonment; if you’ve ever wondered what the apocalypse will look like, Skaggs Island is it.
The Department of Defense still occasionally uses the site. Enormous blown-out holes line many of the exterior walls from Navy SEALS extraction training and Federal Laboratories’ TKO shells, used for breaching door locks and hinges, are scattered on the ground, but on most days the village is inhabited only by jackrabbits, deer and vultures. Farther to the south lies the main operations building, where all of Skaggs Island’s official work was performed, and where there’ re also file folders with old records from as far back as 1979.
Classified info Stealth is the key when traipsing across . From Highway 37, drive north on and over the bridge to the locked gate. You can either park here and walk or ride a in—it’s a mile trek—or you can make a hard , drive around the narrow perimeter and down the to the road. Low-flying biplanes may be overhead. Watch out for the huge cluster of hornets near the ball field, and stay cautious on the second floor of the barracks (there are holes in the floor). Most importantly, steer clear of the modern buildings near the north gate—there’re some shiny, new cars parked there, which, as anyone knows, can only mean one thing: the Man.
Hollywood equivalent The X-Files (1998)
What it is A bygone-era ghost town in the middle of nowhere.
What it was Built in 1850 to accommodate both weekend visitors from and outgoing shipments to San Francisco, Wingo was once a bustling transit stop along Sonoma Creek. The first railroad line in the area stopped here, and produce, wine and travelers could make the easy transfer from train to steamboat. When the creek dried up and the automobile was invented, the town faded away.
What you’ll find A rolling drawbridge, complete with pull-lever, is Wingo’s most prominent structure, spanning what’s left of the muddy Sonoma Creek. A walk across the bridge offers a good look at the scattered buildings on the creek banks, and a stroll down the road gives a close-up view of the remaining wooden structures. Defying the ghost-town reputation, however, someone actually lives in Wingo, so don’t go climbing through windows or forcing any doors.
Classified info Honestly, the approach totally beats the destination. From the intersection of , just of Sonoma, take Road south past the Family Winery and continue on a crazy, craggy, bumpy path through the Napa slough, avoiding the deep ruts in the narrow road. After a mile and a half, you’ll reach a gate with a wilderness preserve sign.
I got through by assuring a man on a mud-covered tractor that I wasn’t with Fish and Game, but otherwise you’ll have to hoof it across a vast span of cracked red mud. It’s a dead ringer for Death Valley as you pass brittle tractor tires, sheds shot full of holes, corroded farm equipment and an ever-present heat mirage on the horizon. Bring a canteen. If you’re short on time and you’ve got some binoculars, a decent view of Wingo can also be had from the Cherry Tree stand on Arnold Drive, to the west.
Hollywood equivalent High Noon (1952)
The Abandoned Mental Hospital
What it is Apparently, a really awesome building in the middle of a field.
What it was An annex of unknown usage to the Napa State Hospital.
What you’ll find Following the hazy directions given to me (“Go through the fence at High School near the Target store, off Coombs, and it’s across a field”), I first wound up lost in the vast railroad fields between Home Depot and the Napa River. Nothing. Then I scoured a nearby resort next to the riverbank. Nope.
I gave up and started to drive out of town when a payphone beckoned, and through a miracle of synergy and timing, I got a hold of a Napa friend with more detailed instructions. It turned out my initial guesses were more than a mile off the mark. Finally, I found the right address an hour later—at exactly 3:05pm, when the continuation high school adjacent to the wreck was just getting out for the day. The parking lot was crowded with students and school officials, and I stuck out like a sore thumb. Still, I cased the area until I finally found it: the hole in the fence, guarded by a very imposing sheriff’s car with a very attentive sheriff in the front seat. Curses!
Classified info Don’t go during school hours.
Hollywood equivalent The Plan That Failed (1912)
What it is The largest and coolest ghost winery the North Bay has to offer.
What it was The Fountaingrove Winery was founded in the 1860s by Thomas Lake Harris, a self-styled spiritual mystic, poet and cult leader whose colony, the Brotherhood of the New Life, believed in rescinding all material wealth, breathing deeply to commune with a bisexual God and adhering to a detailed sexual theology involving Harris as the “pivotal personality” revealing the second coming of the bisexual Lord Jesus Christ.
Harris’ winery was widely successful (in 1886, it produced over 2,000 barrels of Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Cabernet), until the San Francisco Chronicle started a media frenzy over Harris’ alleged sexual misconduct at the colony. According to the 1953 book California’s Utopian Colonies by Robert Hine, “The suggestions of sexual license and immorality were all admittedly based on hearsay or innuendo.” But no matter. Harris was swiftly run out of town, and turned the winery over to New Life member and prominent Japanese immigrant Kanawe Nagasawa. The winery closed for good in the 1950s.
What you’ll find It’s outta control. A huge ivy-covered stone building houses the winery’s main room, where the towering walls crumble in piles of stonemasonry and arched brick doorways rise up to meet the 30-foot-high ceiling. Next door, there’s the barrel room, with dozens of enormous wine casks (no, they’re not full) and tons of planks from the collapsed roof. Across the small road, there’s the north wing, most of which burned down in 1991, but which houses much of the winery’s cool-looking old equipment. A few scattered barns and old shacks dot the area.
Classified info From , turn onto Boulevard. Across from the is a huge fenced-in , and just west of that is what’s left of the winery.
Hollywood equivalent A Walk in the Clouds (1995)
What it is St. Helena’s oldest ghost winery.
What it was Jackse Winery operated from 1910 until Prohibition, when, like so many other wineries in the valley, it ceased. Some wineries made it through the lean years, and some certainly bootlegged wine, but most of them failed. Jackse, across the street from the city library on Library Lane, has been granted historic status by the city, and is currently the object of renovation negotiations by the Napa Valley Vintners to the tune of $8 million.
What you’ll find It may not look like much structurally, but Jackse is an excellent example of old wood that just looks better after a century’s worth of weathering; the past virtually seeps from its grain. Also, in a little alcove, there’s a cool old chain-driven machine of rusted mystique and some neat bones on the ground. When you walk back to your car, schoolchildren will point and laugh at you while they play a ukulele. Why? Because . . .
Classified info Be not deceived by what appears to be a hole in the wall. This hole does not lead anywhere, and, after you balance precariously atop a planter, heave your body ass-over-teakettle through the opening, catch a nail along the way and rip your favorite T-shirt and fall to the dusty ground, you will be embarrassed to find that you’re still actually outside of the main building. There’s no way to get in. Really.
Hollywood equivalent The Clown (1953)
Los Robles Lodge
What it is The huge abandoned hotel with the large sign right off Highway 101 in Santa Rosa.
What it was The Los Robles Lodge opened at the dawn of the 1960s as a hotel and convention center to rival its cross-town twin, the El Rancho Tropicana. For four decades, the landmark convention center hosted thousands of travelers, meetings with Sonoma County’s bigwigs and celebrity guests like Barbra Streisand and James Caan. Even though President Ford notably spoke at Los Robles Lodge in 1974, the most famous incident at the hotel remains the 1971 Football Riot, when the cable went out during a Niners-Cowboys championship and the irate crowd—hundreds of football fans who’d paid to watch—went nuts and chucked furniture into the pool in a full-blown riot. Also, in 1989, a relatively unknown band called Green Day played in the hotel’s banquet room.
What you’ll find After its demise, the Los Robles Lodge was full of old memorabilia, and if there are any weird souls out there who want some hotel stationery, restaurant menus, room-service pamphlets or marquee letters, I, um, know someone who could hook you up. I also found some files on the Empire Breakfast Club, who met there every week for decades, full of old photos, meeting notes, newsletters packed with terrible jokes and membership lists from the 1970s. The empty swimming pool is a renegade skateboarder’s dream, and since the buildings are now securely boarded up, that’s just about the only attraction left.
Classified info There’s a to the that’ll help you scale the . There’s also one of those easily cracked “Made in China” bike locks securing the gate, and while it lasts, the combination is .
Hollywood equivalent The Shining (1980)
What it is An old tavern housing the ghosts of grizzled fisherman and stoned hippies.
What it was Established in 1873, the Marshall Tavern opened as a soda shop and hardware store for boat and rail travelers in the village of Marshall. Built on pilings right over Tomales Bay, it served stiff drinks to hardworking fishermen for decades. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, psychedelic-era musicians, including John Cipollina, Joan Baez and Van Morrison performed there. Neil Young played a legendary three-day stand at the Tavern in 1975, debuting songs like “Barstool Blues” and “Cortez the Killer” and causing traffic jams on Highway 1. The Tavern closed in 1982.
What you’ll find Today, faded lettering advertises the Tavern’s former amenities and the entire building is covered in bubbled, chipped blue paint, while the old marquee is accompanied only by a corroded light fixture, hanging its head in lonesome uselessness. The building looks astonishingly strong from the outside—that is, until you notice that the once-rectangular doorframes have turned to trapezoids, or that the wooden foundation pilings underneath could crumble at the next collision with, oh, I don’t know, maybe a duck swimming by.
Classified info This is one place that is so rotted and old that I can’t in any good conscience recommend exploring it. Floorboards are kinda necessary sometimes.
Hollywood equivalent Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Hamilton AFB Warehouse
What it is A 100-yard-long collection of weird old Air Force stuff.
What it was Hamilton Air Force Base, as many know, was in operation from 1933 to 1974. The city of Novato has been converting its Spanish-style buildings and hangars into offices and residences rather successfully, and the strip itself is slated for wetlands conversion. However, this and a few other nearby buildings remain abandoned. It’s hard to say exactly what this warehouse was used for, although a machine shop seems likely.
What you’ll find Overturned steel desks, ransacked metal drawers, and the occasional oil spill make for an interesting industrial scavenge. Signs and maps from Hamilton’s heyday lie crumbled in corners, and blueprints for housing on the base can be found in some of the side rooms. There’s a large directory of buildings leaning up against a wall, but this particular warehouse isn’t indicated at all.
Classified info From Road off Drive, veer right onto Street, and you can’t miss it on the . There’s a that’s ; walk over it and go around to the , where there’s a . Usually former military bases are guarded like crazy, but this one’s easy as pie.
Hollywood equivalent Fighter Squadron (1948)
Sunset Line & Twine
What it is A gorgeous empty brick building in the middle of Petaluma.
What it was Built in 1892 in the Georgian Colonial Revival style, the Sunset Line & Twine building was originally a silk mill processing knitting silk, embroidery silk and hosiery. Sunset Line & Twine moved into the building in 1940 and manufactured braided cords and lines for fishing, hardware and other industries, even supplying the post-reentry parachute line for NASA’s Apollo and Gemini command modules. In 2007, the business moved out and building was sold to developers, who eyed it for condos, but a three-year delay in the authorization of Petaluma’s General Plan and a severe downturn in the housing market nixed the project. The building is currently for sale.
What you’ll find In September of last year, the building opened for a public auction, and buyers, photographers and lookie-loos flooded the place. Truly, it was amazing; old spools, braiding machines, antique office equipment and plenty of line and twine was for sale, and the chance to explore the old elevator shaft, upstairs tower and creepy basement was precious and short. These days, the only good view into the building is from the north, where through the window you can spot some old spools, reels and photos of the former operations in the lobby.
Classified info Around the building’s on Street seems to be the best way to get in, maybe through a sketchy set of . For the most part, the building is secure, and don’t be fooled by the door on Street that appears to be ajar; it’s locked with a high-grade chain from the inside.
Hollywood equivalent Modern Times (1936)
House of Sonoma
What it is A big Mediterranean-style building near the center of Healdsburg.
What it was Not much is known about this building except that it was once a restaurant called House of Sonoma. The layout would suggest it was originally a 23-room inn, since there’re about 23 half-bathrooms scattered around the place, but a quick trip to the library turned up no further information.
What you’ll find An exercise in indecisiveness, this building features 14 kinds of flooring: different styles of patterned carpet, tile, hardwood, linoleum and, in the entrance lobby, brick veneer, which bears the mysterious monogram “KL.” Completely gutted, there’s not much inside except an old industrial refrigerator, a wrought-iron fence segment and a cool-lookin’ ski-lodge-style fireplace. Oh, and lots of exposed push-button light switches and cloth-covered wires,. The building is currently for sale by Sotheby’s.
Classified info On the side of , there’s a boarded-up that looks like it’s secured with . It’s not. and you’re in.
Hollywood equivalent Mystery Lodge (1994)
The Preston Church
What it is A stately old church on a hill above the Russian River near Cloverdale.
What it was Like Fountaingrove, Preston was one of California’s most high-profile utopian communities, established in 1875 and centered around the medical and spiritual practices of its charismatic founder, Emily Preston. Preston offered her patients a variety of medicines and potions, most of which were concocted from herbs and alcohol, and a list from the turn of the century of services includes douches and leechings ($1 each).
A nearby railroad stop with a livery stable and general store was reachable by Preston via a covered bridge over the Russian River, and numerous buildings including the Preston Mansion and the Church of Heaven on Probation housed projects like the Preston Women’s Orchestra. Universally loved, Emily Preston died in 1909 and is buried at Preston’s cemetery. In 1988, a fire burned almost all of Preston to the ground; only a couple houses and the church, with its clock and bell tower, remain.
What you’ll find Of all the old, decrepit buildings in wine country, Preston’s church is one of the few success stories. It’s currently undergoing restoration by dedicated on-site owners with help from Sonoma State University and the Healdsburg Museum. Considering the decades of Cloverdale High students drinking and starting fires there on weekends, it’s a miracle that the church is actually still in one piece; from the chimney to the window hardware, it’s a surviving example of a New England Colonial church house in the West.