Southern California's Urban explorers on seeking out what's been left behind
"It's the unknown: you don't know what you're getting into; you don't know if you're going to be able to get into a building; you don't know if you're going to be arrested. You don't know anything." - Joshua Stephens, California urban explorer.
With its epic urban sprawls and seemingly endless deserts, mountains and coastline, Southern California is a playground for so-called urban explorers – insatiably curious mavericks who’ve turned visiting (and usually photographing) abandoned and unseen “active” man-made structures into an obsessive, sometimes dangerous hobby.
From former mines, motels and military facilities to sewers, rooftops, and crumbling medical, educational and industrial complexes, SoCal’s “urbexers” voraciously seek-out, research and plunge into the forgotten underbelly of humankind’s structural endeavors – the very places most of us ignore or consciously avoid.
“You have the Salton Sea, you have deserts, you have military bases, hospitals, you have the Port [of Los Angeles],” said Stephens, a 31-year-old retail worker hooked on urban exploration since discovering the Fort MacArthur bunkers near his Long Beach home four years ago. “There’s just so much to explore all over SoCal.”
“There’s an ore sorter just east of Wonder Valley [in the Mojave Desert] that's just sitting out there looking like some sort of Trojan Horse,” said Eric Rife, a San Diego photographer who regularly shoots abandoned places, often at night. “There are deteriorating metal vats that used to store cyanide out in Tumco, [and] the anonymous graves of Chinese railroad workers in Ogilby.”
While teenagers have long partied in derelict buildings, the popularity of urban exploring as an end in itself has palpably increased over recent years. In the New Millennium, TV shows including the Discovery Channel’s Urban Explorers, SyFy’s Ghost Hunters and the History Channel’s Cities of the Underworld, alongside movies such as 2006’s After …, have helped fuel the imaginations of future explorers.
“A part of me still feels like a kid,” said Brandon Johnson, a 34-year-old electrician and photographer from Topanga whose fascination with abandoned structures began with a derelict egg ranch near his childhood home. “There’s a little bit of a ‘fear factor’ about roaming around in a strange, abandoned place – your imagination goes a little wild … If you don’t know some kind of history [of the site], you can kind of make stuff up.”
Urban explorers risk arrest, injury, infection or even death in their pursuit of ever-more elaborate explores, evocative images, and hard-to-access “virgin” sites (those previously unvisited and thus free of vandalism and graffiti). Urbex fatalities, usually from falling, have been reported everywhere from a disused Denver rubber factory to a New Jersey hotel rooftop.
“It’s raw, it’s dirty, it’s grimy, it’s rusty,” said Stephens, who had to be medevacked out of the mountains north of Pasadena after a vertebrae-crushing fall.
The Internet is central to the recent urbex boom, with sites like ghosttowns.com and the Urban Exploration Resource, as well as social media hubs like Facebook and Instagram, offering enthusiasts somewhere to exchange info and images (and novices a place to start). In turn, online urbex communities have spread worldwide.
“Instagram helps a bit, just mainly because you can sort of take what you can get from the photos,” said Stephens. “Maybe in the background or any type of location [clues]. Google Earth is a really big resource, especially out in the desert – because if it’s out in the desert in California, you know that it’s been abandoned.”
This detective work is necessary because most urbexers don’t openly share specific information about “their” locations. This can be out of sheer exclusivity – reluctance to gift a site to others after spending weeks finding, researching and reaching it – and/or an effort to better protect structures from vandalism and theft.
“You can’t trust people,” said Stephens. “People could be going in there to steal scrap [metal], destroy stuff, tag stuff up … You can go back [to a site] in a couple of weeks and it could be thrashed.”
For all its densely-populated urban centers, Southern California retains yawning spaces where huge abandoned sites can linger for decades. One of SoCal’s urbex meccas is Boron Air Force Station, a 1950s radar facility and later prison camp, shuttered in 2000, which covers hundreds of acres of bleak scrubland east of the city of Palmdale. The forlorn former Rock-A-Hoola Waterpark, recently defaced by a coordinated “guerilla art” project, occupies 273 acres near Barstow.
Johnson stumbled upon a giant defunct oil refinery outside Ojai while riding his motorcycle.
“[It’s] pretty amazing – all kinds of just rad gear and refinery equipment and really cool graffiti … everything is kind of corroding and falling apart, so there’s textures everywhere,” he said. “Larger buildings I find more interesting – just kind of space to roam around.”
Remoteness can be a double-edge sword for an abandonment. While out-of-the-way structures are less trafficked, unethical visitors can do great damage with little risk of discovery. Indeed, abandoned structures can been protected by their very proximity to civilization. Locked up and left entirely intact in the late 2000s, Arne’s Royal Hawaiian – a “tiki-style” 1957 motel in tiny Baker, California (a popular pit stop between L.A. and Las Vegas on I-15) – remained in almost time-capsule condition until the recent closure of a neighboring diner allowed vandals, squatters and thieves to invade unimpeded.
Even true urban explorers who adhere to the time-honored credo of “take only photos, leave only footprints” are often technically trespassing (the Boron site, for example, remains federal property). The issue of illegality tends to divide urbexers, some of whom see it as a necessary evil or even part of their addiction, while others try to (knowingly at least) avoid it.
“Breaking the law just goes hand in hand with it,” said Stephens. “I’ve almost been arrested a couple of times.”
“If it’s known that I shouldn’t be there, it’s a concern,” said Johnson, who mostly indulges in spontaneous explores while commuting to job sites all over Los Angeles. “I don’t know if it gives me any bonus thrill.”
Urbexers’ human encounters aren’t limited to police and security guards. Abandoned structures are also magnets for homeless people, drug users, graffiti artists, and just plain partiers. Rife recalls running into drunken gang members tagging the handball courts at Boron, while Johnson discovered a woman living in the remains of L.A.’s Lincoln Heights Jail. Sometimes locals simply don’t appreciate explorers invading their communities and treating area eyesores as historical freak shows or artsy photo ops.
“A buddy of mine and I were chased out of Llano del Rio, the ruins of a turn-of-the-century socialist commune in the Antelope Valley,” said Rife. “I think the neighbors just got tired of our flashing strobes and started screaming at us to ‘go home’.”
While some urban explorers photograph what they find simply to document something that will likely soon be demolished or degraded beyond recognition, for others structural decay offers visual stimulation and a creative challenge.
“These places are naturally inspiring to me,” said Rife. “Thinking about the people who were here before you, living their lives without a thought as to how their humble abode might eventually become a trashed mess with other people walking through it. That’s why I try to be respectful when I visit these places.”
“You can make images where people can kind of use their imagination as far as, like, what is this place? What did they do in this place?” said Johnson.
Some urbex photographers artificially enhance their subjects to, as Rife put it, “make them come alive again”. Both Rife and Stephens employ “light painting” – capturing introduced light sources in long-exposure photographs – for artistic purposes. Other explorers have used everything from smoke bombs and lasers to gas masks and mannequins to semi-stage images. Ultra-processed, high-dynamic-range (HDR) images are the dominant trend in current urbex photography.
While graffiti may be viewed as spoiling a site, some urbexers welcome the additional color or see it as an authentic element of the natural lifespan (or death-span) of a building.
“The more you drive around these places, the more you realize you’re part of an informal community of people who are just looking to express themselves,” said Rife. “Often that’s just your garden-variety tagging crap, but there’s also some really talented, usually anonymous, artists.”
“Some locations, they’re just covered in graffiti,” said Stephens. “From the artistic standpoint of it, I can understand – but it just degrades [sites] and it just brings it down so much.”
With often astronomical real estate prices in Southern California’s cities driving rapid demolition of dilapidated structures, there’s a sense of urgency about exploring these. Meanwhile, in the deserts and mountains, forlorn buildings can loiter long enough to be enjoyed by generations of urbexers (a ring of Cold War missile bases around L.A. has been explored since the late 1970s). With such an abundance of these simultaneously constant and ever-changing urban exploring opportunities, urbex itself has become a part of the region’s cycle of construction and decay.
“I think it’s important that people explore history and go out and see the remains of what others built,” said Rife. “There are lessons to be learned everywhere.”
-See slideshow below for more urban exploring photos-