Come discover ‘a little bit of heaven’ in Hornitos.
Whether or not you believe in apparitions from the Wild West, the town of Hornitos, Ca., can be startling for what you won’t find. There are no banks or office buildings, no strip malls touting tired brands or bright lights obscuring the night sky. With a population hovering around 50 residents, Hornitos isn’t technically a ghost town, yet curious visitors to this Yosemite Mariposa County hideout can still mingle with the avenging spirit of bandit-hero Joaquin Murrieta simply by walking through the main plaza and its spectral array of age-old buildings towered over by an infamous hilltop cemetery.
Located about 3 hours – or 130 miles east from the San Francisco Bay Area – en route to Yosemite National Park, Hornitos serves as a portal to California’s raucous Gold Rush past. History may be its ace in the hole, but a visit to this now peaceful enclave reveals a range of things to do from picnicking in the park to cycling its rolling backroads to paying homage at the annual Dia De Los Muertos celebration. Here are just a few recommendations on how to make contact with the rough & tumble spirit of Hornitos.
Hornitos figures prominently in the life of legendary Joaquin Murrieta, who may have inspired the characters of Zorro and Batman.Charles Christian Nash painted this depiction of the legend in 1868.
First, some backstory. In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought an end to the Mexican-American War and vast swaths of territory — including what would soon become the state of California — were ceded to the United States. Though this change was profound, many Mexicans remained in California as yet another fortune-altering event took place — the discovery of gold.
Hornitos was a rollicking Mexican village that sprang up in 1850 a few miles from the newly rich gold diggings of Quartzburg. Situated on Burns Creek, Hornitos means “little ovens” in Spanish and was named for the above-ground rock and adobe graves of Mexican settlers found in the area. The town quickly grew to a population of more than 10,000 in the 1850s and gained a reputation for saloons, dancehalls and frontier justice. It was here that the legend of Joaquin Murrieta galloped into the consciousness of America. With the details of his life much-debated, it was purported that Murrieta saw his wife killed by a gang of these newcomers and thus ensued a life of banditry and revenge. Newspapers documented his exploits, attributing all sorts of criminal acts, while others saw him as a righteous vigilante (and the inspiration for future stories such as Batman and Zorro).
The legend of Joaquin Murrieta took a grim turn in 1853 when a group of 20 vigilantes (dubbed the “California Rangers”) were offered a large reward by the state of California to put an end to his enterprise. Captain William J. Howard, a Hornitos resident, joined the posse and provided horses as they gathered on his ranch. On July 25, 1853, they tracked down Murrieta and his gang at their camp and killed 8 bandits, including the leader’s “right hand” Tres Dedos (aka Three-Fingered Jack). Another member of the Rangers was local Bill Burns (namesake of aforementioned Burns Creek) and it is purported that he fired the shot that killed Murrieta himself. To prove that Murrieta was dead, the Rangers preserved his head in a jar of whiskey and toured the mining camps charging a $1 pay-per-view. The jar later ended up in a San Francisco museum until it was destroyed in the 1906 Great Earthquake. Grim, indeed.
While Murrieta took refuge from lawmen at such local Hornitos establishments as Rosie’s Fandango Saloon, there were other notable characters that came for its boomtown bona fides. In the 1850s, Domenico “Domingo” Ghirardelli (1817-1894) of confection fame ran a general store here selling supplies as well as chocolates to hungry miners who had a little extra gold dust in their pockets. His success contributed to the founding of Ghirardelli Chocolates in San Francisco (where Ghirardelli Square continues to be a popular tourist attraction) while in Hornitos the ruins of his once-bustling store are a reminder of what happens when boomtowns go bust.
Once a thriving general store, these buildings were once owned by Domenico “Domingo” Ghirardelli who would later go on to found Ghirardelli Chocolates in San Francisco.
In 1870, Hornitos became the first incorporated city in Mariposa County. Though not verified, it is said that during this period nearly 15,000 fortune seekers called this mineral-rich mecca home. Over a hundred years later (and with the gold long extracted) the population of Hornitos dwindled and the city became unincorporated in 1973, thus forging its ghostly status.
Situated at 843 feet (257 meters) as the Central Valley begins its long climb to the Sierra peaks, Hornitos can be enjoyed year-round, including visits outside of the hot summer months.
Also known as Bring Your Own Bike to the Rich, Rolling Ranchlands. In Southern Mariposa County it can be said that all (country) roads lead to Hornitos, with Bear Valley Road, Old Toll Road, and Hornitos Road all offering minimal car traffic along with gentle ups and downs. Winter/spring rain showers bring out emerald green foothills and breezy palettes of colorful wildflowers…. energizing atmospherics for your biking excursion.
Hornitos is filled with interesting historic buildings like the old jail.
Arriving in Hornitos’ tiny central plaza, history buffs break into a spontaneous cowboy waltz upon seeing the abundance of architectural ruins and informational plaques. The ghost of Joaquin Murrieta infuses the crumbling brick walls of such historic buildings as Ghirardelli’s store, the rough-hewn stone jail, Masonic Hall, Gagliardo & Co. store, and of course Joaquin’s escape tunnel. If it’s open, stop at the Plaza Bar for a Bloody Mary and hear colorful stories from your friendly bartender/docent.
The Hornitos church is just one example of the beautiful landscapes that await in this small town.
With everything from the sun peeking through the ruins to horses galloping beneath oaks to cattle grazing beneath the ridgeline, Hornitos has all the f-stops a photographer could ever need. If pastoral landscapes are your thing, this is where you want to set up whether that’s with a Nikon or an easel for some plein air painting.
Right on the plaza is the Hornitos Park where you can let the kids hit the jungle gym while laying out your spread on one of its picnic tables. So central to the historic action that you can invite Joaquin to your picnic lunch. Can accommodate large groups for a small fee. Public bathrooms available.
Mexican history comes alive in Hornitos during Dia de los Muertso (Day of the Dead).
With its deep Mexican history, Hornitos plays host to visitors from far & wide for its annual Dia De Los Muertos/All Souls Day every November 2nd. After meeting in the plaza (where face paint and costumes are not uncommon) observers follow with a candlelight procession a short distance up the hill to historic St. Catherine’s Church and cemetery. A stirring way to pay respects to those who came before in a setting unlike any other.
Every March the Hornitos Patrons Club hosts the Hornitos Enchilada Dinner, which benefits local charities including renovations of St. Catherine’s Church. Dine-in or take-out knowing that you’re helping a good cause.
Swing by Lake McSwain on your way to or from Hornitos to enjoy some cool water fun. An inflatable water tower is part of the Splash-n-Dash experience or just enjoy some relaxing time on the water.
Though you might feel like water sports are a galaxy far, far away from Hornitos, a short 10-mile drive brings you to Lake McClure and Lake McSwain for a global assortment of refreshing hydro-activities. With everything from fishing, water skiing and kayaking to the thrills of lakeside Exchequer Mountain Bike Park and Splash-n-Dash Aqua Park, these twin gems are the perfect way to cool off on a hot day. Camping available.
It’s time for a mini-road trip to discover the freedom of the open road, and the many small-town gems along various routes through Yosemite Mariposa County.
Discover Yosemite’s hidden gems. If you’re looking for some quieter Yosemite Mariposa County destinations, we’ve got just what you’re looking for.
Looking to get into Yosemite without a reservation? Don’t worry. Here are a handful of easy options for enjoying the park reservation-free without having to get up early to beat the peak-hour time limit.