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Ponderosa Ranch

November 1, 2010

images.jpegThere are few better ways to spend Halloween, culturally-speaking, than exploring ruins. But to get the most out of the experience, you ideally need to visit ruins that aren't really designated as such. Because to feel a proper chill down your spine, it's better to be alone than surrounded by hundreds of other thrill-seekers. 

A wander around the ghostly remains of Ponderosa Ranch above Incline Village near Lake Tahoe, Nevada, yesterday afternoon proved to be the perfect Halloween experience, particularly because it's a forbidden one: The place, which was once a bustling tourist attraction, has been bereft of activity since it closed down in 2004.

Between 1967 and 2004, Ponderosa Ranch was a theme park based on the 1960s television western Bonanza. It was the home of the affluent Cartwright family in the series. Portions of the last five seasons of the TV series and three TV movies were filmed at the location.

Today, the shuttered theme park isn't the sort of place that welcomes snoopers. Forbidding chain-link fences and signs at the entrance just off the freeway keep curious passersby out. But if you hike a trail around the back of the site up the mountainside, you can sneak in another way easily enough.

In the late October sunlight, Ponderosa Ranch was completely still and ever so slightly spooky. The skeletal forms of rusty old farm equipment resembled the remains of dinosaurs. Stacked picnic tables and benches appeared to be coffins in the lengthening afternoon shadows. Exploring the dusty barns and unswept trailers revealed a wealth of dormant treasures such as old wooden signs advertising horse rides and $2 cowboy breakfasts, defunct movie cameras and lights, heavy wooden wagon wheels and creaking ferris wheel horses and camels, their once-brightly painted coats peeling off.

I kept thinking that we'd come across a corpse amidst all that debris and quietude. Thankfully we didn't. All in all, the clandestine visit still made for the ultimate off-the-beaten-track Halloween scare.

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