Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Abandoned In Boron - The Story of Boron Air Force Station & Boron Federal Prison

The Old Boron Housing - Boron, California
This is a place of extremes. Within 150 miles are both the highest and lowest points in the contiguous 48 states of America. It is extraordinarily hot in the summer. It is surprisingly cold at night. The seemingly unrelenting winds blow strong. Water is scarce. Vegetation is scarce. Lizards, spiders and venomous snakes call this place home. This is California’s Mojave Desert.

Very few are brave (or dumb) enough to live in such a harsh and inhospitable environment. Yet this land has secrets. Gold and silver mines have made some men very rich. The largest borax mine in the world is found here. This area is important to aerospace—a history that’s still being written. Many world records have been set and broken close by.

The U.S. military has been using this desert land since before World War II. Edwards Air Force Base, just to the south of Boron, was commissioned in 1933. George Air Force Base, located not far to the southeast of Boron, was open from 1941 to 1992. The Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Station at Mojave, found 30 miles west of Boron, was opened from 1942 to 1961. The Marine Corps Logistics Base at Barstow, situated 40 miles east of Boron, has been opened since 1942.

The Boron Air Force Station, located on a hill a few miles northeast of Boron, California (a little ways beyond the borax mine), was commissioned in January of 1952. This was not a typical Air Force installation in that it wasn't an airport. There was a single helipad on-site, and a couple miles away a small dirt runway was constructed. But, for the most part, this was not an airfield.
Old Yield Sign - Boron, California
Instead, Boron Air Force Station was part of an air defense network that provided detection and early warning of non-friendly (enemy) aircraft. They operated RADAR antennas and carefully monitored the coastline and the southern border. This was to prevent a “Pearl Harbor” from happening on the west coast of the mainland.

During the early 1960’s the Federal Aviation Administration began using the RADAR antennas at Boron jointly with the Air Force. A mid-air collision over the Grand Canyon in 1956, which killed 128 people, prompted the federal government to take steps to make flight safer. In 1958 the FAA was founded, and shortly thereafter air traffic controllers were using RADAR data to guide and separate aircraft across the vast expanses of America.

The FAA had been building and maintaining their own RADAR sites across the country, and it was redundant for two agencies to simultaneously operate RADAR antennas. It was determined (as part of the Joint Surveillance System) that the FAA would be the primary operator of RADAR sites, and that the Air Force would have access to the data.

So in 1968 the air defense network began to decommission many of the RADAR antennas operating at Boron Air Force Station. On June 30, 1975, the base official closed and the main (and last operating) RADAR antenna was turned over to the FAA.
Burnt Building - Boron, California
The federal government soon found a new use for the remote base, now abandoned but still in good shape. In 1978 the Boron Air Force Station was converted to the Boron Federal Prison. The airmen dorms were converted to “cell blocks” for 540 male inmates. Several structures were converted into work stations. The military housing became homes for the guards.

This was not a typical federal prison. This was a minimum security prison meant for white collar non-violent offenders. There were no guard towers or barbed-wire fences to keep the prisoners in. The vast harsh desert and the easy punishment were the main escape deterrents.

Some people have said (although I could not find anything other than word-of-mouth to verify) that security was so relaxed that some prisoners had jobs in the nearby small towns. Supposedly one inmate served as a little league baseball coach for many years. Inmates were unofficially allowed to leave the prison just as long as they returned when they were supposed to be accounted for.

Prisoners built car parts for the federal government under the Federal Prison Industries program (also called Unicor). A number of buildings were converted to machine shops and other industrial structures. Inmates earned a small income, but, more importantly, they earned a potential early release.
Old Dormitories - Boron, California
Life at Boron Federal Prison was more resort-like than prison-like. There were televisions and recreation rooms all over the place. There was a gym, garden, amphitheater, and handball, tennis and basketball courts. There were two full-time recreation coordinators who planned activities to ensure that inmates were entertained and happy. If you had to go to prison, Boron was where you wished to be sent. And if you were assigned to Boron, it was because you were either very fortunate or you had connections.

In 2000 the Boron Federal Prison closed for good. The inmates were moved to a facility near Victorville. In the extreme desert environment, one resource that is essential yet difficult to find is water. It is water—or, really, a lack of water—that caused the resort-prison at Boron to shut down.

Now the old military base and federal prison sits abandoned. The buildings have been ransacked and vandalized. There is graffiti everywhere. Windows are broken. Walls are falling apart. The harsh desert and delinquents have not been kind to the many standing structures. A fire destroyed a couple of the buildings.

Five miles north of the tiny community of Kramer’s Junction (which sits a few miles east of the town of Boron) along Highway 395 is the entrance to the Boron Air Force Station. There are two old signs that used to proclaim what this site was, but now stand as monuments of confusion to the highway travelers zipping by. The old signs don’t say anything anymore; you just have to trust that you’re at the right place.
RADAR - Boron, California
Officially the turnoff is Locust Road (which seems like an appropriate name), but you’d be hard pressed to find any signs telling you the name of the street. This paved road takes you about ¾ mile west of the highway to the base gate (which is open) and the old visitor’s parking.

When you enter the site there is an apocalyptic feel. There are dozens of structures, all of which have missing windows, open doors and are in various states of dilapidation. The vegetation is either overgrown or dead, depending on how drought-resistant it is.

The road to the left leads you down to the housing. Going straight leads you past the recreation and support buildings and the dorms. Further ahead up the hill are the work buildings, helipad and hangers, the RADAR antenna, and the chapel.

Boron Air Force Station is open to explore. There are no signs warning you to keep out. It doesn't appear as if it gets patrolled often, if ever. However, this is federal land and I’m sure that the federal government doesn't want trespassers. There is a risk of getting caught. It seems like a case of the controlling agency not having the ability or desire to enforce “no trespassing” (so much so that they don’t even display warning signs), but you never know when that situation changes.
Oh, Well - Boron, California
Other dangers are asbestos, mold, venomous spiders and snakes, coyotes, human excrement, rusty nails, broken glass, and unstable structures. One should exercise extreme caution and not take many risks when exploring this place. Wear appropriate clothing, bring plenty of water, have a first-aid kit, and a charged cell phone.

There are over 50 buildings to walk through. It takes a full day to explore everything. Some buildings have artifacts and furniture that were left behind, but most do not. Many of the structures are empty except for trash left by vandals and delinquents.

As you explore the old base it is easy to imagine what life was like here.

When it was a military base, it must have seemed like Mars to those stationed at Boron. It’s remote now, but it was even more remote 50 years ago when the tiny towns around it were even smaller and the larger towns and cities within an hour drive were nothing more than small towns. The base is on a hill so the views were spectacular. What you see now out of the broken windows of the base housing are pretty close to what was seen when the houses were brand new. Not a lot in the desert has changed.
Razor Fence - Boron, California
When it was a prison, it must have seemed like a tropical paradise. There were no bars and only a few fences. There was plenty to do—lots of recreation. There was even limited access to the “outside” world. For those who worked for the Department of Justice, this must have seemed like a cushy job compared to other prison assignments.

The FAA still operates the RADAR antenna at Boron. It is the one structure that isn't falling apart. It is fenced off, and “no trespassing” signs and video surveillance warn you not to enter. It seems out of place, but only because it is obviously maintained while everything else is obviously not.

A trip to the old Boron Air Force Station (and later Boron Federal Prison) is one of those bucket-list type places for urban explorers. It has an interesting history and there are a ton of abandoned structures to see. This extremely interesting site seems to be deteriorating at a fast pace, so don’t wait too long to visit.

Note: I wrote this article back in January for a magazine. They intended to publish it, but then (for whatever reason) didn't. So I'm publishing here on The Urban Exploration Photography Blog for your enjoyment.


  1. Hi Ritchie,
    This is a WONDERFUL article! My family likes to camp in the desert, and this Is one of my favorite spots to explore. Unfortunately, vandals have stolen or broken many of the artifacts left behind, but it's still a neat place to explore. You can still read some of the physical fitness station signs, and imagine what or was like back then.
    Heather C

    1. Thanks, Heather, for commenting! Boron AFS is certainly an interesting place to explore and imagine how it must have been like when it was still active.

  2. Is this place still there ? My wife and I love exploring abandoned places and live about 3 hours away. This is definitely on our "list". Great article btw.

  3. Is this place still there ? My wife and I love exploring abandoned places and live about 3 hours away. This is definitely on our "list". Great article btw.

    1. Thanks for commenting! Boron AFS is still there. It's a great place to explore.

  4. This place is still there as I live in boron. I had never been up there until 2 week's ago and just the feeling you get when your there is unbelievable you don't get in trouble unless you get caught stealing government property but other then that they leave you alone

    1. Thanks for commenting! This is one of my favorite places to explore, no doubt.

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  6. Great post! I always wondered what that giant golf ball was in the desert that could be seen for miles. This post is extremely informative!

  7. I actually own 5 acres just north west of that on Rosewood. Was thinking of making it a campground or something. Not sure yet.