Llano del Rio is a ghost town less than 90 minutes from Los Angeles. It’s filled with crumbling ruins that once housed a large socialist commune.
If you drive north of Los Angeles, following Interstate 5 through The Valley then branching off onto State Route 14 as it sweeps into the desert, you’ll eventually arrive at Llano del Rio. There’s not much there.
Once upon a time, however, Llano del Rio was going to be the future. The community was founded in 1914 by Job Harriman, who was Eugene Debs’ vice presidential pick in 1900 and later lost LA’s mayoral election.
Following his loss in LA, Harriman decided to build a socialist commune to demonstrate that his ideas would actually work. Participants were required to buy into the community, which, among other things, tried to use urban design to reduce the amount of domestic work women needed to do. Eventually the population grew to over 1,000 people, though there were persistent disputes over things like governance and politics. (The community also advertised that “only Caucasians are admitted.”)
Llano del Rio eventually had farms, orchards, a hotel, numerous shops, a sawmill, and a Montessori school.
But the good times wouldn’t last. In addition to infighting, Llano del Rio had serious problems with water — it was at the edge of the desert after all — and faced opposition from local ranchers as well as the conservative LA Times. When WWI broke out, many people left to fight or work elsewhere for higher wages. And eventually, the hardcore members left to start New Llano in Louisiana.
Today, the parched piece of desert is crisscrossed by massive power lines. Overhead, the buzz of small planes towing gliders bounces off the nearby mountains. And the ruins of Llano del Rio sit in silence.
Though virtually anything of value was long since taken from the site, there are still numerous foundations. One building still has a large stone chimney, and in another spot there is a long stone wall — both reminders that there was once a substantial community at Llano del Rio.
Despite it’s demise, the state of California calls Llano del Rio “the most important non-religious Utopian experiment in western American history.” And Mike Davis memorably described the site in his seminal book City of Quartz. It’s free to explore, and worth the relatively short drive from Los Angeles.
If you go: Llano del Rio itself isn’t on Google Maps. However, the “Llano del Rio collective” is and will get you close. Either way, the ruins lie about 20 miles east of Palmdale on either side of State Route 138 (which branches off of SR 14). Just keep an eye out and you’ll see them.
— Jim Dalrymple II