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The 14 smallest Bay Area towns

Is the Bay Area getting bigger? Not in these places

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Micro Week is about more than tiny homes. We're thinking small in virtually every way possible, including city planning. Here we take a survey of some of the smallest towns in the Bay Area, many of them also some of the itty bittiest in the entire state of California.

However minuscule, each town has a story to tell, a reason earlier Californians settled there in the first place and reasons modern Californians continue on there still.

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It can be difficult to gauge the population of towns this size: If someone lives five miles outside the town limits but comes in to work and pick up their mail there every day, do we count them in the town's population or not? A town like Marshall may have as many as 200 people or as few as 50. We did our best to nail down some figures, but populations can change a lot in between censuses.

Two towns get honorable mentions: First, the town of Holy City, founded by a cult leader in Santa Clara County in 1919 as a white supremacist stronghold. It's been abandoned for decades and bought and sold wholesale many times, including just a month ago (for a reported $21 billion). There's no official population, but there may yet be some squatters.

Additionally, Bolinas is too big to quite make the list, but deserves special mention for its recluse reputation, doing away with even road signs and to keep out of towners (and developers) at arm's length.

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1. Mount Hamilton

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If you squint at the image above, you can just barely make out the Lick Observatory, gazing upon the heavens from the top of Mt. Hamilton since 1888. Piano maker and observatory founder James Lick is buried under it. He had little company, since the last time anyone counted, the nearby town had only 35 full-time residents.

2. Olema

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Here we see earthquake damage at Olema Ranch circa 1906. Since then, the town's not been in the news much. With a population of probably only 55 people (so says the sign on the highway), it's the tiniest non-ghost town in all nine counties. You wouldn't know it now, but in its rowdy youth Olema was a good-time city "a raunchy row of cardrooms, saloons and establishments of even lesser repute" servicing logging camps, according to the Chamber of Commerce. "It would never grow bigger," they add.

3. Freestone

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Officially, only 56 people call Freestone home. If one of them moves to Olema the entire balance of the region will be turned on its head. Despite not having updated its look since 1876, the local shops enjoy something of a reputation for artisan foods. Tiny or not, they're still part of the Bay.

4. Oaville

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Napa Counties Oakville has 28 wineries, but only 71 residents. That's a winery every 2.5 people, a ratio that, frankly, more Bay Area cities should aspire to.

5. Coyote

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Once upon a time, Coyote was known as Burnett. Why the name change? Presumably on account of all of the coyotes. Yep, it's that sleepy up there, apparently. Indeed, nobody seems to be quite sure exactly how many people even live in Coyote anymore, but the last census estimated 80 within its ZIP code. Once, Coyote was a critical waypoint town leading into San Jose. Then Highway 101 cut it right out of its middleman position, utterly sinking the entire community's prospects. Now there's so little of it left that San Jose considered buying the entire thing back during the first dotcom boom.

6. Nicasio

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Nicasio, population 96, is home to none other than George Lucas and his Skywalker Ranch, making the seemingly the only city in all of the Bay Area that's at least theoretically amenable to letting Lucas build anything. A Scottish frontiersman inadvertently founded the town (by building the first house) after being somewhat marooned in the Northern California wilderness after a ship he booked passage on never arrived in Monterey, setting him to wandering.

7. Loma Mar

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Looks like most people who go to Loma Mar are there for the nature camp serving 5th and 6th graders, ideally situated in this otherwise quiet and remote holdout that only 113 humans call their natural habitat.

8. Birds Landing

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The white specks in the photo above are actually windmills, some of the hundreds at the wind farm near Birds Landing (population 130) producing hundreds of megawatts for PG&E. Between this and the nearby hunting preserve, Birds Landing seems surprisingly tough on the local birds.

9. Jenner

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Jenner's big claim to fame is the nearby beach and Russian River estuary, attractive to harbor seals (who come here to birth adorable pups) and ocean birds. Apparently it's a seal town for the most part, as the last human headcount numbered only 136.

10. Valley Ford

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Back in the '70s, a couple of noted artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, erected giant nylon panels 19-feet high in a faux "fence" that stretched 165,000 yards in Valley Ford. There was probably plenty of room for it, as the town boasts a population of just 147 today.

11. Timber Cove

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Timber Cove describes itself as "a scattering of homes," but you've probably at least heard of the Timber Cove Inn, with its 90-plus foot sculpted obelisk. The inn's 50 rooms could almost house the town's entire official population of 164 people all on its own.

12. Rutherford

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According to the "Rutherford Dust Society," Napa Valley founder George C Yount (of Yountville fame, of course) granted a 1,000 acres to his son in law Thomas Rutherford in 1864. It's not grown much since those two settled down here, numbering only 164 today, but if you pay close attention to the labels on your wine bottles you'll see you've probably been drinking Rutherford's bounty for years.

13. Duncan Mills

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Duncan Mills can make a fair claim to being the town that built San Francisco, as the namesake mill exported boatloads of lumber to the city in the 1890s. There's a fair chance that ay Victorian that survived the 1906 earthquake owes some of its stock to this little Russian River town of 175 people.

14. Elmira

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According to local historian Jerry Bowen, Elmira is another town done in by the highway. Once, it was a thriving railroad town, but those days are behind it, now hosting just 188 people. Still, it hasn't vanished the way Coyote nearly has, and its 47 families are still hanging in there.

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1. Mount Hamilton

Mt Hamilton, CA 95140

If you squint at the image above, you can just barely make out the Lick Observatory, gazing upon the heavens from the top of Mt. Hamilton since 1888. Piano maker and observatory founder James Lick is buried under it. He had little company, since the last time anyone counted, the nearby town had only 35 full-time residents.

2. Olema

Olema, CA 94956

Here we see earthquake damage at Olema Ranch circa 1906. Since then, the town's not been in the news much. With a population of probably only 55 people (so says the sign on the highway), it's the tiniest non-ghost town in all nine counties. You wouldn't know it now, but in its rowdy youth Olema was a good-time city "a raunchy row of cardrooms, saloons and establishments of even lesser repute" servicing logging camps, according to the Chamber of Commerce. "It would never grow bigger," they add.

3. Freestone

Freestone, CA 95472

Officially, only 56 people call Freestone home. If one of them moves to Olema the entire balance of the region will be turned on its head. Despite not having updated its look since 1876, the local shops enjoy something of a reputation for artisan foods. Tiny or not, they're still part of the Bay.

4. Oaville

Oakville, CA 94558

Napa Counties Oakville has 28 wineries, but only 71 residents. That's a winery every 2.5 people, a ratio that, frankly, more Bay Area cities should aspire to.

5. Coyote

Coyote, CA

Once upon a time, Coyote was known as Burnett. Why the name change? Presumably on account of all of the coyotes. Yep, it's that sleepy up there, apparently. Indeed, nobody seems to be quite sure exactly how many people even live in Coyote anymore, but the last census estimated 80 within its ZIP code. Once, Coyote was a critical waypoint town leading into San Jose. Then Highway 101 cut it right out of its middleman position, utterly sinking the entire community's prospects. Now there's so little of it left that San Jose considered buying the entire thing back during the first dotcom boom.

6. Nicasio

Nicasio, CA 94946

Nicasio, population 96, is home to none other than George Lucas and his Skywalker Ranch, making the seemingly the only city in all of the Bay Area that's at least theoretically amenable to letting Lucas build anything. A Scottish frontiersman inadvertently founded the town (by building the first house) after being somewhat marooned in the Northern California wilderness after a ship he booked passage on never arrived in Monterey, setting him to wandering.

7. Loma Mar

Loma Mar, CA 94060

Looks like most people who go to Loma Mar are there for the nature camp serving 5th and 6th graders, ideally situated in this otherwise quiet and remote holdout that only 113 humans call their natural habitat.

8. Birds Landing

Birds Landing, CA

The white specks in the photo above are actually windmills, some of the hundreds at the wind farm near Birds Landing (population 130) producing hundreds of megawatts for PG&E. Between this and the nearby hunting preserve, Birds Landing seems surprisingly tough on the local birds.

9. Jenner

Jenner, CA 95450

Jenner's big claim to fame is the nearby beach and Russian River estuary, attractive to harbor seals (who come here to birth adorable pups) and ocean birds. Apparently it's a seal town for the most part, as the last human headcount numbered only 136.

10. Valley Ford

Valley Ford, CA

Back in the '70s, a couple of noted artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, erected giant nylon panels 19-feet high in a faux "fence" that stretched 165,000 yards in Valley Ford. There was probably plenty of room for it, as the town boasts a population of just 147 today.

11. Timber Cove

Timber Cove, CA 95450

Timber Cove describes itself as "a scattering of homes," but you've probably at least heard of the Timber Cove Inn, with its 90-plus foot sculpted obelisk. The inn's 50 rooms could almost house the town's entire official population of 164 people all on its own.

12. Rutherford

Rutherford, CA

According to the "Rutherford Dust Society," Napa Valley founder George C Yount (of Yountville fame, of course) granted a 1,000 acres to his son in law Thomas Rutherford in 1864. It's not grown much since those two settled down here, numbering only 164 today, but if you pay close attention to the labels on your wine bottles you'll see you've probably been drinking Rutherford's bounty for years.

13. Duncan Mills

Duncans Mills, CA 95450

Duncan Mills can make a fair claim to being the town that built San Francisco, as the namesake mill exported boatloads of lumber to the city in the 1890s. There's a fair chance that ay Victorian that survived the 1906 earthquake owes some of its stock to this little Russian River town of 175 people.

14. Elmira

Elmira, CA

According to local historian Jerry Bowen, Elmira is another town done in by the highway. Once, it was a thriving railroad town, but those days are behind it, now hosting just 188 people. Still, it hasn't vanished the way Coyote nearly has, and its 47 families are still hanging in there.