Travel

21 Eerie Abandoned Places to Explore (If You Dare)

Zoinks!

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

The world is dotted with the ruins of ancient civilizations, from the devastation of Pompeii and Mesopotamian relics to the lost temples of Southeast Asia. The US is, comparatively, a baby. But this baby can boom and bust with the best of ‘em. Many of our ghost towns, now crumbling to time, were thriving a century ago. Our crumbling factories were paragons of the recent industrial age. Hell, we’ve even got the shells of former Blockbuster Videos.

The 21 sites on this list pack an extra punch due to their places in relatively recent history. They’re the eerie prisons and asylums whose ghosts haven’t been spirits all that long. They’re once-buzzing mills that now sit silent and overgrown; amusement parks where laughter has long been absent; and eerily beautiful ruins tucked amid the forests of state parks. Even better, you can get up close and personal with them, if you’re feeling extra brave.

Flickr/Stef
Flickr/Stef
Flickr/Stef

Dinosaur World

Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Not to be confused with the Dinosaur World chain of theme parks or Alabama’s creationist-themed Dinosaur Adventure Land, this abandoned park comes with some serious pedigree: the dinosaurs here were designed by the same sculptor who made the thunder lizards at South Dakota’s famous Wall Drug. They still stand at the site of what was once the world’s largest dinosaur park, which has been closed since 2005. With the gift shop charred by arson, the dinosaurs now rule an overgrown field along with a decapitated caveman and a 40-foot statue of King Kong, which was erected when the park was rebranded Land of Kong in the ‘70s and now lays toppled and covered by graffiti.

Victoria R/shutterstock
Victoria R/shutterstock
Victoria R/shutterstock

The New Mexico State Penitentiary 

Santa Fe, New Mexico
The deadliest prison riot in American history took place in 1980 at the New Mexico State Penitentiary in a section now known as the Old Main. Years of overcrowding and underfunding reached a tipping point and prisoners snapped. The riot lasted two days with more than 30 inmates killed, while 12 officers were taken hostage. The prison remains open today, but the Old Main closed in 1998, with tours now offered on weekends during select months of the year. Visitors often report feeling a shiver when exploring Cell Block 4, where most of the carnage took place.

Martina Birnbaum/Shutterstock
Martina Birnbaum/Shutterstock
Martina Birnbaum/Shutterstock

Bunker Point

Half Moon Bay, California
The threat of Japanese troops crossing the Pacific and attacking the mainland US during World War II wasn’t likely, but Americans still had to prepare for the possibility. That’s why a strange, isolated structure overlooks Half Moon Bay just south of San Francisco. It was once a military bunker where Army scouts kept guard over the coast, peeking out across the water with binoculars to spot any sign of an enemy intrusion. Today, it emerges like a fossilized, graffiti-covered relic from Devil’s Slide, a sandy bluff just steps away from the Pacific Coast Highway. The fence protecting the bunker is long gone, allowing the curious to pull over, peer inside, and contemplate how history might’ve been different had Japanese forces actually reached California’s shores.

Kristina Rogers/Shutterstock
Kristina Rogers/Shutterstock
Kristina Rogers/Shutterstock

Six Flags New Orleans

New Orleans, Louisiana
Eight days before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, Six Flags New Orleans (formerly known as Jazzland) shut its gates for what was expected to be a temporary closure-and never reopened. The 140-acre amusement park was flooded for weeks in the aftermath of the storm, with roller coasters, a Ferris wheel, and other thrill rides peeking out from below the water. The damage was extensive and efforts to revive the park never took hold. In the years since, the desolate site has joined other creepy abandoned locations in New Orleans in attracting urban explorers, graffiti vandals, and film crews who find the post-apocalyptic nature of the landscape so compelling. It’s almost hard to believe it once brought joy to thousands of families.

Flickr/mlhradio
Flickr/mlhradio
Flickr/mlhradio

Santa Claus

Golden Valley, Arizona
Imagine Santa’s workshop, but dilapidated and covered in graffiti. That’s what you have with Santa Claus, Arizona, between Kingman and Las Vegas. The old tourist town with a Christmas theme was an intriguing roadside attraction in the 1940s, but interest dwindled over the years and it closed for good in 1995. Now behind a landfill and waste-disposal company, most of the holly jolly spirit and imagery is gone, including signs and an old kiddie train. Those padlocked, abandoned buildings are still creepy though, and reminders of a more innocent time when an inn and restaurant used to operate with a Santa Claus impersonator greeting kids 365 days a year.

Photo courtesy of Sweetwater Creek State Park
Photo courtesy of Sweetwater Creek State Park
Photo courtesy of Sweetwater Creek State Park

New Manchester Mill

Lithia Springs, Georgia
Just west of Atlanta, Sweetwater Creek State Park is a tranquil escape near a scenic reservoir. It’s also home to the ruins of the New Manchester Mill, a five-story factory built in 1849 and torched by advancing Union forces during the Civil War in 1864. The brick skeleton that remains is a haunting sight, even against the backdrop of Sweetwater Creek. It’s not difficult to reach but does require a bit of a hike on the Red Trail. Hunger Games fans will recognize the ruins, which were used as a filming location for Mockingjay Part 1.

Sonicpuss/shutterstock
Sonicpuss/shutterstock
Sonicpuss/shutterstock

Old Charleston Jail

Charleston, South Carolina
The Old Charleston Jail dates back to 1802 and hasn’t changed much over the years, although a tower was removed due to earthquake damage in 1886. Notable prisoners include Denmark Vesey, arrested for planning a slave uprising, and Lavinia Fisher, the country’s first female serial killer. Pirates and union soldiers were also held captive, and many locals believe the spirits and souls of the incarcerated continue to reside behind bars. Ghost-themed visits can be arranged through Bulldog Tours, which invests heavily into the preservation of the building. The exterior is also easy to spot on Magazine Street when walking among other historic sites in downtown Charleston.

Flickr/Aaron Vowels
Flickr/Aaron Vowels
Flickr/Aaron Vowels

Waverly Hills Sanatorium

Louisville, Kentucky
The Waverly Hills Sanatorium was built as a hospital in 1910 to handle a surging number of Louisville patients with the “white plague,” or tuberculosis. A striking example of early 20th-century gothic architecture, the facility was converted into a mental health facility in the ’60s, where patients with dementia and other severe mental disabilities suffered from overcrowding and neglect. It closed in 1982 and is often described as one of the most haunted buildings in the world. The Waverly Hills Historical Society offers tours by reservation and has hosted events on the property for Halloween and other holidays.

Flickr/Justin Clavet
Flickr/Justin Clavet
Flickr/Justin Clavet

Holy Land U.S.A.

Waterbury, Connecticut
Florida isn’t the only state with a weird, religious theme park. Holy Land U.S.A. opened in Western Connecticut in 1956 and actually did pretty good for a while before it was sold and abandoned in the 1980s. The 19-acre site is full of religious figures and recreations of biblical settings, making it a popular spot of curious urban explorers. Some locals still seem to take pride in the theme park, but efforts to revitalize the property have come and gone without much success. However, a 65-foot cross was installed in 2013, thanks to local funding. It lights up and changes colour to correspond to different holidays.

Flickr/Exquisitely Bored in Nacogdoches
Flickr/Exquisitely Bored in Nacogdoches
Flickr/Exquisitely Bored in Nacogdoches

Gothic Jail

DeRidder, Louisiana
Throughout much of its existence, the Beauregard Parish Jail was known as the Gothic Jail or Hanging Jail. The former was due to its architecture, which includes arched ceilings and a centralized tower. The latter was due to the third-floor gallows above a spiral staircase, where only two hangings were officially recorded-a pair accused of murdering a taxi driver in 1928. Emphasis on “officially.” It was also the first jail in the country that provided a window for every cell. Inmates used to wave to passersby, and according to local legend, you may catch a glimpse of their ghosts continuing to wave now that the jail is inactive. If you want to see what the place is really all about, take part in a Gothic Jail After Dark tour.

Jungle Park Speedway
Jungle Park Speedway
Jungle Park Speedway

Jungle Park Speedway

Bloomingdale, Indiana
There are enough abandoned race tracks in the country that Dale Earnhardt Jr. now hosts a show about them on Peacock. Take notice of the notoriously dangerous Jungle Park Speedway, carved out of a forest near Turkey Run State Park in 1926. Originally planned as a full resort, the property is slowly being reclaimed by nature, but still has its wood gates, a covered grandstand, and an old restaurant with a windmill on top. The track was known for its dangerous curves, including a tricky downhill turn. Wrecks were common. Drivers slammed into trees and sometimes even nearby Sugar Creek. Even a few spectators were killed, leading Jungle Park to close for good in 1960. The site occasionally hosts special events.

Jeremy McGowan/500px/getty images
Jeremy McGowan/500px/getty images
Jeremy McGowan/500px/getty images

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

Weston, West Virginia
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum just sounds like a haunted house to begin with-which may explain why it was called the Weston State Hospital throughout most of its operation. At its peak, the facility was overcrowded with 2,400 mentally ill patients, eventually shutting down in 1994. (The local economy still hasn’t recovered from the closure, which says all you need to know about this remote area of West Virginia.) The asylum, said to be the second-largest hand-cut sandstone building in the world behind the Kremlin, is a sprawling piece of spooky architecture with staggered wings to maximize natural sunlight for the patients. Paranormal tours are available.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Cornish Estate Ruins

Cold Springs, New York
You can drive north from New York City to Hudson Highlands State Park in about an hour-and-a-half. (Make it two hours. This is New York traffic we’re talking about.) The reward is a sweeping 8,000-acre landscape of trees, hills, parks, and trails along the Hudson River. Hike deep into the forest and you’ll come across the ruins of an old mansion, where a husband and wife entertained guests with parties away from the chaos of city life in the 1920s and ‘30s. It all came to an end when the couple died within weeks of each other. The home was abandoned and much of it destroyed in a fire. Those who visit the remains often report the sounds of laughter and toasting glasses-perhaps the homeowners continuing their party on the other side?

Photo by Rob Kachelriess
Photo by Rob Kachelriess
Photo by Rob Kachelriess

Lake Dolores Waterpark

Newberry Springs, California
One of the weirdest things you’ll see when driving between Las Vegas and Los Angeles is Lake Dolores Waterpark, which at one point was also known as Rock-a-Hoola and Discovery. Having a waterpark in the middle of nowhere seems like a dubious idea at best, but it managed to stick around a while after opening in the early ’60s. The park closed permanently in 2004, leaving beyond a bizarre mountainside landscape with graffiti covering the ruins where waterslides, pools, shops, and a lazy river used to exist. While not officially open for tours or visits, the abandoned attraction is visible from Interstate 15, drawing in curiosity seekers eager to cross a dip in the fence and explore the grounds.

Flickr/Mike Boening Photography
Flickr/Mike Boening Photography
Flickr/Mike Boening Photography

City Methodist Church

Gary, Indiana
Back when it was built in 1926, this ornate gothic church was as much a monument to the prosperity of Indiana steel industry as it was to God, a million-dollar ($13 million in today’s dollars), nine-story temple full of gorgeous arches, high pillars, and kaleidoscopic stained glass. Then the industry crashed, and with it went the parishioners. Today, it’s the decayed jewel of Gary’s many abandoned buildings, with 40 years worth of dust coating the beautiful shell of a building, whose glimmer has long since been pillaged. Today, it’s more famous for its Hollywood presence than its vibrant worship sessions: You may recognize it from 2009’s A Nightmare on Elm Street reboot or, more terrifyingly, Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

Flickr/Thomas Hawk
Flickr/Thomas Hawk
Flickr/Thomas Hawk

Tennessee State Prison

Nashville, Tennessee
A certified member of the Dad Movie Hall of Fame thanks to its appearances in The Last Castle, Walk the Line, and The Green Mile, the Tennessee State Prison closed in 1992 due to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. The building is, naturally, rumoured to be extremely haunted, having once been home to Martin Luther King’s assassin and an active electric chain. Not that you’re getting inside: The foreboding, castle-like architecture-which took heavy damage in this year’s tragic Nashville tornado-can only be observed from afar, lest you get behind the walls for an annual 5k. That might change if preservationists get their way and turn it into a museum. Until then, Ernest Goes to Jail superfans will have to remain content to only see its walls from afar or during a fun run.

 ROBYN BECK/ Contributor/afp/getty images
ROBYN BECK/ Contributor/afp/getty images
ROBYN BECK/ Contributor/afp/getty images

Salton Sea

Thermal, California
In the spring of 1905, the Colorado River flooded and filled an ancient dry lakebed with water creating a brand new lake that was named the Salton Sea. In the 1950s, the “Salton Riviera” became an incredibly popular getaway along the San Andreas fault (more popular than Yosemite) where people went to swim and fish. Only problem? This accidental lake didn’t have an outflow, which meant no natural stabilization system, which meant it eventually became saltier than sea water, which meant almost all of the fish died, and then separate from that, the water receded and pretty much everyone fled the scene. Now the beaches surrounding it are home to fish carcasses, boarded-up motels, and abandoned buildings. Basically, if you want to know what it will look like after the apocalypse-toxic dust and all-this is the only place you need to visit.

Flickr/Max and Dee Bernt
Flickr/Max and Dee Bernt
Flickr/Max and Dee Bernt

Crystal Mill

Crystal, Colorado
Crystal Mill isn’t exactly the scariest abandoned place on this list, but it’s nonetheless stunning. The remote nature of the mill ultimately led to Crystal’s current status as a ghost town, but it’s also what makes it such a spectacular sight: Perched precariously atop a cliffside and supported what looks like a frontier-style Jenga tower-which has somehow kept it from tumbling into the adjacent waterfall pool for nearly two centuries-the mill is flanked by dense pines and overshadowed by towering mountains. It’s something of a white whale for abandoned structures, requiring sturdy hiking boots or a 4×4 to reach.

Flickr/Benjamin Lehman
Flickr/Benjamin Lehman
Flickr/Benjamin Lehman

The Detroit-Superior Subway

Cleveland, Ohio
Like many Rust Belt cities, Cleveland’s got an abundance of abandoned structures. But in a city so obsessed with transit that it erected enormous Guardians of Traffic statues, it’s a bit odd that the long-disused subway system is all but forgotten. Score a spot on a self-guided tour, and you’ll be whisked underground to an area that feels a lot like The Tethered’s subterranean stomping grounds in Us, a place where decay has taken over beautiful tiling, grand arches, and even a remaining, well-preserved train car. The area also includes the underside of the Detroit-Superior Bridge, where train cars fell silent in 1955.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Bannerman Castle

Fishkill, New York
When Brooklynite Francis Bannerman VI’s army-surplus business grew too rapidly to be contained in New York City, he did what any entrepreneurial Scottish immigrant would do in the early 1900s; he built a castle on an island in the Hudson to contain the extra inventory, plus a smaller residential castle for comfort. After Bannerman’s death in 1918, a gunpowder explosion in 1920, and a handful of other unfortunate events, the castle was left in ruins. Left almost untouched-except by the hands of time and graffiti artists-the charmingly dilapidated castle is easily accessible from NYC via Metro-North. The Island hosts numerous tours as well, allowing you to immerse yourself in its uniquely apocalyptic and undeniably beautiful aesthetic.

Flickr/Laura Goins
Flickr/Laura Goins
Flickr/Laura Goins

Prehistoric Forest Amusement Park

Onstead, Michigan
Michigan is overflowing with gnarly abandoned places, particularly in the lower middle part of the state, where urban decay has made it a magnet for intrusive Instagrammers obsessed with ruin porn. But it’s not all abandoned auto plants and stations: wander the woods of Irish Hills near Ann Arbor and you might find yourself confronted by the shadows of something far older than the automotive industry. From 1963-1999, dinosaurs roamed these woods. Well, they roamed Michigan way longer ago than that. But these fiberglass-and-styrofoam beasts staked their claim at Prehistoric Forest Amusement Park for a 46-year run. Today, the creatures sit amid the fallen leaves, slowly being reclaimed in their own land of the lost.

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Rob Kachelriess is a Thrillist contributor. His work has also appeared in Travel + Leisure, Leafly, Supercall, Modern Luxury, and Luxury Estates International’s seasonal publication. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.

Andy Kryza is Thrillist’s former senior travel editor. He still has nightmares about Michigan’s creepiest abandoned places. Follow his cowardly adventures @apkryza. 

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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