Travel

Abandoned Towns Across America You Can Actually Visit

Once bustling with riches and rascals, these 14 hamlets are now eerily desolate.

Zack Frank/500px/Getty Images
Zack Frank/500px/Getty Images
Zack Frank/500px/Getty Images

Everyone’s chasing riches in the Land of Opportunity. But when the riches run out, people move on to something newer, shinier, and untapped. It happened to countless boom towns after Gold Rush miners depleted all the gold, and when Gilded Age industrial sites collapsed-and it’s a big reason why the United States was left with so many abandoned towns in the 19th and 20th centuries.

From coast to coast, America’s ghost towns carry the most peculiar backstories. Some began as lucrative mining communities that cleared out almost overnight, and some are casualties of new railways and interstates. Others were once capital cities ravaged by nature and fate. These skeletons of the past could be sets for the next Coen Brothers Western, and at least one has already inspired a chilling horror flick. Hell, some ghost towns are reported to have literal ghosts roaming through the wreckage.

Once bustling with riches and rascals, these 14 hamlets are now eerily desolate. You can visit most of them today, but be careful what you touch. Many are so perfectly preserved-furniture, dishes, and more exactly where they were left-that they feel like dusty time capsules from a century ago.

IntentionalTraveler/Shutterstock
IntentionalTraveler/Shutterstock
IntentionalTraveler/Shutterstock

Kennecott, Alaska

All that glitters may not be gold, but it can still make you a fortune. Copper lured brave miners to this remote Alaskan spot in the early 1900s after two prospectors stumbled upon what turned out to be $200 million worth of the metal while resting their horses.

They formed what was then called the Utah Copper Company in 1903. Within a few years, and with the help of J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheims, they turned the place into a “self-contained company town,” complete with a tennis court and skating rink. One of Kennecott’s five mines contained the world’s richest copper concentration-they named the claim “Bonanza.” By 1938, however, the copper supply was running low enough that the mines shuttered.

Today, it’s a National Historic Landmark-and one of Alaska’s most popular points of interest-in the heart of the massive Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which doesn’t charge an entrance fee. The iconic red mill on the hill spans 14 stories above a glacier and can be explored by visitors who take the official Kennecott Mill Town Tour.

Flickr/Terra Trekking
Flickr/Terra Trekking
Flickr/Terra Trekking

St. Elmo, Colorado

Founded in 1880, St. Elmo was once a highfalutin gold mining town and popular whistle-stop on the Pacific Railroad. It boasted almost 2,000 residents and more than 150 mines-plus enough inns and dance halls to keep everybody in town happily cutting a rug. When the Alpine Tunnel closed in 1910, however, the music stopped. With the price of silver already down, the last remaining rail service stopped in 1922. The dedicated few that stuck around suffered another loss 30 years later when the postmaster died and postal service was discontinued, further sequestering them from civilization.

Despite numerous fires charring the canyon over the years, St. Elmo remains one of America’s best-preserved ghost towns. Several original structures are still intact, providing an unfiltered glimpse into life during the mining boom (one big exception is the town hall, which had to be rebuilt in 2008 following a particularly destructive blaze). Present-day visitors can tour the old mining roads in ATVs, fish along Chalk Creek, stay in a historic cabin, and shop from a general store that’s open through the summer. Most tourists stop in during warmer months when St. Elmo comes to life, but some prefer to visit in the wintertime when roads and trails are truly abandoned.

Zach Frank/Shutterstock
Zach Frank/Shutterstock
Zach Frank/Shutterstock

Bodie, California

Like a straight-up Western movie set, Bodie is one of the most famous (and the largest unreconstructed) ghost towns in America. Established in 1859 when William S. Bodey discovered gold in the area, the original camp of around 20 miners mushroomed to some 10,000 during the California Gold Rush-roughly the same population as Los Angeles. By 1880, the town consisted of 2,000 buildings, including roughly 200 restaurants. As the gold vanished, though, so did the townsfolk. By 1942, the last mine had shut down.

Today the town is a National Historic Site protected by the California parks system. Buildings are in a state of “arrested decay,” meaning they will only receive necessary maintenance that prevents them from deteriorating and collapsing. Inns still contain pool tables complete with balls and cues, plus assorted chairs and cutlery, resting exactly where they were left more than half a century ago, and some store shelves remain stocked with goods (no, they’re not for sale). Visitors should be sure to arrive during regular park hours with admission cash in hand; during the summer, guests can take guided tours through the Standard Mill for an inside look at the gold-extraction process.

Flickr/Pat Henson
Flickr/Pat Henson
Flickr/Pat Henson

Cahawba, Alabama

Cahawba has an illustrious history for a ghost town: From 1820 to 1825, it served as Alabama’s state capital before flooding so many times that most of the residents fled for drier pastures (and took the title of capital with them). It remained for years a hub of cotton distribution. During the Civil War, it was home of the Confederate Castle Morgan prison, where thousands of Union soldiers were kept between 1863 and 1865-when another massive flood started driving people out for good. By the early 1900s, most buildings had been demolished, too.

Still, there’s enough left for history buffs today to enjoy. The welcome center, built in the image of a notable general’s cottage, includes a small museum of artifacts and photos from Cahawba’s peak. Guests can take self-guided tours of the major Civil War sites, the cemetery, and a woodsy nature trail; and no visitor should leave without seeing the Crocheron Columns, the only remaining parts of the Crocheron Mansion where important negotiations were made during the Battle of Selma.

magmarcz/Shutterstock
magmarcz/Shutterstock
magmarcz/Shutterstock

Virginia City, Montana

Former home of the famous frontierswoman Calamity Jane, this old gold-mining town (est. 1863) was known for its rough-and-tumble ways. The remote spot didn’t have enough law enforcement or a justice system. As a result, robberies and murders were the norm, and gangs of outlaws known as road agents killed 100 people between 1863 and 1864 alone. Still, Virginia City briefly served as the capital of the Montana Territory (before it was a state), and grew to a population of around 10,000. When gold ran out, though, the city lost momentum and became the Victorian-era time capsule it still is today.

While nearly half of the city’s buildings are originals, they’ve been restored, and the town-which now rocks live music and other performances-is a lively tourist destination. A number of tours provide visitors with whatever experience suits their interests best: Want ghost stories? You’ve got ‘em. Fascinated by trains? There’s a scenic railway for you. Like luxury? Ride in style to the most important historic spots. Prefer novelty? Learn about the town on an old fire truck.

Sue Smith/Shutterstock
Sue Smith/Shutterstock
Sue Smith/Shutterstock

Glenrio, Texas/New Mexico

A relic of the legendary Route 66, Glenrio straddles the Texas-New Mexico border, so it’s officially part of both states. This apparently had several benefits: For example, the town’s gas stations were built on the Texas side, where the gas tax was lower.

The town’s life cycle could’ve been longer. Founded in 1903, it became a popular way station for travelers. When I-40 was built in the early ‘70s and motorists stopped coming through, it withered. This is also the plot of the movie, and fittingly, the town motel makes an (animated) cameo in the movie as a racing museum.

Glenrio has no use now other than to provide passersby with a kick of Route 66 nostalgia. The boarded-up Little Juarez Cafe harks back to the time of Valentine Diners (even though it’s not actually one), and the First in Texas/Last in Texas Motel and Cafe is a fan favorite.

Laurens Hoddenbagh/Shutterstock
Laurens Hoddenbagh/Shutterstock
Laurens Hoddenbagh/Shutterstock

Rhyolite, Nevada

Live fast, die young: This Gold Rush town did just that, founded in 1904 and deserted by 1916, despite being the third-largest city in Nevada for a time.

Sitting on the edge of Death Valley, Rhyolite offered residents hotels, a hospital, an opera house and symphony, and even its own stock exchange, among other entertainment. But all good things must come to an end, and in Rhyolite’s case, the Panic of 1907 hammered the first nail in the coffin, causing banks to fail, mines to close, and newspapers to shutter. The famed Montgomery Shoshone mine ceased operations in 1911, and any straggling Rhyolites were gone within a few years.

Though it’s been abandoned for almost a century, you can see Rhyolite in a number of old Westerns, including The Air Mail. Visitors will still see the skeletons of a three-story bank, part of the old jail, the general store, as well as Rhyolite’s train station. Just outside of town lies another notable attraction: the free and open-to-the-public Goldwell Open Air Museum, perhaps the oddest roadside attraction in a state known for its off-highway weirdness.

Flickr/Chris M Morris
Flickr/Chris M Morris
Flickr/Chris M Morris

Batsto Village, New Jersey

With a name derived from the Swedish word batstu (meaning sauna), this Jersey town was once a bustling ironworks that supplied the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

Founded in 1766, it was essentially a “company town” owned/run for 92 years by William Richards before its iron and charcoal production was replaced by a mine in Pennsylvania. Industrialist Joseph Wharton (yep, that Wharton) stepped in and bought the town in 1876, experimenting with agriculture and manufacturing before also throwing in the (terrible?) towel to presumably start his little business school in Philadelphia.

Over 40 of the original structures remain today, including Batsto Mansion, a sawmill, a blacksmith, ice and milk houses, a carriage house and stable, and a general store. You can even mail letters at the still-operational post office. The buildings have been fully restored and are maintained as a historical site, with a museum and visitors center.

Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Dawson, New Mexico

Every abandoned town has an air of sadness, but none compare to the tragic past of Dawson, New Mexico. What sprouted as a promising company town for Dawson Fuel Co. in 1901 soon became home to a series of devastating decennial explosions in the coal mines: Three lives were lost in 1903, over 250 perished in 1913, and 123 died in 1923. At its peak, Dawson’s population reached numbers around 9,000, mostly recent immigrants from Europe and Mexico; when the 1913 explosion shattered the community, people started moving on.

In the decades that followed these disasters, the demand for coal slowly declined until finally, the last mine closed in 1950. The area was sold, most of the structures were demolished, and the few remains of Dawson were left to decay.

Today, this ghost town features more ghosts than town. The only notable landmark left is the Dawson Cemetery, where a sea of white crosses represents the nearly 400 people who died in the mine explosions. Mass casualty sites breed paranormal activity, explaining how the desolate land that once held up Dawson is now one of the most haunted places in America. Visitors have reported seeing lights like those on a mining helmet dancing around, hearing untraceable moans and voices, and coming across ghostly figures that vanish if you get too close. Explore at your own risk.

Nagel Photography/Shutterstock
Nagel Photography/Shutterstock
Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

Garnet, Montana

Named for the semi-precious red gems prospectors discovered there along with gold, Garnet was inhabited from the 1860s through about 1912, when a fire razed half the town. Since the gold had pretty much run out anyway, there wasn’t much point in rebuilding it. Garnet lasted as long as the mines did; which is to say, not that long. In its heyday, though, the isolated town maintained four hotels, two barbershops, a doctor’s office, and a school, as well as a daily stagecoach route to nearby towns.

Now, more than 30 historic buildings-a dozen cabins, a store, and part of the J.K. Wells Hotel-remain, their interiors practically untouched and still full of dishes, furniture, and clothes. Every June, the town hosts Garnet Day, an afternoon of activities put on for the public, and in the wintertime, there are two rentable cabins on offer. The mountain town was known for its beauty, and its kept-up nature trails continue to impress anyone on the hunt for serenity. More active visitors also enjoy nearby hiking, hunting, fishing, skiing, off-roading, and camping.

DON EMMERT/Getty Images
DON EMMERT/Getty Images
DON EMMERT/Getty Images

Centralia, Pennsylvania

In the late 1800s, Centralia was a thriving coal-mining town with a population of around 2,700. Technically-technically-Centralia is not a ghost town, since as of 2017 “under five” people live there. However, it makes up for this in eeriness and potential for actual ghosts because Centralia is literally on fire… and has been for decades.

An abandoned coal mine caught fire in 1962, and it’s been smoldering underground ever since. Residents understandably evacuated and the town never recovered. Over time, the population dropped to the handful who remain today. When they die, the state will take their property through eminent domain.

Currently, the town doesn’t even have a zip code, and up until the 2006 horror movie Silent Hill cited Centralia as an inspiration, few people knew the place existed. The coal seen fueling the fire is expected to last another 250 years, and in the meantime, there’s not a whole lot visitors can (or should) do there, given the presence of toxic chemicals. People long enjoyed driving four-wheelers down the buckled Graffiti Highway, but property owners covered the landmark with dirt in April 2020 after trespassers flocked to Centralia for joy rides amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For now, Centralia is more of an interesting story than a destination, but there’s truly no telling how the future of this mostly abandoned town will unfold.

Janis Maleckis/Shutterstock
Janis Maleckis/Shutterstock
Janis Maleckis/Shutterstock

Ashcroft, Colorado

Upon discovering silver in 1880, two prospectors eager to make a quick buck created a Miner’s Protective Association, and immediately the site attracted 23 other miners. Within two weeks, they’d built streets and a courthouse. Within five years, Ashcroft was home to more than 3,500 residents. But like most mining towns, at some point they ran out of stuff to mine, and by the end of 1885, only 100 residents remained.

By the 1930s, the Winter Olympics brought a new wave of attention to the area, including, at one point, plans to construct a huge ski resort. Billy Fiske, captain of the American bobsled team (and the newly minted youngest gold medalist in any Winter Olympic sport), and his business partner Ted Ryan built the Highland-Bavarian Lodge. When Fiske was killed in WWII, the momentum fizzled. Ashcroft has remained a ghost town since 1939. Plans for the ski resort, though, moved about 10 miles north-to a little up-and-coming town named Aspen.

Rand Kay/Shutterstock
Rand Kay/Shutterstock
Rand Kay/Shutterstock

Mystic, South Dakota

The Black Hills are sprinkled with ghost towns, dozens of relics of a bygone gold boom. Mystic (née Sitting Bull) started as a small creekside camp in 1876, and it survived, honestly, a lot longer than it should have.

By 1885, Mystic had a post office; by 1889, it had a rail line; by 1906, it had a second rail line; and shortly after, Mystic was responsible for importing coal into the Black Hills and exporting timber and gold out of them. For a while, Mystic’s managed to deflect numerous potential death blows with panache. Floods destroyed bridges and rail lines, the town’s sawmill burned down, and the Great Depression put the place in dire straits, but the town just kept rebuilding and recovering. It wasn’t until the end of WWII that things spiraled downward when limited resources made operating the mill too difficult.

Soon enough, passenger trains stopped going to Mystic, and the once-thriving train hub began chugging to a halt. In 1952, the sawmill ceased to exist, followed by the post office, the parlors, and the population. Over a dozen buildings left behind were added to the National Register of Historic Places, including the picturesque McCahan Chapel, which is still used occasionally for special events. If visitors are willing to venture down a 12-mile gravel road, they can see the remnants for themselves and get a feel for the area by trekking the Mickelson Rail Trail.

Flickr/Ian Sane
Flickr/Ian Sane
Flickr/Ian Sane

Shaniko, Oregon

The history of Central Oregon’s Shaniko looks a little different than most of America’s ghost towns: It wasn’t a mining boomtown, but rather a haven for ranchers and an unusually large shipping hub for somewhere so far inland. Once deemed the “Wool Capital of the World,” Shaniko rose and fell incredibly fast.

In 1900, the Columbia Southern Railway was extended to the area, connecting it to other parts of Oregon and surrounding states. Shaniko was officially incorporated in 1901, and that same year the town produced 2,000 tons of wool to service communities along the rail line. Business was steady-one year, wool sales totaled $5 million-until the decade’s end, when a new, more appealing railroad cut Shaniko out of the equation. Around the same time, two fires in the business district destroyed any remaining hype, sending Shaniko on the path toward abandonment only 10 years after its founding.

A very small handful of people still occupy Shaniko, but it’s been officially called a ghost town since the ‘50s. The Shaniko Hotel was-and continues to be-the town’s main attraction. Finished in 1902, it was initially a jack-of-all-trades gathering place, with guest rooms, a bank, and a dance hall. Other surviving buildings include the Sage Museum, Shaniko School, city hall, jail, post office, and a wool barn. Businesses along “Shaniko Row” open seasonally for summer visitors passing through, including beloved ice cream shop Goldies.

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Kyler Alvord loves a good ghost (and a good town). Find him on Twitter and Instagram.

Sophie-Claire Hoeller has had frequent flyer status since she was born in a Lufthansa terminal. Follow her @Sohostyle.

Kastalia Medrano is Thrillist’s Travel Writer. You can send her travel tips at [email protected], and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.

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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