Abandoned Towns Across America You Can Actually Visit
Once bustling with bars, brothels, and bandits, these 14 hamlets are now eerily desolate.
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 bars, brothels, and bandits, 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, even beer exactly where it was left -- that they feel like dusty time capsules from a century ago.
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.
MORE: Wrangell-St. Elias is one of America's more stunning winter destinations
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.
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. Saloons 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.
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.
While nearly half of the city’s buildings are originals, they’ve been restored, and the town -- which now rocks live music and cabaret shows -- 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.
Glenrio, Texas/New MexicoA 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: The town’s gas stations were built on the Texas side, where the gas tax was lower, and its bars were wisely built on the New Mexico side, since alcohol sales at the time were illegal in Deaf Smith County, Texas.
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.
Sitting on the edge of Death Valley, Rhyolite offered residents hotels, a hospital, an opera house and symphony, and even its own stock exchange. Its red-light district was infamous, employing ladies from cosmopolitan locales like San Francisco. 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 2011, 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. The town is still known for its many bottle houses, and 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.
Founded in 1766, it was essentially a “company town” owned/run for 92 years by William Richards before its iron and charcoal production were 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.
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.
Now, more than 30 historic buildings -- a dozen cabins, a store, a saloon, 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.
Centralia, PennsylvaniaIn 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.
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. Then 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.
Mystic, South DakotaThe 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 was 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 that’s 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.
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 saloon, 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.
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@example.com, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.