I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, where the coal mining boom had been and gone and left economic devastation in its wake. Towns that had existed solely to house workers had next to nothing left–it was a common skipping school activity to explore abandoned mills and the grand old houses of mine owners. Shops that closed due to no one to sell to, school buildings without students–everything was a hidden gem to explore, some out in the open and some tucked away. Looking back on some of the places we crawled around as teenagers, I’m surprised that there isn’t a newspaper article about kids caught in a cave-in. My love for abandoned areas hasn’t changed, even if I’m a bit safer about them in my old age (check out the Old Philosophou Monastery along the Menalon Trail). I’ve compiled a short list of ghost towns to visit in the States so that you can (safely) live out your adventurous fantasies and explore the remnants of once-vibrant areas. With a steep history across the nation, chances are there’s a ghost town near you just waiting to be explored.
Ghost Towns to Visit in the States
Kennecott Mine and Ghost Town, Chitina, AK
In 1903, Kennecott was a bustling copper mining camp; just 35 short years later, it was a ghost town. Today the area has just a few residents and is a popular attraction run by the National Park Service. Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark, nestled in the rolling hills includes a general store, post office, and other key buildings.
Elkmont Historic District, Gatlinburg, TN
Elkmont was once home to a thriving logging community. After the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934, many residents decided to cash in and sell or lease out their properties. In 1992 several of those leases expired leaving over 60 historic buildings vacant and thus Elkmont Ghost Town was born. Elkmont is easy to reach if you’re visiting Gatlinburg.
Mortimer, Caldwell County, NC
My grandparents lived in Asheville, so I spent a great deal of my childhood being able to explore the Great Smoky Mountains. We visited Mortimer regularly as part of our (short) hiking excursions–it was my favorite kind of playground. The Ritter Lumber Company hastily founded the town of Mortimer, North Carolina during the early 1900s in part to house lumber workers and then later mill employees. A series of floods and fires over the years ultimately led to Mortimer becoming a ghost town. Parts of the town can be accessed from various hikes at Mortimer Campground in the Pisgah National Forest. As an adult, the ruins of Mortimer remind me of the now-inaccessible ruins on White Island.
Ghost Town in the Sky, Maggie Valley, NC
Ironically this Western-themed amusement park in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, became a ghost town itself. It’s another amusement park I visited as a kid–western North Carolina has a history of these little themed attractions (like Tweetsie Railroad, which is still running). Ghost Town in the Sky was themed after Ghost Towns of the Wild West. After years of financial woes, lawsuits, and declining attendance, the park closed permanently in 2009. While visitors won’t be able to walk through the property, some brave explorers have driven to the entrance for views of the park. It may just be safer to watch from afar; this video from Dream Poet on YouTube takes viewers through the entire park.
Eckley Miner’s Village, Weatherly, PA
In 1854 Eckley was a coal mining village built to entice coal workers to the Northeastern Pennsylvania area. Eckley became a residential area that attracted European immigrants to the area. Today, Eckley Miner’s Village is a living history museum dedicated to educating visitors about the lives of those who lived in the village.
Custer Ghost Town, Idaho
Located in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, Custer dates back to the 1870s. The mining town was home to approximately 600 people during its heydey in 1896 but was a ghost town by 1910. Today, Custer is part of Yankee Fork State Park and remains one of the most popular ghost towns in the region.
Dearfield Ghost Town, Orchard, CO
Dearfield is unique in that it was a mostly all-Black mining settlement in Colorado. Visitors today can check out the remaining buildings, including both a gas station and a diner. In 1921 around 700 people lived here and the area was a prosperous one with valuation coming in at nearly one million dollars before the Great Depression. Learn more about the African Americans of the Western United States at the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center website.
Grafton Ghost Town, Rockville, UT
Established in 1859 near Zion National Park, five original structures of this Mormon settlement have been restored for people to explore. Grafton is a great place for those with a love of both history and photography. Grafton was the movie set for Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.
Bodie State Historic Park, Bridgeport CA
Bodie dates back to the California Gold Rush era. Gold was discovered here in 1875, but in just 6 short years, resources were spent. Today visitors can explore the areas left just as they were when abandoned. In some buildings items still remain on the shelves, frozen in time. Because of its high elevation, visiting Bodie State Historic Park during the spring and summer months is recommended. Snowmobiles, snowshoes, and skis are required if you wish to visit during the winter months.
Tips for Visiting Ghost Towns and Other Abandoned Sites
When planning out your itinerary of ghost towns to visit in the States, there are some rules you should follow to ensure the integrity and safety of the sites. Of course, if you’re visiting a site that is registered with the National Park Service or is a National Historic Site, getting permission to explore won’t be a problem. However, in many cases, ghost towns are on private property, so you should always know whether or not visitors are welcome. So, first and foremost, get permission!
If there’s a particular site you’re interested in visiting or have had an area on your bucket list for some time, don’t wait too long. With the passing of time, many things can change; social media has changed how we travel and often sites are closed to the public due to too much traffic. If there’s somewhere you want to visit, make plans to do so before it’s too late. One of the things I always loved about ghost towns and abandoned places was the quiet that enveloped me and being able to get lost in my thoughts–that’s not nearly as possible anymore and exploring without interruption is very precious.
Understand that when visiting ghost towns in the States, they are exactly that–abandoned towns. Likely facilities like restrooms and gas stations will be few and far between, so it’s important to plan and prepare. Also, know that when you’re exploring, there may be both visible and hidden dangers; rocky paths, deteriorating wood, rusty nails, etc… so plan accordingly and be smart; a hospital or clinic could be miles away. Wear appropriate clothing and footwear (spiders anyone??) and bring a flashlight.
Finally, have fun! There’s a world of history and abandoned places out there to explore, both at home and abroad. It’s one thing to read about these places and destinations in a book and another entirely to feel, see, smell, and touch them yourself. Whenever possible, opt for the latter!