5 Ghost Towns Open to Visitors

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The phrase “ghost town” evokes images of hot, windswept towns in the remote American West, where 19th century miners rushed to stake a claim, rode a mining boom, then fled when the gold or silver rush ended. Many of these decaying towns still stand today, and are enjoying a second boom as modern tourists show up, eager to take a selfie in front of an 1890s saloon or graveyard. Some of these ghost towns are on private land, not accessible to the public. But many have become tourist destinations — a few tacky, others quite authentic — well worth a visit.

 

5. Goldfield, Arizona

Arizona's Superstition Mountains loom behind the ghost town of Goldfield. © Garry Wilmore

Arizona’s Superstition Mountains loom behind the ghost town of Goldfield. © Garry Wilmore

Located in the shadow of Arizona’s mysterious Superstition Mountains, Goldfield witnessed two mining booms and busts, in the 1890s and the 1920s. The Goldfield site today is actually a reconstruction of the adjacent town that decayed years ago. The site has become one of the more commercialized ghost towns in the West, with a railroad, mine tours, and even a zipline. It’s very accessible, located just off the Apache Trail (Arizona Hwy. 88) a few minutes east of suburban Phoenix.

 

4. Garnet, Montana

The ghost town of Garnet, Montana, is a great place for night photography. Credit: Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

The ghost town of Garnet, Montana, is a great place for night photography. Credit: Bob Wick/BLM

Located about 30 miles east of Missoula in western Montana, this mining town reached its peak around 1900 with around 1,000 residents. But the mining boom ended — they always do — and a devastating fire in 1912 destroyed many buildings. Garnet is today protected and operated as a tourist site by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Around two-dozen buildings remain standing. If you’re going, bear in mind Garnet is about 11 miles off main highways, and the access roads are dirt and mostly one lane, and impassable when there is snow. But if you can get there by snowmobile in winter, the BLM rents out two historic cabins for $30 to $40 per night. However, you might end up sharing your cabin with an unwelcome guest — Garnet is said to be haunted, with visitors reporting many strange sights and sounds in town.

 

3. Calico, California

The old California mining town of Calico has been brought back to life as a tourist attraction. © Jan Kronsell

The old mining town of Calico has been brought back to life as a tourist attraction. © Jan Kronsell

Calico once boasted 500 silver mines at its peak in the late 1800s. The town’s buildings sat abandoned for a half-century before a man named Walter Knott — better known for founding Knott’s Berry Farm — purchased the site. Knott left a handful of the town’s original buildings intact, painstakingly restored others, then opened the site to the public as one of the first commercialized ghost towns of the old West. San Bernardino County now operates the Calico site, and visitors can find souvenir shops, restaurants and camping facilities.

 

2. Thurmond, West Virginia

Downtown Thurmond, West Virginia, is an authentic ghost town, with no souvenir shops or other tourist attractions. © Brian M. Powell

Thurmond, West Virginia, was once a prosperous railroad town. © Brian M. Powell

Most people associate ghost towns with the gold and silver mining booms in the American West in the 19th century. But there are many towns elsewhere in the U.S. that once thrived but went into decline for some reason. Thurmond, W.Va., rose to prominence in the early 1900s as a rail town along the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. Today, the ghost town of Thurmond (population: 7 or so) is a side attraction for visitors passing through, or adventurers rafting the nearby New River Gorge. Thurmond is on the National Register of Historic Places, and while there’s not nearly as much to see here as in some other ghost towns, that makes it especially appealing to those purists who hate the commercialization and tourist-trap feel of some Western ghost towns. Take a hike, drop a fishing line in the New River that flows by Thurmond, and keep your eye out for one of the handful of local residents who still reside in town.

 

1. Bodie, California

The Methodist church in the ghost town of Bodie. © Kwong Yee Cheng

Bodie ghost town allegedly has a curse that strikes visitors who remove artifacts. © Kwong Yee Cheng

Bodie, California, draws more than 200,000 annual visitors and is probably the most-visited ghost town in the U.S. As far as mining towns, Bodie enjoyed a long original run. After the discovery of gold nearby in the 1870s, Bodie thrived until the early years of the 20th century. Today, its remarkably well-preserved but authentic structures are part of Bodie State Historic Park. If you’re going, beware the so-called “Curse of Bodie” that supposedly strikes any visitor who takes an artifact from the ghost town (which is prohibited). Rangers tell stories of former visitors who mailed back items they had taken from the park, hoping to remove the curse.

 

One More: Picher, Oklahoma

Toxic waste and a tornado led residents to abandon Picher, Oklahoma, a few years ago. © Jeremy

Toxic waste and a tornado led residents to abandon Picher, Oklahoma, a few years ago. © Jeremy

Centralia, Pennsylvania, is unquestionably the best-known modern U.S. ghost town, abandoned within the past generation as a fire in an underground coal mine has burned for more than 50 years. Picher, Okla., suffered a different type of environmental disaster that proved no less devastating. The town once thrived as a center of lead and zinc production; according to one estimate by NBC News, roughly three-quarters of the bombshells and bullets used by U.S. troops in both world wars were constructed with metals from the Picher area. Then, an EPA report in the early 1980s detailed extensive contamination in town. The agency created a Superfund cleanup site and ranked it more toxic than the infamous Love Canal site. As residents began a mass exodus just after the turn of the century, more bad news struck; engineers discovered that the honeycomb of mines beneath town put almost 90 percent of the town’s buildings, including the school, at risk of collapsing into sinkholes. To compound the misery, a tornado ripped through Picher in 2008, wiping out 20 city blocks and killing seven residents.

As of April 2014 there were still about 10 hardcore residents left in town. One longtime resident, Gary Linderman, still operates the Ole Miner Pharmacy on U.S. 69. Most of the other commercial buildings have been demolished, but if you drive through this forsaken place, you can see the mountainous piles of toxic mine waste towering all around town. If you can’t visit the area, just Google a satellite map of Picher; even better, do a Google street view tour down U.S. 69. You’ll be astounded at the piles of mine chat dominating the landscape.

Written by

The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.