America’s history is rich in stories of pioneers heading off to find their fortunes. When they found a bountiful haul, word would get out and “boomtowns” would fill with prospectors, followed by everything from brothels to churches.
Often, though, no sooner would a town get settled than whatever bounty had appeared would be gone, or disaster (both natural and manmade) would strike – and the town’s inhabitants would move out, often en masse.
What was left behind? Ghost towns, the abandoned remains of once-prosperous towns, now left to decay and dust. Many of these still exist throughout not only the West but across the US, often in off-the-beaten-track locales where they’ve been sitting undisturbed for over a century. You can visit their eerie remains—if you know where to look. From perfectly preserved towns to submerged skeletons, every ghost town is different; in some, you’ll find hip artist communities staking out space, in others, just the feeling of ghosts still swinging open saloon doors.
Be transported back in time at these 10 cool relics of boomtowns past.
Cerro Gordo, California
How to get there: It’s a three-hour drive from LA, then a bumpy 7 miles on unpaved roads.
Back in 1865, the Cerro Gordo Mines in the Inyo Mountains produced the equivalent of $500 million in silver. In its heyday, the town hummed with a population that hit 4000 with more than 500 buildings.
However, the town’s wealth brought mayhem, with a purported murder a week. Death was all around, including shootouts and a massive mine collapse that killed 30 Chinese immigrant miners. And then a fire wiped out most of the town in 1880. It’s a past not a lot of people would want to embrace, except for the one Tik Tok influencer, Brent Underwood, who bought the ghost town—which still has 22 buildings—and moved in right before the pandemic.
Expert tip: Underwood is hoping to revive the American Hotel, said to be the oldest hotel in California east of the Sierra Nevada and the town’s best-preserved building and turn the town into a resort.
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How to get there: 6 miles from Beatty on State Route 375 and about two hours north of Las Vegas
Set in a volcanic rock canyon at the edge of Death Valley, Rhyolite Ghost Town saw its population erupt to several thousand in 1904 after “Shorty” Harris’s famed gold discovery. By 1920, dwindling mine production caused the town to collapse. The weathered remains of the bank, general store and train depot have starred in many films and its easy accessibility makes it one of the most photographed ghost towns in Nevada.
Expert tip: Check out the Tom Kelly bottle house constructed out of 50,000 medicine, beer and whisky bottles. Restored for a Paramount Pictures film in 1926, the house still stands today.
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How to get there: About 100 miles north of Phoenix, about a two-hour drive
Jerome is a copper mining ghost town that was once known as the “Wickedest Town in the West.” Although it still looks like it did 100 years ago, there’s a twist to this ghost town: It’s now a creative hub, with artists and galleries sharing space with the rough-shorn relics of the past.
Another cool perk of a visit: you can spend the night in the haunted Jerome Grand Hotel which was originally a hospital; rumor has it that past hospital residents haunt the hotel.
Expert tip: Check out Haunted Hamburger for a great meal.
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How to get there: About 5 miles down the road from McCarthy, 90 miles from the turnoff from the Richardson Highway.
Kennicott, a once-booming copper mining town that was abandoned in the late 1930s, is inside the nation's largest national park—Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The mining buildings and barn-red bunkhouses, train depot, old mill building (with tools still on view) and other buildings were all left as-is when workers cleared out of town – however, the National Park Service did add some historical info to help you delve into this cool Alaska abandoned town.
Expert tip: In the small town of McCarthy (pop. 40) is Ma Johnson's Historic Hotel, the ideal place to stay inside the national park.
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St. Derion, Nebraska
How to get there: A 90-minute drive from Omaha
Located on the northern brim of Indian Cave State Park, St. Derion was completely abandoned in 1920. Before then, however, it was a healthy town that relied on income from its ferry crossing. Unfortunately, when the river changed course, the town began to weaken and fade. Severe floods led to its eventual fall, leaving only a schoolhouse, general store and two cemeteries. Speaking of those two cemeteries—word is this ghost town is haunted by actual ghosts, with visitors saying they’ve felt a “paranormal presence” while wandering the area.
Expert tip: St. Derion’s location makes it a great spot to add to a visit to Indian Cave State Park.
Deadwood, South Dakota
How to get there: Head northwest from Rapid City for about 40 miles
Grab your cowboy boots as you explore the old Wild West in the historic ghost town of Deadwood, once home to western legends Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane (and the inspiration for both the HBO series and movie of the same name). Founded during the gold rush of 1876, Deadwood remains today as it was then, complete with iconic stagecoaches and saloons.
Deadwood’s rich history has created many haunted legends, with spirits rumored to be spotted in the Bullock Hotel, Saloon No 10 and Mount Moriah Cemetery, where Hickock and Calamity Jane are both buried.
Expert tip: For more ghost lore, join one of the hotel's in-depth tours ($10).
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Ferguson, South Carolina
How to get there: Enter Lake Marion from Ferguson Landing in Eutaw Springs
For most ghost towns, visiting just means lacing up your sneakers and walking through town. However, for Ferguson, you’ll need some waterproofing—and a kayak. This underwater ghost town peeks just above the state’s largest lake, Lake Marion, and is the remains of one of the many towns moved to make room for South Carolina’s manmade lake. Accessible only by boat, Ferguson was once a bustling lumber town on the Santee River banks. The town's lumber mill, Santee River Cypress Lumber Company, began thriving in 1910, but it’s rumored that the workers were paid in untransferable currency, causing them to flee for better work, ultimately leading to the town’s demise. Visitors can now paddle through the remains and see one of the kilns, along with ghostly structures reaching up from the depths.
Expert tip: Want to spend the night? Taylor’s Landing and Campground offers the closest facilities to the sunken town.
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Thurmond, West Virginia
How to get there: Part of the New River Gorge National Park; highway access is from Route 19, between Beckley and Hico
Thurmond boomed in the 1870s when Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad opened the coal-rich region to both miners and developers. The trains brought tens of thousands of people to town, and everything from the bank to the bars did a brisk business. That all changed due first to the Great Depression, and then a series of fires. But today, Thurmond is remarkably well-preserved—especially the railroad station—and easily accessible as part of the New River Gorge National Park. Nearby, check out Beury, where you can see the remnants of the Beury General Store and explore the site where coal mining baron Joseph Beury built his 23-room mansion, complete with a swimming pool, stables and greenhouse.
Expert tip: Go white water rafting nearby with Adventures on the Gorge.
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How to get there: 50 miles east of Ely on US HWY 50; 4 hours from Reno
Unlike similar mining towns, Belmont’s boom lasted an impressive 20 years after the first silver discovery here in 1865. Many structures are still intact here, including the fascinating 150-year old Belmont Courthouse, a state historic site, where you’ll find that many visitors have carved their names, including Charles Manson! There are also preserved miners’ cabins and mill sites plus the Monitor-Belmont Mill chimney, originally built to mill bricks, then used for target practice by WWII Air Force pilots.
Expert tip: Head 20 miles west to the Manhattan Bar & Motel, the only functioning business in this nearby ghost town. Also here: Belmont’s original church, purportedly stolen in the middle of the night and moved to Manhattan after Belmont busted.
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Population: 0 (however park rangers reside here when on duty)
How to get there: Head 75 miles southeast from Lake Tahoe on HWY 395, then it’s 12 miles on mostly paved roads to get to the town
One of the largest intact ghost towns in the west, Bodie is actually a state historic park—protected as a relic of the gold rush era. Back in the late 1800s, Bodie was a booming mining community with nearly 10,000 residents. Over time, the gold started to diminish, as did the population. When the residents packed up, they left behind everything from furniture to bottles of booze, all still on display in the 200 buildings still at this site.
Expert tip: Plan a visit for Bodie Ghost Walks & Star Stories, spooky after-hours ghost tours of the abandoned town, cemetery and stamp mill.
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Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during Covid-19.