The 9 Creepiest Ghost Towns in the U.S.
Add these abandoned places to your list the next time you're looking for a spooky trip.
It's one thing for a town to be quaint, uncrowded, and off the beaten path. It's another thing entirely if all the residents have decided to pack up and leave due to a sudden change of circumstances—leaving a haunting shell of a forgotten community. While most municipalities tend to hang in there even in the worst of times, there are still almost 3,800 ghost towns in the U.S., according to The New York Times. Some stand as relatively well-preserved glimpses into the past, while others are practically in ruins. But in almost every case, these relics of abandoned civilizations provide a surreal experience you can't recreate—and make for an unforgettable visit. Read on to see the creepiest ghost towns you can find in the U.S.
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Most ghost towns evoke images of booming mining encampments in the West that have long since lost their inhabitants. But there are still such sites east of the Mississippi, including one notable location in Alabama.
"Old Cahawba was once a thriving town built in between the Cahaba and Alabama rivers. This location would prove very lucrative for the cotton industry, and the town would become one of the richest in the U.S. during the 1800s," says Andi Martin, public relations manager for the Alabama Tourism Department.
However, the town soon saw many of its inhabitants move when the state capital was relocated to Tuscaloosa in 1826. Once the Civil War ended, the town was settled by formerly enslaved people and enjoyed some time as a booming cotton commerce center once more before the population thinned out, becoming a ghost town just before the turn of the century, according to Martin.
"Today, Old Cahawba is known as 'Alabama's most famous ghost town,'" she says. "The Cahaba Foundation was founded in 2008 to help raise private donations to preserve it, and now Old Cahawba is an archaeological research site."
West Texas is famous for its natural beauty and expansive wilderness, but it's also the home to a long abandoned town with a big reputation.
"Terlingua is the most famous ghost town in Texas, with buildings that have an Old West feel set amid the decayed ruins of the once-booming Old Chisos Mining Company," Steve Prohaska, travel expert and founder of See the Best Places, tells Best Life. "You can wander among the abandoned buildings, old miners' former homes, and historic cemetery. It's especially eerie during the town's candlelit Day of the Dead celebrations in early November. And that same week, you can also sample the town's world-famous chili during its annual championship cook-off."
But just because most of the town's permanent residents are long gone doesn't mean there's a place to rest your head, especially if you're planning on traveling around the area.
"Unlike some other ghost towns, you can find some very good lodging options here," Prohaska says. "It's the perfect base from which to explore Big Bend National Park, which itself has spooky places like abandoned ranches and mines, located only a stone's throw from the ghost town."
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Bombay Beach, California
Some towns dry up when the local industries disappear and the inhabitants move away. In the case of Bombay Beach, it took the very body of water that made it a coastal destination to literally start drying up for the town to fade into obscurity.
It wasn't too long ago that the all-but-forgotten town was a popular vacation destination in the 1950s along the shore of the Salton Sea, an artificial inland lake near the Mexican border surrounded by stark desert in Imperial County, according to The Guardian. However, agricultural runoff in the rivers feeding it increased its salinity, killing off nearly all of the millions of fish that lived in it beginning in the 1980s and creating an unpleasant smell that drove off the area's high-end clientele. Today, abandoned bungalows, trailers, and vehicles appear to outnumber residents.
But even though the Salton Sea has since evaporated and shrunk well back from its previous shoreline, the town is showing signs of life again as an artists' colony. While the site only has two small stores, visitors can look forward to the annual Bombay Beach Biennale art festival, visit the "drive-in" movie theater, or stop in for a meal at the town's only restaurant and bar, the Ski Inn.
Nevada City, Montana
Anyone taking a road trip through the West has no shortage of options regarding abandoned settlements. But experts say one ghost town in particular has found its way into the afterlife as a well-preserved experience for travelers who are passing through.
"Make a pit stop in Nevada City, a ghost town roughly 90 miles northwest of Yellowstone National Park, while taking in Montana's clear skies and stunning surroundings. The revitalized former gold mining community is home to numerous historic log buildings as well as a variety of vintage calliopes, player pianos, and music boxes," says Jenny Ly, travel blogger and founder of Go Wanderly.
The town makes it easy to step back into the past. "During a trip, visitors can take a 20-minute train journey between Nevada City and Virginia City, Montana, pan for gold, observe live reenactments of historical events, and more. And you can spend the night at the historic Nevada City Hotel, a former stage stop from the 1860s, or in an actual pioneer cabin."
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Some towns lose their inhabitants to changes in industry or transportation networks. Others lose them due to more tragic, unexpected accidents.
Centralia, Pennsylvania, operated as a coal mining town that at one point boasted more than 2,000 residents before its population dipped to around 1,000, according to All Things Interesting. In 1962, a fire in the town's landfill spread to nearby coal tunnels, igniting an underground blaze that continues to burn to this day. After repeated attempts to stamp out the flames were unsuccessful, officials ordered the town evacuated in the 1980s due to the poisonous gases seeping up from the ground and dangerous fissures created by the underground inferno. However, a few residents defied the state's eviction notices, with a handful still holding claim to their property today—despite the 60-year-old blaze that still warms the ground beneath their feet.
While many of the settlement's previous structures have been razed, the abandoned Route 61 that leads to the town has been transformed into a sprawling piece of graffiti art, All Things Interesting reports. The town was also the inspiration for the Silent Hill video game series and the 2006 horror film of the same name.
Saint Elmo, Colorado
Ghost towns are essentially abandoned, so they tend to show their age. However, there are still some places that look dated while still somehow providing an eerie feeling that there are still residents around.
"One of the best-preserved ghost towns in Colorado is Saint Elmo, which is a mere 83 miles southeast of Aspen," says Ly. "The town's final residents are said to have boarded the final train in 1922 and never came back."
"The town was founded in 1880 for miners looking for gold and silver. Several wooden shops, including the general store, can still be seen in there today if you travel there in a car or all-terrain vehicle," she says. "Rent a log cabin for the ideal mountain escape. And the notorious Colorado town of Tin Cup, which is well-known for its connections to shady Wild West bandits and its eerie town cemetery, is also nearby."
Other experts agree that it's worth the stopover. "It's best preserved and easily accessible all year round," travel writer and hospitality expert Molly Egan tells Best Life. "It has over forty remaining buildings for the extra creepy yet realistic vibe, including a saloon, jail, courthouse, mercantile, and homes."
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Seeing an abandoned building can feel scary as it is, but experiencing an entire town that looks like it was just ditched in the middle of the night can provide a whole different level of spookiness.
"Bodie in California is seriously creepy due to the number of personal effects still in the buildings," Louise Walker, managing editor of Aglaia Magazine, tells Best Life. "It feels as though time has stood still as the residents suddenly up and left during a huge fire. The town is in a state of 'arrested decay,' meaning it's unreconstructed and only receives necessary maintenance. You can see some of the stores still stocked with goods with cutlery on tables exactly as they were left. The schoolhouse even still has lessons on the chalkboard."
The Lower 48 isn't the only place you can find standing ghost towns. Experts point out one of the best still standing is far north in an area that was equally affected by gold and mining rushes more than a century ago.
"Kennecott, Alaska is the site of an abandoned copper mining camp that popped up in 1903," Nick Mueller, director of operations of HawaiianIslands.com, tells Best Life. "The drying up of resources and low prices caused many residents to move out, and it was abandoned by 1938. It's now a National Historic Landmark with many of the buildings being preserved."
Animas Forks, Colorado
The story of Animas Forks, Colorado, is similar to many other ghost towns in the region. After becoming the hub of a bustling mining operation by the mid-1870s, the town supported multiple businesses and even a newspaper before it finally succumbed to decline and was abandoned by the 1920s, according to Uncover Colorado. But the site does stand out for a few other reasons.
"This one is especially fascinating because it is one of the highest mining towns in the U.S. in terms of elevation," Michael Belmont, owner of online travel agency The Park Prodigy, tells Best Life. "It's located on a crest between Cinnamon Mountain and Houghton Mountain and offers beautiful sweeping views and many still-intact buildings that are worth checking out. Access to them is unrestricted, which is unique for many of these abandoned towns."
But if you're really looking to get creeped out, just wait until the sun goes down. "The town has a very spooky feeling about it, especially at night. The abandoned mine right at the base of the town allows your mind to run wild in the dark, and the starlight dancing over the intact but lifeless buildings can be especially creepy."