A creaking garden gate, a faded playbill, a tin plate abandoned on a parched floor: Ghost towns across the West stoke the imagination. Whether lonely places long forgotten or beloved destinations stubbornly preserved, such relics spirit us back to a time of endless possibility, when fortunes waited to be raised from the ground. Note: Many roads close in the off-season; check current conditions.
Tins of coffee and spices still line the mercantile shelves in Bodie, California, one of the largest ghost towns in the country. More than 200 buildings present a snapshot of the days when it was a gold-mining boomtown of nearly 10,000. (When you're done visiting Bodie, hop on Highway 395 and see more nearby secret wonders.)
Nine miles off the highway and down a passable dirt track, Masonic, California, seems to echo with bygone energies. Take a walk past crumbling cabins and stone walls that testify to the Mono Basin’s short-lived gold boom. A skeleton of the tram system used to transport ore from the mine to the mill peeks above a rock outcropping, while the mill’s wooden remains teeter but still stand.
A 30-stamp mill towers above the silver- and gold-mining town of Berlin, Nevada, abandoned by 1911 and preserved as part of Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park. Peek into a house window to see a vintage radio atop a dresser or an old washboard next to a dusty rocker. Placards provide an account of local life.
At the height of silver mining in Frisco, Utah, you could read the Frisco Times, carouse in more than 20 saloons, and recover from a gunfight—common in this rip-roaring town of around 6,000—at the local hospital. The mine collapsed in 1885 (between shifts, miraculously killing no one), and by 1920, Frisco was deserted. Along with wooden shacks, the lonely cemetery, and the mine itself, five fascinating charcoal kilns—beehive-shaped stone structures as big as houses—await exploration.
Founded in 1890 and abandoned by 1920, Golden, Oregon, was the rare dry mining town, with two active churches and not a single saloon. All that remains at this state heritage site is a few photogenic buildings and, perhaps, the spirits of former residents. But those grave markers outside the church? Props used in filming Gunsmoke.
Until the mine’s power plant exploded in 1929, Gilmore, Idaho, housed more than 600 souls who endured harsh winters to extract silver and lead ore. It boasted a railroad line, restaurants, even a “lady barber.” Today, you can view surviving structures and take spectacular photos of rusted siding against sagebrush and sky.
During the off-season in the former gold-mining town of Custer, Idaho, the boarded-up buildings exude ghost-town loneliness. In Custer’s sister city, Bonanza, just over a mile away, weathered structures and a small graveyard invite meditative exploration. Both sites are part of Land of the Yankee Fork State Park and Historic Area.
After gold was discovered nearby in 1862, Bannack became Montana’s first territorial capital. Today, the state park’s meticulously preserved buildings include the Hotel Meade, where wallpaper clings above the curving staircase.
This article was first published in Summer 2015 and updated in October 2018.