Here I am, in some godforsaken desert, looking at rubble, broken glass and rusty old cars. Why? Because I’m curious and fascinated by American history. I don’t spend much time going to museums, but ghost towns can keep my mind busy for hours. I love to explore these towns and imagine how they once were alive and booming. It’s also about people. Just think of the souls who went to seek fortunes and a better life. I know there are abandoned towns all over the world, but American ghost towns stands out and they make a great detour of any road trip.
6 Must-See Ghost Towns
- Bodie, California (Website)
- Garnet, Montana (Website)
- Randsburg, California (Website)
- Ballarat, California (Website)
- Bombay Beach, California (Website)
- Tombstone, Arizona (Website)
Want to see? Take a look at my Ghost Towns Photo Gallery.
What is a ghost town?
Are ghost towns only about old mines, frontier hardship and abandoned buildings from the late 1800’s? No, some towns simply died because they were by-passed by the highway and time, just drive the iconic Route 66 and see for yourself. What really defines a ghost town is up for debate. In my mind, a town does not have to be completely deserted to be called a ghost town. A settlement can be sparsely populated and then called a semi-ghost town, for example Tierra Amarilla in New Mexico. Some ghost towns have become vibrant and touristy as Nevada City and Virginia City in Montana. While there are many ghost towns to explore throughout the country, these are the 6 towns you should consider next time you hit the road.
Bodie is probably the most famous of all the many American ghost towns. If you’re somewhere near Yosemite or Death Valley, do not miss out on a visit to Bodie. It’s by far the largest ghost town I’ve seen. The mining town from the late 1800’s is said to have had 65 saloons and 10,000 people by 1880. I found it interesting because of its size and the many well-preserved old buildings. You get to Bodie by a bumpy 13 mile long road off State Highway 395. It’s worth the drive. Nearby you’ll find the strange Mono Lake, so take your time exploring the area.
Garnet in Montana is a true gem of a ghost town, hidden high in the Garnet Mountain Range. The fun starts with a scenic drive on a dirt road to the mountain town. I went in the summer and it was pretty hot at that time, but in the winter it gets cold and snowy. Keep that in mind when you imagine how people lived their lives here. There are many interesting buildings and historic artifacts from the time when Garnet was a gold-rush town.
Randsburg is known as the “Living Ghost Town”, and I also found it rather lively for a ghost town. Here you’ll find some antique shops, historic sights, a church, and a museum. Most important, in my view, is the White House Saloon. Hop in for a drink and something to eat. The town is located in the high desert north of Los Angeles, roughly a two-hour drive. It’s definitely a place to stop by and visit for a semi-ghost town experience.
Ballarat is a classic ghost town and sits at the base of the Panamint Mountains in California, part of the greater Death Valley region. There are not as many remnants as in Bodie and Garnet, but the town is definitely worth a visit. There are no tours or guides; it’s up to you to explore the area. Take a walk and you’ll be able to visualize how life was like back in the heydays from 1897 to 1905. When I was walking around the remains of the old town, I wondered why anyone would choose to live in such a desolate and harsh place. I know the answer though. People came to find gold, but only a few did. Today you have the opportunity to buy some refreshments at the small and cozy store. It’s open most afternoons and weekends. If you’re looking for some extra adventure, take the Wingate Road to Goler Wash. This will lead you to Barker Ranch, the infamous Charles Manson’s desert hideout, but to get there you need 4×4 with high clearance, and some planning is recommended.
Bombay Beach in Southern California is a semi-ghost town and part of a former resort region that was popular in the 1960’s. The town is located on the east shore of the Salton Sea. There are several remnants and abandoned structures to explore. I spent most of a day at this fascinating and odd place. The lake itself is unusual because of its ever increasing salinity, and the surrounding desert adds to the otherworldly atmosphere. In addition, Bombay Beach is situated directly above the San Andreas Fault.
Tombstone in Arizona is not really a ghost town since it’s still populated, but it does have the feel of a ghost town because of its history and many historical buildings. The town is also known as The Town Too Tough to Die. If you go, remember to visit Boothill Graveyard. Here you’ll get a glimpse into Tombstone’s violent past.
If you’re really into it, I recommend this book with maps, historical background and lots of practical information: Ghost Towns of the Mountain West by Philip Varney.
Not a book type? Find ghost towns at www.ghosttowns.com.