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Guide to Visiting Ghost Towns

Dusty roads, vacant saloons, haunted cemeteries, and violent histories make up the heart of our American ghost towns. Their histories are frightening, dramatic, and fascinating all at once. Visiting ghost towns is about as close as most people will come to the thrill of a treasure hunt, or watching Indiana Jones for the first time. More importantly, ghost towns are everywhere and usually free to visit. And who can say no to free, convenient adventure?


Because of the historical significance of ghost towns, most are protected by federal and state laws. Some are protected because they are registered as historic places while others are protected as archaeological sites. These laws come with strict regulations to help protect the integrity of each sites. Tampering with any buildings, disturbing the site, and taking pieces of the town are strictly prohibited. In most ghost towns, even low impact metal detecting is forbidden.


While federal and state laws protect the cores of ghost towns, simple etiquette goes a long way to protect the little things. Most things are obvious: don’t litter, don’t vandalize anything, etc. However, some things are less apparent. In towns with current residents, do not consider their private homes to be part of some living museum, unless specified.


Though nearly every state in the U.S. has at least one ghost town, there are clearly some areas of the country that seem to have more ghost towns than legitimate ones. The southwest is particularly rank with ghost towns, owing in large part due to the time of western expansion and the rush for gold. Spend more than 5 minutes in New Mexico and you’ll probably come across a ghost town. The same is true for California’s Sierra Nevada range.


For online resources, there really is no site better than ghosttowns.com. Particularly useful is the map function, which allows you to click on any county in the country and get instant information on all ghost towns located there. Town profiles include directions, history (when known), and tips on any special features. For books, check out anything by the following authors: Philip Varney, Jim Hinckley, and Kerrick James. Their “Ghost Towns of” books of excellent travel advice and tips on ghost towns throughout the southwest.


Not all ghost towns appear as the vacant set of HBO’s “Deadwood”, in fact, almost none are like that. If you visit enough sites, you’ll see that some ghost towns are little more than a few stone foundations and the general impression of a road, overgrown with weeds. Others may have more preserved buildings, visitor information signs, and easy access. In some cases, ghost towns may still be functional with current residents a complete infrastructure. Any town that has seen significant decrease in population or industry may be considered a ghost town, especially if it is historically significant.

By Patrick Hutchison


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