Not everyone sees the beauty in abandoned places. It takes a special kind of traveler to come across the decaying structure of an old building, the rusted husk of a car sinking into the desert floor, and a long forgotten street being reclaimed by the earth and regard it with wonder. But for those who see shuttered towns as an opportunity to walk amongst history and listen closely for tales of former glory outside of closed down saloons, there’s no better place than the seemingly endless desert that surrounds Las Vegas. If you can appreciate the eerie allure of ghost towns, here are a few to consider when planning your next road trip.
1. Rhyolite, Nevada
As you drive down the dusty dirt road to Rhyolite, you’ll notice something strange on the horizon: 12 actual ghosts silhouetted against the desert sky. No, you’re not being greeted by the town’s former residents; you’re looking at an art installation that’s actually a part of the Goldwell Open Air Museum. The ghosts, along with six other sculptures, serve as a perfectly ominous introduction to the well-preserved ghost town that lies in the hills behind them. Rhyolite, named after the volcanic rock in the area, is just 120 miles from Las Vegas and just moments from the gateway to Death Valley National Park. After prospectors discovered gold in the area in 1904, Rhyolite sprang to life and started building hotels, casinos, shops, a school, a hospital, and even a red light district for its estimated 5,000 citizens. But by 1916, financial panic hit. The electricity was cut off and everyone was gone. Today, you can see an impressive array of remaining structures including a bank, train depot, and even a house made of beer bottles that serves as a testament to the town’s wild past.
2. Panamint City, California
If you believe that the best ghost towns are the ones you reach on foot, Panamint City just might be the hike of your life. The hike begins 200 miles from Las Vegas on the west side of the Panamint Mountains in Death Valley National Park near Ballarat, a ghost town itself with only one resident who will gladly sell you a soda and tell you about the nearby abandoned truck that once belonged to the Manson family. The five mile hike to Panamint City takes you through Surprise Canyon, a lush area that will require you to bushwhack, wade through water and gain about 4,000 feet of elevation. The end result is Panamint City, a ghost town founded by outlaws in 1874. Highlights of the area include a smelter, abandoned vehicles, and best of all, hiker maintained cabins with names like The Panamint Hilton and The Castle. If you choose to stay in one, be wary of hantavirus, fire regulations, and if you can, pack in some cleaning supplies to leave them better than you found them.
3. Nelson, Nevada
It’s pretty wild to think that in just 45 minutes, you can travel from a casino floor on Las Vegas Boulevard to a ghost town that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere. Such is the quiet beauty that is Nelson. Located near the end of a winding road surrounded by more cholla cacti than you will probably ever see anywhere else in your life, you’ll find Nelson, the site of one of the first major gold strikes in Nevada. Originally named Eldorado by the Spanish settlers who discovered it in 1775, the townsite grew and changed names after prospectors built the Techatticup Mine. It was known as a lawless, violent place. Today, it’s much more peaceful but still just as interesting. You can stroll amongst the ruins, take a mine tour, and even take some photos of a wrecked plane that served as a prop in the movie 3,000 Miles to Graceland.
4. Belmont, Nevada
At 260 miles outside of Las Vegas, Belmont is a slightly longer drive than some other ghost towns on this list, but it’s well worth it. Located just north of Tonopah (Fun fact: The “pah” is a Paiute word that means “water,” and you’ll notice it used often in Nevada place names.), Belmont is a classic example of a mining town that rose to prominence and then ended up abandoned just years later. The most iconic structure, a towering brick courthouse, was built in 1876, but there are plenty of other old structures to see as well, along with a few hardy residents who call the ghost town home. Belmont rests at an elevation of 7,433 feet, making it a great place to visit in the summer to escape the Las Vegas heat, or a great place to visit in the winter if you’re a lifelong desert dweller and you’ve never seen snow before. Like all ghost towns, it’s far removed from civilization and lacks fancy hotels and restaurants (a good thing, if you ask us), but the historic Belmont Bed and Breakfast is currently in the process of being brought back to life. If you’re willing to pitch in with restoration efforts, you can stay there for free.
5. Gold Point, Nevada
The story of how Gold Point transformed from a boom and bust mining town to a ghost town where you can actually rent a room for the night is curious one. A Las Vegas local and longtime ghost town enthusiast named Herb Robbins, came upon Gold Point and fell in love only to find out that he could actually buy it. After hitting the jackpot in Sin City, he did just that and has devoted his life to refurbishing the silver mining camp. Today, he serves as sheriff, fire chief, hotel clerk, and local historian. Thanks to his efforts, Gold Point, once the site of 125 homes, a post office, a bakery and of course, plenty of bars, is looking pretty good these days. Located 185 miles from Las Vegas, Gold Point offers restored miner’s cabins that you can spend the night in, an old saloon with western artifacts, historical buildings, mining ruins, and plenty of nearby hiking opportunities. Whether you choose to stay in a cabin, in your RV, or in a tent (there’s dispersed camping on nearby BLM land), the remote location promises some of the best stargazing in the desert, and a history lesson you’ll never forget.