You don't have to believe in ghosts to enjoy ghost towns. Though these settlements were once thriving cities, today they exist as collections of buildings and other structures telling the story of years gone by. The American West is littered with former metropolises that served as epicenters for mining, railroad and other operations. Here are our 7 favorites.
Widely considered California's most famous ghost town, Bodie was founded in 1859 after William Bodey discovered gold near what is now called Bodie Bluff in the Eastern Sierras. The outpost of 200 original structures has the distinction of being the nation's largest unreconstructed ghost town, and is also one of the coldest places in the US outside Alaska. With this in mind, it's best to visit before November.
Elk Falls, Kansas
This once-vibrant town in the Ozarks touts itself as the "World's Largest Living Ghost Town." The community dates back to the 1870s, when R.H. Nichols founded it and successors eventually built a flour mill. After an adjacent town was chosen as county seat, Elk Falls' population dwindled. Today, fewer than 200 people live there but a handful of original buildings stand. Among them: nearly 40 outhouses, which are part of a popular annual tour.
Few ghost towns are harder to get to than this one, situated at the end of a 60-mile dirt road in the middle of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. But few are more worth the trek. The town once sat adjacent to the nation's most lucrative copper mill; today all of the original mill buildings (and some of the surrounding assayer facilities) remain. Owned by the National Park Service, the town has become a living museum, with tours that take visitors into the (rehabilitated) mines.
St. Elmo, Colorado
With numerous original structures -- including a general store that is still open between May and October -- St. Elmo is one of the best-preserved ghost towns anywhere in the US. The town dates back to the 1870s, when gold and silver were found in the nearby Rocky Mountains; in 1881 it became a station on the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad. Since then, many of the buildings have been purchased by private owners and rehabilitated to their original grandeur.
Okaton, South Dakota
This modest ghost town -- a railroad and farming community from the 1900s until the railroad pulled out in 1980 -- overlooks the rolling plains of South Dakota. As such, most of the original structures are agricultural in nature: Barns, silos and grain elevators. The dilapidated edifices have become a favorite of visionary landscape photographers. Among the most popular structures to shoot: the last standing grain elevator, the school, and the general store and rock shop, complete with gas pumps.
South Pass City, Wyoming
Just north of the Oregon Trail, South Pass City is considered to be one of the most authentic old settlements in the American West. The town got its start in 1867, and mining changed it forever. The town had fallen into disrepair by the 1930s, but the State of Wyoming stepped in 1966 and bought the land to save it. Today, dozens of original structures remain: cabins, restaurants, dance halls and a jail. Guided tours are available all summer.
Situated in a remote valley east of Missoula, this town dates back to the turn of the 20th century, when prospectors found fire-red garnets as they searched for gold (which they eventually found, too). A fire destroyed most of the town in 1912, but roughly 30 buildings remain today. Among them: nearly a dozen cabins, a store, a saloon and parts of the J.K. Wells Hotel. There's also a modern visitor's center, and self-guided trails fanning out from there.