OFF THE BEATEN PATH
The allure of exploring unusual and abandoned places is hard to resist, and many curiosity-seekers make it a hobby. Such sites, however, may contain hazards, so it's important to heed posted warnings and avoid spots where entry is prohibited. Still, even viewed from afar, these 15 locales are filled with wonder and can be quite haunting. Most are free to visit, but some do require a small entry fee.
PIMA AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM
Many areas where unused aircraft are stored are military facilities and don't permit tours, but one airplane graveyard does welcome visitors. The Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona, conducts "Boneyard" tours for $10 that requires not just reservations at least 10 business days in advance, but security clearance.
BODIE GHOST TOWN
The former town of Bodie, California, now shows up on maps as Bodie State Historic Park, where visitors can visit what's left of a Gold Rush boomtown kept purposely in a state of arrested decay. Adults pay $8, while kids ages 4 to 17 get in for $5 (and the smallest family members, 3 and under, get in for free).
MICHIGAN CENTRAL STATION
Detroit's once-proud railway station has wallowed in ruins for more than two decades, a victim of the collapse of the U.S. auto industry and a faltering economy. But it won’t be that way for long. Ford recently bought the property that features an impressive 18-story tower and will be renovating it in the fall. Plans include shops, markets, and restaurants, with office space in the tower. Thousands of people recently toured the dilapidated property.
CASTLE AT HA HA TONKA STATE PARK
The ruins of a 20th-century castle are one of the main highlights of this Missouri state park. The castle itself was the dream of a Kansas City businessman who died suddenly before it was finished. His sons continued the work, but the mansion was ultimately destroyed by fire. The still-standing walls have since been preserved and stabilized, making the area a unique curiosity in the Missouri Ozarks. The park itself has no entrance fee, making the abandoned castle ruin a cheap place to explore.
The Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama, had a strong 90-year-run producing iron beginning in the late 1800s. Since ceasing production in 1970, the plant has been designated as a National Historical Landmark and now operates as a museum — the only one of its kind in the nation. Free tours (both self-guided and public-guided) are offered, but visitors are relegated to viewing the furnaces from outside.
A once-thriving resort destination not far from Los Angeles, the Salton Sea area is ripe for exploration, though some may find the putrid-smelling air — a byproduct of the sea's heavy concentration of minerals and salts — difficult to bear. Established in the 1950s, the area touted as the "Salton Riviera" included residential areas and plenty of businesses, but a rising (and very salty) sea level led to eventual abandonment. Numerous structures from the era still exist and offer a glimpse into a different time.
BAHIA HONDA RAIL BRIDGE
The Bahia Honda Rail Bridge is in the lower Florida Keys. This railroad bridge was built in 1912 and was, at the time, the only overland route to Key West. After a hurricane wreaked havoc in the area in the '30s, it was converted to an automobile highway and eventually replaced with a new four-lane bridge, leaving the Bahia without a function — except to be a unique backdrop at the beachy Bahia Honda State Park, which requires only an $8 fee to enter in a vehicle.
CENTRAL STATE MENTAL HOSPITAL CEMETERY
Many buildings at the nearly abandoned Central State Mental Hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia, have deteriorated to the point of being unsafe and aren't open to the public. But free tours (by appointment only) are available, providing visitors access to the notorious facility's three cemeteries (where more than 25,000 patients are buried) as well as a museum. In addition, a driving tour of the 1,750-acre campus is offered. A memorial made up of discarded metal grave markers can be found at Cedar Lane Cemetery. The markers were once affixed above the final resting places of thousands of former patients but were tossed aside in the 1960s by groundskeepers who considered them a nuisance.
SILVER CITY, IDAHO
This former mining town was once the home to about 2,500 people and 75 businesses. Once the gold and silver mines were depleted, residents slowly abandoned the town, leaving behind many vacant but still-standing buildings. Today, Silver City is one of the few U.S. ghost towns where visitors can spend the night — at the partially restored Idaho Hotel, which features 13 rooms, although accommodations are rustic (some rooms are unheated). The town has three other businesses but no service stations or electricity; the hotel relies on solar energy for its power.
Unlike many ghost towns, Rodney, Mississippi, didn't go bust after the gold or silver mines went dry. Rather, it owes its depopulation to several calamities that include the loss of its port after the Mississippi River changed course in about 1870. Today, there's only one serviceable road in and out of this once-thriving city, and while some homes remain in use, the businesses and churches that once dotted this small town have fallen into disrepair. Recent visitors to Rodney advise tourists to use paper maps or written directions to find the town and not rely on GPS.
The site of Montana's first gold discovery thrived for some time, then was abandoned when the mines petered out. After the population of the town dwindled to nothing, the state stepped in and helped preserve the area as Bannack State Park. More than 50 original buildings remain standing, most of which can be explored. There's a peak season entrance fees of $6 a vehicle per day (or free for Montana residents).
RANCH HOUSE CAFE
Located along old U.S. Route 66 in Tucumcari, New Mexico, the Ranch House Cafe fell to the wayside, despite a quirky slogan: "Good food always — Always good food." The old marquee and closed-up building are a bittersweet and endearing sight for those retracing the Mother Road. But other businesses along the now-named Route 66 Boulevard (including numerous hotels, gas stations, and other restaurants built during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s) have fared better and are worth checking out, too.
STATEN ISLAND BOAT GRAVEYARD
Despite the "No Trespassing" signs, New York City's official dumping ground for seafaring vessels is still an attraction for historians and tourists, including some who prefer to make the arduous trek by kayak. Getting to the site on land requires a 13-mile bus ride and a hike across a "makeshift path of street signs and wood planks." Those obstacles didn't stop the city from advertising the spot as a destination for British tourists keen on nautical oddities.
STANLEY MICKELSEN SAFEGUARD COMPLEX
Decommissioned within months after it opened in 1975, the Stanley Mickelsen Safeguard Complex in Nekoma, North Dakota, was the nation's only operational anti-ballistic missile complex. Today, the facility remains closed, but the unique flat-topped pyramid and other structures, eerie reminders of the Cold War, are viewable from the road.
MORRIS ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE
The guiding light of the Morris Island Lighthouse off the coast of South Carolina helped ships navigate the way to safety for more than 85 years, but threatened by encroaching waters, it was decommissioned 1962, after a new lighthouse was built. Save The Light, a nonprofit organization that hopes to stabilize and restore the lighthouse, now owns it. Although it's not possible to visit the lighthouse, it can be easily viewed from Folly Beach.