Because of COVID-19, many people are spending time in outdoor activities to minimize the risk of virus exposure. The result is crowds of tourists and locals at popular outdoor venues like Utah’s national and state parks.
One way to avoid these crowds is to visit places no longer inhabited: ghost towns. Some are spooky, some have histories too bizarre to be fabricated, but each one has a different story hidden in decayed wood or stone foundations.
It is important to recognize, however, that just because a town is abandoned does not mean the property is open to the public. Many Utah ghost towns sit on private property and others have active mining claims. If you visit, please don’t violate trespassing laws or you can expect to be prosecuted.
Ghosttowns.com lists more than 140 abandoned communities in Utah. Here are a handful of Utah’s lost communities worth a visit.
Located off of Interstate 70 near Thompson, Sego was a coal-mining town. Beginning in the 1890s, the area produced tons of coal, with production peaking in 1947. By 1955, the mine and the town were abandoned.
Flooding in 1950 caused the railroad to abandon the spur line that extended to the town. Then the mine caught fire and smoke from the underground fire still seeps from the mine today, according to altlasobscura.com. Today, a few foundations and walls remain.
If you visit Sego, an added bonus is the opportunity to view the Sego Canyon petroglyphs. The Bureau of Land Management reports the site offers three culturally distinct styles of rock art: Fremont, Ute and Barrier-style.
Not far from Kanab, Paria was settled in 1865. The community survived until 1914, but struggled to thrive because of repeated flooding. The location is spectacularly beautiful, with multi-colored layers of sand and dirt. Its scenic beauty made it a popular location for filming Western movies from the 1950s through 1976, when it was the setting for Clint Eastwood’s "The Outlaw Josey Wales."
The movie set remained until it was destroyed in a suspected arson fire in 2006. Today all that remains is a parking area and restroom, some signs and an old town cemetery. You have to travel about 5 miles on a dirt road to get to the townsite.
In the 1880s, this silver-mining town in Beaver County had 6,000 residents, more than 20 saloons, several gambling parlors and many brothels. According to legendsofamerica.com, one writer described it as "Dodge City, Tombstone, Sodom and Gomorrah all rolled into one."
A massive collapse in 1885 was the beginning of the end for the mine and the community. By 1900, only 500 people and a few businesses remained. By the 1920s, no one was left. Today, cone-shaped kilns used to make charcoal are still visible, along with remnants of other structures.
In 1866, a prospector found silver in a sandstone formation in southwestern Utah. By 1879, about 2,000 people lived in Silver Reef, making it southern Utah’s most populous community.
"Today, visiting Silver Reef is a walk through time," the Utah Office of Tourism reports. "Little remains of the once-bustling mining town, but you can spot some foundation remnants, the old Wells Fargo building, and the graveyard (where many miners lay, purportedly the outcome of settling their disputes the Western way)."
Silver Reef is about 15 miles north of St. George, adjacent to Leeds.
This community south of Tooele on the west side of the Oquirrh Mountains is technically not a ghost town, because a handful of people still reside there. In contrast, in the late 1800s it was a bustling city because of the nearby silver mines.
According to a report in ghosttowns.com, soldiers discovered the silver when they noticed local natives were using silver bullets (there was no mention of werewolves or a masked stranger on a white horse). In 1870, the town was named Ophir after the legendary mines of King Solomon.
Ophir has lots of old foundations, abandoned mining equipment, stone walls and other evidences of a once-thriving community. Be aware that most of the area is private property and current residents don’t welcome trespassers.
One section of the old town has been restored as a historical site. The buildings aren’t normally open, but even when closed you can walk around and see them from the outside.
This area has a rich mining history and another nearby ghost town is Sunshine, founded in the 1890s when gold ore was discovered. A large-scale commercial gold mining is ongoing nearby.
Although it wasn’t technically a town, Topaz was a relocation settlement that has since been abandoned. The settlement was home to a Japanese internment camp during WWII.
Unfortunately, more than 120,000 total people were displaced because of wartime hysteria, racial animosity and economic opportunism on the West Coast, explains greatbasinheritage.org. These innocent victims, many of them American citizens, were held in 10 different internment camps, but Topaz is perhaps the most well known. Holding approximately 9,000 Japanese-Americans, Topaz became the fifth largest city in Utah in 1942.
Although it wasn’t an ideal situation, the Japanese worked hard to make Topaz a liveable place with schools, churches, adult education courses, a hospital, sporting leagues and a newspaper. Topaz was later disbanded in 1945, where released people were given a train ticket and $25 to rebuild their lives.
You can visit the Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah, or read signs posted along the area from US Highway 6.
Some Utah ghost towns are located near major roads and are easily accessible with any passenger car. Many others are in remote locations reachable only with a high-clearance off-road vehicle.
When visiting those in hard-to-get-to areas, make sure you have emergency supplies and that someone knows your travel route and expected return time. After all, you don’t want to become the only permanent resident of a bygone community.