Urbex – Dakota Ghost Towns and Abandoned Buildings

I spent last week driving around North and South Dakota, checking out abandoned buildings in ghost towns. This was a quintessential “gothic nomad” trip insofar as that moniker is concerned. The only way a trip could be more representative of that name is if I was touring medieval castles in eastern Europe. (And that trip will happen soon enough…)

This is not the first time I’ve visited ghost towns. Last year, during the North American Road Trip, I explored Calico, Oatman, Newkirk, and Glenrio. I’ve also done some urban exploration in both Glenrio and at the VW Slug Bug Ranch. But these were famous Route 66 ghost towns – largely tourist-friendly.

Officially, the trip lasted 2,666 miles and – more importantly – five days. That’s right – I did it! I finally made a trip last as long as I planned for it to last. It’s ironic, too, because I didn’t have the mileage or ETEs calculated for this route. All I had were pre-selected campsites for each night. I had to drag my heels a bit Tuesday and Thursday, and had to hustle a bit on Wednesday. Other than that, I paced this trip out almost perfectly – without even trying!

Urban exploration trips like these pose unique challenges, but the experience is very rewarding. I will be discussing these challenges, share my advice on safety and precautions, and review the towns I visited.

Challenges of Planning a Ghost Town Tour

As I’ve stated many times in the past, I’m a big advocate for travel spontaneity, and it’s not in my nature to do much research or advanced planning. But it’s pretty easy to blow past ghost towns, especially if you’re cruising along the interstate system. Most ghost towns are found near state and county highways, having been rendered ghost towns on account of being bypassed by the interstate. So if your intention is to go touring ghost towns, you would be well-advised to do your homework. Otherwise, you’ll be burning a lot of time, gasoline, and money.

Unfortunately, there is no official, centralized, comprehensive database of ghost towns. I wound up using ghosttowns.com and Wikipedia to put together a preliminary list of targets. Then I used a combination of generic Google web and image searches, and Google Maps (satellite views and street views) to narrow down my itinerary.

There is also no agreed-upon definition of a ghost town. The most common definition seems to be any municipality that is deserted or nearly deserted as the result of the exhaustion of a natural resource. The phrase “nearly deserted” can get you in trouble, especially if you’re really aiming for “completely deserted”. I’ve been to towns where “nearly deserted” meant about a half dozen people. I’ve also been to towns where “nearly deserted” meant several hundred people.

There’s also no guarantee that there’s anything left of a ghost town. Some are completely wiped out by fires or floods, and have no structures that remain standing for exploration. Towns that were abandoned for lack of a resource (such as gold mining towns) or because they were bypassed by a major highway or railroad might still be standing and largely intact.

Famous ghost towns will be easier to locate and research. But many of these places are made tourist-friendly by historical preservation efforts, and their sharp edges are worn down and dull. You’ll get a much more authentic and gritty experience if you visit less-famous ghost towns, but they’re more difficult to locate and the information available online is scant, at best.

Worst of all, information can become outdated very quickly. Even relatively modern stores of information – like Google Street View – proved to be tragically out of date. Natural disasters and beautification efforts can wipe a ghost town off a map quickly, and it could be years or even decades before your research sources are brought up to speed.

It’s not a bad idea to supplement research with word-of-mouth from other urban explorers. Forums such as Oblivion State and Squat the Planet can be useful. You should also consider sharing your experiences to help keep these various sources and databases up-to-date.

Legal and Personal Hazards of Urban Exploration (Urbex)

It is virtually impossible to do urban exploration without trespassing.

Except (perhaps) in the far reaches of Antarctica or the North Pole, or on some flyspeck of an island in the Pacific Ocean, there aren’t too many places on this planet that aren’t owned by someone. Most property is owned by individuals (such as residential property) and corporations (such as commercial and industrial property). If a property owner dies, then their “probate estate” (a separate legal entity) owns the property until the estate is resolved and the property is transferred to new owners. In all of these examples, a private entity has ownership rights and interests over the property, even if that entity is not necessarily an individual person.

Property not owned by a private entity is owned by a public one – some form of federal, state, or local government body. While it may seem counter-intuitive to imagine trespassing on public property, even public property can be restricted by the government. After all, when’s the last time you rocked up to a military base uninvited without being met by less-than-friendly security escorts?

Some places are tourist-friendly and made open to the public. If you want to play it safe and straight, you can research the owner of a property you want to explore and ask permission to enter it. But that’s an awful lot of work, and they might say “no”. And as anyone will tell you, it’s easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission. Of course, I say that with the privilege of being a white man. We have to contend with the very ugly racist reality that persons of color may find it far more dangerous to explore abandoned buildings than I.

Although I do not share this belief, many people believe they have a right to defend their property with deadly force. And to some extent, this fucked-up principle has been codified and legalized in the form of stand-your-ground laws and castle doctrines. I don’t want to worry you needlessly – being met with a shotgun (or other form of assault) would be an extreme and hopefully rare reaction. The more likely consequences of trespassing will be a scolding, police harassment, or arrest. But in any event, you’ve got to be prepared for negative reactions to your trespassing.

It’s not just the homeowners or the police that you have to worry about. Over-protective neighbors may decide to take matters into their own hands. You might encounter squatters who don’t legally own the property yet, but are prepared to defend their squatting claim. Or you might encounter vandals, thieves, drug dealers, or any other number of unsavory individuals.

At the end of the day, the name on the deed matters less than finding property that clearly nobody gives a shit about. Ghost towns that are completely abandoned, rather than nearly abandoned. Areas so remote that there’s not another human being within eyesight in any direction.

Environmental Hazards of Urbex

Some structures are more dangerous than others, but most will have some form of environmental hazard. There’s not much to say here, so I’ll just run down a list of the most common environmental hazards…

  • Floors that no longer have the molecular consistency of a floor.
  • Roofs that no longer have the molecular consistency of a roof.
  • Collapsing foundations, failing support beams, and other weakened support structures.
  • Broken Glass
  • Busted Wood
  • Exposed Nails & Screws / Tetanus
  • Feral Animals / Rabies
  • Ticks / Lyme Disease
  • Toxic Molds
  • Lead Paint
  • Asbestos
Precautions and Equipment

The single best precaution you can take is to never urbex solo. Always go with one or more friends. That way, if one of you becomes injured, trapped, or incapacitated, the other person can call for help.

urbexIf you are unable to find a travel partner, then set up a check-in procedure with a friend at home. Check in at predetermined times throughout the day. Make sure that you take time zone changes into consideration and have a contingency in place for when you have no cell phone service. Should you fail to check in, instruct your friend to notify the police that you have gone missing. They should also be able to provide the police with your last check-in time, your last known location, and your complete itinerary. If you have medical conditions, require medication, and/or have any drug allergies, you should give your friend this information (and carry it on your person) so emergency responders know how to care for you.

Aside from research, there are a number of observations you can make to intuit whether a place is abandoned or inhabited, and if inhabited, just how populated it is. Do you see any people at all? How many? Where are they? What are they doing? Do you see any traffic into, out of, or through the town? What are the road conditions like? Are they passable? Are lawns mowed? How many structures are clearly abandoned (boarded up, or cracked wide open)? How many nearby structures are in good enough condition that they might be inhabited? Are there any signs of nearby commerce, such as a gas station, bar, or restaurant?

Keep your head down, keep a low profile, and don’t do anything to attract unwanted attention. Move into structures slowly and carefully. Always be on alert, and keep your eyes and ears open for potential hostiles.

You should avoid causing any new damage. Treat these places like museums or archaeological sites (that’s practically what they are, anyway). That being said, there’s certain equipment you should consider bringing along in case you find yourself trapped or in some other form of emergency.

  • First Aid Kit
  • Cell Phone
  • Plenty of Water
  • Flashlight
  • Crowbar
  • Bolt Cutters
  • Axe
  • Sledgehammer
  • Knives
  • Lighters
  • Bandannas
  • Gloves
  • Respirators
  • Boots with Solid Soles

NOTE: THE INFORMATION BELOW IS BASED ON FIRST-HAND OBSERVATIONS MADE BETWEEN JUNE 12 AND JUNE 14, 2018.

Stamford, South Dakota

Approximate GPS Coordinates: 43°53’31″N 101°05’28″W

Location: Ridiculously close to I-90. 1.4 mile / 4 minute detour.

Population: Structures *might* be on privately-owned farmland. But the site is remote enough that it is effectively uninhabited within line-of-sight.

Structures: Two structures that appear to be the remnants of basements. The northern structure has effectively been turned into a landfill. The southern structure has been kept up nicer, and appears to have a fire ring – suggesting it has been used recently by a drifter or homeless person as shelter.

Overall Impression: There’s not much to look at here, but the site is close enough to the interstate that it’s worth the short detour. I personally found the southern structure fascinating. And if nothing else, you get a gorgeous view of rolling hills and valleys.

Scenic, South Dakota

Approximate GPS Coordinates: 43°46’49″N 102°33’18″W

Location: about 13 miles / 20 minutes southwest of Badlands National Park’s Sage Creek Road exit.

Population: estimated at about a dozen.

Structures: A neat row of old-west style buildings that includes a saloon, two stores, and a two-cell outdoor jail. None of the buildings had apparent points of entry, but you can go into the jail cells. Most of the rest of the town stands erect and partially populated.

Overall Impression: Quaint and worth the visit.

Ardmore, South Dakota

Approximate GPS Coordinates: 43°01’17″N 103°39’28″W

Location: 90 miles south of Rapid City

Population: no signs of habitation, estimated less than a half dozen based on road and building conditions

Overall Impression: Ardmore is a legit ghost town, but it wasn’t very photogenic. The only building I saw that remotely piqued my interest was thoroughly boarded up. I personally found it to be a waste of time, but someone else with a more discerning eye might find it worthwhile.

Fort Igloo, South Dakota

Approximate GPS Coordinates: 43°12’14″N 103°51’19″W

Location: about 20 miles northwest of Ardmore

Population: no signs of habitation, estimated less than a half dozen based on road and building conditions

Structures: Checkpoint station (accessible) and a large building with several garages (no apparent point of access). Down the road from the building with garages were several more buildings that appeared habitable. To the east, I noticed a number of structures that resembled chimneys of some sort and purpose.

Overall Impression: Fort Igloo remains the biggest mystery to me. Based on research, photos, and maps, I expected to find several rows of apartments with missing roofs and exterior walls and a huge tract of land with bunkers being converted into shelters for survivalists. If Igloo was truly turning into a survivalist community, I did not expect to be very welcome there.

However, the bunkers were nowhere to be found. I had a pretty good view in all directions (and I checked out the area for miles going into and out of the town), but I could see nothing that resembled bunkers or even the remnants of bunkers. I couldn’t find the apartments, either, but they could easily have been torn down. The bunkers could not have been removed that fast. I’m at a loss as to where they were located. In what remains, there are a lot of old “no trespassing” signs, though it’s not clear anyone is still around to enforce them.

Spokane, South Dakota

Approximate GPS Coordinates: 43°50’27″N 103°22’31″W

Location: Seemingly Inaccessible

Population: Unknown

Structures: Unknown

Overall Impression: I drove all around Iron Mountain, North Playhouse, and Ghost Canyon Roads looking for what was described to me as a foot-only path into the town. I could find none. Steep hills seemed to block access from the south, and private properties with no apparent egress point blocked access from every other side I tried. Waste of time.

Rockerville, South Dakota

Approximate GPS Coordinates: 43°57’27″N 103°21’32″W

Location: 5 miles southwest of Rapid City

Population: Unknown – evidence of tourist trade, but it didn’t look like there were many permanent residences.

Structures: Like Scenic, Rockerville was supposed to have a neat row of old-west style buildings across the street from the Gaslight restaurant. Those buildings are nowhere to be found. I later found out from a local that the buildings had burned down. He didn’t say exactly when, but apparently it happened within the past two years.

Overall Impression: Waste of time.

Bucyrus, North Dakota

Approximate GPS Coordinates: 46°03’46″N 102°47’07″W

Location: easily accessible from US-12.

Population: no signs of habitation, estimated less than a half dozen based on road and building conditions

Structures: grain elevator by railroad tracks; an abandoned home and storage shed (not accessible, though I should have tried harder to force open a door); several other homes nearby that appear habitable.

Overall Impression: I got excited about this place because it was the first one along my route where I could peak into an abandoned home and still see preserved original furniture and appliances. Compared to sites I would encounter later, Bucyrus was relatively lame. But given its proximity to the highway and two other good ghost towns, ease of access, and truly gorgeous photo opportunities with the railroad tracks – I argue Bucyrus is well-worth the stop.

Gascoyne, North Dakota

Approximate GPS Coordinates:

Location: easily accessible from US-12.

Population: estimated at less than 50 – quite a bit of traffic and activity (and habitable structures) observed on the western side of the town.

Structures: Gascoyne Lumber Company – very accessible, though the structure is collapsing and probably won’t be around much longer. Also a pipeyard about 1.5 miles east on US-12. Like Scenic, most of the rest of the town had structures standing and appeared to be at least partially populated.

Overall Impression: Great site in spite of the nearby population. Well worth a visit.

Griffin, North Dakota

Approximate GPS Coordinates: 46°13’2″N 103°32’30″W

Location: easily accessible from US-12.

Population: completely uninhabited – without a doubt

Structures: At least a dozen structures, including a trailer home, several houses, buildings that I would guess are a school and a train station, a rail car, and a mysterious green house with what looks like a basement barn. Also several posts are erected in the center of town – purpose unknown. Virtually every structure is accessible and largely untouched by vandals.

Overall Impression: Must-see. Griffin is an absolute gold mine. Completely and unquestioningly uninhabited. Tons of buildings to explore. You could plan an entire trip around Griffin and easily spend several hours here.

Arena, North Dakota

Approximate GPS Coordinates: 47°07’45″N 100°09’51″W

Location: about 6 miles east of ND-14.

Population: completely uninhabited

Structures: Church, Town Hall, Residence, and Raised Residence. All fully accessible except the raised residence (which might be accessible with a ladder).

Overall Impression: Must-see. Although small, Arena is like Griffin in its treasures. The accessible residence (a yellow house) is fun to explore and comes fully-equipped with a creepy basement and a creepy attic. Wish I could have stayed here until after dark.

Aylmer, North Dakota

Approximate GPS Coordinates: 47°56’01″N 100°11’37″W

Location: about 2 miles east of ND-14.

Population: seemingly uninhabited, but evidence of daytime commercial activity nearby

Structures: Similar to Gascoyne in that there are two structures that are fully accessible, but collapsing and likely gone soon.

Overall Impression: I’d put it about on par with Gascoyne. Definitely worth visiting, but not quite as much to see as Griffin or Arena.

Dunseith, North Dakota / Sun Haven Sanitarium

Approximate GPS Coordinates: 48°50’07″N 100°02’30″W

Location: about 2.5 miles northeast of Dunseith

Population: Dunseith is less than 1,000. The immediate area surrounding the sanitarium appears to be uninhabited. However, the sanitarium is regularly visited by local youth, particularly at night.

Structures: Sun Haven Sanitarium is thoroughly accessible, all the way through the roof. Locals described basements, tunnels, and auxiliary buildings, which I did not have time to explore. The hospital is stripped of anything that would indicate that it was a hospital, apart from its general layout. The layout is fairly straightforward, though not all stairwells are complete (the western stairwell seems to be complete, top to bottom, but other stairwells are missing chunks on various levels). Tons of vandalism and graffiti.

Overall Impression: Must-see. I can’t think of anything more exciting to visit than an abandoned hospital, asylum, or prison. That said, the near-constant invasion of this structure has left it stripped bare of anything interesting to look at.

Fun Fact: Sanitariums (also spelled sanatorium) are not synonyms for insane asylums or mental health facilities. They were hospital-like facilities, usually established to treat tuberculosis. Something I learned in the process of researching and planning this trip.

Josephine, North Dakota

Approximate GPS Coordinates: 47°56’21″N 99°18’48″W

Overall Impression: Missed on account of a GPS error. Was redirected to Fessenden instead. I didn’t expect to see anything here besides grain elevators, which I already saw in Bucyrus. So rather than go back, I just moved on to the next town on my route.

Merricourt, North Dakota

Approximate GPS Coordinates: 46°12’25″N 98°45’44″W

Location: about 100 miles east-southeast of Bismarck

Population: no signs of habitation, estimated less than a half dozen based on road and building conditions

Structures: Bank (inaccessible, floor almost completely collapsed. theatre (fully accessible), and what appeared to be either a grain elevator or train depot, plus several other nearby habitable structures.

Overall Impression: Worth a stop. Both the theatre and bank were interesting to look at. Although I saw no one, I got the distinct impression of being watched and that I was not welcome.

Roadside Attractions

As you will see in the photos below, I also visited a number of roadside attractions in between all the ghost towns, including a replica Statue of David in Sioux Falls, a fun display in Bowman, a scrap metal dinosaur in Faith, a catfish in Wahpeton, and the Enchanted Highway.

Special thanks to Roadside America for the suggestions.

Trip Photo Album

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Video Footage – Exploring Sun Haven Sanitarium at Night

Incidents

For the most part, this trip was uneventful. I suffered only one injury – a twisted ankle as I was walking through a ditch in Aylmer. I was harassed by the police once, but not for trespassing. It turns out that my campsite in Black Hills National Forest (where I stayed last year after dropping Zombie off in Rapid City) was not actually in the national forest. Apparently I was on county property, and the cop suspected me of being a drug dealer. To his credit, he was friendly and the encounter was amicable (apart from him waking me up at 4am with that damn spotlight on his car). Incidentally, he is the one who informed me that the buildings in Rockerville burned down.

Both Remy and I picked up ticks – my guess is either at Griffin or at Sun Haven Sanitarium. I also wasn’t as disciplined with using a respirator as I should have been, so I’m being attentive to my lungs for signs of illness.

I was looking forward to Sun Haven Sanitarium the most, but that’s where I had the worst experience. Kids kept coming to the sanitarium all night long and partying, and I couldn’t get any sleep. I don’t mind that they were there or that they were partying. They had as much right to be there as I did. But they were obsessed with my presence there and went out of their way to be loud and obnoxious to piss me off.

The funny thing is, I think if we had just talked, we would have all gotten along just fine. I encountered a few kids when I first arrived at Sun Haven, and we were all friendly toward one another. They even showed me where the stairwells were located. But after I went to sleep, these other kids – rather than politely knocking on my window and asking whatever questions or concerns they had, they just dialed it up from 0 to obnoxious right off the bat. Teenagers in pack mentality suck, because they think they’re funnier than they are and they’re obsessed with appearing tough in front of their friends. I didn’t feel like I had a middle-ground response available to me. Either I had to ignore them or go off on them in a big way. I wanted to sleep, not to get in a confrontation. So I ignored them.

I wasn’t assaulted or arrested, but I think it’s fair to say that I paid my pound of flesh for the privilege of exploring these fascinating structures. I will do it again – many times, I’m sure – in the future. Urban exploration is fun, rewarding, and a much more interesting experience than the typical American-style vacation.

As dangerous as urban exploration is, my experiences last week have emboldened me. I’ll continue to exercise reasonable precautions, of course. But I no longer feel skittish about entering abandoned structures. The diversity of environments I encountered this week gave me a pretty good education in what to look out for in terms of environmental hazards and how to be prepared for those hazards. I’m also better equipped now to judge whether an area is inhabited or abandoned and – if inhabited – use visual cues to estimate the local population.

North Dakota vs South Dakota

Even when I was researching this trip, I detected a major difference between ghost towns in these two states. Although South Dakota allegedly has more ghost towns than North Dakota, fewer of them piqued my interest. I wondered if the states had different policies in terms of historical preservation or modernization.

When I actually got out there, the difference was obvious. I was consistently disappointed in South Dakota, especially between Ardmore, Igloo, Spokane, and Rockerville. On the other hand, I kept striking gold in North Dakota.

So, if you want to visit ghost towns in the Dakotas, I strongly recommend you keep your focus on North Dakota. You’ll have a much better experience up there.

Types of Abandoned Buildings

I noticed that abandoned buildings generally fell into two types: quasi-museum or vandalized shit-hole. The former being illustrated nicely by virtually every building in Griffin. The latter being illustrated by Sun Haven Sanitarium.

Now if your purpose in visiting a ghost town is to peer into the past, then quasi-museum is definitely the sort of building you want to visit. But when I say “vandalized shit-hole”, I don’t necessarily mean that as a bad thing. While I was disappointed that there was no equipment or furnishings left in Sun Haven that indicated that it used to be a hospital, I could still appreciate the aesthetics from a haunter perspective.

As a haunter, I can draw inspiration from either type – both the quasi-museum and the vandalized shit-hole have that certain je ne sais quoi of creepiness. Either one is great source material for scenic design.

Newfound Contempt for Solo Travel

I invited both Bones and Morgan to accompany me on this trip. For safety reasons, I didn’t want to go alone. But I also knew they couldn’t accompany me because I would be gone for 5 days, they both have jobs, and because they’re getting married two days from today (and accordingly, they were busy last week preparing).

They seemed interested in the premise of the trip, eager to go, and sad they couldn’t. I teased them about it, but the truth is, I was stubborn about wanting to go last week. I had cabin fever in a bad way and unwilling to wait to go on this trip.

In retrospect, however, I wish I had waited.

I think the Tennessee trip spoiled me. I no longer look at solo trips as being very fun. But this trip especially – it was a trip full of rich experiences. And those experiences would have been much better if I could have shared them with someone. I deeply regret not postponing this trip to a time when Bones and Morgan could have joined me.

Or anyone, really. I was really missing Zombie on this trip, too. I saw zero hitchhikers throughout this entire trip. The last time I was on I-90, I picked up Zombie – my first hitchhiker who has since become a good friend of mine. I had hoped I-90 would see fit to bless me with such fortunes again, but she did not.

Bones may have given me the nickname “Captain”, but a captain without his lieutenants is not a captain, but just a lonely, sad man driving a truck. I had fun, but not nearly as much fun as I could have had.

Not only is it important that I find a job that allows me to remain location-independent, but I gotta figure out a way to help my friends pry themselves away from home in spite of family and occupational obligations.

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