The stories behind 4 ghost towns in Nevada that are worth exploring

The oldest, richest, and most famous gold mine in Southern Nevada, the Techatticup Mine awaits photographers and history buffs in stunning scenic Eldorado Canyon, just 45 minutes outside Las Vegas. (Travel Nevada)

By Aleza Freeman

October 24, 2023

Nevada lays claim to hundreds of ghost towns, mostly former mining boomtowns, each with a unique history. There are ghost towns with full-time residents, ghost towns in ruins, and even empty land with no remaining trace of civilization.

From an Old West town hiding prehistoric treasures to a reemerging city once lost, here are four Nevada ghost towns with colorful stories that make them worth exploring on your next Nevada day trip.

Berlin

With its recorded history dating back to the Triassic period more than 250 million years ago, the ghosts in this ghost town aren’t strictly human. The Union Canyon beneath the Shoshone Mountains is also the resting place for a large concentration of prehistoric marine reptiles known as ichthyosaurs.

Excavations of the area in 1954 revealed 40 of these enormous lizard fish fossils, some as long as 50 feet. State officials established the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park three years later.

Prior to this discovery, prospectors came to Union Canyon in search of a silver jackpot, arriving in 1863 and establishing a mine in 1896. The town was booming with hundreds of residents until the mines dried up. By 1911, everyone had moved away.

Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, Berlin still has many of its original buildings—as well as some of its original prospectors, buried in a nearby cemetery.

As for the fate of the ichthyosaurs, now Nevada’s state fossil, it was once believed they were stranded at low tide or died out as a result of global warming. But according to a 2022 Associated Press report, scientists now theorize that the Union Canyon site was likely a prehistoric maternity ward for the enormous lizard fish.

Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park is located 20 miles east of Gabbs on State Route 844, about 150 miles southeast of Reno. It is open to visitors to explore on their own or for a guided tour of a mine. There is also a fossil tour, hiking, a picnic area, and a campground.

Admission begins at $5. For more information, call (775) 964-2440.

Rhyolite

Located about 120 miles from Las Vegas, 6 miles past Beatty on State Route 374, Rhyolite is a fascinating stop on the way to Death Valley National Park. It’s also a destination in its own right with quirky old buildings and an even quirkier outdoor sculpture garden.

Discovered in 1905, Rhyolite once boomed with thousands of residents, 50 saloons, 16 restaurants, a school, a hospital, a railway depot, a weekly newspaper, and four daily stagecoaches. The town was settled long enough to install electricity, concrete sidewalks, telephone lines, and indoor plumbing. The mines produced high-grade gold, sparking the interest of steel magnate Charles M. Schwab, who purchased the district in 1906 and financed the town’s modern upgrades.

The mines began closing in 1910 and the town was ultimately abandoned, though some of the structures were moved to other Nevada cities. The town’s saloon countertop, for example, is a fixture in the Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings.

Rhyolite’s main attractions today are the train depot, jail, and the Tom Kelly bottle house. Constructed from 50,000 medicine, beer, and whiskey bottles, the bottle house was restored for Paramount Pictures’ 1925 silent film Air Mail.

In 1984, a Belgian artist named Albert Szukalski erected a ghostly sculpture of the Last Supper at the ghost town’s southern entrance. The area is now a growing outdoor sculpture garden known as the Goldwell Open Air Museum. The town and the museum are free to visit and explore.

Nelson/Eldorado Canyon

A picture-perfect Old West ghost town with a cool cowboy backstory, Nelson is quaintly situated in Nevada’s Eldorado Canyon along State Route 165, only 50 miles southeast of Las Vegas and 5 miles from the Colorado River.

Beyond the modern modest homes of current residents (38 as of the 2021 U.S. Census), the southern Nevada ghost town resembles a movie set (and has been used as such), with several old wooden structures. Among other facilities, the barn, church, and water tower are dressed up with vintage signage and flanked by old vehicles, rusty antiques, and movie props, including a crashed airplane from the 2001 film 3,000 Miles to Graceland.

According to the Nevada Mining Association, this city’s story started in 1775, when Spaniards found gold here and named the land Eldorado. All was quiet on the western front until a major gold and silver strike in the mid-1800s. By 1861, prospectors—including some deserters of the American Civil War—rushed to the Eldorado Canyon to establish mining camps. Murder and mayhem ensued but life went on due to a hot streak in the Techatticup Mine well into the mid-1940s.

Today the town is peaceful and picturesque. On a recent visit, a swath of kids on an elementary school field trip ate lunch in front of the main building, which serves as a visitor’s center and museum, while tourists wandered the grounds on both sides of the sleepy highway.

Just over 5 miles beyond the town is Nelson’s Landing, which once served as a steamboat port for the mine. Visitors can park and walk up to the water for a refreshing diversion.

Visitors are welcome to peruse Nelson Ghost Town for free, but payment is requested if you plan to stay more than 15 minutes or take photos. For more information, to book an event, or to buy tickets for a guided mine or kayak tour, call (702) 291-0026.

St. Thomas

Nevada is home to its own city under the sea—sort of.

Technically, St. Thomas was flooded by Lake Mead due to the construction of the Hoover Dam.

Unlike the ghost towns above, St. Thomas was a farming town, not a mining one. Founded in 1865 as a Mormon settlement, with about 500 residents at its peak, its final resident left in 1938 via rowboat. The ruins of St. Thomas began to reemerge in the early 2000s due to drought and water usage demands.

Located in the northern part of the Lake Mead Recreation Area, along the Muddy River near Overton, there is a 3-mile dirt access road and parking area for those who want to visit and explore the ruins on foot.

Entrance passes to the Lake Mead Recreation Area start at $15. To see artifacts recovered before the flood, check out the Lost City Museum in nearby Overton.



  • Aleza Freeman

    Aleza Freeman is a Las Vegas native and award-winning journalist with two decades of experience writing and editing lifestyle, travel, entertainment, and human interest stories in Nevada. Her work has appeared in AARP magazine, Haute Living and Nevada Magazine.

CATEGORIES: COMMUNITY | LOCAL HISTORY

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