There’s been an article going around my Facebook circle about ghost towns.  It’s specific to my state: something along the lines of:

“Ten Iowan Ghost Towns You Absolutely Have To Visit!”  

Being a Facebook article, it’s only marginally accurate. Several of the towns listed still have residents, and most consisted only of one old building surrounded by newer urban growth.

Still, I loved the idea of visiting ghost towns (especially in October) so I decided to take the article’s advice.  My dad (Dane Penland, a professional photographer) was in town for a visit, so we grabbed cameras and hopped in a car.

Who doesn't think this stuff is awesome?!
Who doesn’t think this stuff is awesome?!

If you think this sounds like fun, here’s some advice for how to go about it.

1. Do your research

Depending on where you live, this is as simple as a quick search for “_________ state ghost towns”. Google is an excellent guide. A warning, though: just because you know a ghost town exists doesn’t mean you’ll be able to easily find it.  Most of the sites we found had plenty of information but very few current maps.


That can be a challenge.

You also want to keep in mind how far you’re willing to drive, and try to limit your search to that area. This will not keep you from finding amazingly cool sites four hours away, but it’s worth a shot.  If you decide to do a long drive, see if there’s anything along the way you’d like to see as well.

Pro tip: if there’s a cluster of ghost towns in one area, you can drive out and see them all in one trip. The cool part is, there is a ton of history available once you find a good spot. People love to look into local history, so you’ll likely have a wealth of information on what it used to be.

Dane and I settled on a site in northeastern Iowa called Buckhorn. It’s an hour and a half away from my apartment. From what we could tell, there was an old mill, a church, and a graveyard in the area.

2. Don’t get your expectations up too high

The phrase “ghost town” usually conjures up the image of… well, a town.  In my mind, it’s all wild-west style, tumbleweeds and all.  That’s not how it works.  Old buildings get demolished and built over as nearby towns expand, and you end up with fragments.

When we got to Buckhorn, there was one building.  It was a really interesting building, don’t get me wrong, but the only church-and-graveyard nearby appeared to be pretty modern, or at least still in use.  Most of the other sites we looked into were fairly similar.  There’s actually a site about 20 minutes from where I live, but upon closer examination (read: Google Maps) it appeared to be about 95% cornfield and 5% railroad track now.

That said, don’t get discouraged.  What we did find was really cool! It had everything from skulls to shattered roofs, was scattered with old glass and graffiti, and loaded with old nooks and crevices to explore.

3. Have a goal in mind

What do you want to do once you get there? Exploring is fun, but if someone comes up and asks you why you’re there it’s probably a good idea to have an answer.  Just in case.  (Side note: A lot of these are on private property. I am not advocating trespassing.  But if you do trespass, a smile and a reason will work magic.)

There are a ton of possibilities.  Dane and I were there to take pictures, plus I was doing a little writing research.  There’s always ghost-hunting, if that’s your thing.  Or film making. Seriously, the ideas are endless.  What can’t you do in a ghost town?


Once you have your goal in mind, do some research again.  Example: we arrived in the early afternoon, expecting some great sunlight, only to discover the whole place was in shadow.  Buckhorn is a morning-photography site.

4. Be safe

Ruins are dangerous.

Bring a first aid kit with you: bandaids, bug-bite stuff, sunscreen.  Bring some granola bars and a water bottle.  A flashlight.  Don’t wear flip-flops or shorts: we encountered a ton of broken glass. Watch where you’re walking. Be careful of roofs and upper-levels.

Seriously, don’t trespass.  You don’t know who owns the property.

If you’re planning on going after dark, check the area out during the day first.  Keep the local fauna in mind: just because it used to be a town doesn’t mean it isn’t wild now.  Be smart, don’t try to pick up a snake with your bare hands even if it’s cute.  And tell someone where you’re going before you leave.  If you can help it, don’t go alone at all.


A lot of this stuff is common sense, but it’s shocking how many people forget something simple.

5. “Spirit Orbs” are dust flecks that caught the light.

Or lens flare, or oftentimes something reflecting in glass.

Credit: Dane Penland
Credit: Dane Penland

My pride as a photographer forces me to include this.  If you are doing a ghost-hunting thing, don’t get excited over small floating circles of light in your pictures.  By all means, go off in search of the unknown.  It’s awesome.  Just be sensible about it.

6. Remember: the journey is the fun part

Sitting in a car for three hours is a great way to disillusion yourself: take some time to stop somewhere unknown.  Dane and I stopped by a surprisingly good motorcycle museum on our way to Buckhorn, and hit up a pub for a late-lunch-early-dinner on the way back.  The actual driving seemed to take no time at all, and it was full of good conversation.


That’s good advice for life, actually. Don’t get so caught up in where you’re going that you forget to enjoy the ride.


Alex Penland is currently enjoying a longtime addiction to stories, which she feeds through books, tabletop RPGs, and an excessive collection of video games. She’s currently seeking to publish a novel about a bookshop that gets abducted by aliens, loves to crochet, and blogs about it all over at  You can follow her on Twitter @AlexPenname, where she spends two hours every Saturday livetweeting whatever books strike her fancy.