Get spooked: 17 ghost towns in Alberta that you need to check out
Alberta is home to lots of beautiful places: the Rocky Mountains , the Badlands, the wide-open prairies, along with some vibrant cities and ghost towns.
Sometimes you want to visit somewhere that’s a little less obviously beautiful, a place that’s a little different, a little quieter, a little more… spooky.
Luckily, there are plenty of abandoned places and ghost towns across the province where you can wander around and scare yourself to your heart’s content. They may not be officially haunted, but you’ll probably still get goosebumps.
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From the slightly neglected to the full-on abandoned, each of these Alberta ghost towns definitely brings spooky vibes.
Many of these spots are the result of a booming coal industry that was deserted when operations failed, resources were depleted, or the world simply moved on to other forms of energy. Whatever the reason, it’s always fun to explore somewhere new, especially when you don’t know what (or who) you may stumble across.
Here are 17 ghost towns to check out on your next Alberta road trip.
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According to the Ghost Towns website , Retlaw was expected to be a major town in its area, and in the early 1900s it was a hub of activity, with a pool hall, railway, church, hotel, and more, but when irrigation was brought to the neighbouring town of Vauxhall in the 1920s, Retlaw was soon abandoned.
What you’ll find: Restored church, abandoned buildings, and foundations Distance from Calgary: 235 km (2.5-hour drive) Distance from Edmonton: 491 km (five-hour drive)
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This town closed up in 1955, leaving behind the remnants of buildings and mining equipment. There had once been about 3,500 citizens living in the area, which is easily accessible with two-wheel drive.
What you’ll find: The original townsite with many old buildings still intact, but boarded up Distance from Calgary: 305 km (three hour and 15 minute drive) Distance from Edmonton: 301 km (three-hour drive)
This southern Alberta town was booming in the early 20th century, but a decade of dust storms, drought, and grasshoppers left it dry. Today, the tiny hamlet has a few current residents, with many of the original buildings still standing to check out.
What you’ll find: Many original buildings Distance from Calgary: 367 km (three hour and 40 minute drive) Distance from Edmonton: 601 km (six-hour drive)
According to the Ghost Towns of Alberta website , there are just two citizens left in Nemiskam. This spot is located nearly dead centre in a group of pioneer communities that were created every 10 to 12 kilometres along the rail line paralleling Highway 61. When the community’s only remaining grain elevator was toppled in the 1990s, Nemiskam lost its last notable landmark for those looking to visit the area.
What you’ll find: Abandoned buildings and rarely-used sidewalks in front of empty lots Distance from Calgary: 341 km (3.5-hour drive) Distance from Edmonton: 590 km (six-hour drive)
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This ghost town has come back to life – a little. There are about 12 residents in Rowley, and they’ve restored many of the old pioneer buildings, including Sam’s Saloon, which is open on select days and makes for an excellent spot to grab a slice of pizza and check out some entertainment.
What you’ll find: Many old buildings have been restored, but there are still lots of abandoned structures to visit in Rowley and area Distance from Calgary: 171 km (two-hour drive) Distance from Edmonton: 251 km (two hour and 45 minute drive)
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One of many CPR sites, a number of Etzikom’s residents perished in the 1918 influenza epidemic. Today, visitors will find the thriving Etzikom Museum & Canadian Historic Windmill Interpretive Centre, featuring windmills along with plenty of other unique historic collections and displays.
What you’ll find: A windmill museum and two churches Distance from Calgary: 352 km (three hour and 40 minute drive) Distance from Edmonton: 601 km (six hour and 10 minute drive)
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Located near Red Deer, Fort Normandeau dates back to 1885 when, instead of building his own, Lieutenant Normandeau commandeered a hotel and turned it into a fort. Today, visitors to the area will find the restored fort and historic site celebrating the history of Red Deer and the three founding cultures.
What you’ll find: The old fort Distance from Calgary: 151 km (1.5-hour drive) Distance from Edmonton: 159 km (one hour and 45 minute drive)
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At one point in time, Bulwark was bustling as the heart of a huge grain district with three lumberyards, two general stores, two churches, a hardware store, a Bank of Commerce, garage, drug store, dance hall, pool room, and five grain elevators. Today, it sits empty, with abandoned buildings, an old cemetery, and a few houses.
What you’ll find: A number of old buildings and homes, along with grain elevators Distance from Calgary: 310 km (three hour and 15 minute drive) Distance from Edmonton: 254 km (two hour and 45 minute drive)
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Located in Banff National Park , Bankhead was established in the early 20th century as a place to supply coal for the locomotives of the Canadian Pacific Railway. At its busiest, the community boasted a population of 1,500 people; however, the mine site’s poor quality of coal and continuous labour strikes forced its closure in 1922, and many of its residents chose to move to the town of Banff.
What you’ll find: Many original structures remain Distance from Calgary: 126 km (1.5-hour drive) Distance from Edmonton: 412 km (four hour and 15 minute drive)
Alberta Coal Branch
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Bordering Jasper National Park, the Alberta Coal Branch features a number of old mine building ruins. One of a number of mining towns in the area, the community prospered for over 30 years, particularly during World War II, however as the demand for coal diminished, the Alberta Coal Branch found itself abandoned.
What you’ll find: Lots of mine building ruins, foundations, and machinery Distance from Calgary: 418 km (four hour and 45 minute drive) Distance from Edmonton: 270 km (two hour and 50 minute drive)
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To get to Wayne, you’ll cross 11 historic bridges through the Alberta Badlands, making the journey a part of the destination. About 40 residents still live in the area, and visitors will find a hotel, saloon, and ice cream shop in the townsite.
What you’ll find: Abandoned homes and mining artifacts, plus a historic saloon, hotel, ice cream shop, and campground Distance from Calgary: 146 km (one hour and 45 minute drive) Distance from Edmonton: 295 km (three hour and 20 minute drive)
Located just minutes from the ghost town of Bankhead and the Banff townsite, Minnewanka Landing was a coal mining community during the first world war. According to the Ghost Towns website , in the late 1930s, the Canadian Government wanted a new source of power for Calgary, and the town was fully flooded over by a new dam, which remains the main road to Lake Minnwanka to this day.
What you’ll find: Many original remains Distance from Calgary: 129 km (1.5-hour drive) Distance from Edmonton: 415 km (four hour and 15 minute drive)
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Four miles north of Banff is what used to be the coal mining community of Anthracite. Skip the touristy lakes on your next trip into the Rockies, because this place hasn’t been crowded since the 1800s. All that remains is a grave marker for a child who drowned in a river all those years ago.
What you’ll find: Building foundations and a grave marker Distance from Calgary: 120 km (one hour and 20 minute drive) Distance from Edmonton: 406 km (four-hour drive)
Buffalo Jump Station
Many of the original Buffalo Jump Station structures still remain, and it used to be a CPR stopping point along the Trans-Canada Highway. The boarded up building was last used in the 1970s, and was named after an abandoned arts and crafts store just metres away. The railway station has since been moved to the town of Cochrane, Alberta, alongside Highway 1A, where it still remains in its original condition.
What you’ll find: Many original buildings Distance from Calgary: 37 km (1.5-hour drive) Distance from Edmonton: 316 km (four-hour drive)
Named after a family of Mormon refugees, a number of log buildings were left behind when Caldwell was officially abandoned back in the 1950s. This tricky-to-find spot is located in the southwest corner of Alberta.
What you’ll find: A number of log buildings
Those travelling on Highway 21 should make a stop at the Alberta Government campsite on the south side of the Battle River. Duhamel is an old Laboucane settlement and is the former home of a large Metis colony.
What you’ll find: A church Distance from Calgary: 272 km (two hour and 45 minute drive) Distance from Edmonton: 96 km (one-hour drive)
Fort Edmonton and Fort Augustus
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Both of these forts still stand along the Saskatchewan River after having been built by competing fur trade companies.
What you’ll find: The old forts Distance from Calgary: 333 km (three hour and 15 minute drive) Distance from Edmonton: 28 km (35-minute drive)
If you’re looking for more chills and thrills, be sure to check out the Ghost Towns website for a list of more than 50 locations to explore in Alberta.
Happy ghost hunting!
With files from Chandler Walter
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The Ghost Towns of Alberta – Rowley
A ghost town filled with secrets, creepy mannequins, cats and buildings straight out of the wild west…the tiny hamlet of Rowley, Alberta has it all! More than your average ghost town, Rowley has its fair share of abandoned buildings and deserted railway cars. But the townsfolk, a meager population of eight, have transformed the place into a fascinating heritage site for tourists.
In the 1920s, Rowley was a bustling Southern Alberta prairie town, with over 500 flourishing residents. But due to the devastating blow of the Great Depression, most residents abandoned the town and the once-thriving crops dried up due to lack of rain, leaving the place desolate and empty of any life.
Buildings in small towns like these were often destroyed by fires. And instead of rebuilding and restoring the town, people would simply cut their losses and move away. This scenario was very common for the prairie provinces of Alberta and as a result, you can find several ghost towns throughout Alberta and Saskatchewan that met a similar fate.
Reviving a Neglected Ghost Town
In the 1980s the last remaining residents of Rowley decided to revive the town and bring it back to life. Instead of letting the old abandoned buildings and the history they contained rot, crumble and die, the residents turned the town into a historical wonderland.
Some of the buildings on Main Street were transformed to look like a scene straight out of the wild west. They also constructed several buildings for various movies, including Legends of the Fall and Bye Bye Blues .
To maintain the town’s upkeep, Rowley now offers free tours in summer and monthly pizza parties on the last Saturday of every month. This gives visitors the chance to peek inside the old buildings that sit on Main Street in the tiny hamlet while contributing to the preservation of Rowley.
Related Post: Saskatchewan Ghost Towns – Insinger
Visiting a Ghost Town in Alberta
Before Rowley, I’d only ever been to one ghost town, just off the highway in rural Saskatchewan. When I was there, walking through the silent streets, I had the distinct feeling I wasn’t alone. I felt like I was being watched in a sinister way. I was never totally sure if there was someone around, a feeling which created a pit of nervousness in my stomach. Plus, both times when I tried to leave, my car had trouble starting, which turned my mild uneasiness into pure panic.
Thankfully, Rowley didn’t make me feel this way at all. I felt happy the entire time I spent in the little ghost town! Sure, some of the buildings had been abandoned, but the atmosphere was happy and the place filled me with delight. Plus, I already knew there were a few people living in Rowley, so I was never truly alone.
As I approached the turnoff from Highway 56, leading to the dinosaur town of Drumheller, I saw a giant white sign perched high on top of the hill.
“ROWLEYWOOD” was written in giant red letters across the white sign.
It was at this point I knew I’d discovered the coolest ghost town ever.
When I saw the sign, Rowley was still a 5km ride down a gravel road, a journey I took quite slowly because I hate driving down gravel roads. It was definitely worth the trip, though! As I got closer and closer to the buildings on the left side of the gravel, there were road signs saying “ROWLEY” with giant arrows pointing toward the tiny cluster of aged buildings.
I made a left and slowly drove onto Main Street, where I was welcomed by well-manicured lawns and buildings that made me feel like I’d just stumbled onto the set of a wild west movie. I parked my car and excitedly jumped out into the intense summer heat to get a closer look at all the age-old buildings.
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Historical Buildings of Rowley
My first stop was the Rowley Trading Post, built in the 1920s. In its prime, the trading post was where Rowley residents would purchase their dry goods and groceries. By 1973, it was the last business to close in the town, apart from the grain elevators.
Other former businesses within the hamlet include a printing press, school and a Saloon dedicated to the memory of a previous owner, with real-life swinging saloon doors that totally won my heart over forever.
Movie Sets & Filming Locations
Another really cool building on Main Street was a bank built in the 1980s as a set for the film Bye Bye Blues . I took a peek inside and was welcomed by a bunch of paraphernalia from the movie, as well as other historical artifacts.
One building I came across that confused me was the funeral home…because it had a side gig as a pool hall and proudly exclaimed, “Drink Pepsi!” on its doors. I thought that was weird. Essentially, drink Pepsi and die? But I later found out the strange double persona was because the front of the building was used in a movie! I’m not sure if it was also Bye Bye Blues or another film. Either way, after production, the Rowley residents decided to turn the place into a pool hall for everyone to enjoy.
As it turns out, several buildings and storefronts were built specifically for movies, with Bye Bye Blues being the biggest reason behind all the cool structures.
Abandoned Former Hospital & Train Stations
My favourite building was a massive house with broken windows boarded up from the inside by wooden planks. It was beautiful in its abandoned state, still preserving its former beauty, but aged and weathered by time. This house was once used as an old hospital in 1910 when the community of Rowley was just being established.
Leaving the old hospital, I walked toward the train tracks and noticed giant grain elevators towering above, giving the place the quintessential Alberta feel. As it’s one of Canada’s prairie provinces, grain elevators are a huge part of Rowley’s history, used by farmers to load grain onto the trains to be sent away and sold. Also lining the tracks was a historical train station, which was where things got weird.
Creepy Mannequins Take Over the Ghost Town
As I approached the train station, snapping pictures like crazy, something in the window caught my eye. I did a double-take as I noticed a ghostly white face with dead eyes staring straight ahead. It was a lifeless man, dressed in period clothing as an old-timey train station conductor. Little did I know he wasn’t the only one living in a perpetual scene from the life of a 1920s Rowley resident.
I peered through a handful of windows before arriving at the train station and this was the first time I’d seen a mannequin staring back at me. Apparently, Rowley is crawling with creepy stark white mannequins living out their former glory days in various buildings around town.
Where were the rest of the mannequins? Were they watching me as I walked by Main Street, witnessing my excitement of being in the coolest ghost town I’d ever visited? I’ll never know for sure.
Related Post: Fireside Ghost Experience – Ghost Tour in Edmonton
Getting a Tour of the Rowley Ghost Town
During July and August, you can take a free tour of the town, venturing inside the historic buildings and learning all about their pasts. Plus, you’ll get to see several displays of mannequins living it up in scenes straight out of the 1920s.
If you can’t make it to Rowley during summer, the hamlet also hosts monthly pizza parties to help fund the restoration and conservation of all of the buildings that make it such a special place.
Rowley is occupied by just 8 or 9 resident humans and several feral cats. During my visit, I met one human and two cats — all of whom were super friendly and filled my heart with joy. Okay, just the cats filled my heart with joy.
But the older man I met was incredibly welcoming and stopped to talk to me, telling me a bit about one of the buildings he was using as a storage closet for his home. I do wish I’d been able to meet more of the people living in Rowley. But next time, when I go back for a tour to see all the creepy mannequins, I hope to bump into more Rowley cats and humans.
Related Post: Disaster and Dark Tourism in Alberta – Frank Slide
How to Visit Rowley Alberta
Although Rowley is more of a heritage site than a traditional ghost town, it’s an incredible place that’s definitely worth a visit. Be sure to say hello to one of the cats that call Rowley home or strike up a conversation with a local.
Check out one of the monthly pizza parties, go for a weekend camping trip (bring a donation) or rent out their community hall for an event. It’s important to keep the heritage site and historic ghost town alive so everyone can enjoy it.
Be sure to visit their FaceBook page to find out more about their monthly Pizza Parties and free camping information.
Rowley is located north of the Red Deer River Valley, 5km off Highway 56, 38km north of Drumheller. Look for the large grain elevators and numerous signs pointing the way to the town, which will be on the left side of the rural gravel road.
Dark Tourism in Alberta
Ghost Towns fall under the realm of Dark Tourism, and depending on how old, decrepit and abandoned the ghost towns are they may be incredibly creepy.
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Beside a dusty gravel road near the town of Vauxhall sits a beautifully restored church, a well-kept cemetery, a community hall and a few other dilapidated buildings. It’s all that remains of the once-thriving community of Retlaw. The wind blows through the prairie grass as my husband and I wander through town reading handwritten interpretive signs and photographing old buildings.
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There’s something hauntingly beautiful about ghost towns – and it’s not ghosts. Empty streets and crumbling buildings stand as a testament to the power of time and a reminder of how fleeting life can be. Even communities that were once home to dozens of shops and hundreds of people living busy lives can succumb to economic challenges and dwindle to ghost town status.
“Ruin gazers” is a term used to describe people with a fascination for exploring abandoned places and some ghost towns are prime sites for this kind of tourism. If you want to try a little ruin gazing, here are three fascinating Alberta ghost towns that are well worth a visit.
Retlaw – Walter Spelled Backwards
When the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in 1913, the community that used to be named “Barney” became “Retlaw” in honour of Walter R. Baker, a CPR official. “Retlaw” is “Walter” spelled backwards and the community was expected to be a major centre. The town had a CPR railway station, four grain elevators, a hotel, a bank, a blacksmith shop, a pool hall, two churches and several other businesses. So what went wrong?
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Retlaw is located in a dry region of Alberta that suffered from frequent crop failures. When the province of Alberta built an irrigation canal near Vauxhall in the 1920s, people moved where the water was.
If you visit Retlaw ghost town, start at the cemetery. Inside an unlocked small white building, you’ll find a binder compiled by the Retlaw Historical Society that contains information about births, deaths and marriages in Retlaw. Next, head to downtown Retlaw. As you walk around town, you can read handwritten interpretive signs created by the Retlaw Historical Society. If you want to book an event at the church or go on a guided tour of the town, email [email protected] in advance.
Rowley – Pizza and camping in a ghost town
About 30 minutes northwest of Drumheller, the hamlet of Rowley has a present-day population of about eight people – down considerably from its peak at about 500. Rowley was incorporated in 1912 and was named after Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Walsh Rowley. In 1919, the Canadian National Railway came to town. The town had a rail station, several grain elevators, a hospital, a general store, a movie theatre, a garage, a livery stable, a church, a saloon, a restaurant and many homes.
In the 1980s, locals began fixing up the old buildings and the ghost town has since become a tourist attraction. Rowley was the film site for the 1989 Hollywood movie, Bye Bye Blues and the boardwalk and some of the buildings created for the movie set are still standing.
If you want to stay overnight, camping is allowed in a small campground on the west side of town. Payment is by donation. The last Saturday of every month has traditionally been pizza night in Rowley and, in the past, it has been a real party atmosphere with many visitors in attendance. After months of cancellations, pizza nights resumed on June 26, 2021. Check the Rowley Facebook page a few days before the last Saturday of the month for details on when locals will be holding the next pizza night event.
Wayne – Visit the Last Chance Saloon
In its heyday, Wayne was a mining town with a population of more than 2,000 people. Today, it’s one of the few places where you can visit a saloon with real bullet holes in the walls in a ghost town that is said to have real ghosts. Located about 16 kilometres southeast of Drumheller, Wayne sprung up when the Red Deer Coal Company built the Rose Deer Mine, in 1912. The town had two schools, a hospital, several shops, a hotel and a saloon that miners affectionately dubbed the “Bucket of Blood” due to a large number of drunken brawls. When the mines in the Drumheller area closed down in the 1930s, the town slowly died.
Today the hamlet has about 28 permanent residents and the only evidence of the glory days is the Rosedeer Hotel and the aptly named Last Chance Saloon, which have become popular tourist attractions. Earlier this year, the Last Chance Saloon, the Rosedeer Hotel and the adjacent campground were listed for sale for $925,000 .
Debbie Olsen is an award-winning Métis writer and a national bestselling author. Follow her at www.wanderwoman.ca .
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- Copy story information for sharing The hidden lives of ghost towns: Across the Prairies, towns are disappearing. Some teeter on the brink of oblivion, the last gasps of their stories captured by roving groups of dedicated photographers and amateur historians. Others cling to life through whatever means they can. But there’s much more to all of them than just the ruins of old buildings. Here, we take a tour of three of Alberta's ghost towns, before they fade into history.
The hidden lives of ghost towns
Some teeter on the brink of oblivion. Others cling to life. But there’s much more to these places than the ruins of old buildings. There are stories. And people trying to keep them alive, while they still can.
By Vincent Bonnay
Translated from French by Robson Fletcher
August 29, 2020
There’s a surreal feeling to the wood, rust and dust that permeates this place. You have to remind yourself that you’re not lost in an old spaghetti western. You can almost hear the harmonica of an Ennio Morricone score, but when you listen closer, it’s just the faint whistling of the wind and the chorus of tall grass swaying in the breeze. It seems at any moment the near silence will be broken by the voice of Sergio Leone, shouting “Camera! Action!” But the command never comes. All that’s missing in this town are the people.
Well, not entirely.
There’s still some life here. Around the corner from the abandoned train station, an old man sits on a bench in front of what’s left of his shop. There’s no pistol on his belt or Stetson on his head. Instead he carries a cane and wears a baseball cap. And a smile.
Boyd Stevens, 86, is not an extra who forgot to leave the set. Quite the contrary: he’s a central character of the real-life drama playing out in Orion, Alta. It’s a role he’s held for decades. The train, the grain elevator, the school, and hundreds of former residents all left ages ago. So why is he still here?
“This is where I want to be,” he says. “That’s the bottom line. Period. That’s it.”
Stevens is living proof that some ghost towns aren’t dead, yet. Communities like this are scattered across the province. You can find them down country roads, in the middle of canola fields and other, inconspicuous places. Some are former mining towns, born from coal, which dwindled once oil boomed. Others sprang up along rail lines and thrived, until the day the trains stopped running.
These towns have a quiet presence, announcing themselves with simple roadside signs bearing their names, read by few people these days. But each town has its story. And this isn’t fiction, despite the surreal, movie-set-like feel. These ghost towns are very real. These buildings, their time-weathered walls and the people who live inside them tell tales of Western Canadian history.
It’s just a matter of listening — before it’s too late.
Nemiskam: ‘No services’
Nemiskam is easy to miss. Along the Red Coat Trail, a highway that approximates the path of the westward march of the Northwest Mounted Police in 1874, a road splits off and heads into a field. “Nemiskam: No services,” reads the roadside sign, and for good reason. There’s not much left of the gas station at the corner of the town’s main street. Its roof, half-collapsed, still covers some relics of everyday life: an old television, a stove.
But this station, as abandoned as it seems, has visitors today. It has come alive with the flashes and shutter noises of digital cameras. Five people carefully pick their way through the debris on the floor, making their way toward the garage. These "ghost towners” visit places like this as often as they can to uncover the stories that have shaped Alberta.
There’s a house here, abandoned sometime after the Great Depression, when the people who built it resolved to move on to a better life somewhere else. History books can’t record everything. For these types of stories, there are people like Johnnie Bachusky and his fellow explorers.
Fascinated by “things of the past” since he was a teenager, Bachusky reported on his first ghost town for a local newspaper nearly 25 years ago. Since then, the journalist has travelled countless prairie roads in search of abandoned towns to document them, while he still can.
“Don’t ever call us ghost towners hobbyists,” he says. “We’re not. Serious ghost towners really believe in what I believe in.”
Research, archives, interviews — what true ghost towners do goes well beyond a simple stroll on a Saturday afternoon. They dig deep into the past, immersing themselves in it.
“If you could picture yourself 100 years ago in this very spot, this would be a very busy place. There'd be lots of people. There'd be horses and buggies about, and all kinds of promise and hope,” says author Chris Doering, one of the explorers out today, in a dreamy tone, before drifting back to reality.
“And now we stand here, just you and I.”
For him and his fellow ghost towners, moments like this are special. The world has changed and the traces of the past are steadily fading away. Being here offers a chance to save what can be saved.
A bit further away, an aged wooden sign stands in front of an empty field. “Future home of K-Mart,” it reads. Bachusky believes one of the town’s later residents, recognizing that his small community was slowly dying, would’ve wanted people to have believed there was still hope, that a major retailer could still open up shop in Nemiskam. Of course, the last K-Mart in Canada closed more than 20 years ago. Hope here has long since vanished.
Another ghost towner in this small group, Cody Kapscos, still remembers one of his most surprising discoveries. For years, he travelled by car along a road near the Montana border, by the Hamlet of Masinasin, which is virtually invisible today. Since he was a child, he would stare out the window at the endless prairie. One day in 2009, while his sister drove, he noticed an object in the distance, obscured by the tall grass. He told her to stop and got out to investigate. It was a gravestone.
This patch of prairie was home to an abandoned and long-forgotten cemetery. Three or four more gravestones stood nearby, some with their inscriptions still legible. Among them was a name: Drusilla Ennis.
Kapcsos took some photos and posted them online. He never imagined, at the time, that they’d reach a woman in Minnesota who, thanks to him, would rediscover a long-lost relative. For more than 25 years, Winnie Benson had been searching for an ancestor, her great-great-grandmother, who left no trace after moving from North Dakota at the end of the 19th century. In 2015, nearly a century after Ennis died, Benson made the trip to this small patch of Alberta prairie to visit her grave.
“I was kind of taken aback when I got her message,” Kapcsos recalled. “Because I didn’t think I would ever run into an ancestor of one of the burials here.”
And who happened to be there to capture the moment, when Benson visited her great-great-grandmother’s long-lost burial site? Bachusky, with his camera.
No one knows what led Ennis to leave North Dakota and live out her final years on the plains of Western Canada, or if she found happiness here, but there is now, at least, a record of it. A little family story, part of the grand narrative of the West.
“Some people might think: Ghost towns? A bunch of dilapidated buildings and dead people in some forgotten cemetery? What's so exciting about that? Well, I feel, frankly, quite exhilarated,” Bachusky says.
“For me, it’s spiritual, as well. I really believe that when I’m doing this, and when I’m doing it earnestly for the right reasons, I feel like I’m touching the face or the spirit of God here.”
The shadows of the tall grass grow as the sun sets. The day is coming to an end. The ghost towners put away their cameras and their notebooks. The memories and the stories that they’ve gathered are now saved, some to maybe be published in a book one day.
“The rest,” Bachusky says, “is just left for the ghosts.”
Orion: Pioneer Town
Orion is not a ghost town, according to its most famous resident; Boyd Stevens prefers the term pioneer town.
He’s a mainstay here, sitting in front of his shop. He watches as a car passes. Does he recognize this visitor? Is it a neighbour? He knows everyone here, all seven of them. Even when he can’t quite make someone out, he waves, just to be sure.
The shop behind him is a shadow of what it once was, since that terrible Christmas Day in 2016, when the fire tore through the garage his father bought in 1947. The building later became a hardware store, which Boyd has carefully minded ever since.
Take the time to stop in Orion, a town most people would pass without a second thought on their journey somewhere bigger and newer, and you are rewarded with the chance to delve deep into the stories of this place, a legend of the Red Coat Trail.
Stevens remembers the Orion of his youth, when the trains still stopped here. He would race down to the station to catch the excitement and chat with the folks who rolled into town, which he says was a “big deal” at the time. People from all around town would come to discuss “the problems of the day” with the farmers bringing their grain to the elevator. This was an era when Lethbridge was a day’s journey from Orion rather than the hour and 45 minutes it takes today. These memories are alive, but fading.
“It started back in the late ‘40s,” Stevens says, of when things started to change. “People were leaving. They got on the train for a better choice of life, I guess.”
But not him.
“I'm not going,” he says. “I’m not going to follow the rat pack, you might say. I’m going to stay here. And that’s just what I did.”
He thus became a witness to what so many of the ghost towns of the West have in common: the loss of their raison d'être . Often, it was the loss of the railway line that sounded the death knell for small towns on the Prairies. Orion was no exception.
“That’s what I tell everybody: That I missed the last train,” Stevens says.
He fondly remembers the multitude of visitors who would arrive on the steel tracks over the decades, like the German couple he didn't know "from Eve or Adam," who came to talk to him for a travel magazine. He says plenty of visitors promised they’d drop by again sometime, but few actually did. Still, he values the momentary encounters, the fleeting friendships.
He has every reason to be nostalgic, but you find no trace of nostalgia in his words. He’s stoic. He speaks rationally, reflects calmly, without rancour or regret. He’s spent enough time contemplating these empty streets and lonely prairies and, with time, has learned to accept how the world has changed.
“I have my own feelings that, in time, there will be nothing here anymore,” he says. “I can’t stop progress. That’s just the way it is. It’s happening all over Alberta, Saskatchewan and, I suppose, Manitoba. It doesn’t make you happy, but you just have to roll with the punches, you might say.”
Rowley: The little town that refused to die
The story of Rowley, the little town that refused to die, is unique but it started like so many others.
A growing town at the dawn of the 20th century, it had a train station, a school, a barber, a hotel, and three grain elevators that rose like skyscrapers from the fields north of Drumheller, near the Badlands of central Alberta. In 1920, the town was booming and more than 400 people called it home. Then came the bust.
Today, Rowley residents may number no more than 10, but the town has found a way to survive.
Doug Hampton, the keeper of the keys to this town, tells the story from behind the swinging doors of Sam's Saloon, where it all began.
In the 1970s, Rowley looked to be at the mercy of the fates that had befallen so many other small towns, its battle almost lost after decades of rural exodus, dating back to the Great Depression. On Main Street, the store belonging to Sam Leung, a beloved Chinese immigrant who served the community for three decades, almost until his death in 1972, had closed. The building was handed over to the city. It sat empty and dark.
But one day in 1975, a group of die-hards gathered there nonetheless. Over beers, they made an observation and a vow: our town is dying; let's save it.
By bringing their own beer to Sam’s old store, which had been a sort of “grocer-butcher-restaurant” in the past, the place became, out of necessity, a saloon. As Hampton tells it, great ideas often spring from long conversations over drinks, and the locals had a stroke of inspiration: “Why not turn it into a real saloon?”
Thus was born Sam's Saloon.
This tribute to the late Sam Leung was one step toward keeping Rowley alive, but the residents didn’t stop there. Over the years, more dusty buildings were not just restored, but furnished. Locals donated items plucked from their basements and attics to bring the past back to life, at least in terms of decor. The town soon found a new raison d'être . It would become a giant museum.
Take the train station, for instance.
After the main line shut down, Rowley would still welcome a passenger train that sometimes brought nearly 300 tourists from Stettler in the late 1980s. But in 1997 all rail service ceased and the tracks were later removed — all except a 200-metre section outside the old station, which remains as a reminder of days gone by.
Glancing inside the station through a window, it takes a moment to notice the attendant behind the counter isn’t just calm, she’s motionless. The styrofoam mannequin keeps a quiet vigil, patiently awaiting the next arrival of passengers, not willing to admit another train will never come.
Across the street is a schoolhouse without children, where dozens of hand-sewn dolls have been diligently reviewing the same lesson for years.
Further up the street is a bank, the front of which served as a movie set for the film Bye Bye Blues in 1988. Locals later added an actual building behind the facade. The well preserved cowboy town soon caught the attention of more filmmakers. A big-budget Hollywood production came to Rowley in 1994 to film Legends of the Fall . In this town, there's a historical nugget around every corner.
Of course, maintaining a town full of fake inhabitants takes more than goodwill and a sense of whimsy. It requires money. So Rowley created another attraction, one which brings both visitors — and funds — to town on a regular basis.
It’s a simple but remarkably successful idea. On the last Saturday of the month, they cook pizzas — by the hundreds — in the community hall and put on concerts across the street at Sam’s Saloon, which keeps visitors’ thirsts well quenched while they await their pies. The profits help cover the costs of maintaining the town.
Buoyed by word of mouth and social media, Pizza Night in Rowley has become a bit of an institution. People come from Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and even farther afield to be a part of the unique experience. The record for one night is 350 pizzas, Hampton proudly recalls.
But this summer, it’s been a different story. Because of COVID-19, Pizza Nights are cancelled, as are the tours of the town’s buildings. In spite of the pandemic, Hampton says 10 to 30 cars have been stopping by each day, but it’s nothing like past years. The loss of revenue this summer has been a big blow to the small town.
Still, Rowley remains. And Hampton says its resilience has been a family affair. His own family was among the first to settle here. His brother is still here. As he speaks, you see a touch of emotion behind his horseshoe mustache.
“I'm pretty proud of Rowley,” he says.
“That's why I would like to keep the place looking good, because there’s a lot of history in them buildings, and it all started with our mothers and our fathers and our grandmothers. So, it’s something to be proud of.”
Today, Rowley is part ghost town, part tourist town, part regular town. A young couple and their two children live up the street from the saloon. Another couple just moved in behind the saloon and they help maintain that side of the town. It means that much less to do for Hampton, who’s delighted to be able to pass the torch to a new generation.
Here, like in the other towns we’ve visited, the stories may be faded, but they’re not gone. Spending time in these places, we’re able to touch a time gone by, one that is otherwise in the process of being forgotten. These towns aren’t far, but may seem part of a distant illusion, like mirages appearing on the prairies instead of the desert.
They exist as anachronism: rooted in another era, with one foot in today's world. But for how long?
List of ghost towns in Alberta
From wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
The province of Alberta has several ghost towns that have been completely or partially abandoned.  Many of Alberta's ghost towns exist as a result of a number of failed coal mining operations in the area during the early 20th century.
Ghost towns are communities that once had a considerable population, that have since dwindled in numbers causing some or all its business to close, either due to the rerouting of a highway, train tracks being pulled, or exhaustion of some natural resource .
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Inspiration and links to plan your trip.
Alberta: Ghost Towns in Canada’s Badlands
Hoodoos, Ghost Towns, and Dinosaur Bones: Exploring Alberta’s Badlands
By Jennifer Merrick
The change in landscape is as sudden as it is dramatic.
We’ve been driving east of Calgary, Alberta on the flat prairie for a little more than an hour, a valley appears out of nowhere, and we drop down into a fantasy land of canyons, strangely-shaped rock pillars, and sandstone hillsides covered with drills.
It’s the Badlands, and it’s a weird and wonderful new world.
Before this trip, I had no idea this type of landscape existed in Canada . But not only do we discover an extraordinary Badlands terrain, but we also find a family adventure of a lifetime filled with dinosaur bones, ghost towns, and abandoned mines.
A view from a T-Rex’s mouth
Our first stop is Drumheller, a former coal-mining town, located about 80 miles east of Calgary. The dinosaurs are impossible to miss. Not only are replicas of these prehistoric creatures on every street corner, but the town also boasts the world’s largest T-Rex.
At 85-feet tall, it is four times the size of the real thing and towers above the Badland town, guarding it with its fierce teeth. We climb up the stairs into the giant lizard’s jaw to get a dinosaur-eyed view. Back on the ground, the kids are thrilled to slide down the monster’s toe.
A hoodoo Badlands spell
Five miles away, along Highway 10, is the Rosedale Suspension Bridge. We venture across the swaying cables to hike amongst the mystical Badland hills, whose banded layers changed colors before our eyes. Further down the highway on East Coulee Drive are the Willow Creek Hoodoos.
The word hoodoo is thought to have originated from a misspelling of voodoo, so named because of the bizarre shapes of these stone pinnacles. Hoodoos are scattered throughout the Badlands, but this particular spot is one of the best. The kids play hide and seek among them, and we snap dozens of photos until the sun sets and we reluctantly leave.
Where the dinosaurs are
The same geological features that created this remarkable scenery also reveal the secrets of 75 million years of history. Hard to believe today that this desert environment was once the ideal dinosaur habitat supporting lush coastal forest and swamps. Only the fossils remain. Some of the world’s best can be found at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, just outside of Drumheller, and Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site 60 miles away near the town of Brook.
At both sites, we participate in organized fossil safaris that have us in the hills digging for petrified treasures. We strike paleontological gold with finds of a toe bone, a vertebra, and even a dinosaur tooth.
The tooth was found at Dinosaur Provincial Park , which is so rich in fossils that our guide tells us, “You literally can’t take a step without stepping on a bone.”
Museums all over the world exhibit skeletons found here, and we marvel at huge bones that look like they should be in a museum instead of sticking casually out of the arid ground.
We’re tempted to pocket a souvenir, but it’s a 50,000 dollar fine, and so we take photos instead and leave with prehistoric memories.
Haunted encounters in the Badlands
A once thriving coal-mining industry in the region has now disappeared leaving behind ghost towns and abandoned mines.
Wayne, near Drumheller, is the most famous of these towns and was the set of Jackie Chan’s, Shanghai Noon and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, among others. In the midst of abandoned buildings and broken-down equipment proudly stands the Last Chance Saloon.
Nicknamed ‘Bucket of Blood’ back in the day because of the miner fights, it’s now a much calmer but still character-filled place for a meal. Next door is a general store that serves ice cream.
The building is reportedly haunted, but one older Drumheller resident dismisses this idea and tells us that when she was a kid they used to play in the empty rooms, and the spirits people heard were just them.
We heard more ghost stories at Atlas Coal Mine , the last of the region’s 139 mines, which has now been turned into a tourist attraction. Employees entertained us with animated, stranger-than-fiction tales of the miners and the community, including accounts of workers who never checked out and still roam the shafts and tunnels to this day. We shivered despite the heat.
Whether these haunted stories about the Badlands are true or not really doesn’t matter as they bring to life the wild-west ways that were once the norm in these parts.
It adds to a sense of adventure that we’ve experienced throughout this humbling land of primordial history and sculpted desert.
After teaching English as a Second Language abroad for 7 years, Jennifer Merrick ‘settled down’ in Toronto. But my feet continue to itch and I now travel whenever I can with my family, writing about our adventures in numerous on-line and print publications.
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10 spooky Alberta ghost towns that you have to check out
These towns have may not have people, but they've got a whole lot of 'spirit.'
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Ruin gazers – a term to describe people who frequent deserted settlements, find the beauty and charm in empty streets, collapsing buildings and dusty windowsills. Although we wouldn’t consider ourselves abandoned community aficionados, our fascination with run-down convenience stores and quiet schoolyards runs deep. How could it not?! In places like these, it’s almost impossible not to be inspired or at the very least, a little afraid – and who doesn’t enjoy the occasional scare ?! Whether you live in or are just visiting the province, check out of the big city and join us in letting our minds run wild in one of these Alberta ghost towns.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Amber Dawn ~ 🇨🇦 (@amberdawnglover)
Where: Directions here Distance from Calgary: 311 km
Hidden in the Alberta Badlands, adventure seekers will find Wayne, a once-thriving community, occupied by over 3,000 people. Wayne was a mining town, but when the job was done residents had gone looking for work elsewhere, leaving the entire town as is. This place is incredibly well-preserved and serves as a snapshot of the old west and a tell-all about what life was like in the prairies years ago.
Where: 555 Jewel Street. Rosedale Station, AB Distance from Calgary: 147.3 km
Bankhead was once a company-driven town. Established in 1903, the folks who lived here would provide CPR locomotives with their coal and would supply the Banff Springs Hotel with their boilers. They did fairly well for themselves, until 1922 when CPR pulled their deal due to a disagreement with the workers. This was the beginning of the end for the community, as many had left to find work in nearby towns. Now – years later, the town has been left vacant and crumbling.
Where: Bankhead Banff National Park Bankhead, Alberta Distance from Calgary: 126 km
To get to this one, you’ll have to do a little more than just start your engines. We hope you’ve got some scuba gear because right underneath the beautiful body of water known as Lake Minnewanka, divers will find the untouched remains of the flooded, lake-side summer village, Minnewanka Landing. The town was taken under in 1941 after a newly built reservoir raised the surrounding water by 98 feet.
Where: Improvement District No. 9, AB Distance from Calgary: 93 km
The town of Orion, like many others that were established on wide-open Alberta land, was consecutively hit by windstorms, grasshoppers, and drought. All but 7 residents have since fled the town, leaving dozens of unoccupied 20th-century buildings and an eerie silence.
Where: Directions here Distance from Calgary: 368 km
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THE NOREGG MINING TOWN
The similarity to Nordegg and that town in the spooky coal miner episode of Scooby-Doo is uncanny. After shutting down their money-making facility in 1955, nearly everyone had kind of just picked up and left. Now all that remains are old forgotten vehicles, run-down buildings, carts, and fences.
Where: Directions here Distance from Calgary: 305 km
Rowley used to be a pretty lively place with a population of about 500 people. Unfortunately, as the times changed and the train into town became less travelled by, Rowley met its end. By the 1970s it had been run into the ground, but thankfully for 12 residents who chose to stay, and restore the old abandoned buildings, it has since become a popular tourist destination.
Where: Directions here Distance from Calgary: 171 km
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Fabio Montealegre (@montealegre_photo) on Jun 25, 2018 at 5:40am PDT
Since closing the mines in the town of Mercoal, nearly all residents have left. Established back in the ’20s, Mercoal once had a population of over 1,000 people. Now, with only a dozen people left, and the homes and buildings of who and what was, remain untouched, quiet, and eerie.
Where: Directions here Distance from Calgary: 422 km
Conqureville was once a town that was on what people used to call “prime agriculture land.” Its high school was described as the ‘heart of the community,’ but it was closed in the ’80s due to poor attendance and then burnt down. Unfortunately, we’re not quite sure if this is why the town lost its lustre and ultimately its residents, but we are sure that now, this place is incredibly ghostly.
Where: Range Road 100, Maleb, AB Distance from Calgary: 336 km
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Cheryl Stromsmoe (@cherylstromsmoe)
Where: Directions here Distance from Calgary: 341 km
So, there you have it guys. The 10 ghost towns in Alberta that we’d recommend you check out. Don’t forget to bring a camera, comfortable footwear, and most importantly, your imagination.
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'It's like ghost towns': Canada's border communities adapt to COVID-19 changes
Economy in many border communities inherently linked to traffic between the two countries.
When the mayor of a village in southern Alberta stares across the border, he sees family and friends who just happen to call Montana home.
The port of entry between Coutts, Alta., and Sweet Grass, Mont., is one of the busiest on the Canada-United States border, an important crossing on a trade route starting in Mexico.
"We are basically twin communities," says Jim Willett. "The people of the two communities grew up on both sides of the border."
In similar communities across the country, the relationship with their American neighbours drastically changed when the border closed to most travellers last month to help fight the spread of COVID-19. It's the first such closure since Confederation in 1867.
It is still open to people and businesses providing essential services.
The economy in many border communities is inherently linked to traffic between the two countries that brings people into cafes, gas stations and grocery stores. It also employs border agents, duty-free staff and brokers.
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As the global pandemic worsens south of the border, the crossings that tie communities on either side together are starting to represent fear.
From his front porch, Willett watches streams of semi-trailers pass by. The transport trucks are allowed to cross as they are deemed an essential service, so the economy hasn't been hit hard yet. But Willett says there's concern for people who do business on both sides of the border if it stays closed for too long.
There are also health worries. A significant portion of the 245 people who call Coutts home are older than 55, so some people are afraid when they see faces they don't know in town.
"It's that tenseness that is in the air all the time that is different. We would like that to go away but we know it's not going to for awhile."
In Amherstburg, Ont., many people are still crossing the border to work in Detroit as health-care providers. That has put leaders in the community, which is only a short drive from the Windsor-Detroit border crossing, in a difficult position. Some positive cases of the novel coronavirus have been linked to the workers.
"They are literally trying to save lives but ... they are exposing themselves to the virus and quite possibly bringing it back," says Aldo DiCarlo, the town's mayor.
"That's something you wouldn't have if you weren't a border community."
Both sides depend on each other for commerce and a healthy economy, DiCarlo says. But on the Canadian side fear is growing because the virus seems to be spreading faster and wider in Michigan.
The mayor says the town is adapting its plans and precautions everyday.
"Living this right now is just crazy," DiCarlo says. "Our town was really starting to thrive.
"Now driving around it's like a Stephen King novel. It's like ghost towns."
Nearly every member of the communities near the border crossing in southern Manitoba knows someone who has been laid off or lost their job, says Emerson-Franklin Reeve David Carlson.
"It's a scary time because the hopes are when we come out the other side, people will be able to get back to work and normal life, but that's definitely uncertain at this time," he says.
Sales have plummeted at businesses such as the duty-free shop and gas station. Others have closed. A significant portion of the economy relies on agriculture, so there's also concern for farmers about sales across the border as time goes on, Carlson says.
At the same time, Carlson says, the challenges posed by COVID-19 have shown how resilient the community is. People are calling seniors daily, delivering groceries and ensuring that returning snowbirds have everything they need to self-isolate.
"Being in a more rural and slightly more isolated area, people are able to put things in a good perspective."
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Exploring Alberta’s Crown Land: Ghost – Public Land Use Zone
Ghost is a Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ) found in Southern Alberta. Like other PLUZ, Ghost is a popular place for backcountry campers and off-road enthusiasts. For people in north Calgary (or Cochrane/Airdrie) this is the most accessible PLUZ. Due to its large size, cool terrain, and wide range of activities – Ghost has long been a favorite for people looking to enjoy our gorgeous crown land (Ghost is my personal favourite PLUZ).
See Also: Ultimate List of All PLUZ (Crown Land) In Alberta
What is the Ecology of the Ghost PLUZ?
Ghost contains subalpine, and alpine regions. The subalpine regions are found higher in elevation than the upper foothills but below the alpine region. The subalpine zone has cooler/wetter summers and colder winters. Vegetation in this region is largely lodgepole pine forests at lower elevations, and spruce and fir trees found higher up. Lastly, the alpine region of Ghost PLUZ exists above the treeline on the mountains. Climate is similar to the subalpine regions. These cold temperatures ensure that snow remains on top of the mountains well into the summer. Only low lying plants and lichens are able to grow in the alpine regions  .
What kind of wildlife exists in the Ghost PLUZ?
There are many different types of mammals that live within the Ghost PLUZ including black bears, grizzly bears, moose, elk, deer, wolves, and mountain lions. In higher regions, you will also find mountain goats and bighorn sheep. There is also a vast variety of birds that reside in the Ghost PLUZ including various sparrows and finches.
How big is Ghost PLUZ?
Ghost is a large Public Land Use Zone spanning approximately 1500 square kilometers (579.2 square miles) across the southern, eastern slopes of the Alberta Rockies.
How to get to Ghost PLUZ
Getting to Ghost PLUZ is actually fairly simple. Starting from the town of Cochrane, Alberta:
- Drive west on Highway 1A out of Cochrane
- Just before you ghost lake there will be a ‘Waiporous’ turn off on Highway 40 northbound – you will want to turn here.
- Follow highway 40 through Benchlands and Waiporous.
- Turn left down the TransAlta road and there is some beautiful camping down there and the Ghost River at the end.
- Continue straight up Highway 40 for the northern regions of the PLUZ
- The right turn after Waiporous Valley Road is the Waiparous Viewpoint PRA The picture below was taken here:
What is Allowed at Ghost PLUZ?
Rules for Horses In Ghost PLUZ
Horses are permitted in Ghost, however they must be tied up at least 100 meters back from any lakeshore. Alberta Parks doesn’t want horses tied to trees however because this can damage the trees. Many people will tie their horses to their trailers instead, but if you do this – the horse must not be able to reach the drip line of any tree (basically not under the canopy of any particular tree). Additionally, equestrians cannot use electric fences at all on any Crown Land in the Bighorn Backcountry.
Horse drawn wagons are permitted at Ghost PLUZ because generally the trails are wide enough to support wagons.
What is near Ghost PLUZ?
Other PLUZ: Dormer/Sheep PLUZ (northwest), Small piece of Panther Corners PLUZ (northwest), Kiska/Willson (northwest), Kananaskis (south)
Nearby Parks: Waiparous Creek, Waiparous Valley Viewpoint, Ghost Airstrip, South Ghost, Ghost Reservoir, Fallen Timber South, Burnt Timber, Wild Horse, Deer Creek Provincial Recreation Areas . Banff National Park.
Closest Accommodations: The Crossing at Ghost River
Closest Restaurant: Tim Hortons (Cochrane)
Closest Gas Station : Ghost Station Camping and Storage
Closest Town(s): Morley, Cochrane, *Waiporous, *Benchlands (*no services)
Closest Hospital Emergency Room: Canmore General Hospital (Canmore)
Closest Hospital Urgent Care (Non-Life Threatening): Cochrane Community Health Centre (Cochrane)
Nearby Destinations: Banff National Park, Ghost Lake
 Willoughby, Michael. “RANGE PLANT COMMUNITY TYPES and CARRYING CAPACITY for the SUBALPINE and ALPINE SUBREGIONS.” Sustainable Resource Development Public Lands and Forests Division, no. 3, 2006. Open Alberta.
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