When most people think of ruins, they picture an abandoned castle holding sway over the ancient Scottish countryside, a crumbling Mayan temple wreathed in the greenery of jungle vines, or of the towering stone palaces of the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. However, America is home to countless ruins, and many of them can be accessed by relatively short, moderate hikes. The East Coast hides more than its share of abandoned sites that invite the intrepid spirit. While most of these ruins lack the physical scale and age of the Great Pyramid at Giza or Hadrian’s Wall, there are nonetheless amazing destinations in the forests, mountains, and coastal areas of the eastern coast of the United States.
There is something magical about hikes with ruins; they blend the reenergizing peace and beauty of nature with the sometimes eerie, sometimes enchanting, and always intriguing vestiges of faded history. Ruins tell partial stories, coaxing the imagination to fill in the gaps and often creating a rich and inspiring tale that helps the cement the journey leading to and among the ruined site into the mind of the hiker.
If you like your hikes to come with an ethereal, haunting vibe, then these five East Coast hikes with ruined sites belong on your list.
The Hell House Altar (Maryland)
Because ruins are always better when they come with ghosts. The Hell House Altar is a site anyone with an appreciation for Gothic bleakness and/or restless spirits should visit. The altar is part of the remains of St. Mary’s College, a seminary founded in 1862 that persisted for 110 years until it finally closed down in the early 1970s after a long period of decreased enrollment. The property was left abandoned and untouched for several decades until Halloween 1997, when some decidedly uncool people set fire to the buildings. In the early 2000s, the standing structures were demolished to remove the hazard of collapse, and the remains of the site were left to be reclaimed by nature. Along with the haunting altar, around which ghosts are said to congregate, are stone stairs where unearthly footfalls echo amid a few other ruined structures.
To get to the site, park at 4 Ilchester Road, Ellicott City, Maryland 21043, and find the trailhead near the train tracks that cross overhead. The hike to the ruins is quite short, but you can spend hours exploring the hilly woodlands in the surrounding Patapsco State Park. The area is just west of Baltimore, for reference.
The Eyrie House Hotel (Massachusetts)
When it was opened in 1861, the Eyrie House Hotel was a grand affair. This large, opulent property was built atop the 827-foot tall Mount Nonotuck, the northernmost mountain in the Mount Tom Range, which extends from the Long Island Sound almost all the way to the border with Vermont. Thanks largely to its proximity to the Connecticut River, which made access easy, the Eyrie House did bustling business throughout the latter half of the 19th century. Then, in 1901, it burned down after hotel owner William Street lost control of a fire he was using to cremate a pair of horses. Weird, right? Street had never had his hotel properly insured, so no rebuilding efforts were forthcoming.
Today, the ruins of Eyrie House look more like the remnants of a Medieval castle than a hotel from the 1860s, what with the scale of the stonework that made up the cellars and foundations. You can drive much of the way toward these ruins using the Christopher Clark Road (about an hour and a half from Boston). Toss the address 125 Reservation Road, Holyoke, Massachusetts 01040 into the GPS and drive on in; plan to walk the last couple of miles. It’s an uphill trek on roads once graded for carriages, so the terrain itself is quite easy to navigate. The views from the top of Mount Nonstick are as inspiring as the ruins are moving.
The Doodletown Ghost Town (New York)
Yes, Doodletown is kind of a funny name. Let’s just get that out of the way. But, as it turns out, even ghost towns with funny names can still be mysterious and fascinating places. The story of Doodletown, New York, stretches back centuries, with natives living in the area for untold hundreds of years. The town was permanently settled by Westerners in the latter half of the 1700s; the name derived from the Dutch word dooddel meaning “dead valley.”
Doodletown was home to Revolutionary War soldiers, miners, farmers, and much more. Well into the early 20th century, the town had a school, a church, several stores and small businesses, and even more homes. In the early years of the 1900s, Doodletown seemed slated to grow by leaps and bounds, and much of the land in and around the town was purchased by Palisades Interstate Park Commission, which intended to develop nearby Bear Mountain into a ski resort. The plans never got off paper and, over the course of the 1930s and 1940s, the town stagnated, then began to shrink. By the 1960s, the last residents had moved away.
Today, Doodletown is a haven for hikers who can explore the remnants of homes, businesses, and other buildings, all reminders of a place humans called home for hundreds of years but nature now reigns again. To get there, visit Bear Mountain State Park, which can be found using the address Route 9W North, Bear Mountain, New York 10911. From there, you can get directions from park rangers or let your GPS zero in on Doodletwon, New York; park when the roads give out and then start walking.
King Zog’s Knollwood Estate (New York)
While King Zog sounds like the name of a character from Westeros or Middle Earth, he was very much a real person and a real king: the king of Albania from 1928 to 1939. The reign of King Zog, aka Ahmet Muhtar Zogolli, was cut short by the April 1939 invasion by neighboring Italy. The royal family fled into exile, taking millions of dollars worth of gold from the national bank as they did so. Exiled King Zog first settled in London (initially living at The Ritz), then in other areas around England. The family later moved to Egypt, then finally settled in France in the 1950s. In the early ’50s, Zog set his eyes on a sprawling estate on the Gold Coast of Long Island, New York. The mansion and 260-acre property were completed in 1920, having been built for a Wall Street tycoon. The property was named the Knollwood Estate.
King Zog purchased Knollwood in 1951 and had grand ambitions for establishing an Albanian capital in exile, but he never moved into the property. The mansion and grounds were repeatedly ransacked by looters in the early ’50s — possibly inspired by rumors of gold and jewels hidden there — and, in the mid 1950s, Zog sold the home at a great loss. The structures on the site were demolished in 1959 out of safety concerns, and the property has been a sealed off as a ruin ever since.
When visiting Knollwood Estate, start near the Nassau Equestrian Center at 62 Route 106, Jericho, New York 11753. Look for trees marked with ribbon to show the path, or ask someone who knows the area.
Mount Success Air Crash (New Hampshire)
This hike leads not to the traditional ruins of a home, church, or other structure, but to the wreckage of an airplane that crashed in 1954. Sadly, two people died, so be prepared to approach the scene with reverence. The hike up to the top of Mount Success is an arduous one, though it’s only a five-mile long journey, so most fit folks can handle it. (Wear good hiking boots to keep those ankles safe on steep, uneven terrain!) The mountain sits near New Hampshire’s border with Maine, and the views from the summit can be striking — well worth the effort of the trek.
Tragic though a deadly plane crash is, there is an undeniably scintillating sensation one feels when coming upon the wreckage of a plane high up in the wooded hills. You can enter the fuselage of the ruined plane, where you will find debris scattered about the area. You will also find alpine lakes, plentiful wildlife, and a healthy dose of solitude.
The summit of Mount Success and the wreckage of Northeast Flight 792 can be found at the end of a hike starting at a trailhead off NH State Route 16. The best way to find the wreckage is to use a real GPS program or device (not your phone’s map app, in other words) and plug in the coordinates 44.47150°N / 71.039°W.
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