Finding the 10 Best Abandoned Places in Virginia In 2021

With a history that stretches back more than four centuries to the founding of the Jamestown colony in 1607, Virginia is a gold mine of interesting and historically significant sites to visit.

While many have been carefully maintained and preserved—including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation and Colonial Williamsburg—others have been forgotten, left to decay at the hands of time. Read on to discover the 10 best abandoned places in Virginia that you won’t find in most tourist guides.

Need a strong camera to photograph abandoned places in Virginia? Look no further than our two top recommendations, the Canon EOS 90D and the Nikon D7500. Find more DSLR options in our comprehensive guide.

Interested in venturing outside Virginia? Here are a few guides to surrounding states that will be helpful in your explorations outside of the wonderful abandoned places in Virginia:

The Best Abandoned Places in Virginia

Presidents Park (Williamsburg)

Founded in 2004, Williamsburg’s Presidents Park was an outdoor sculpture museum inspired by Mount Rushmore. The park featured 18-foot tall concrete replicas of the first 43 U.S. presidents’ heads, starting with George Washington and concluding with George W. Bush. The attraction was a joint venture between Houston-based sculptor David Adickes, who created the massive busts, and local landowner Everette Newman, who provided the location for the display.

Presidents Park generated controversy from the day it opened, with some local leaders fearing that it would siphon tourists away from other regional destinations like Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg, while others dismissed it as simply a tacky eyesore. However, their concerns proved largely unfounded, as the park shut down in 2010, just a few years after it opened. After the property went into foreclosure, the sculptures were relocated to a nearby farm.

The process of moving the busts—each of which weighs between 5 and 10 tons—cost $50,000 and required the use of a large crane. Several were damaged during the relocation, and they have since continued to crack, crumble and peel as they languish in a field, though the current owner hopes to restore them and return them to public display at some point.

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DeJarnette Sanitarium (Staunton)

Founded by the former medical director of the nearby Western State Asylum, the DeJarnette Sanitarium opened in 1932 as a private mental health facility for patients affluent enough to fund their own treatment. Dr. Joseph DeJarnette was well-respected among the elite medical community in the state, but his reputation would come to be tarnished in the eyes of history due to his beliefs around eugenics, which he used to justify the involuntary sterilization of mentally ill and otherwise “defective” patients.

Over his decades-long career, he earned the nickname “Sterilization DeJarnette,” and his enthusiastic endorsement of the practice significantly influenced the Virginia legislature to pass forced sterilization laws that were subsequently adopted by more than a dozen other states. Though eugenics largely fell out of public favor after the Holocaust, the practice of sterilizing mentally ill patients persisted in the state through the 1970s. The State of Virginia has since issued an official apology for its sterilization policy and issued financial compensation to its victims.

The state took over the DeJarnette Sanitarium in 1975 and repurposed it as a pediatric hospital called the DeJarnette Center for Human Development. The hospital moved to a new facility in 1996 and was renamed the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents to shed its association with the controversial doctor. The original DeJarnette Sanitarium still stands, abandoned and decaying, on a hilltop in Staunton.  

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Swannanoa Palace (Afton)

This lavish estate in the Blue Ridge Mountains was designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style to replicate the look and feel of an exotic Roman villa. Intended to serve as a summer residence for Richmond-based millionaire philanthropist James Dooley and his wife Sallie, the jaw-droppingly ornate home required the efforts of more than 300 artisans over a period of eight years to build.

Completed in 1912 at a cost of $2 million, the 52-room mansion featured Georgian marble floors, gold-plated fixtures and a 4,000-piece Tiffany stained-glass window, as well as a domed ceiling adorned with Mrs. Dooley’s countenance. It was the first home in Nelson County to be equipped with electricity, with its own power plant on the property, and it also included an elevator.

When Dooley died in 1922, he left Swannanoa to his wife; when she died three years later, his four sisters inherited the property. They sold it the following year to the Valley Corporation of Richmond, which converted it into a country club where President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner in 1928. The country club closed in 1932.

The palatial estate stood empty for more than a decade. In 1942, the U.S. Navy reportedly considered purchasing the estate for use as a clandestine site for interrogating prisoners of war, but ultimately opted for a less extravagant Civilian Conservation Corps camp in nearby Fort Hunt. The property finally acquired a new occupant in 1948, when Walter Russell located his University of Science and Philosophy on the property, where it remained for the next 50 years.

Swannanoa was again vacated in 1998 and has been abandoned since then. The deteriorating building and overgrown courtyard are open on weekends for public tours, the proceeds of which are being directed to future restoration efforts.

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Western State Hospital (Staunton)

Before the Declaration of Independence had even been written into existence, colonial leaders in Virginia recognized the need for a facility to treat mentally ill patients within its borders. The Public Hospital for Persons of Insane and Disordered Minds was founded in Williamsburg in 1770, and within 50 years it had well exceeded its capacity.

In 1828, the Western State Lunatic Asylum opened in Staunton, offering a tranquil setting where patients enjoyed physical exercise and humane treatment amid the terraced gardens and mountain views on the property. The facility included detailed architectural design, spacious rooms and common areas and soaring spiral staircases that led to rooftop balconies where patients could take in fresh air and sunlight.  

After the Civil War, physicians’ approach to treating the mentally ill underwent a drastic shift. Western State Lunatic Asylum had become crowded with individuals deemed “undesirable” by society—regardless of whether they had a diagnosed mental illness—and some of the facility’s distinctive architectural features had become safety risks.

New, more drastic forms of treatment like restraint, isolation, lobotomies, seizure induction and even sterilization were becoming the norm at Western State and other hospitals like it, and the physician who took over as superintendent in 1905 brought his support of the eugenics movement to his work. Over the next 38 years, countless patients at the asylum were sterilized in an effort to “purify” the nation’s gene pool by eliminating those with mental illness and other perceived defects.

In the years following World War II, electroconvulsive therapy and pharmaceutical treatment were introduced at Western State, and a twin facility was opened around 1950, bringing the combined patient population at the two sites to more than 3,000. After a new campus was completed in the 1960s, the original facility was gradually emptied of its patients, and in the 1970s it was repurposed as the Staunton Correctional Center.

The facility was completely abandoned when the prison closed in 2002, and it was left to decay until it was finally acquired by a developer with plans to remodel it into a community of condominiums. As of now though, it remains as one of the few true “bandos” on our list of the best abandoned places in Virginia.

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Pamplin City Main Street (Pamplin City)

Once a thriving town founded in the early 19th century, Pamplin City has since diminished to just a few hundred residents, and its previously-proud Main Street commercial district is now a ghost town.

The community was originally known as Merriman’s Shop in reference to a local cobbler’s workshop, but it was renamed Pamplin City in 1874 to honor Nicholas Pamplin, a wealthy landowner who donated a massive swath of property for the construction of a rail line and train depot to serve the region.

In its heyday, Pamplin City also included multiple churches, a post office, four doctors, a lumber mill, a flour mill, a blacksmith, a silent movie theater, a tavern and a handful of restaurants. However, the town’s primary industry was the production of clay smoking pipes, first done by hand and then later in a factory that operated until 1952.

After a fire destroyed virtually every structure on Pamplin City’s Main Street at the turn of the 20th century, the town passed an ordinance requiring all new commercial structures to be made of brick, and most of the empty, crumbling buildings still standing there date back to the post-fire rebuilding effort.

Only one of the former shops still features its original—albeit rusty—signage: Williams Hardware and Grocery, owned and operated by Pamplin City Postmaster Harry Williams and his brother Woodrow “Woody” Williams, a professional baseball player who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds. After his retirement from the major leagues in 1949, he ran the store with his brother for the next 30 years. Though it’s unclear when the grocery closed its doors, Woody died in 1995 at age 82.

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Haunted Paxton Manor (Leesburg)

This allegedly haunted property was established in 1872 by Charles Paxton, an affluent businessman from Pennsylvania. Upon moving to Leesburg with his wife Rachel three years prior, Paxton acquired more than 700 acres of verdant farmland and commissioned an enormous mansion designed by architect Henry Dudley.

Inspired by the villas of Italy, Dudley’s vision included a two-and-a-half story, 20,000 square-foot main residence with a façade of rich brown and soft pink sandstone. In contrast to the elegant simplicity of the home’s exterior, the inside featured lavish marble accents, a grand central staircase and elaborate attention to detail. It even included a central heating system, an almost unimaginable luxury at the time.

Sadly, Rachel Paxton spent most of her golden years living alone in the enormous estate; Charles Paxton died in 1899, and their daughter Margaret passed the following year. In her will, Rachel directed that the property be used to help less-fortunate children in the community—one of her great passions in life. The property was converted into an orphanage in 1921 and now operates as Paxton Campus, providing underprivileged children and their families assistance with shelter, health care, education and other needs.

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Belle Isle Ruins (Richmond)

This 540-acre island in the James River played a significant role at several points in U.S. history, starting with its initial Native American inhabitants and subsequent exploration by English colonist John Smith. A nail factory was constructed on the island in the early 19th century, and its remains are still easily visible on the east side of the island.

The island may be best known for its association with the Civil War, when it was used as a Confederate prison camp designed to hold more than 3,000 Union soldiers, though it reportedly contained as many as 10,000 Union POWs at its peak. Thousands of soldiers are known to have perished while in captivity on Belle Isle, although their remains have been relocated.  

On the south end of the island, a vacant hydroelectric plant from the early 20th century is still standing, and you can also see the ruins of a defunct storage facility for oil and explosives.

Today, the island has been transformed into a tranquil state park, accessible via a multi-use path under the Robert E. Lee Bridge on its north side or via the bridge near 22nd Street on the southern end. In addition to exploring the historic ruins, visitors can enjoy kayaking, canoeing and fishing as well as hiking, biking and equestrian trails.

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Lorton Reformatory (Lorton)

This correctional campus originally opened in 1910 as the Occoquan Workhouse, where non-violent offenders operated the on-site farm as they completed their short sentences. A reformatory facility was added in 1914, and inmates completed construction on a 10-acre high-security penitentiary in 1938. When the District of Columbia Department of Corrections was organized in 1946, the Lorton campus was added to its jurisdiction.  

A youth center for prisoners aged 18 to 22 was added in 1960 after the federal Youth Corrections Act of 1950 created demand for additional rehabilitation opportunities for young offenders. Located near the prison’s dairy farm, the youth facility sought to provide inmates with trade skills and education that would help them become productive members of society upon their release.

Over the decades, the Lorton campus expanded to more than 3,500 acres, yet was still known for its overcrowded conditions and outdated facilities. In 2002, the complex closed its doors, transferring many of its inmates to Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities.

Fairfax County acquired the property and transformed it into the Workhouse Arts Center, restoring many of the old buildings to provide space for cultural arts displays, courses and other events. Athletic fields have also been added to the grounds, which are still surrounded by the old prison guard towers. Despite this, it remains a must-see when looking for abandoned places in Virginia.

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Abandoned Virginia Renaissance Faire (Fredericksburg)

For a handful of years in the late 1990s, the Virginia Renaissance Faire offered visitors a glimpse into medieval history, with its replicas of tower-topped castles, feudal villas and even a faux ship docked in the small pond on the property. Performers strolled the grounds, providing shows and other entertainment, and a modest cohort of regional Renaissance Faire enthusiasts frequented the park.

However, the swampy conditions, swarms of insects and remote location proved too much of a challenge for the endeavor, and operations ceased after just two seasons. Some of the props were relocated to a similar business in Wisconsin, but most of the larger structures were abandoned where they stood. Today, the buildings are in advanced stages of decay and tattooed with graffiti and paintball strikes.

Visitors should keep in mind that the site is private property patrolled by the Stafford County Sheriff’s Department, and it’s also heavily used by a local sports club for hunting, target practice and other potentially hazardous activities. It represents one of the most dangerous to visit urban exploration locations and abandoned places in Virginia.

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Cameras, headlamps, respirators and more. Urban exploration can be very gear-heavy, especially when exploring abandoned places in Virginia. When this is the case, it’s important to have a good-quality backpack.

We recommend both the Osprey Packs Daylite for sling backpacks when exploring abandoned places in Virginia, or the Mardingtop Tactical Backpack for a standard two-strap backpack. Alternatively, check out our comprehensive guide for far more options, tips, and tricks.

Kiptopeke Breakwater Ships (Cape Charles)

Just west of the now-defunct ferry terminal near Kiptopeke State Park, nine crumbling concrete ships loom several hundred yards offshore in the inky waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Part of a “Concrete Fleet” that once numbered two dozen, the ships were arranged here in 1948 to form a breakwater protecting the ferry terminal during extreme weather.

After the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel opened in 1964, the ferry terminal was decommissioned, but the concrete hulks remained in place to shelter the pier and offer refuge to fish, sea birds and other marine life. Over the decades, the relentless assault of waves, wind and salt air have ravaged the ships, exposing their rusty skeletons and opening gaping wounds in their walls large enough to sail a small boat through.

They can easily be seen about a quarter-mile offshore at the fishing pier, or you can get a closer look by paddling a kayak out to the wreckage.

Each one is named for a pioneer in the science of concrete; from north to south, you’ll see the S.S. Arthur Newell Talbot, S.S. Edwin Thatcher, S.S. Robert Whitman Lesley, S.S. Willis A. Slater, S.S. Leonard Chase Wason, S.S. Ricard Kidder Meade, S.S. John Grant, S.S. William Foster Cowham and S.S. Willard A. Pollard. All in all, this ship graveyard represents one of the most interesting abandoned places in Virginia.

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Our Final Thoughts on Abandoned Places in Virginia

Those who are into urban exploration in the Virginia state area, and wanting to explore abandoned places in Virginia, should get comfortable with Virginia trespassing laws. Luckily, in the state of Virginia, the laws are easy to understand and are pretty cut and dry.

For these cases, you should familiarize yourself with x. For more about obtaining permission to explore abandoned places in Virginia, check out our guide Explore Abandoned Buildings: How To Get Permission.

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