7

of the Most Unique, Top-Secret, Off-Limits Places in the World

We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.

Some people can’t resist a challenge. Whether it’s climbing Mount Everest or running the Boston Marathon, thousands travel each year to try to overcome the odds through their own skill and fortitude. But when it comes to these seven unique places around the world, good luck — they’re either completely illegal for outsiders to visit or next to impossible to secure access. Discover seven of the world’s most inaccessible places and the stories behind them.

7

Mezhgorye, Russia

Beautiful clouds over the green mountain of Yamantau.
Credit: Mikhail Sotnikov/ iStock

More than 17,000 people live in the closed settlement of Mezhgorye, Russia, located in the southern Ural Mountains near the northern border of Kazakhstan. No visitors are allowed in the town without permission from the Russian government, not even fellow Russian citizens, although for reasons that are not exactly clear to the outside world. Founded in 1979, the top-secret town is sometimes called “Russia’s Area 51,” and all that’s really known is that the government projects conducted there have something to do with nearby Mount Yamantau, which the U.S. has claimed contains an extensive complex of covert government bunkers.

6

Ni’ihau, Hawaii

The west coast of Kauai with Niihau island in the far horizon.
Credit: Amenohi/ iStock

Scottish immigrant Elizabeth Sinclair, a ship captain’s widow, arrived in what was then called the Sandwich Islands in 1863 with eleven of her family members. A year later, Sinclair bought the entire island of Ni’ihau from King Kamehameha V for $10,000. As part of the purchase, she promised to preserve traditional Hawaiian culture. To this day, her descendants, the Robinson Family, privately own and maintain Ni’ihau, now the westernmost island in the state of Hawaii. Nicknamed the “Forbidden Isle,” Ni’ihau is off-limits to everyone except the Robinsons and their guests, government officials, United States Navy personnel, and a very limited number of tourists on pricey supervised safaris. (It’s about $1,950 for a full-day tour.) Islanders speak the Ni’ihau dialect of Hawaiian, which, thanks to the island’s isolation, is thought to be more closely related to the Hawaiian language spoken at the time of contact with Europeans.

5

Kalaupapa, Hawaii

Aerial View of Kalaupapa National Historic Park on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.
Credit: Kent Raney/ Shutterstock

Starting in 1866 and for the century following, the Kalaupapa peninsula, on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, was home to a colony for people suffering from leprosy (now known as Hansen’s disease). The disease was thought then to be extremely contagious, so these patients were isolated in this remote area of the island’s north shore, tucked between the ocean and 3,000-foot-tall cliffs. Several elderly, now-cured patients still live in the village, which is accessible only by air, sea, or a treacherous hiking trail. After the mandatory isolation law was repealed in 1969, all visitors needed to either secure an invite by a resident or a permit through a tour company. (Both of these options have been discontinued since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.) The area is now a National Historical Park.

4

Centralia, Pennsylvania

A wide angled view of a graffiti covered abandoned highway in Centralia, Pennsylvania.
Credit: Thom Lang/ The Image Bank via Getty Images

Since 1962, the western Pennsylvania borough of Centralia has been on fire — or the coal mines beneath it have, to be precise. After a controlled fire was set to clean up a landfill, the flames spread through an unsealed passage to the maze of abandoned coal mines beneath town. In 1992, Centralia was evacuated and condemned, roads and highways were closed, and all the real estate was claimed by eminent domain (with the exception of five homes, whose residents are allowed to remain in Centralia until their deaths). The fire now burns underneath 400 acres of Centralia — now a near-ghost town — and the neighboring village of Byrnesville. Scientists estimate it could continue burning for 250 more years.

3

Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway

People standing in front of the entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault at night.
Credit: LISE ASERUD/ AFP via Getty Images

Although visitors are able to walk up to the building from the road, only scientists and staff are allowed inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard — one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas. Built into the side of a frozen mountain outside the town of Longyearbyen, the vault holds 500 seeds apiece from over 1 million different plant species, as a backup global inventory in case of crop failures or natural disasters. The collection is stashed here for safekeeping because of its naturally stable Arctic climate, and also since it’s one of the least likely places on Earth to experience either a flood or a heat wave, both of which could damage the seeds.

2

Gangkhar Puensum, Bhutan

A view of Mount Gangkar Puensum in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
Credit: Milon Khondaker/ Shutterstock

With a summit of 24,836 feet, Gangkhar Puensum is the tallest peak in Bhutan and the tallest unclimbed mountain in the world. As a country, Bhutan has a steep barrier to entry to begin with — the official tourist tariff costs $200 to $250 per day. But if that weren’t enough, in 1994, the government of Bhutan made it illegal to climb any mountain higher than 6,000 meters (19,685 feet), citing religious reasons. And in 2003, mountaineering was totally outlawed. In 1998, a Japanese climbing expedition received permission to climb Gangkhar Puensum from the Tibetan side, but permission was later withdrawn due to pushback from Bhutan, so instead they summited the nearby subsidiary peak Liangkang Kangri, at a mere 24,718 feet.

1

Granite Mountain Records Facility, Utah

A view of the white jagged teeth of the Wasatch mountains over Salt Lake City, Utah.
Credit: MSRPhoto/ iStock

Since 1965, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, has operated a super-secure vault carved 600 feet into the side of Granite Mountain in Utah’s Wasatch Range. Stored inside the dry, climate-controlled space are 2.4 million rolls of microfilm and 1 million microfiches containing genealogical records, which add up to about 3 billion pages of family history documents — the world’s largest collection of genealogical records. Although the information in the documents is accessible for free on the LDS’s genealogical research site, the vault itself is strictly off limits to everyone except church officials.

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