There are a lot of dangerous things in Skyrim, so the need for a robust defence is understandable. It’s no real surprise that the landscape is dotted with fortifications. This has probably had the opposite of the intended effect, however, as most are overrun with bandits, necromancers, or worst of all, Thalmor.
It’s probably a public service to rid some of these places of their badly-behaved tenants. There might even be some far more specific tasks that need to you step through their doors. Not only will you be doing Skyrim a favour, but you can pick up a lot of useful things while you’re in there.
10 Cracked Tusk Keep
West of Falkreath is Cracked Tusk Keep, a crumbling fort taken over by very unfriendly orcs. They will attack on sight, though sneaking in is not a struggle, as the stone walls are falling apart and full of gaps.
Taking care of the orcs will yield a smithing area, a smokehouse, and a hidden chest in the tower east of the main gate. The real prize is further in. Whether by lockpicking or by taking out the Ghrunzul, the boss of the resident Orsimer, it is possible to gain entry into the Cracked Tusk Vault. It’s accessible from the lowest part of the keep and is full of traps, but treading carefully yields weapons, potions, and at the very end, shards of a lost Daedric artifact, Mehrunes’ Razor.
On the surface, Morvunskar in Eastmarch is quite standard for a Skyrim fort. Inhabited by a group of rather unfriendly mages, you can expect to be attacked on sight. Venturing inside, it’s possible to hear a forge, and the bitter complaints of the individual told to work it.
Morvunskar has a secret, however, one you can only unlock if you’ve been partying with a man named Sam Guevenne. Following the path of destruction you wrought on your drunken evening will eventually bring you to Morvunskar, and see you open a portal below it to the realm of the Daedric Prince Sanguine. He will present you with the Sanguine Rose, certain you could cause some chaos with it.
8 Ilinata’s Deep
On the edge of Lake Ilinata, you can find the half-flooded Ilinata’s Deep. You enter through a trapdoor and are soon greeted by a crucified skeleton. Charming. Advancing through this waterlogged ruin you will find more skeletons, this time far more lively. You’ll also find the necromancers controlling them. Their residence brings a large number of potions, alchemy ingredients, and robes that boost casting. An underwater door in the end room can be picked, yielding even more loot.
If you’ve gotten the quest The Black Star, a door will be available on the upper floor of the entry hall. It leads to Ilinata’s Deluge, where the broken Asura’s Star can be recovered.
Sitting southwest of Dragon’s Bridge, the small ruin of Harmugstahl answers the question: ‘Is there anything worse than spiders?’ As it turns out, there are worse things — magical spiders.
On entering you will find an adventurer on their way out, announcing that they want nothing more to do with the place because it is full of enchanted spiders. They turn out to be completely correct, and the spiders of Harmugstahl will burst into flames, frost, or electricity when upset. They are the handiwork of Kornalus, a mage who — for reasons best known to himself — is enchanting arachnids. He is very hostile and will attack on sight, but you could always let a few of his projects out of their cages to handle him. Further in, you can find Kornalus’ room, with a large treasure chest.
6 Castle Volkihar
If you follow the Dawnguard questline, one way or another your efforts will bring you to Castle Volkihar. Those who decide to take up the full vampire lifestyle will be able to use it as a home, though not all of the castle is friendly — even to bloodsuckers.
To reach the Soul Cairn and the eventual Elder Scroll you must venture through the bottom of Castle Volkihar. There are gargoyles, skeletons, and feral vampires to contend with, so it’s not an easy trip. It’s well worth the effort though. You can even pick up a Vampire Royal set, so you and Serana can match.
5 Northwatch Keep
Right on the far northern edge of Skyrim is Northwatch Keep, a fortress controlled by the Thalmor. It will be your goal if you want to help Fralia Grey-Mane find her son, Thorald, in the quest Missing In Action. If you are sent there as part of the quest, you can have Thorald’s brother, Avulstein, and his friends along for the ride.
There is no diplomatic solution to the quest, so it means either sneaking in and picking locks or going all-out and storming the place. Either way, you will eventually find Thorald, and a Thalmor interrogator. Take out the elf, free Thorald, and get out of the back door to complete the quest. You can also free other prisoners held inside, though most will just tell you to leave them alone when spoken to. Some people have no gratitude.
4 Darklight Tower
On the mountainous edge of The Rift, the sinister Darklight Tower is easily picked out for the bones and skins displayed outside, often marks of hagraven activity. Entering will greet you with a slightly alarming scene, a woman stood over a dead body. She will desperately try to explain herself and admit that she was part of a coven of witches doing unpleasant magic inside the tower.
The woman, Illia, seeks to repent for what she’s done, and enlists your help in taking out her mother, Silvia, before she can turn into a hagraven. This involves fighting your way up the tower and posing as a human sacrifice. Slaying Silvia nets you her staff, and also allows Illia to be recruited as a follower, where she fits in as a decent destruction mage.
3 Fort Frostmoth
A short walk outside of Raven Rock is Fort Frostmoth. You will be asked to journey there by the captain of the Redoran Guard, to investigate the strange ash creatures that keep storming the walls of the city. This comes with a declaration of war from an Imperial General who seemingly died over a century previously.
Descending on Fort Frostmoth will reveal that General Falx Carius is indeed alive, or something like it, and convinced you are here to invade his fort. He can’t be reasoned with, so it’s best to give him a second death. With him gone you can get his unique warhammer, enchanted with fire, frost, and lightning.
2 The Tower Of Dawn
Looming over Dawnstar is the ominous Tower Of Dawn, also known as Nightcaller Temple. The principal reason to visit is to help the Priest of Mara, Erandur, deal with the strange nightmares that are plaguing the people of Dawnstar. He believes that an artifact of Vaermina is causing this. The whole tower was put to sleep by a magical gas, but opening it will break the spell.
Venturing down through some newly-awakened cultists and orcs will eventually bring you to the Skull of Corruption. From there you can either let Erandur destroy the evil staff, and gain him as a companion, or do as Vaermina commands, and stab him in the back to make the Skull Of Corruption yours.
1 Fort Dunstad
Fort Dunstad is not necessarily the most loot-packed fort on the map, but it is still well worth a visit due to having some of the actual funniest environmental storytelling in the game. The large bandit fort is south of Dawnstar, and has several different interior areas.
It is packed with hilarious things. There is a skeever fighting ring in the lower levels, complete with excessive numbers of cheese wheels. There is the room the bandits are apparently using as a toilet, complete with reading material that turns out to be a children’s book — right on their reading level. Up top next to a large loot chest, you can find a chair for a guard post, with several Resistance Against Cold potions left by some unhappy sentry. All in all, it’s one of the most fun experiences you can have in a fort.