Ghost Towns in Southwestern Montana

In this post, I review several, cool ghost towns in southwestern Montana.

 

Montana IS the Old West!  It’s full of small, dusty, cowpoke towns where you can just imagine characters like Buffalo Bill Cody and Wyatt Earp walking its streets.  What better way to enjoy that experience than visiting an authentic ghost town?  We saw a few on a recent road trip to western Montana (though there are still plenty more on our list!)  See below for details!

Elkhorn State Park (Ghost Town)

Elkhorn is a tiny town located in the high mountains of southwestern Montana.  It is situated in a lovely valley with a mountain expanse that spreads out before you.  Technically this is a state park but the park portion only encompasses two buildings and a picnic area, the rest of the town is privately owned.  Feel free to walk the local roads though.  There are a number of signs that show where buildings used to be, what they were used for, etc.  

You can reach Elkhorn from the south by taking Exit 256, off of I-90, near Cardwell, Montana.  From here you will take Route 69 north.  After about 25 miles you will turn right on White Bridge Road (it’s literally just a short road that crosses the river on a small bridge.)  Once you cross the river turn right at the T-intersection onto Lower Valley Road.  You then take this road to the town.

There are a few signs for the Elkhorn mountains and Elkhorn state park but don’t rely on these to guide you.  It will be about 40 miles until you reach the town going this route.  As long as you stay on the main gravel road once you reach Lower Valley Road, you should be fine.  These roads are almost all dirt but they’re in good shape for basically any vehicle in good weather conditions. 

You can also reach the town from the north from I-15.  From Exit 164 on I-15 at Boulder, MT, take Route 69 south and then take a left onto White Bridge Road.  The town is about 20 miles from the I-15 exit going this route.

If you continue up the dirt road past town and follow the signs, you will end up at the old cemetery in the woods. (The road is in pretty decent shape in good weather conditions–though we admittedly had a 4×4 truck.  We did see a sedan up there but I’d be careful with any car other than a Subaru or something else with higher clearance.  There were a few ruts and rocks in the road that could damage a lower-clearance vehicle.).

The cemetery was really neat but also very sad.  There were SO MANY graves of babies and children (apparently there was a diphtheria epidemic in the town that killed many children).  You’d see families where multiple children died within just a few days of each other.  I always love visiting old cemeteries.  It’s always very sad to see how frequently young people died, but the histories of the area that you can gather are always so interesting. 

The mine in Elkhorn

Nevada City and Virginia City Ghost Towns

These two towns are also located in southwest Montana.  They are only about two miles apart.  The easiest way to reach them is probably from Three Forks, Montana.  Take Exit 274 off of I-90 for US 287 south.  Then take this road to the town of Ennis and turn right onto State Route 287 (yes, the roads are the same number. 😉)  This road runs right to the towns.  It is around 60 miles to the towns from I-90.

Related Info:  Activities in Nevada and Virginia Cities, Virginia City history, Nevada City history, Bannack HistoryHistory of Elkhorn; 6 Don’t Miss Places for your Western Montana Road Trip

Nevada City was our favorite site of the two.  It is an outdoor museum of sorts.  Once you enter you can then walk around the entire town.  There are many buildings that you can actually go inside that are modeled to look as they would have in their heyday (such as a barbershop, the blacksmith shop, the general store, etc.).  Many of the structures are not native to this exact location, rather they were saved by historical foundations and brought here from around the state to be preserved. (It reminded me a little of the 1880 town in South Dakota.)

Main Street Nevada City

Barber Shop, Nevada City:

One great part about this museum, it was Puppers friendly!

Puppers enjoyed the post office!

Virginia City was ok.  There were some decent sites to see but mostly it was a busy, commercialized town filled with shops, restaurants, and saloons.  Some people enjoy that atmosphere and that’s fine, but the Trekkers (and Puppers) prefer the quiet and solitude of the real ghost town. 😁  The town did offer some historical tours in horse-drawn stagecoaches that looked kind of cool, though we didn’t partake.

Main Street Virginia City (it isn’t quite so ghostly)

Bannack State Park (Ghost Town)

The easiest way to get to Bannack would be to take I-15 to Exit 59, near Dillon, Montana.  From here you will take Route 278 west.  After about 17 miles, Bannack Bench Road will break off to the south (left).  That takes you right to the state park.

Some of the roads to get to the park are gravel, but they were in great shape!  As long as you take it easy and don’t mind getting your car dirty, any sedan should be able to handle the drive in good weather conditions.

Main Street Bannack

The jails in Bannack
You can see where the prisoners were chained

Bannack is AWESOME!  It’s one of the better preserved, true ghost towns I’ve ever seen (meaning it’s still in its original location and the buildings are in fairly good shape.)  They let you just wander around the town on your own, you can go in the buildings (that aren’t locked) AND you can bring dogs!

A smoky sunset over wild Montana
Puppers and I searching for ghosts at sunset
Inside the schoolhouse

Rules for teachers written on the schoolhouse chalkboard:

My favorite are no wearing bright colors over that scandalous one petticoat! 🤣 

Not gonna lie, I couldn’t help imagining myself descending these stairs in a hoop skirt!

If you can make it work I STRONGLY recommend camping in the park, it’s about a half-mile walk from the campgrounds to the ghost town, and being there in the evening as the light wanes is AMAZING! (If you choose not to camp the park is open till 9 at night, in the summer).  The campgrounds are rustic (read vault toilets) but they were cute, well-maintained, and quiet.  This was our favorite stop of the trip and Mr. Trekker’s favorite campground (mostly because of the access to the ghost town.)

Our cute little campsite at the Bannack State Park campground
View of Bannack from the hill above the town
Sleepy puppy after chasing ghosts! (BTW that seatbelt harness she’s wearing is AWESOME!)

Though they weren’t nearly as good as the ones we found for Colorado, I did find a series of books that is helpful when visiting Montana ghost towns:  

This volume didn’t cover EVERY town we’d like to see but it did review many of them.  I’ll look into getting one of the other volumes when we go out for our next trip.  The book focused mostly on the histories of the towns (which is always interesting) but it did give a quick synopsis of how to find the town at the end of each section.  It even made helpful suggestions such as, “it is not advisable for any vehicles towing trailers to approach using the southern route.”

Bannack and Nevada/Virginia Cities are only about 80 miles apart.  While you can certainly enjoy Nevada City and Virginia City on the same day, I would encourage you to save one whole day for Bannack.  This will allow you to fully enjoy that park and give it the time it deserves.   

Ghost towns are such a great way to experience history and gain an appreciation of the “cushier” lives we lead today.  So if you find yourself in southwestern Montana, check out some of these cool destinations!

Have you been to any of these awesome ghost towns?  Are there others we should put on our list?  Let me know in the comments!

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Do you enjoy immersing yourself with the ghosts of yesteryear? Check out these cool ghost towns in southwestern Montana!

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