Montana’s gold rush led to the formation of numerous towns in the state, many of which have grown and are still populated today. Others have long been abandoned, leaving behind only remnants that tell the story of those coming to the area hoping to striking it rich with the discovery of gold and other treasures in the ground. Garnet Ghost Town is Montana’s best preserved ghost town. Visitors can walk through the old streets and into some of the historic buildings, getting a little idea as to what life was like here during the town’s prime. Below are all the details needed for planning a visit.
Some Garnet Ghost Town History
Gold was discovered in the Missoula area in the 1860s bringing many prospectors to Montana. Garnet Ghost Town went through multiple booms and busts. At first, gold was most commonly collected by panning because it was difficult to get mining equipment to this remote, rugged area. This method soon became less profitable and accessible resources became more scarce, so people left the town.
Another gold boom occurred in the late 1890s and many rapidly returned to Garnet. Miners worked day and night, hoping to strike it rich. With the focus on mining operations, less effort and planning was put into the cabins where miners lived. Many were built with poor foundations and lack of insulation, electricity, or plumbing. But during this boom, shops, hotels, a doctor’s office, a school, a saloon, and more popped up. This boom quickly ended and most inhabitants left Garnet again by 1905.
The World Wars, change in the value of gold, development of new mining technology and methods, fires, and more played a role in the continuing boom/bust cycle at Garnet Ghost Town. By the 1960s, the last residents had gone. Future visitors took many artifacts, furnishings, and more from Garnet before organizations stepped in in the 1970s to protect this piece of Montana’s history.
Getting to Garnet Ghost Town
Garnet Ghost Town sits way up in the Garnet Mountains about an hour drive outside of Missoula. The site can either be reached from the south off I-90 or from the north off MT-200. Service can be a bit spotty out there, so we’d recommend downloading maps for offline use since there are many other back roads winding through the mountains in the area. We came in from the north driving from Missoula and there were signs on the way indicating the turnoff and direction to the ghost town.
The roads leading into the Garnet Mountain Range are dirt, narrow, and rough in spots, especially when accessing them via I-90. High clearance is not necessary when coming from the north (MT-200), but there are still some washboards, blind curves, scenic pullouts, and trails crossing the road, so take it slow for your safety and the safety of others.
The road is generally only open to vehicles May 1st to mid-December. This may vary depending on the conditions. Outside of this timeframe, visitors can reach Garnet by snowmobile, hiking, or cross-country skiing. There are usually signs not far off the highways indicating if there is a closure.
Just above Garnet Ghost Town is a parking area where there is a restroom, some picnic spots, a self-pay station, and some informational signage. The trails in the area also begin from here. There are an additional couple spots down past the main lot near the ranger building for those who cannot make the walk down the trail.
Fees & Hours
Garnet Ghost Town is run by the Garnet Preservation Association with the Bureau of Land Management. It costs $3 USD per individual over 16 years old to access the ghost town May to October or, according to the webpage, the non-winter months when staff are on site. If you have a federal pass, like the America the Beautiful annual parks pass, the entrance fee is covered. Bring cash if you intend to pay onsite.
Garnet Ghost Town is open daily from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. The trails and town can be reached anytime, but the visitor’s center and the inside of many buildings are only open during those hours. The visitor’s center and main buildings generally close for the season from October to the end of May. Again, this depends on the conditions up there.
Please respect the buildings and all the artifacts in them, leaving them as they are. This will help preserve this historic site for the enjoyment of future visitors. Visitors may bring their pets, but they must be on leash. Smoking is not permitted.
There is private property around Garnet Ghost Town – please obey signage and do not trespass. There are also unmarked shafts, trenches, etc. in the area, so stay on the trail and use caution when exploring.
Exploring Garnet Ghost Town
There is a small visitor’s center/staff building down below the parking area near the ghost town. The staff there can answer any questions you have and provide maps and information sheets. We recommend picking up some brochures before heading out on the trails or through the town if you’re interested in learning more about the buildings, mining, and the lives of those who once lived here.
There are multiple trails you can hike around Garnet Ghost Town where you can see remnants of mining operations along the path. If you want to get some hiking in, we’d recommend doing the trails first as they aren’t as impressive as the ghost town in our opinion. However, definitely pick up a brochure from the visitor’s center first because there aren’t any informational signs along the trails.
We visited the town first before hiking the Sierra Mine Loop, then the Placer Trail. We were slightly limited on time and wanted to make sure we had ample time to explore the ghost town since this is the highlight. If we were to redo it, we’d hike the Sierra Mine Loop, continuing onto the Placer Trail where they meet, and end the hike where the Placer Trail dumps you out into Garnet Ghost Town. Then we’d explore the town after the trails.
We didn’t have time to hike the Warren Park Trail on this visit.
Sierra Mine Loop
The Sierra Mine loop is an easy 30-minute to one-hour loop that begins across the street from the parking area. The path through the forest is surrounded by old pits, shafts, and mining equipment. The brochure comes in handy here to be able to spot these features and learn more about them as you pass the numbered signs along the trail.
Before the path returns to the parking lot, it intersects with the Placer Trail. Stay to the left if you wish to return to the parking area.
The Placer Trail is an easy trail that takes 30 minutes to an hour to complete one way. It doesn’t have as many visible remaining signs of past mining activity. But the path is fairly pretty as it leaves the woods, winds to a clearing over the hillside, and meets a road with some old cabins along it as you drop back down to Garnet Ghost Town. This is just a nice trail to see some more of the area and maybe spot some wildlife.
When we visited in the first couple days of June, the trail hadn’t been recently maintained and there were quite a few fallen trees to climb over, along with one that had smashed through a bridge over the creek. The trail goes right by some private property, so please stay on the trail.
Warren Park Trail
As mentioned above, we didn’t have the time to hike the Warren Park Trail. But this trail is supposedly slightly more challenging and takes two to three hours to complete. It leads from the parking lot to a cabin built by a man named Edward Brook Warren. He also built a park where the residents of Garnet could come to relax and spend time with each other.
We’ll make sure to visit this spot if we return!
Garnet Ghost Town consists of over 20 remaining buildings. As you walk the streets of the ghost town, you’ll come across the saloon, school house, blacksmith shop, hotel, various living quarters, and more. It is pretty wild to imagine living way up on this mountain many years ago. Especially if you know how harsh and cold Montana’s winters are.
Outside some of the buildings, there are informational signs detailing a little bit of the history. Visitors can go into some of the structures as well. It was pretty neat seeing the old bottles, canned goods, photos, furniture, and other items that have long been here. It really helps you get a better picture of what Garnet was once like.
To give you plenty of time to explore around all of the structures and read the information on them, we’d recommend spending 1-2 hours seeing the town.
If you’d like a guided tour, visit the visitor’s center or check the website for contact info.
What to Bring
Water: An adventure essential. There is also a pump to refill your bottle and water available for purchase at the visitor’s center.
Cash/Pass: Bring your parks pass to display or cash to pay for entrance.
Sturdy Shoes: Wear comfortable walking shoes to explore the dirt roads and rocky hillsides around the town.
Layers: Garnet Ghost Town sits at 6,000 feet and it can be chilly even in the summer, so bring layers. Heavier clothing may be necessary in the spring, fall, and winter (of course).
Food: Bring a snack or packed lunch if you’d like to picnic at the tables near the lot or other pretty spot in the area.
Camera: There are some interesting photo opportunities here!
Sun Protection: Some of the areas around the town and along the trail are unshaded, so bring sunglasses, sunscreen, and/or a hat.
Bear Spray: If you’re hiking the trails around the town, we recommend bringing bear spray just in case.