An old mining-town building seen through an empty door frame
The Trust for Public Land

In the mountains of Montana, a window to the past

You are here

If you’ve spent some time road-tripping, you know that “ghost town” can mean a lot of things: from the rubble of a few foundations—the faintest trace of a building or two—to full-on theme parks complete with entertainment and restaurants. Too little preservation, and it’s hard to imagine how the place used to be. Too much, and a visit feels more like Hollywood than history.

That’s why we love Garnet, Montana—a ghost town that gets it just right.

A rusty bedspring in an abandoned roomThe ghost town of Garnet has been restored just the right amount: there's lots to see, but plenty left to the imagination. Photo credit: The Trust for Public Land

Perched at 6,000 feet in the folds of the the mountain range that shares its name, Garnet was a mining town built not on gemstones but gold. Founded in the 1890s, it survived a series of boom and bust cycles, a massive fire, and the First World War, when many of its residents were called away to the army. 

But the Second World War came with restrictions on the use of dynamite, making profitable mining in the rugged terrain all but impossible. The town was at last abandoned—with one exception: widowed saloon owner Marion Dahl stayed on another few decades, reportedly taking potshots at vandals and looters from her porch.

A collection of old shoes recovered from the ghost town of Garnet, MontanaThe Garnet Preservation Association works to stabilize buildings, collect artifacts, and provide interpretation at the ghost town site.Photo credit: The Trust for Public Land

She couldn’t deter them all. Over the years, scavengers stripped the town of artifacts and fixtures, from stained glass windows to the ornate woodwork of the once-grand hotel. But local preservationists and the Bureau of Land Management were keen to save what was left. The Trust for Public Land helped wrangle a deal, and the rest is history—history you can experience for yourself.

To do so, you’ll need to take a well-maintained forest road 11 miles up from Route 200, about a half hour east of Missoula. (Steer clear of the alternate route from I-90, unless you’ve got a good off-road vehicle and some rally-car skills.) From the top it’s a short walk to the remains of Garnet, buildings strewn about the small valley with the haphazard quality common in towns thrown up in a rush at the first cry of “Gold!”

A view from uphill of Garnet ghost townGarnet offers interpretive information and a self-guided tour, but the town is yours to explore at your own pace. Don't miss the remains of the J.K. Wells Hotel—including the not-so-luxurious budget accommodations in the attic!Photo credit: The Trust for Public Land

Though its scattered look is typical, in other ways Garnet was very different from the average mining town. You’ll see the evidence as you tour the buildings: multi-room homes with large kitchens are a legacy of Garnet’s unusual history as a place for families, not just bachelors. There's even a cabin that was provided free to newlyweds until they could build their own home (or until the town held another wedding, whichever happened first). 

A plaque marks the site of the old union hall. Another Garnet anomaly: labor relations here were good—the mining company endorsed the union and even donated the property for the hall, which hosted Saturday-night socials on a dance floor made of springy maplewood. The presence of a strong organization in the community helped keep the peace, and Garnet saw more family picnics and quilting bees than gunslinging or brawls. 

A board is painted with the names of onetime residents of Garnet The fascinating thing about visiting a ghost town is imagining the people who once lived there.Photo credit: The Trust for Public Land

The trails surrounding Garnet include a loop through the remnants of the diggings: you can make out the waste-rock dump piles, now overgrown, and peer into the murky water that has seeped into the old mine shafts. More extensive options—including 30 miles of mountain biking trails—are perfect for the long days of summer: just pick up a map from the BLM office in Missoula before you head out to explore.

In winter the road to the ghost town is closed to wheeled vehicles, but popular with cross-country skiers and snowmobilers. The especially adventurous can even rent one of Garnet’s restored cabins. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, you’ll want to watch out for the mice—one of many reasons we prefer our ghost towns in daylight! 

Looking up the trail just outside of Garnet ghost townThe ghost town and surrounding trails are yours to explore—thanks to conservationists like you.Photo credit: The Trust for Public Land

 

Comments

Carl Walker
Thank you. My father was born in Granite, Montana in 1903. His father worked for t he Granite Mountain Mining Company.
Joan Davis
Public Lands are so important to our national heritage. Thank you for all you do as an organization and to those who support your aims!
Sue Pare'
I've always loved ghost towns. When I was younger I traveled all around AZ and NV NM and Utah...and of course Mass where I'm from. I love history and I love the preservation work your doing. It would be something i would do if possible. I once managed a historical apartment building owned by 3 slum lord lawyers, however they gave me a lot of freedom which I gingerly used to restore as much as I could. learned tile work, painting plastering some plumbing electrical and what ever I needed to help this beautiful building. Not bad for a girl. lol Thank you for what your doing...if i ever come into $ help is on the way.
Vinay Sharma
If you need money ask the top 1% who have money
Kathy Ralph
Keep up your excellent work.
Gloria Bealer
I would love to stay there. i stayed in Virginia City Navada and Virginia City Montana. Loved them both! want to see more
Roberta Hudlow
This looks better than the one I visited, La Liendre (not too far from Las Vegas, New Mexico). You toured it at your own risk as the road was almost non-existant and you shared your ramblings with rattlesnakes. One curious room was filled several feet deep with old shoes. The local owner had part of main street fenced in for chickens. That was way back in the 60s; probably gone now.
mnkittycat
Garnet is my favorite place in Montana and one of my favorite places in the world; it is beautiful and magical. It was the highlight of our 2014 summer road trip!
mary c grimaldo
Put some solar panels on those new roofs, to keep from having to run electric wires for the cabins you rent out. I think you are doing a great job.
Sandra Holstein
I love history and I would love to see that ghost town in Montana!
Dawn Broadbent
I think it would be exciting to visit a real ghost town and try to relive those times. We learn about ourselves and our world when we live the past through the eyes of the future.
Dana Craig
So what if anything prevents some knucklehead from trashing or stealing everything worthwhile in this historic site?
Jackie Hardeman...
I admire those who saw fit to restore this town for people to enjoy and remember the history of it.
gael tryles
Thank you for sharing this wonderful story about the ghost town of Garnet. I could see that it was being recognized for it's historical value .Without caring people preserving the irreplaceable historic past it would be gone forever. I took part in the Barn Again Program here in Michigan and I really enjoyed reading the Rural Personal Inventory Maps and going around recording what the current farmsteads were like now. It is hard to see the majestic old barns falling to ruin because of lack of interest and lack of funds to maintain them. They wont be replaced. One old barn was moved to a county park/4H grounds to be preserved. It was taken down ,each board taken down recorded and numbered and reassembled. The beautiful farmhouse was moved nearby and being lived in! Thank you again to be so dedicated and caring to our historical past!
Dale Ireson
Loved the information on Garnet Ghost Town. It is now on our travel itinerary! Tried to sign up for continuing information on the latest on public lands parks and conservation but nothing happened when I clicked on the "sign me up".
Robert Miles
A good way to avoid the mice: Take along a cat that is good at hunting animals of that size.

Leave a Comment