About 10 minutes into our drive toward the Garnet Ghost Town, we were wondering if we had made a very serious mistake. Although we love to visit places that are off the beaten path, this one seemed to be a little further from the beaten path—or any path—than we had explored in a long time. Our rental car, a newer Toyota RAV4, revved its engine and sputtered a bit as it tried to decide how to handle the steep roads, and Adam’s brow furrowed as he tried to decide how to navigate them; the road into Garnet started as paved but poorly maintained, and without anything more than a pleasant “end of state maintenance” sign on the side of the road it transitioned into dirt, loose gravel, ditches, and sheer cliffs. The lack of safety bars between us and a steep drop off was concerning. I started to rely on deep breathing activities. We both stared straight ahead as the car continued to climb up the mountain.
“We might want to turn around,” Adam said. I agreed with him. “How would we go about turning the car on a road this narrow?” I asked him. There was no good answer to that, so we pressed on. Curious as I was about visiting another Montana ghost town (we had spent time at the Bannack Ghost Town earlier that morning), I was starting to realize that we were one tire slip away from visiting as actual ghosts. Adam, who always drives with a steady hand, drove at a snail’s pace. At one point, we turned a corner and came face to face with a small black bear. Ordinarily, that would have been an exciting moment; I found myself grateful for a reason to stop the car.
The harrowing drive to Garnet took 20 minutes. Those 20 minutes were punctuated by mini pep talks, lots of deep breaths, and unbreakable focus. When the RAV4 pulled into a parking space and the engine turned off, we breathed a sigh of relief right along with the car. 6,000 feet above sea level, the view from the top was worth it, and the charm and mystery of the Garnet Ghost Town was worth it as well. Ghost towns are a unique way to learn about history, and we were amazed by how well-preserved the small town was years after it was abandoned. If you’re planning a visit to Montana—you don’t mind a bit of drama during your drive—here is why we think you’ll love visiting the Garnet Ghost Town!
Garnet Ghost Town: a Part of Mining History
The west’s gold rush drew thousands of hopeful miners to parts of the country that had not been explored by non-native people until the 19th century, and Garnet was swept up in the search for wealth and pursuit of prosperity. Garnet dates to the 1860s, right around the time that Bannack began to draw miners in when gold was discovered, and like Bannack it became both a commercial and residential center for the mining community. Located at First Chance Gulch, the town was originally named Mitchell after Dr. Armistead Mitchell, who built an ore mill in the town, but the name was eventually changed to Garnet after the red gem, which was also discovered among the gems and minerals found there.Between 1862 and 1916, gold worth millions of dollars was mined from the Garnet area, with the vast majority mined in 1898. Garnet boomed when the Nancy Hanks Mine produced the mother lode for that area; it was first discovered in 1867, and it was most extensively mined toward the end of the century. 95% of the miners’ haul was gold, with the remainder being silver and copper.
When Garnet thrived, it had everything a wild west town could want: hotels, saloons, barbershops, a school, and stores provided the amenities needed to make life comfortable for miners and their families. Although many mining communities were focused on more the bare necessities needed to sustain the miners, Garnet was more of a family community. Locals had events such as parties and dances, and gambling was a big part of the culture as well. In the midst of the town’s biggest years, a 1912 fire burned down half of the town, and what was lost was not rebuilt. Many of the remaining structures were in poor condition even when they were lived in and regularly visited. The town was built quickly, and most of the people’s energy went toward mining instead of architectural best practices. Some buildings did not have proper foundations, and it wasn’t unheard of for someone to return home to find a new mine shaft opening right in their yard.
After 1917, the mine began to offer less and less, and by the time World War I started many people abandoned their mining jobs to support war efforts and found employment elsewhere. In the late 1930s, when the price of gold started to rise, some miners returned and attempted to take up residence in the buildings that still stood, but those efforts were short-lived. In addition to the lack of gold, World War II called people away just as World War I had. The town was all but deserted by the early 1940s, and in 1960, the Montana School of Mines declared that the mine was dead. With that, there was no reason to call Garnet home anymore, and what was once a town home to more than 1,000 people became a deserted architectural graveyard. The buildings that once brimmed with life settled into quiet solitude. In 2010, Garnet was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
What to See in the Garnet Ghost Town
Like Bannack, Garnet is preserved, not restored. The buildings don’t transport you back to the peak of their success; instead, they tell stories about their role in the rise of Garnet and what it was like to be left behind. There are more than 80 buildings left, many of which are structurally sound enough to walk in and through.
► Town Overlook
In a way, the best place to visit in Garnet is the overlook on the walk from the parking lot to the town itself. After parking, a clear trail winds toward the abandoned buildings, and there’s a nice spot to pause and look down upon them from above. It’s the best way to really get the lay of the land. From that viewpoint, you can see how big the town was, where some of the most famous buildings were, and get your first impressions of what life was like for people during the decades when Garnet buzzed with the excitement of finding gold.
► Wells Hotel
Prior to moving to Garnet, the Wells family had owned a hotel in a nearby town, and when they arrived in the growing mining community, they established the town’s hotel. Built in 1897, it was impressive for its time. Featuring luxurious finishes like stained glass windows, it was large enough to host several of the town’s annual gatherings. For miners who could not afford a room of their own, the hotel offered a common space on the third floor that was unfurnished but would protect guests from the elements. The third floor was anything but luxurious; it was heated only from warm air that would rise from the rooms below.
► Kelley’s Saloon
Every mining town had a saloon or two, and Garnet boasted 14 establishments to entertain the locals. The saloon was two stories tall, and in general, men spent their time downstairs while women spent time on the second floor. The first floor was dedicated to drinking and gambling, but women were entertained upstairs by the female proprietor, Mrs. Kelley.
► Miner’s CabinsUnlike many mining towns, people both lived and worked in Garnet. Some of the cabins where they lived are still in place and can be toured today as you walk through the town. Many of the cabins share the stories of some of the people who used to live there. We were surprised by how large some of them were, especially those that had multiple rooms that reminded us Garnet was designed to be a family community, even though it wasn’t really designed to be a permanent one. One cabin in particular was especially notable: it was offered exclusively to newlyweds to live in while they built a cabin of their own or until the next newlywed couple had tied the knot and needed a place to live. Free housing for couples just starting out wasn’t exactly the norm in the wild west, but it made Garnet a unique place to call home.
► Dahl House
The nicest home in Garnet is also the youngest. Constructed by Ole and Marion Dahl in 1938, the home was occupied until the 1960s by Marion, who was known as Garnet’s last resident. The Dahls ran a speakeasy from the cabin during prohibition, which didn’t end until 1933. After the final mining attempts ended in 1940, Marion served as a protector for Garnet, watching over the town to deter looters from stealing some of the historical artifacts left behind.
Check out our video below to take a virtual walk through Garnet.
Tips for Visiting the Garnet Ghost Town
► Enter from Route 200
There are two ways to visit Garnet: one involves coming in from route 200 to the north, and the other takes you up the back roads (Bear Gulch Road) from I-90. We visited from I-90, by far the more challenging of the options. The roads border on dangerous and require time, focus, and good weather in order to safely pass. We didn’t try the roads from 200, but most people let us know they are much easier to traverse. I-90 ended up being a better choice for us due to the road trip route we were following, but you may save yourself some stress by taking a different road than we did.
► Don’t take a trailer
The narrow gravel roads into Garnet benefit from 4-wheel drive, and they definitely don’t lend themselves to anything bigger than an SUV. When visiting Garnet, especially if you are coming from I-90, it’s smart to detach your RV so it doesn’t make the journey with you.
► Bring lunch
Garnet is far from just about everything, including food options. Take a picnic, water, or some snacks with you to ensure you don’t go hungry during your visit.
Is Montana’s Garnet Ghost Town Haunted?Garnet is perhaps the best-preserved ghost town in the state of Montana, and there are plenty of people who believe the abandoned buildings are still home to some of the residents who once lived there. Some people have reported hearing laughter and music coming from Kelley’s Saloon, which is the most common occurrence. We didn’t experience anything bordering on the supernatural during our visit, but we did find the beautifully preserved artifacts to be windows into Garnet’s incredible past.
It’s not hard to imagine the residents from just a century ago drinking, working, and making a life for themselves. There may not be real ghosts walking through the deserted rooms, but in many ways the people who made Garnet a special part of history never truly left.
Where to Stay Near Garnet Ghost Town
Camping near Garnet is free as long as you are not within a half a mile of the town. If you’re looking for hotels, Garnet is about 40 miles from Missoula, Montana, which is a convenient place to stop for a night before or after your visit. When planning our road trip we researched every hotel we stayed in using Booking.com, which helped us to determine which properties would be a good fit for our needs. Check out Booking.com when planning you visit to the Garnet Ghost Town to see if there is a good hotel in the area for you, too!
Enjoy the Garnet Ghost Town!
We have always been a fan of abandoned places, and the Garnet Ghost Town is one of our favorites. Some spots, like the Budludzha Monument in Bulgaria and Centralia in Pennsylvania tell stories of a time long ago in a way that makes it feel like time simply stopped in those locations. Garnet does that, too; to stand in any of the buildings feels like time simply slipped past the town, preserving it and its place in history for the ages. We’re fortunate places like Garnet exist; they make understanding history more attainable. As our RAV4 began its slow, slow, slow journey down the hills toward I-90, we were glad we made time to visit Garnet on our road trip. We just wish we had made time to visit from route 200!
More Information: GarnetGhostTown.org
We always enjoy visiting interesting abandoned places. Here are a few more we’ve written about!