Visit Bannack Ghost Town Updated: 06.01.2018
Autumn leaves crunch into bits of brown and gold under our feet as Alan and I walk the wooden sidewalks at Bannack Ghost Town near Dillon. It’s only mid-September but we’ve definitely missed the prime week for fall color in this isolated corner of Southwest Montana. Joining a smattering of weekday visitors, we explore the buildings, both inside and out, that once made up a vibrant gold rush town. History whispers to us through creaking doors, the thud of footsteps on an uneven wooden sidewalk and the rustling grass that almost covers the mining equipment rusting in a field.
To say that Bannack is located in an isolated corner of Montana is an understatement. But, despite the lack of social media or even telephones, the word got out to prospectors and their families who flocked here after John White discovered gold on Grasshopper Creek in 1862.
According to the Bannack State Park website, the population peaked in 1863 with 3,000 town residents and 2,000 more people living by the creek. In 1864, Bannack was named the First Territorial Capital of Montana. But the honor lasted only one year. By February 1865, many of Bannack’s residents had left to mine at Alder Gulch where the nearby town of Virginia City became Montana’s capital city for the next ten years before Helena grabbed the title for good.
Bannack’s population fluctuated through the 1930’s but by 1950 it had become a ghost town. Luckily for history lovers, Montana State Parks took over the preservation efforts on the 60 buildings that remain standing. Of course some buildings had already been lost to fires and the whims of nature.
Alan and I arrive at Bannack Ghost Town the off-the-beaten-path in Montana way, which is typical for us. While the drive over the 50-mile dirt road Big Sheep Backcountry Byway is filled with Montana’s Big Sky views, it doesn’t leave a lot of time to explore Bannack.
Bannack Ghost Town entrance fee is $5 per car or $3 per person for bicyclists or walk-ins. Montana residents receive free admission through their vehicle registrations.
Inside the Visitors Center, we discover an excellent selection of regional books, video room and a well-informed park ranger with plenty of stories to tell.
Since it’s after Labor Day, no group tours of the town or the mill are available. So we purchase a $2 self-guided walking tour guide from the ranger and off we go to explore Bannack Ghost Town.
The buildings and relics that have been preserved at Bannack Ghost Town help us imagine what life would have been like in the mid to late 1800’s. The printed guide provides directions, along with historical context.
Bannack State Park offers a fascinating look at Montana gold rush history. If you’re planning a visit, don’t miss the special events:
- Bannack Days, third weekend of July, celebrates the town’s glory days.
- Living History Weekend, September, demonstrates life at the beginning of the gold rush.
- Bannack Ghost Walks, third week of October, reenacts Bannack’s spooky past.
- Summer activities: one-hour tours of the town are available. Or book the 50-minute Mill tour to visit a restricted area. You’ll arrive in a Model AA Ford Truck. Want to pan for gold? Join in a supervised activity (the only way you’ll be panning for gold at Bannack) 3:00 to 4:30 each summer afternoon.
- Winter activities: ice skating on the dredge pond. Skates are available. Warming hut opens on the weekends.
Visiting Montana? Start your planning at our Montana Travel Planning Resources page.
The American West is filled with abandoned towns that pay testament to gold rush history. There are 17 ghost towns in Southwest Montana alone. Bannack Ghost Town is one of the best preserved — the goal is preservation not restoration. Nearby Coolidge Ghost Town, which is slowly being reclaimed by nature, offers a totally different experience. We recommend visiting both on a road trip to Southwest Montana.