Bannack Ghost Town is a Step Back in Time

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On a visit to Bannack, Montana travelers will discover gold mining history in one of the most well-preserved ghost towns in the West. Alan and I arrived at Bannack State Park, home to Bannack Ghost Town, the scenic way on the Big Sheep Backcountry Byway.

If you’re arriving via I-15, exit west on Highway 278 near Dillon. Enjoy off-the-beaten-path Montana scenery on the thirty-mile drive to Bannack.

Exploring Bannack State Park in the fall

Log buildings line the sidewalk at Bannack Ghost Town in Montana
Grass grows up between the cracks of a wooden sidewalk in Bannack Ghost Town.

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.

Bannack was Montana’s first Territorial Capital

Log building sits next to a red brick building that was used as a hotel in Bannack, Montana
The red brick building was Hotel Meade. Linen tablecloths once graced the dining room.

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 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.

60 buildings still exist at Bannack Ghost Town

Dilapidated white building with a hill behind it.
Masons met in the top floor of the Masonic Hall while the lower floor was used as a schoolhouse.

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.

Boomer Travel Tip

Bannack Ghost Town entrance fee is $8 per car or $4 per person for bicyclists or walk-ins (current as of 10.06.2020). 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.

Brown log building that served as a church with grassy hill behind the building and a blue sky
The Methodist Church at Bannack Ghost Town

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.

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.

Tips for Visiting Bannack, Montana

man wearing a cowboy hat standing in front of an old wagon
Alan checks out a wagon.

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.

Boomer Travel Tip

Visiting Montana? Start your planning at our Montana Travel Planner page.

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 this fascinating ghost town. Next time, Alan and I will stay in Polaris at the Grashopper Inn  or Montana High Country Lodge (we’ve stayed here and enjoyed it) so that we can spend most of the day exploring Bannack.

More Montana ghost towns to explore

The American West is filled with abandoned towns that pay testament to gold rush history. There are 17 ghost towns in Southwest Montana alone.

woman opens the door to a log church in a Montana ghost town
Will history whisper to me inside the Bannack Methodist Church?

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.

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