Explore a Ghost Town: Garnet, Montana

by Megan Hill | Photo © Megan Hill

If Montana conjures images of Wild West towns filled with rough-and-tumble pioneers eking out a hardscrabble life despite harsh winters and a lack of resources—or more bawdy pursuits—you’re not far off. This fascinating history is present at ghost towns strewn throughout the state, though many exist in various state of ruin.

That’s not the case with Garnet, one of the best preserved ghost towns in Montana. Located just an hour’s drive from Missoula, Garnet’s protection is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management which operates a park here.

Garnet was founded in 1895 as a gold mining town, and at its peak it was home to around 1,000 people; all told, around $950,000 worth of gold was extracted from the area’s mines until 1917. When it was fully occupied, Garnet was home to four stores, four hotels, three livery stables, two barber shops, a school for 41 students, butcher shop, candy shop, doctor’s office and an astounding 13 saloons.

But that peak didn’t last long. By 1912, the mines were largely depleted and most miners left for other opportunities. A few residents hung on, but Garnet has been mostly deserted since the 1930s.

Today, visitors drive the dirt roads winding up the rumpled landscape that encompasses the Garnet Mountains, which even now feels remote. Garnet sits at an elevation of 6,000 feet, quite a climb in the town’s heyday.

Visitors can traipse through two dozen of the town’s original buildings, including shops, post office, dance hall, jail, saloons, drug store, school and log homes. Among the most impressive buildings is the remarkably well-preserved general store, where wood saws, leather boots and cans of provisions still sit on the shelves.

And there’s the grand hotel, with peeling wallpaper and original furniture in many of the guest rooms. Even the kitchen’s pots and pans still sit on the stove. At the saloon, empty beer cans rust in place; suspended in time, you can almost picture drunken brawls between mustachioed miners.

The BLM offers tours arranged in advance by calling the office in Missoula at (406) 329-3914. You can also walk through the town on a self-guided tour, using the map and brochure provided along with signage placed at various points of interest. The BLM charges a $3 fee to enter the town. There’s a small visitor center open seven days a week from Memorial Day through September. Find more information at garnetghosttown.net. For information about Missoula, visit destinationmissoula.org.