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The room had an unearthly silence. The wooden rocking chair was still, the metal mug on the windowsill was empty, and the crumbling work boots had waited decades for their owner to return. Like an old photograph, the room was muted in antique sepia tones, and the wallpaper peeled and crumbled in the corner. The snowflakes whipped outside, piling upon the odd assortment of wooden buildings visible from the single window in the room. But, the sounds inside were muted and soft, like the light hitting the remnants of a lacy ivory-colored curtain hanging in the window’s corner.
Garnet Ghost Town could not be more ghostly than in the midst of winter, when waist-deep snow piles up against the wooden structures of the old mining town. Boarded up windows in the old buildings cast eerie shadows from the forgotten possessions placed there from the town’s past. Tucked high in the Garnet Mountain Range east of Missoula, the mining town sprang up in 1895 from the discovery of gold in the surrounding mountains. From there came the saloons, the school, the general store, the hotel, the jail and the homes of residents, mostly miners, who occupied the town until 1917.
Open to cars during the summer, the ghost town is only accessible in the winter by snowmobile, snowshoes or cross-country skis. But unlike the summer, a trip into the old mining town during the winter is a unique look at the isolation and solitude residents of Montana’s most intact ghost town must have experienced during these blustery months.
The starkness of winter in Garnet Ghost Town is evident just a few miles up Bear Gulch Road, one of the access roads to the town, where an old house and barn stand nestled in the snow. The area was devoid of any animal or human footprints and the only sound was the old shutters on the house whipping back and forth.
Further into the town, only three of the 22 buildings were open – the general store, the saloon and the hotel – but these buildings are more than sufficient to glimpse a piece of Montana’s history when the snow falls. At the Frank A. Davey’s Store the simple necessities of the town’s residents are laid out on tables and sprinkled throughout the two main rooms. In Kelly’s Saloon the detailed flower design embossed on the rich wood of the old bar and empty liquor bottles on a dresser draw from a time when drinks were passed across the table to jolly saloon-goers. The most impressive building in the town is the J.K. Wells Hotel. Shafts of light escape through boarded up windows and cast eerie shadows in the dark rooms of the three-story building. Downstairs, the light cast the shadow of an empty dinner chair and table in the grand dining room. Upstairs, each old hotel room revealed a different traveler’s story, from a wrinkled leather briefcase in one to an old piece of fabric, perhaps part of a woman’s dress, hung on the patterned wall of another.
Although most of the buildings open to the public during the warmer months are inaccessible now due to the deep snow, one welcome sight was the visitor center open on weekends to revive cold and tired visitors. Aside from the pleasant warmth of the wood stove after walking through the drafty old buildings, visitors can find information on the buildings and residents of Garnet Ghost Town and old photographs from the heydays of the mining town. A Bureau of Land Management employee attends the center during the weekends in the wintertime, opens the three buildings for visitors and was readily available to answer questions.
For those really itching for some prime ghost watching, BLM also rents out two cabins at Garnet Ghost Town for overnight stays from December 1 to April 30. The Dahl Cabin has two full beds and two cots with room for six people. The McDonald Cabin has a single room with two double beds for four people. The Dahl Cabin costs $40 a night and the McDonald Cabin costs $30 a night. Availability of the rentals is determined by a lottery system and anyone interested must contact BLM. Furnaces for heat and faucets for water are available and other basic necessities such as pots and pans are provided.
Garnet Ghost Town is not accessible by wheeled vehicles in the winter. To snowmobile, ski or snowshoe in, there are two options. The first way is to drive on Highway 200 until the sign for Garnet Range Road appears, about 30 miles east of Missoula. There is a parking lot there where visitors can park and then ride or ski the 11 flat miles into the town. This would be a great route for an overnight stay. For a shorter day trip, take the Bearmouth exit off Interstate 90, and then follow the north side frontage road to Bear Gulch Road, located five miles east of Bearmouth. This road is usually plowed, but due to heavy snowfall, it may be deep and narrow in places. Drive down the gravel road about seven miles to a gate, park and prepare for a five-mile trip up switchbacks, accessible to skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers.
This story was originally published in the Montana Kaimin. For more information about Garnet Ghost Town, visit their main website.
View the full gallery of images from Garnet Ghost Town here.