The Ghost Town Byway is a 26-mile scenic drive across Montana’s Garnet Range, about 35 miles east of Missoula and makes for a great one-day outing. It travels through an area once bustling with mining activity from the last quarter of the 19th century. Towns, like Coloma, Reynolds City, Top O’Deep, Garnet Yreka, and Beartown, roared with blasts of dynamite and saloon pianos. While Nature is quick to reclaim the abandoned efforts of men when the gold and the silver played out, much remains to be seen along this route, and the scenery is stunning. As the sign just off Highway 200 proclaims: “Ghost Town Byway – Discoveries Worth Their Weight In Gold!”
The preferred route is south from Highway 200, as this is the wider, better-maintained portion. After about 5 miles, the first point of interest is the Sand Park Cemetery. There are only five marked graves here now, presumably of miners from Coloma, but there are many more unmarked ones, as well. Little is known of the lives of these miners other than they probably died far from home and loved ones in their quest for riches.
A short drive off the main road, just past the cemetery, a road to the left leads quickly to the ghost town of Coloma. It is often called the “Mystery Camp,” as little is known about it, either. Also, little is left standing intact, but still interesting to explore the more than 20 structures here and try to imagine life here 130 years ago.
The main site is on a slope that overlooks the Blackfoot River Valley and the Swan Range and Scapegoat Mountains beyond. The miners who worked these claims probably had gold fever so bad they didn’t realize the real treasure there was the million-dollar view!
A few miles further up the road is a scenic overlook complete with picnic table. From this crest, the sweeping views of the Blackfoot River Valley are even grander. From here, one can see the Scapegoat mountains, Swan Range, Mission Mountains, and the Rattlesnake above Missoula. This is an excellent viewpoint for a sunrise!
From here, the road starts to descend, and soon the town of Garnet is reached. Garnet is one of the best-preserved ghost towns in Montana, and it is the main attraction. It was founded in the mid-1890s and grew to well over 1,000. As with many of the neighboring mining towns, its “heyday” was short-lived. A fire in 1912 on Main Street and general decay has taken its toll. However, the BLM and the Garnet Preservation Association actively manage this site to hold on to what remains – and what remains is undoubtedly worth a visit and the effort that it takes to get here. Approximately 2 dozen buildings are being maintained for the public. In normal years, there is a Visitor’s Center in one of the remaining buildings, and the others are open to the public.
There are no fences or barriers, so the town is “open” 24 hours/day. Night time can be an especially “interesting” time to visit and stroll around.
You are never quite sure what will end up in your photos until you process them back home!
Garnet is open year-round and is also popular in the winter with snowmobilers. Two cabins are available to rent in the winter.
From Garnet, the road divides. The First Chance Gulch Road is steep, narrow, rocky with tight switchbacks – beware! The Cave Gulch Road is the old stage route and is a much better grade. Either way, both roads lead to Beartown at the head of Bear Gulch. Beartown is where it all started with a gold strike in 1865, but by the 1880s, Beartown was in severe decline. At its peak, it had 17 saloons, a brewery, and a reputation to match. Now, there is nothing left but a couple of BLM plaques – one about a famous miner named “Shorty” and the story of his arm.
From Beartown, the road improves, and soon you come out of Bear Gulch at Bearmouth and I-90. The Ghost Town Byway ends here, and it is only a quick half-hour back to Missoula on the interstate to complete this booo-tiful scenic loop!