In 1862, gold was discovered in nearby Grasshopper Creek, and Bannack was founded for the prospectors who followed. The population boomed, and two years later, the thriving town became the first territorial capital of Montana. Within a few years, though, gold was found elsewhere in the region, and many who had set up camp in Bannack packed up and tried their luck elsewhere. Such was Bannack’s existence through the 1930s, when the trickle of folks leaving town became permanent. By the start of World War II, the town was completely abandoned.
Today, the former town is a state park. “It’s a true ghost town,” says Bannack State Park historian Tom Lowe, “because no one lives there except for a couple of the park’s staff members.”
Visitors can step inside many of the town’s preserved buildings. “We have more than 50 buildings remaining,” says Lowe. “It’s probably the best-preserved ghost town in the country.” The masonic lodge/schoolhouse, brick hotel, and church are among the most-visited structures still standing in town. There are homes, saloons, and a cemetery to explore, and tourists who opt for guided tours can visit the town’s mill. None of the town’s former mines are open to the public, though. “They’re too dangerous,” Lowe says.
In Bannack, you can also pan for gold in Grasshopper Creek the way the original prospectors did. On weekends during the summer, the park staff provides the pans, screens and shovels, and you get to keep anything that you find. www.bannack.org; (406) 834-3413.
Where to stay:
Jackson Hot Springs Lodge, in Jackson, Mont., offers 20 guest cabins, a pool, dining room, and other amenities. (www.jacksonhotsprings.com; (406) 834-3151). To live like a prospector, stay at Elk Horn Hot Springs in Polaris, Mont., which offers clean, rustic cabins with outhouses. (www.elkhornhotsprings.com; (406) 834-3434)
Where to eat:
Dine among cowboys at the Cross Ranch Cook House at Centennial Livestock, a working cattle ranch in Dillon, Mont. (www.centenniallivestock.com; (406) 681-3192)
Other area attractions:
Enjoy spectacular scenery, go hiking and dig for real crystals at Crystal Park in Dillon. (406) 683-3900).