Hands-on History

Exploring Montana’s small towns.

For over 200 years, explorers, dreamers, and entrepreneurs have been drawn to the serenity of Montana and its promise of adventure. As they settled, they longed for the amenities and support of a community, and eventually founded towns on hillsides, along rivers, and in valleys. As resources dwindled and dreams faded, communities shrank. In their wake, they left behind skeletal remains that can still be explored today. This summer, pack up the car with tents, sleeping bags, bikes, boats, and fishing rods and head off in the spirit of the Treasure State's founders. Here are some destinations to check out. 

Just west of Dillon, about 2.5 hours southwest of Bozeman, sits one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the country. Unlike Virginia City, or other kitschy “Western towns,” Bannack is a true ghost town, meaning the population remains at zero. In the 19th century, people flocked to Bannack to mine for gold with the hopes of striking it rich, but migrated to new mines over time. The buildings and grounds have been meticulously preserved, giving visitors a chance to saunter through like it’s 1862. Visit the hotel, brewery, bakery, and Montana’s first jail. Stroll over to the gallows and step back in time to the informal trials of a ruthless gang who, apparently by order of the sheriff, murdered over 100 people around Bannack and Virginia City. As the story goes, without a trial, a group of vigilantes lynched most of the gang or threatened them with death if they ever returned to the town. Fact or fiction? Step under the rope and decide for yourself.

Idyllic by day, ghostly by night

Fort Benton
While paddling along the banks of the Upper Missouri River, shadows of Lewis and Clark peak in and out of slot canyons and from behind trees. Raptors fly overhead, just as they did 160 years ago when steamboats floated up to the hotel in Fort Benton. Almost four hours north of Bozeman, this once-thriving port city sits on the bank of the river, where many of the original buildings still stand. Friendly locals will gladly tell you stories and legends about gold miners and fur trappers, “madams” and merchants, all looking for a better life in one of the first settled towns in the West. Walk along the riverbank in town or take a few days to rent a canoe and paddle the natural museum that is the Missouri River. Site markers explain teh history of old settlements and noted exploration sites.

Paddler's Paradise: the Missouri near Fort Benton

Legendary for the infamous Pony Bar, this tiny town, literally at the end of the road, has history seeping out of the brick and mortar that still remains from the 1860s. At its most prosperous, when gold was raining down, Pony had 5,000 residents. Meander around the historic bank, hotel, and church that remain standing despite decades of wear, including a devastating fire in 1920. Grab a drink at the bar downtown and try imagine a prominent Chinese population, a movie theatre, and the fact that the remote town of Pony had electricity before New York City. Head into the Tobacco Roots just west of town and spend the weekend camping at a forest service campground, or throw your load on your back and hike up to any number of the beautiful vistas in this underutilized range.

hollowtop lake tobacco roots pony montana

Hollowtop Lake

Mason Lake: not a bad place to spend the night

Montana is often celebrated for its bountiful natural beauty, but the cultural history of our state is just as impressive. This summer, take a walk, paddle, hike, or drive down memory lane to explore both.