Discover An Old West Town At This US State Park

Endlessly mythologized in film and literature, the Old West is not as distant as it might seem in American history. The country is less than 150 years removed from some of the most famous events depicted in Western films, like the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881. Based on the average U.S. life expectancy (76.1 years), that means a little more than two lifetimes have passed since the days when boomtowns like Bannack, Montana, began to benefit from the gold rush. Montana itself didn't become a state until 1889, and for a brief time, while it was a fledgling territory, Bannack served as its capital.

The state's current capital, Helena, has a population of 33,000, which stands in sharp contrast to Bannack and its population of zero. That's right: Bannack is now a ghost town, but it's one that's been preserved for the enjoyment of visitors as a state park. Here, you can step into the past and get a glimpse of what life was like on the American frontier, when the landscape was sometimes desolate but full of untapped potential.

Bannack is where Montana's first big gold discovery happened in 1862. Within a year, its population had jumped to 3,000. However, by the 1950s, its mines had given up all they had, and by the early 1970s, the last of its residents had left town. Today, Bannack State Park stands as a National Historic Landmark, where you can still explore abandoned schoolrooms, camp overnight, and even sleep in a tipi.

Things to do in Bannack State Park

Bannack is about a half-hour drive from Dillon, Montana, which has plenty of hotels, so you could stay there for the night. If you're up for an adventure, though, you can reserve a spot in one of Bannack's two campgrounds, Vigilante or Road Agent. The former, located along Grasshopper Creek (where you can go fishing with a one- or two-day license), holds the Chief Snag Tipi, and it's reservable online through the Montana State Parks website. The latter has no electricity, and it's available on a first-come, first-served basis.

In the morning, as you walk down a dirt road, past deserted log buildings surrounded by mountains, you may truly feel like you're living the frontier life. Through Bannack's visitor center, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, you can take tours of the town and learn about its history, which includes a sheriff named Henry Plummer who was hanged on his own gallows for leading a double life as a secret gang leader.

Bannack also has hiking and mountain biking trails, and the park is open year-round. Potable water, however, is only available at the campsites in the summer, so you may need to pack some bottled water. The park opens at 8 a.m., and in the summer, it doesn't close until 9 p.m., so you can even see it at night. In the winter, it's only open until 5 p.m., but during the day, you can go ice skating on the frozen pond.

Other Old West towns and seasonal events in Bannack

What makes Bannack State Park so unique is the level of care that local volunteers have put into preserving this ghost town, despite its lack of residents. To put things in perspective, Tombstone, Arizona, another town stuck in time — where the aforementioned O.K. Corral gunfight occurred — still had a population of more than 1,300, as of the last census. Like Bannack, it remains a tourist-driven National Historic Landmark.

Meanwhile, the city of Deadwood, South Dakota, where folk heroes Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried, has maintained a population upwards of 1,150. It now has theater troupes that walk the streets and stage re-enactments of historical events, even as visitors continue to enjoy gambling in casinos, the way Wild Bill did at the poker table before he played his infamous Dead Man's Hand.

Not to be outdone in theatricality, Bannack State Park hosts its own similar "Bannack Days" on the third weekend of July, when you can take wagon rides and see reenactments like an Old West shootout. Over the last few years, it's also been holding ghost walks in late October, where spirits come alive on Main Street and act as raconteurs, recounting humorous tales of Old West life. Presumably, these "spirits" are also historical reenactors — but you never know. Maybe, just maybe, while you're taking a ghost tour of this Montana ghost town, you'll encounter a real spirit, or at least something like the spirit of the Old West.