red hotel building and snowy background at Bannack State Park

Exploring Bannack Ghost Town & other Montana State Parks on a Family Educational Trip

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This post is sponsored by Montana State Parks

Visiting a few of Montana’s best state parks in winter is a magical and educational experience. It takes a little more preparation and self sufficiency to visit places like Bannack State Park and Lost Creek State Park in winter, but it’s worth it to experience these places without crowds and covered in a glistening blanket of snow.

We wanted our winter visit to some of Montana’s State Parks to be an immersive educational experience for our family, along with a fun time recreating outside. To make that happen, we read several books and watched documentaries to prepare for the trip.

In this article, I will share resources to plan your own trip and our three-day itinerary. You will find an alternate itinerary at the end that includes hot springs (which were closed when we visited).

Bannack Ghost Town was the centerpiece of our trip which also included Beaverhead Rock State Park, Lost Creek State Park, and Anaconda Smoke Stack State Park.

Four people in front of a church in the ghost town Bannack State Park

Montana State Park Educational Trip Itinerary

Day 1

  • We stopped at Beaverhead Rock State Park on the way into Dillon. We visited both the site itself — and walked up the hill a bit — and the viewing area.
  • Lunch in Dillon at Sweetwater Cafe.
  • Shopping at the Patagonia Outlet. Right now you have to make an appointment to visit.
  • Bannack State Park ski tour. We brought our own cross-country skis and skied the loop through the townsite and back on the other side of Grasshopper Creek. You could also snowshoe or hike.
  • Take-out from a Mexican restaurant in Dillon.
  • Overnight in Dillon at the Best Western Paradise Inn. We got the “Family Room,” which had two bedrooms and a big table for eating our take-out dinners.

Day 2

  • We wanted to visit the Beaverhead County Museum, which I think would be an great addition to the trip, but couldn’t get any response about whether or not they were open. I am guessing it might be a summer museum.
  • Lunch to go from Muffaletta’s Cafe.
  • Tour of Bannack State Park with John Phillips and a hike. In a normal year we would have ice-skated too!
  • This afternoon is a great time to scoot over to Jackson or Elkhorn Hot Springs.
  • Take-out pizza for dinner.
  • Overnight in Dillon at the Best Western Paradise Inn. We got the “Family Room,” which had two bedrooms and a big table for eating our take-out dinners.

Day 3

Three people looking at an interpretive sign in front of Beaverhead Rock State Park Montana in winter

Visiting Beaverhead Rock State Park

Beaverhead Rock State Park is a quick stop. It is significant as a landmark for the tribes that lived in the area. It’s most famous for its role in the Corps of Discovery expedition (Lewis and Clark). When Sacagawea spotted the rock she knew they were close to her homeland. Lewis and Clark hoped to get horses from her tribe to travel over the Bitterroot Mountains.

Learning About Beaverhead Rock Before You Go

Learn all about the Lewis and Clark Expedition in Montana in this post, along with books and other educational resources about their journey.

Our latest L&C read is Seaman: The Dog Who Explored the West with Lewis and Clark by Gail Langor Karwoski. If you have an animal lover in your family, like we do, this is the book that will draw them into the Lewis and Clark story.

Learning About Beaverhead Rock On Site

  • Like Lewis and Clark, we brought journals and drew Beaverhead Rock.
  • The area around the rock a great place to watch birds, so we pulled out our binoculars and tried to identify a few species. We saw snow geese while we were there and they were beautiful!

How Do You Get to Beaverhead Rock State Park?

The best place to view the rock is from a pullout at 45°22’28.1″N 112°27’42.6”W. It’s on the west side of Highway 41 about 14.5 miles north of Dillion or 14 miles south of Twin Bridges. It’s south of the actual Beaverhead Rock. There are interpretive signs and crane (the bird) sculptures.

You can also walk up the rock, though the trails are not maintained and it’s at your own risk. Turn west on to an unsigned two-track road just north of mile marker 15 on Highway 41. Follow the dirt road around the east and south base of the hill to a pullout on the right just before a private gate. Then, scramble up the hill to your right.

four people cross country skiing in ghost town Bannack State Park Montana

Visiting Bannack State Park

We have been doing a lot of reading and watching about Montana’s gold rush, so a trip to Bannack State Park was a top priority for us. Bannack is the site of Montana’s first major gold discovery in 1862 and Montana’s first territorial capital.

Bannack is one of the best ghost towns in Montana. You can walk (or ski!) down a main street that looks right out of the Old West. Many of the buildings are unlocked and you are free to poke around inside. You’ll see a saloon, hotel, log cabins, gallows, a church, and more.

In winter, the park is open from 9 am – 5 pm and the visitor center is open upon request. Vault toilets in the parking area and about halfway through town are also open in winter. In normal years there is a skating rink and warming hut. It was closed the winter of 2020-21, but I imagine it would be really fun and beautiful to skate there.

There are several trails that you can hike or snowshoe, depending on the amount of snow. We were lucky to visit when there was plenty of snow on the ground and could cross-country ski through the historic park, across a bridge over Grasshopper Creek, past the Mill and around the campground back to the parking area. The total distance was about 1.5 miles.

Purchase a guide to Bannack at the entrance or in the visitor center for $2. It’s well worth it to have a town map, information about each building, and stories about this Montana ghost town from its settlement in the 1860s through its last resident in the 1970s.

Other trails to explore include Bird’s Eye View Trail and the trails to Road Agent Rock. You can pick up interpretive brochures/trail maps at the visitor center.

Cross country skiers looking at a map at Bannack State Park hiking trails

Hiking Trails in Bannack State Park

Bird’s Eye View Trail – 2.1 mile loop

(It’s a little steep for skiing – hiking or snowshoeing recommended)

The trail leads through rolling hills. Part of the trail follows an old wagon road that led to Salt Lake City, Utah and the supplies acquired by early miners and settlers. There’s a great overview of Bannack from the trail.

Road Agent Rock Trails – 3.5 miles one-way

There are several trails to Road Agent Rock and I recommend making a loop. Starting in the Bannack townsite, start up Hangman’s Gulch. You will pass the gallows on your way. From Road Agent Rock, take the Virginia City State Road back to complete the loop. This is part of the old Road Agent Trail established in 1863 to connect Bannack with Virginia City, 70 miles away. For eight months in 1863, Sheriff Henry Plummer and his outlaw gang of road agents terrorized travelers on the trail through intimidation, robbery, and, occasionally, murder. Eventually, vigilantes from Bannack and Alder Gulch captured the outlaws and Sheriff and hanged most of them. The trail is free of outlaws and vigilantes these days.

You can also start at the West Trailhead in the cemetery west of the townsite.

Learning About Bannack, Montana Before You Go

The history of Bannack, MT is the history of Montana’s gold rush. We found several books and movies that gave us a good overview.

Books About Bannack and Montana History

Movies About Bannack and Montana History

  • The Bozeman Trail: A Rush To Montana’s Gold (a great PBS film about the Bozeman Trail to Bannack and the Montana gold rush). If you are going to read or watch one thing before your trip to Bannack, this film is what I recommend.
  • Bannack Town Tour (a video town tour from an Americorp volunteer – from the Native Americans who originally lived in the area to the gold rush and beyond).

Woman looking at an old mill building in Bannack State Park

Learning About Bannack, Montana On Site

  • The most educational and entertaining thing we did was take a tour from one of the State Park staff. John Phillips walked us through town, telling stories, and giving meaning to all the buildings we were seeing. We asked a million questions, as usual, and he seemed happy to answer them all. In winter, you can call ahead and schedule a tour. In summer, tours are scheduled.
  • We also bought the Bannack interpretive guide and read about the different structures and the history of the town. This was well worth the $2 and helps support the Bannack Association.

How Do You Get to Bannack State Park?

From Dillon, drive south on I-15 2.5 miles to exit 59 for MT-278 toward Jackson/Wisdom.

Turn right onto MT-278 W and drive 17.2 miles.

Turn left onto Bannack Bench Road and continue 3.8 miles to Bannack State Park.

Woman leaning on a sign reading "Lost Creek State Park" and "Montana State Parks"

Visiting Lost Creek State Park

Before we visited Lost Creek State Park, I read several articles about this park referring to it as a “hidden gem.” I don’t know if it is hidden, but it is definitely a gem.

In winter you can drive to the Montana State Park entrance sign for the park and then ski or snowshoe in about 1.5 miles to Lost Creek Falls Trail and the end of the campground loop. Along the way there are interpretive signs.

The first part of the road is pretty flat and then it starts to climb. It’s a very doable ski or snowshoe tour. While we were there it snowed part of the time and was absolutely magical — a winter wonderland. Since the trail is the road, it’s very easy to follow.

The waterfall is maybe 100 feet from the trailhead and more of a cascade than fall. It was totally covered in snow and underwhelming, but the whole ski was so lovely that we didn’t mind.

Learning About Lost Creek, Montana Before You Go

I couldn’t find anything specifically written about Lost Creek State Park, nor could the park manager. However, these books did help with the geology and natural history of the area.

Scraping snow off interpretive signs about the geology of Lost Creek State Park. Snowy mountains in the background.

Learning About Lost Creek, Montana On Site

  • We stopped at the various interpretive signs, shoveled the snow off, and read them. We also brought binoculars to get a better view of the mountains to discuss geology, and of course for a little bird watching.
  • At the Lost Creek Falls trailhead there is an interpretive sign about the geology that points out a huge dyke in the rock face on the mountain above the campground. This is a great place to talk about the geology and pull out binoculars for a better view (though you don’t really even need binoculars to see it).
  • We used the tree finder to identify some of the trees along the way. It’s a good excuse to stop and catch your breath on the uphill.

How Do You Get to Lost Creek State Park?

From the east end of Anaconda, turn north onto MT-48N.

After 0.3 miles, turn left onto Galen Road and drive 1.9 miles.

Turn left onto Lost Creek Road and drive about 7.5 miles until the plowing ends. There is room to turn around and parking for 4-5 cars.

Sign for Anaconda Smoke Stack Montana State Park

Visiting Anaconda Smoke Stack State Park

Honestly, the Anaconda Smoke Stack wasn’t on the top of my list of places to visit, but like so many things it turned out to be much more interesting than I expected.

The town of Anaconda sprang up as a place to smelter the copper coming out of Butte because there is a much better water source in Anaconda.

The Anaconda Copper Company smelter stack is one of the tallest free standing brick structures in the world at 585 feet, and it was built in 1919. You can see it towering above the town from just about anywhere.

The State Park isn’t at the Anaconda smelter stack, but down below.

The viewing site has interpretive signs and binoculars for a better view of the smelter stack. The best part, for me is the short, circular brick wall that shows the size of the stack at the top and the larger octagonal platform which is the same size and shape as the stack at the bottom. You don’t realize how big it is when looking at the smelter stack from afar, so it really puts things into perspective.

Learning About the Anaconda Smoke Stack Before You Go

There are a myriad of books about copper mining in Butte and Anaconda, Montana. Here are a few that we like.

Two people looking at a smelter stack on a snowy hillside

Learning About the Anaconda Smoke Stack On Site

  • The interpretive panels around the smelter stack representation are filled with great information that bring the site to life.

How Do You Get to Anaconda Smoke Stack State Park?

The viewing site at Anaconda Smoke Stack State Park is at 100 Anaconda Smelter Road at the end of 4th Street.

back of a boys head looking at snow geese

Alternate Itinerary – Montana State Parks and Hot Springs

Day 1

  • Beaverhead Rock State Park
  • Lunch in Dillon
  • Bannack State Park ski, snowshoe, or hike
  • Overnight at Jackson Hot Springs

Day 2

  • Soak and breakfast at Jackson Hot Springs
  • Tour of Bannack State Park
  • Overnight at Fairmont Hot Springs

Day 3

  • Soak and breakfast at Fairmont Hot Springs
  • Lost Creek State Park
  • Lunch in Anaconda
  • Anaconda Smoke Stack State Park
  • Home

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