If you’re looking for an epic Southwest Montana day trip, then you will love this scenic loop drive through the Big Hole Valley and the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, with a hike to Coolidge Ghost Town. This is the perfect summer or fall road trip, and is paired well with a staycation in Dillon, Montana. We took this drive in mid-October.
Do you love golden-colored or green valleys and ranches, with a river running alongside them? Do you love ghost towns, rockhounding, or forests and mountains? Then this drive is for you and has something for everyone in your traveling party!
Special thanks to the Andrus Hotel for making this road trip possible. This route would have been difficult to do as a day trip from Helena, so staying overnight at the Andrus Hotel made this trip possible. You can read my review of the Andrus Hotel here, as well as find my Affiliate Disclosure and Marketing Philosophy Statement related to my hosted stay.
To do this scenic route in the order that I did, set your GPS to go to the following places, in this order, from Dillon:
- Bannack State Park
- Crystal Park
- Coolidge Ghost Town
- Wise River
I estimated the actual driving would take 5 hours, not including any stops and time spent at each stop. We spent the longest amount of time at Coolidge Ghost Town and Bannack State Park.
Bannack State Park
We first stopped at Bannack State Park. We’ve been there before in the late spring/early summer, but have never been there during the fall. You can read my past post about Bannack. The park was surprisingly chilly, and I regretted not packing warmer clothes. (Not dressing in layers is basically a cardinal sin in Montana, with its temperamental weather!)
There were still fall colors in Bannack. The autumn experience was complete with the desolate rustle of dead leaves, which added to the ambiance of the ghost town, compared to the warm sunny day when I had first visited the park. Had I gotten here a week or two earlier, fall colors would have been at their peak. The park was less crowded than on a warm summer day.
I do think spring is loveliest if you are lucky to catch Bannack when it is covered with green, but fall is quite captivating too, and has a spookier feel if you’re looking for Halloween thrills.
We squeezed this quick visit into our day, but based on personal experience as well as based on the suggestion of the book author who recommended this road trip, you’d want to budget much more time to explore the park if you’ve never been to Bannack State Park and if you love ghost towns.
I would recommend making Bannack a separate day trip if feasible, unless you’re getting up early and/or you have a ton of summer sunlight hours. Be aware most state parks and cool recreational areas open at sunrise and close at sunset, at least in my experience thus far.
The Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway
Next up in the loop drive was the Pioneer Scenic Byway. This was a 43-mile scenic drive that left the dry, desert-like atmosphere and golden grass behind, trading it for pine forests, meadows, and boulders. This is the same byway you take for Elkhorn Hot Springs, which wasn’t in the cards for us during this trip. This Byway is your ticket for both Crystal Park and Coolidge Ghost Town.
There also are scenic areas such as Grasshopper Overlook, and other locations for serious hiking or backpacking, as well as camping locations. As an informational display at the south end of the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway proclaims, there are “more than 250 miles of backcountry trails, with varied opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and exploring the forest….”
During the winter, there are opportunities for skiing and some of the highway is closed exclusively for snowmobiling. The scenic byway is normally open for motor vehicles from May 16th to December 1st, with a portion of the byway closed the rest of the year for snow recreation. Note that the Elkhorn Hot Springs is open year-round. Here is a helpful map with more detailed information about the scenic byway accompanying it.
I didn’t do much research about Crystal Park since I had only heard about it due to the Andrus Hotel. I packed gloves and a small garden spade, expecting this would probably be a place for small kids and not worth the stop. My husband was doubtful there would be crystals, because how would a place like that not be picked clean by now? We were extremely wrong.
As soon as we reached the parking lot, I was immediately shocked to see adults carrying full-size shovels and large picks. When we got to the digging hill a short ways away from the parking lot, I found a hill with tons of holes, some big and some small.
One woman, who kindly gave me a couple of pointers, was with her partner, listening to music and using a screen to carefully shift through the soil in the large hold she was digging. Eventually, we heard them “oohing and aahing” over huge crystals they found.
I found digging for crystals strangely addictive and therapeutic. We were on a tight schedule, but I kept asking for “ten more minutes” until we’d been there for nearly an hour. During our time, we found many small rejected crystals and rejected shards, and found a few nice crystals. We likely could have found more if we stayed longer. The draw, of course, is you can take these home.
Note the park is open seasonally, mid-June to mid-October or so, with a $5 fee per person 10 years of age or older, and there is a cap at five visits per season. You do need to self-pay at the start of the visit at a self-pay station and hang a tag in your car showing that you paid. Be sure to bring a pen to fill out your info at the self-pay station, since you need to write all your info on the envelope.
Coolidge Ghost Town Historic Site
Coolidge Ghost Town had been on my radar for a while, but visiting was always difficult because I knew from others who have visited the park that you want to go when the road no longer has ice and is no longer muddy. This was smart advice because the road is narrow. So I had always put off the trip since it seemed too far and since I wasn’t sure about the road conditions.
Coolidge Ghost Town is being slowly reclaimed by nature, and doesn’t have the distinction of being preserved as carefully as Garnet Ghost Town, nor the honor of being a state park like Bannack or Elkhorn or the dubious glory of being tourist-fied like Virginia City. However, the town is still protected by the Antiquities Act of 1906, and signs warned of fines and/or arrest for damaging, excavating, or removing objects from the town.
Coolidge Ghost Town was the last and largest silver mining operation in Montana. The town was thriving by 1919. However, Coolidge failed a few years later due to the economy and the fall in silver prices, as well as the fact that a power dam failure washed out some of the Boston-Montana railroad. By 1933, both the school and the post office had closed.
One slogan on an informational display with Coolidge Ghost Town’s map stated “The West the Way It Used to Be,” which seemed quite fitting. At one point the town had 350 people, including electricity and telephone service.
Coolidge Ghost Town reminded me of Granite State Park. Both parks have much more industrial proof that mining once occurred there.
Be prepared to hike one mile in to reach Coolidge Ghost Town, and one mile back out, to the main dilapidated town. Other blogs stated the hike was half a mile or three quarters of a mile, but the actual display at the parking lot clearly stated it was one mile to hike in.
Two locations are an additional walk/hike away from the houses in the ghost town: the mill and the mine. The walk to the mill is easier than the mine, as the mine requires a short, steep uphill walk.
The mine is locked off and not accessible. The mine was blocked off with a locked gate, and water ran out of the mine and down the hill, which looked pretty cool.
The mill has structural elements remaining as well as a chimney still standing in a nearby structure, which gives you an idea of how impressive the place must have been at one time.
One building commonly photographed in the residential part of the town is sitting in the creek, which is the picture many people opt to post on social media. Most of the houses in the town are in various stages of decay, since the town sadly wasn’t preserved.
Initially Coolidge Ghost Town felt fairly peaceful, until I came across a sign someone had vandalized to read “Pray with me” in creepy red letters. This was in front of what seems to be the most intact house, which sadly has been repeatedly vandalized.
This ghost town is definitely less visited, and it is interesting to compare it to all the other Montana ghost towns. It is a must if you want to hit up as many ghost towns as possible, or if you want to see a ghost town being broken up by nature slowly.
Coolidge Ghost Town can get chilly due to the elevation and shade from the trees. You also need to bring bear spray to be safe. My biggest paranoia during the visit was actually bears and not ghosts! There is a vault toilet by the parking lot, but no trash cans whatsoever.
Coolidge has a remarkably well-kept road, at least when we went. There were a few potholes, but unlike the roads to some other ghost towns, like the south entrance to Garnet Ghost Town or the road to Granite Ghost town, the drive was much more doable. As alluded to earlier, others have reported the road is tricky or more perilous during wet times or when it is too close to winter, since there can be ice patches and mud, which is why I only recommend visiting during a dry season.
This blog has information about an Upper Camp that we missed out on, accessible from another road.
The Rest of the Drive
The rest of our loop drive after the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway took us through more arid, golden valleys with the river, mountains, and hints of fall magic. We passed by Jackson Hot Springs, another hot spring along the way. As we were driving east back to Dillon, sunset-kissed mountains and scenery amazed us.
Overall, the entire day trip was just a gorgeous drive. We did have to slightly rush and couldn’t lollygag as long as we wanted at each location. Part of that, again, was due to less daylight hours due to the fall, and the other part of that was not leaving a couple of hours earlier in the morning.
If you’re up for a Southwest Montana adventure, I highly recommend a stay in Dillon with a day trip to Coolidge Ghost Town, Bannack State Park, and the Pioneer Mountains.
How to Find This Drive
When researching Dillon, Montana, for a Dillon staycation, I found three drives that would be ideal to do from Dillon in the book Scenic Driving Montana by S.A. Snyder (I highly recommend this book for local residents and visitors!).
The drive I chose was #6, which takes you through the Big Hole Valley and the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. I took this road but went the direction I wanted to go, instead of the author’s proposed route. I also shaved off a small section of the drive from Divide, Montana, to Wise River, Montana, since it would have added 30 minutes to the trip (15 minutes one way and then 15 minutes backtracking).
We added stops at Bannack State Park, Crystal Park, and Coolidge Ghost Town.
At times, the GPS tried to lead me astray, but I opted to pay attention to road signs at times since GPS services tend to be iffy in many remote parts of Montana. The GPS was especially confused with Coolidge Ghost Town and there was no service up there. This was an easy fix since once you turn onto the correct road, you just don’t deviate from the road until you reach the parking lot at the end of the drive.
- Dress in layers since it is easy to be too hot or too cold in Montana.
- Pack water, food, and emergency supplies, while also following bear-safety rules.
- Keep bear spray on you at all times, especially when hiking, and follow other bear-safety tips.
- Consider making sure you have a spare tire and a car jack in case of an emergency.
- Bring a car charger and/or battery packs to keep your phone charged.
- Find a free Montana map or buy a map of Montana. I snagged a free map at Garnet Ghost Town a while back and it has proved very helpful when the GPS fails or can’t connect to the internet. At times, I’ll pore over a guide book and/or the paper map to discern what Google Maps can’t tell me.