Elkhorn, Montana, is the featured ghosted place in this month’s installment of Ghost Town Trails. If you missed last month’s installment, you can read it here.
I chose Elkhorn for this month’s entry as it is easily explored during a summer RV trip. It also holds a special place in my becoming an enthusiast of forgotten and abandoned places.
I suspect many of you reading this have seen a picture of Elkhorn without knowing its name. It was featured on the cover of the book “Ghost Towns of the West” which was first published by Sunset Magazine in 1971. It was widely promoted and graced the tops of many coffee tables across America.
My introduction to ghost towns
I received a copy for Christmas in 1971 at the ripe age of 11. I would flip the pages, looking at the photos, dreaming about all the lost treasure that I was certain was in or under the abandoned buildings or the chunks of gold laying on the tailing piles the miners missed. Even as a preteen, the history behind each site intrigued me just a bit, too.
Fortunately for me, my future stepmother, who became part of my life several years later, was raised in Montana. In my teens, we would take RV trips back to see her family often. In the summer of 1976, we were in the vicinity of Elkhorn, close enough to make a visit. Finally, I was able to explore the buildings pictured on the cover of the book in person. Exploring ghost towns became such a passion for me that “Ghost Towns of the West” accompanied my wife, Cheri, and I on our RVing honeymoon and, yes, we visited a few. My wife is a keeper!
You can obtain your own copy of “Ghost Towns of the West’ on Amazon.
The history of Elkhorn was tied directly to its namesake, the Elkhorn Mine, which many consider one of the nation’s richest and longest-operating silver mines. As the mine was developed during the 1870s, the town of Elkhorn grew up to support the mine and the miners. By the 1880s, upwards of 2,500 people lived in Elkhorn. It contained the typical structures of a Western boomtown, which included: stores, saloons, brothels, schools, hotels, livery stables, churches, etc. The post office was established in 1884.
Reports show by February 1888 the mine was producing $30,000 worth of ore monthly. The boom days for Elkhorn and the Elkhorn Mine ended in 1892, when the price of silver dropped dramatically, making the mine unprofitable to operate. The mine was reopened several times in later years, but never regained its previous glory. It finally closed for good in 1930.
No mining meant no jobs, causing the miners to slowly drift away. With fewer and fewer customers, the merchants drifted away as well. The Elkhorn post office closed in 1924. During its glory years, the Elkhorn Mine produced 8,902,000 ounces of silver, 8,500 ounces of gold and more than 4 million pounds of lead.
As mentioned above, my first visit was in the summer of 1976 with my dad, stepmother and my (4 months younger) stepbrother. Exploring what seemed like an endless number of abandoned buildings and the derelict mine site was pure joy for two young teen boys. Better than being a lost boy in Neverland!
In the summer of 1992, I returned to Elkhorn with my wife and our two young children. Since my visit as a teenager, the Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall that are prominently featured on the book cover had become the Elkhorn State Park, the smallest state park in Montana. While maybe there were not as many abandoned structures as I remember from my youth, it was still enjoyable strolling the streets of town and sticking our heads inside of the structures that weren’t posted “keep out”.
With myself a bit more interested in history than during my previous visit, I found the cemetery a worthwhile stop. It seems each headstone has a story to tell regarding the hardships of living in a remote 1880s mining camp.
Plan on driving your tow vehicle or dinghy to Elkhorn, as it is an 11-mile drive on a gravel road to reach Elkhorn. While the road is suitable for all passenger vehicles, including RVs, you will probably find it more enjoyable without the RV.
From Boulder, Montana, travel approximately 6 miles southwest on Hwy 69. Watch for the “Elkhorn” highway sign on your right, which will have you turning left onto White Bridge Road. Continue on White Bridge Road, which soon merges into Lower Valley Road, heading east. Continue on Lower Valley Road, which becomes Dry Creek Road, until you reach Elkhorn Road. Turn left (north) on Elkhorn Road and travel 11 miles to Elkhorn. Alternatively, if you are approaching from the south on Hwy 69, you can turn right on Lower Valley Road and travel in a northwesterly direction to the intersection of Dry Creek Road and Elkhorn Road. You will find the intersection of Dry Creek Road and Elkhorn Road at N45° 09.914 W111° 58.560
Elkhorn State Park can be reached at (406) 495-3260.
Trip Advisor rates Elkhorn as the #1 thing to do in Boulder, Montana, with a 4.5 out of 5 rating.
Please note: Several families still call Elkhorn home. Please respect their privacy and the private property in the area.
Galena Gulch Campground is the only developed campground of any kind remotely close to Elkhorn. This BLM campground is free with some spaces that can accommodate larger RVs.
Boondocking: I can’t share any firsthand knowledge as both my visits to Elkhorn were long before I became a boondocking enthusiast. There is a listing on iOverlander that details a boondocking site along Elkhorn Road at N46° 14.773 W111° 58.246 that can accommodate two RVs. Google Earth clearly shows this spot.