In honor of Independence Day next month, I thought a visit to Independence, Montana, was an appropriate entry for June’s edition of Ghost Town Trails.
History of Independence
“Independence came into being in 1864 after they discovered gold in the area. Even so, gold mining never took place until after two decades since the land belonged to Crow Indians. After being forced by the government, Crow Indians finally ceded the land in 1882. Miners began flocking to the area immediately, ready for the gold mining business. Miners made small finds in Basin Creek and upper Boulder River areas, but their work was only on a small scale. This happened until 1888, which marked the beginning of the town’s boom with the introduction of the first stamp mill. Mines such as Hidden Treasure, King Solomon, Independence, and Daisy sprang up between 1889 and 1891.
“The town was at its peak during this period, boasting about 500 men and several women living, working, and enduring its severe climate conditions. Businesses also emerged, including two general stores, four saloons, two gambling halls, one post office, a restaurant, a hotel, and several cabins. Independence never had a church, school, or bank despite its growth. Gold production was high in the Independence district, and by 1893, mines had yielded about $42,000 in gold bullion. But due to poor management and transportation, this boom was short-lived. The challenges led to the closure of the Independence Mine in the same year.
“The mine later re-opened in 1894 but would shut again due to a fire bringing down the district’s only mining mill in 1904. With this fire, Independence quickly moved from a gold town to a ghost town since many people left. The few left in the area completely abandoned it in 1950.”
Special thanks to Discovering Montana for this concise history of Independence, Montana.
My wife and I visited Independence, Montana, several summers ago in mid-July with our RVing friends. Knowing the road to Independence was better suited for our off-road vehicles rather than our tow vehicles, we found a boondocking campsite within the fuel range of our machines to reach the Independence Mine and back. This allowed us to ride directly from our campsite rather than drive to the trailhead and offload/reload our machines there.
Prior to our arrival, I determined the location of the Independence Mine and verified there were standing structures worth a visit via Google Earth satellite. On the way to the mine, we encountered other structures which I later determined to be the “town” of Independence, Montana. These are located at 7,900 feet elevation, where I suspect the winter weather was a touch less severe than the mine located at 9,300 feet.
Leaving the townsite, the road grade steepened and became rougher as we approached the mine, confirming our appropriate choice of vehicles. We then broke out of the heavier tree cover and could see signs of past mining operations high on the peak to the south, letting us know we were getting close. Minutes later we arrived at a couple of old cabins, indicating we had arrived at the abandoned mining camp. We then wandered through an assortment of ruins.
One of the better buildings has been maintained by local snowmobilers. It contains a working wood stove, places to sit and rest, along with a second-level entrance with a ladder attesting to the amount of snow this area receives. Nearby are the ruins of a burned mill containing a boiler, components of a stamp mill, a compressor and much more.
Surrounding the site are alpine peaks and lush meadows which by themselves are worth a visit. From the mine site, we rode just a bit further to Independence Pass, which is stunningly beautiful. We had planned to continue to Blue Lake, an alpine lake sitting at the base of a 10,000-foot mountain. I am sure it would have been an awesome site to end our day, but deep snow on the trail and other factors ended our day of exploration.
From eastbound I-90: Exit 367 to Big Timber. Head east on Hwy 191 to McLeod Street. Turn south on McLeod, which becomes Hwy 298 aka Main Boulder Rd (County Rd 212). Travel approximately 37 miles to the trailhead located at N45° 16.395 W110° 15.014. The last 9 miles to the trailhead are via gravel road.
From westbound I-90: Exit 370 to Big Timber. Head west on Hwy 10 to McLeod Street. Turn south on McLeod, which becomes Hwy 298 aka Main Boulder Rd (County Rd 212). Travel approximately 37 miles to the trailhead at N45° 16.395 W110° 15.014. The last 9 miles to the trailhead are via gravel road.
From the trailhead take primitive “Independence Road” Forest Service Road 6639 approximately 4 miles to the townsite of Independence, Montana, at N45° 12.714 W110 14.726. The Independence Mine is another approximately 4 miles up the road at N45° 13.232 W110° 13.368.
Note: Beyond the trailhead, the “road” becomes very primitive and receives little if any maintenance. There are numerous water crossings along the way. While many online posts state the road is suitable for high-clearance two-wheel-drive vehicles, I suggest midsized four-wheel-drive vehicles with good clearance, like a Jeep piloted by an experienced driver that is comfortable navigating over obstacles. We visited the site via ATVs and dual sport motorcycles, as did others we encountered. If you do not have the proper vehicle, are not comfortable driving old mining roads in the middle of nowhere, and don’t have someone to go with you, I suggest you enjoy Independence, Montana, as an armchair explorer and visit one of the more accessible ghost town sites listed below.
If you are an overlanding type, Independence, Montana, is for you! There is no cell phone service for miles, so let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. Better yet, carry a satellite messaging device like a SpotX. Those with an iPhone 14 can also summon help, if needed, via the SOS feature on their phone as I shared previously with RVtravel.com readers.
Camping near Independence, Montana
Hick’s Park Campground is a forest service campground located approximately 2 miles before reaching the trailhead. This is the closest developed camping location to the trailhead.
Hells Canyon Campground, also a forest service campground, will accommodate RVs up to 20 feet in length. This is the next closest campground to the trailhead.
Aspen Campground is one of the larger forest service campgrounds in the area accommodating RVs up to 32 feet in length.
Places to boondock abound along Main Boulder Rd (County Rd 212). We and our friends boondocked (pictured) at one of the first locations after the Main Boulder Rd turns to gravel at N45° 28.693 W110° 12.471 Be sure to check the current dispersed camping rules for the Custer Gallatin National Forest if you plan to boondock.
The nearest campground with hookups is Spring Creek Campground & Trout Ranch on the outskirts of Big Timber, Montana.
Past installments of Ghost Town Trails you may enjoy:
- Ruby, AZ – Southern Arizona’s ‘best-preserved’ ghost town
- Eureka, Utah – Visit easily accessible old mining town
- Silver City, Utah – Heartbreak and thanksgiving
- Castle Dome City, Arizona – Perfect for nearby snowbirds
- Fort Selkirk, Yukon Territory
- Coolidge, MT – ‘Montana’s Mystery Camp‘
- Ballarat, California
- Greenhorn, OR – Oregon’s smallest incorporated city
- Elkhorn, Montana – The cover photo of popular “Ghost Towns of the West” book
- Tunnel Camp, Nevada
- Bonnie Claire, Nevada
- Tumco, California
- Mackay’s Mine Hill, Mackay, Idaho
- Does picturesque Civil War-era Fort Macomb, LA, look familiar?
- Ghosts of the Yankee Fork, Idaho
Dave will be speaking at the 2023 America’s Largest RV Show in Hershey, PA, September 13th – 17th. He would love to meet RVtravel.com readers that are attending. Feel free to introduce yourself after one of his seminars.