Road Trip Montana: Garnet Ghost Town & Ringing Rocks

Choosing our one night in Bozeman to act like boozy delinquents was a mistake. The 6-pack nightcap from the gas station next to the motel was another mistake. We eventually pulled ourselves from bed and hit the road towards Missoula. What would have been a 2-hour breeze of a drive was about to be 6 hours of off-roading and adventuring – not the best timing for a headache…but we need to get our gravel legs back and the road won’t wait.

Our first detour was a stop at “Ringing Rocks”. On the surface, it doesn’t look like any more than a random pile of boulders squirreled away in a desert-like stretch of rural land. But the pile of rocks represents a phenomenon seen only 5 places in the world. Believed to be a result of the unique way they have eroded over the years, hitting the rocks with a hammer results in bell-like sounds, but only as long as they remain in a pile (if you remove a rock, it won’t ring). You need to drive 4 miles down a poorly maintained gravel road to reach the site. It was just random enough to be worth it.

I was anxious for the entire drive as I thought about the potential condition of the road, even in a high-clearance SUV. It’s been some time since we’ve traveled in that fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants way. My struggle with anxiety was kicking into gear, telling me not to take risks, not to do things I wasn’t sure of. But that’s the exact time when I have to push it. Who knows how long we’ll be able to travel this way? Who knows what we could miss?

I-90 W takes you to Exit 241 for Pipestone (no services). A simple “Ringing Rocks” sign points you down a frontage road for about a mile heading East along the highway. Crossing the railroad tracks to the North, turn left down “road 2” (via a post in the ground that looks like it’s a marker for a hiking trail) for about 3 miles, or as far as your car can handle. The first two miles or so were rugged but manageable in 4WD, with loose gravel and small rocks to navigate over. The landscape was sweeping, rural, and empty.

Before the last mile, there is a rudimentary “parking” area where smaller cars can throw in the towel and hike the rest of the way under the grueling sun. This was not an option for our hungover bodies. We switched into low-gear and pressed on, as the road narrowed, the ruts became deeper, and the rocks grew sharper. We inched forward, carefully navigating the unmaintained ground. In the rare moment when you encountered a car head-on, you both did a little dance (which sometimes involved backing up a hill) until you could safely pass in a space too small for 2 – sending each other along with a friendly but apprehensive wave.

Not the most precarious part of the road…but the most precarious part I could get a photo of

The last stretch of road took some adrenaline and white knuckles. The gravel snaked alongside sheer cliffs, barely wide enough for one and with no backup plan if an oncoming car approached. Then suddenly before us, a wide-open space with 3 or 4 pickup trucks parked safely in a line. I made it, but I aged a little bit.

A 2-min walk up one final hill (which I wouldn’t recommend driving unless you’re in an ATV) and we had reached Ringing Rocks. Despite stopping at a gas station to purchase a hammer (and nothing else, like weirdos), we arrived to find 6 orphan hammers handing from a stand. We spent the next 20 minutes or so clanking metal to stone and reveling in the unnaturally musical sound that emanated. The higher you climbed on the rocks, the more intense the ringing and bell-like sounds were. Use two hammers, and it was like playing a unique set of drums. One of the strangest and coolest detours we’ve taken in a while.

Driving back along the same road was still nerve-wracking, but I had started to get used the off-road feel of it. Our 4Runner may have handled it even better than a truck. By the time we got back on the highway, the road felt smooth like butter.

A couple hours further West was detour number two, Garnet Ghost Town. I am a ghost town and abandoned-things fanatic and while Garnet is technically preserved (i.e. less abandoned “feeling”), it’s set 10 miles off the highway on another funky mountain road. I figured the trek to get there would compensate for it’s touristy feel.

We took the exit for Drummond and followed the frontage road until we reached Bear Gulch Road. The signage wasn’t great but our GPS, surprisingly, picked up the directions. The entire 10 miles is gravel, decently flat, passing by a few middle-of-nowhere homes that looked like they’d prefer to be left alone. The first 7 miles or so was more manageable than Ringing Rocks so we found ourselves feeling quite cocky. But as we approached the final 3, a sign warned us that the road ahead was no longer maintained by the county. It immediately became skinnier and a thick forest sprung up around it. The curves grew sharper and steeper, and the rocks were sticking out all over our approach. We were given the option to stay left for Bear Gulch Rd or go right for Cave Gulch Rd – supposedly, the right one is longer, but I’m not planning any return trips to find out. Towards the end we traversed a narrow passage with cliffs to one side and no room for oncoming “traffic”. Parts of the road were muddy even on a hot sunny day. It was more neglected and intense than Ringing Rocks, or maybe we were already getting tired of driving with white knuckles.  

When we reached the top, exacerbated, we met a group of shell-shocked people in a small 2WD sedan that had also made the trip. We asked them how on EARTH they made it up.

“Not a clue”

Word to the wise – we found out late that there is another flat, wide, and well-maintained gravel road leading to the ghost town from the north, off Route 200. We definitely took the forgotten route.

Despite being preserved and full of visitors, the ghost town was very cool. Dozens of buildings dotted the hillsides of a once-booming mining town that was home to 4 hotels and 13 saloons. Inside the town’s bones, you could stand in silence except for the creaks and groans of old wood and the sound of wind swirling through musty fabric and cracks in the walls. A huge fire destroyed much of Garnet in the early 1900’s. The eeriest part was that we could still detect a faint smell of burnt materials as we moved between the buildings. Tiny beetles kept zipping by our faces.  

By the time we arrived in Missoula, we were wrecked with exhaustion but full to the brim with memories of our random experiences. Downtown Missoula was sleepier than Bozeman, but full of little artsy shops and a scattering of popular restaurants. It gave me a vibe of Portland mixed with Woodstock. Melting onto my barstool, a plate of pulled pork tacos and cold beer settled me into the evening. I enjoyed the last moments of bustle before we set off towards Glacier National Park the next morning – craving the oncoming mountains like a drug.

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