Elkhorn State Park may be the smallest state park in Montana, but don’t underestimate its size: this unassuming state park is one of the great ghost towns reminiscent of the Old West frontier.
While it now features only two wooden buildings, these two beauties hold an incredible amount of local and state history within their walls.
Nestled within the Deerlodge National Forest, Elkhorn once had a thriving population of 2,500, a school, a mining industry, church, saloons, brothels – something for everyone.
But industrialization and progress can be double-edged swords of strife and epidemic, two things the local population of Elkhorn knew a thing or two about. Let’s start at the beginning.
Although silver was discovered in this Montana area in the 1870s, the silver craze didn’t take off in Elkhorn until the late 1880s. By 1888, the town’s mine produced over $30,000 in silver – instead of striking gold, they had another precious mineral on their hands.
With more of a family atmosphere than other mining camps, Elkhorn had a unique place within the storied Old West.
Having so many children around brought quickened epidemics like diphtheria in 1888 and 1889, something their weathered cemetery will attest to. But the people of Elkhorn did their best to thrive in trying conditions.
In happier times, the Fraternal Hall Association formed and built one of the stately buildings that still stand, Fraternity Hall. This building went on to be used by Freemasons, Knights of Pythias, and more – it was a grand gathering space for the community, along with the local church.
The other currently standing building, Gillian Hall, was a store, dance hall, and most likely a saloon. These were lively people! While it would be amazing to see this town at its peak, we’re lucky to have these two Elkhorn guardians still available.
It should be pointed out that there are multiple buildings still on private property, and we recommend looking around Elkhorn at those buildings, as well as the well-worn cemetery.
Speaking of aged beauty, by 1897, the town experienced a large decline due to dropping silver prices: a real silver panic. And while the mine discontinued its operations in 1900 beyond a brief reopening in the 1940s, it never recovered.
Elkhorn isn’t entirely a ghost town these days; a handful of people live in town as it stands. Still, its silver craze heyday is long gone, just relics of the past.
We’d recommend taking a sturdy vehicle into Elkhorn, since it’ll be maneuvering down an 11-mile-long dirt road. You won’t want to miss Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall and their frontier town architecture – don’t miss the opportunity to go inside them, and take note of their Greek Revivalist elements!
Between the halls and the town’s other buildings, you’ll leave with a piece of Montana history. Sure, it’s a bit eerie to walk around a town that used to have so much life, but the Treasure State is filled with surprises!
We love Elkhorn State Park for its charm, but let’s go over some nearby attractions, fun hiking routes, and food suggestions!
Elkhorn State Park Stats
- Size: 1 acre
- Season: Year Round
- Hours: 8am to Sunset
- Nearest Body of Water: Elkhorn Creek
- Number of Campsites: 0
- Number of Picnic Sites: 0
- Wheelchair Accessible: No
Main Attractions at Elkhorn State Park
Elkhorn State Park may be the smallest state park in all of Big Sky Country, but there are plenty of opportunities for fun.
Whether you’re into hot springs, museums, or rodeos, this southwest Montana area has plenty to do. Let’s get into it!
The Heritage Center
Continuing along to nearby Boulder, The Heritage Center is a non-profit founded by local residents to provide context and history of local families and characters.
The building was originally built in 1888 as Boulder’s first bank. If you remember, this was the same year as the silver explosion in a particular nearby mining town, but also the tragic diphtheria epidemic that saw so many lost lives.
Unfortunately, the bank closed during the Great Depression and passed through many changing hands – from a doctor’s office to a 1940s office to support the mining industry.
But similarly to Elkhorn, it couldn’t withstand the swift progress of the Americas and naturally fell into disrepair for years. These days, it’s home to genealogy research, holds tours about the town’s mining history, and has a passionate home in the hearts of its many local volunteers.
If the buildings at Elkhorn State Park are a relic of the past, The Heritage Center works to preserve that past for future generations.
Once you’re done getting your history on, head on over to the quaint Elkhorn Bistro for biscuits and gravy.
Boulder Fair & Rodeo Grounds
One of the most popular fairs and rodeos in Montana, Jefferson County’s annual affair isn’t one to be missed! Come through Boulder at the end of August and you’re sure to see a community and cowboy spectacle!
The Jefferson County Fair and Rodeo feature all of your fair favorites: food, crafts, animals, acrobats, live music, and of course, prizes. Entry is free!
While we love a good family fair, the rodeo is our favorite event of the year. Ladies cow riding, goat tying, steer riding for the kids, a parade, and one of the best in-county rodeos out there.
To be honest, the only thing we love more is Boulder Hot Springs. Good thing we’re going there next…
Boulder Hot Springs
Backed by the Deerlodge National Forest and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, we couldn’t really ask for more from this hot spring and inn.
There’s a reason this area was originally called Peace Valley by its original inhabitants. The land surrounding Boulder Hot Springs has long been a source of healing and celebration, and it’s been visited by presidents (Theodore Roosevelt!), ranchers, indigeneous peoples, and now you.
This historic spot has an outdoor swimming pool using geothermal mineral water that’s perfect for families and large parties (Bachelorette party, anyone?).
A big bonus, it’s handicap accessible, due to having a graduated depth! But we’re even bigger fans of the steam room and cold water plunges. We dare you to try it!
If you’re in the mood for a luxurious stay after a dip in the healing waters, you’re in luck because Boulder Hot Springs has twelve beautiful bed & breakfast-style rooms, each with its own unique flair.
It’s hard to choose a favorite, but the Celebration Suite is comfortable and elegant. Okay, it’s our favorite.
Recreational Activities at Elkhorn State Park
Montana is all about recreational activities, from the rodeo to hot springs to bird watching to hiking trails. Let’s get into some of our favorites!
Hiking & Biking
Hiking is something of a pastime for Montanans, so act like a local and get on out there! We’ve selected some of our favorite nearby hikes below, but our favorite is the Elkhorn Peak and Crow Peak Trail.
There’s something about conquering two peaks in one day that makes us want a celebratory drink!
But if you’re looking to ease your way into that hiking life, the Boulder Hot Springs Trail is equally exciting and far better for families.
Are you a mountain biker? Boulder Hot Springs Trail is the closest one you’ll find, but if you edge your search out a bit more, there are plenty of spots to roam free near Helena and through the Deerlodge National Forest.
One of the best things about the Elkhorn-Boulder area is nature – it’s everywhere. You’re sure to find a trail that works for your hiking prowess and speed!
While we clearly love Boulder Hot Springs, there are plenty of other opportunities to get some laps in – or just float in the water like we’re apt to do.
We love Spring Meadow Lake State Park outside of Helena because it’s one of the best spots in southwestern Montana for snorkeling and scuba diving, but there are other gems. If you’re in the area during the winter months, we strongly recommend the Boulder Aquatic Center for its saltwater pools.
Looking for something a bit more secluded? Head on over to the Boulder River for some enjoyable floating – just don’t forget your sunscreen!
There are plenty of primitive spots to camp around the Deerlodge National Forest, but one of our favorite things to do in the area is to check out private lodging on HipCamp.
Want to spend the night in a tipi? There’s an option for you! How about a log cabin? That works, too! For an affordable price, you can spend the night in safe accommodation – and some even include a creek or river to wade in.
Other than that, we love Sheepshead Picnic Area for an overnight stay, but our easy favorite is Merry Widow Health Mine and Campground in nearby Basin. We love this spot for its peaceful energy and gorgeous views. We always feel replenished after a stay here!
Elkhorn Peak and Crow Peak – Length: 7.9 miles
We’ll be the first to say that this route is not for the faint of heart, but it’s still one of our favorites for solo hikes. It’s consistently uphill (ouch!), but it’s also consistently shaded (yes!), unlike some other area options.
A lot of people take their off-road vehicles on this route, so you’ll want to be mindful of your four-wheel fun-loving friends along the way.
More than anything, this hike gets extra points for being secluded, completely separate from hikers with loudspeakers or small children (Turns out not everyone wants to hike up two peaks in one day!).
If you come during the wintertime for some snowshoeing, we recommend dressing warmly and bringing a canteen with hot tea for the uphill trajectory. Just keep going – it’s worth it for the great views.
Boulder Hot Springs Trail – Length: 1.2 miles
Let’s trace our steps back to something a bit easier for the family. Actually, let’s just head back to delightful Boulder Hot Springs.
With great views of the surrounding mountains and a top-tier mountain biking trail, this is one of our go-to’s for a shorter hike.
Get that sense of accomplishment in less than one hour, and then hop back into the hot springs. Sounds like a win to us!
Willard Creek Trail – Length: 4.1 miles
In just a little over 4 miles, the nearby Willard Creek Trail will give you singing birds, friendly horses, and a refreshing creek to swim in.
We recommend packing a lunch with your family and eating at the picnic table, or you can bring your favorite blanket and eat with the wildflowers.
This hike is incredibly dog friendly, but please keep your furry friend on a leash around other hikers! And of course, carry bear spray!
Casey Meadows Loop – Length: 8.1 miles
Let’s round this list with something a little more challenging: Casey Meadows Loop. Our favorite feature of this trail? The wildflowers – easily.
Look out for waterfalls, cows, creek crossings, and – of course – meadows. You’ll be surrounded by meadows!
Bring your hiking shoes for a steady uphill climb, but Casey Meadows is one of the easiest ways to check another Treasure State peak off your list.
Once done hiking, head back into Dillon for a refreshing and well-deserved drink and steak at the cozy Windsor Bar!
There’s plenty to do around Elkhorn State Park – as long as you’re open to adventure and a few history lessons.