Tucked along the crooked path where Last Chance Stream once meandered, Helena is the town that gold built, an honor no other modern Montana city can claim. While other gold camps boomed and dwindled into ghost towns, veins of yellow metal transformed remote Last Chance Gulch into Montanas golden capital. The Queen City of the Rockies lives up to its nickname. Helenas nineteenth century architecture dazzles, its gold rush history compels, and its arts and culture reflect a richly talented community. Helenas cosmopolitan lifestyle and recreational kaleidoscope speak to the spirit that is still the heart of the West.
Lewis and Clark opened the way west as the original outdoor adventurers. In 1805, as they traveled up the Missouri River near Helena, Meriwether Lewis noted the steep canyon walls and splendor of the area, calling the spot Gates of the Mountains because the canyons seemed to open up like gates. Now, as the Lewis and Clark expedition commemorates its bicentennial, the Gates of the Mountains still inspire visitors on boat tours.
Looking to explore Helena’s rich history? Start at the Montana Historical Society Museum. Founded in 1865, the museum catalogs the rich history of the Treasure State and features works by the renowned cowboy artist Charlie Russell.
Or how about an expedition back to your childhood at the Great Northern Carousel. Reminiscent of the enchanting turn-of-the century carousels, the Great Northern Carousel is a handcrafted modern day masterpiece that will delight the child in all of us. The carousel features 37 different hand-carved animals including a wide variety of Montanas indigenous animals. After riding the carousel, treat yourself to one of 30 homemade ice cream flavors in the adjoining Painted Pony Ice Cream Parlor, 924 Bicentennial Plaza. (406) 457-5353.
Ready to park it for a while? Our largest city park, Mount Helena, includes 630 acres of trails, many of which start at the base of the mountain and wind their way to the peak 1,000 feet above. The maintained hiking and mountain biking trails offer spectacular views of the city and the gulches south of Helena. We also have 42 other city parks, including Memorial Park and its large public swimming pool, playground, ice-skating rink and band shell. Not far away, Centennial Park is popular for its soccer fields.
Whether your passion is skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, camping, bicycling, boating, fishing, hunting, golfing, swimming or just enjoying a sunny day at a city park, Helena has plenty of reasons to go outside and play. If you’re a camper, check out our complete Helena campground guide.
If you love watersports, you’ll thank the heavens for the reservoirs of the Mighty Missouri. Holter and Hauser Lakes are destinations for camping, fishing, swimming, wind surfing, water-skiing and boating. Canyon Ferry Lake, the largest dam reservoir, is just 20 minutes east of Helena. Warmer months bring camping, sailing, boating, swimming and fishing; during the Winter, it’s a popular spot for ice sailing. But wait, we still have another lake. Bird watchers, runners, hikers, fishermen, swimmers and boaters can all enjoy Spring Meadow Lake, open year-round just a few miles west of downtown.
If you’re thinking all this water means great fishing, you’ve made a brilliant deduction. Wet your line on countless lakes and streams as you chase common species such as rainbow, brook, brown, bull, yellowstone cutthroat and westslope cutthroat trout. (Brown and rainbow trout are the most sought-after game fish, though Helena also boasts one of the largest populations of genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout.) And fishing doesn’t have to stop when the snow starts: try ice fishing for perch.
Golfers can tee off at two scenic public courses: Bill Roberts Municipal Golf Course (406) 442-2191 and Fox Ridge (406) 227-8304. Helena also offers the beautiful Green Meadow Country Club at (406) 442-1420.
Hikers will love nearby Blackfoot Meadows and Continental Divide Trail, which offers views of surrounding scenic beauty,along with moose, elk, black bears, mountain goats and bighorn sheep. A few miles north of town, the 1.5-million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, with 1,800 miles of hiking trails, stretches all the way to Glacier National Park.
Travel back in time via horse-drawn wagons to Montanas largest tipi with Last Chance Ranch Wagonride Dinners. Enjoy our all you can eat prime rib dinner complete with huckleberry cheesecake and cowboy coffee. Singing, cowboy poetry and a musical Lewis and Clark tribute by Montana cowboy singer, Bruce Anfinson, top off this memorable evening. Located nine miles out of Helena, with transportation provided. Seating capacity is 50 and reservations are required. Great for group tours, company parties, out of state visitors and reunions June through September. (406)-442-2884 or 800-505-2884.
Winter may be the best time of all to venture into our great outdoors. For starters, there are three major snowmobile trail systems within a 30-minute drive of Helena. The Marysville area has 45 miles of groomed trails. The Minnehaha-Rimini area (just 10 miles from Helena) features 120 miles of groomed trails. Finally, the Magpie-Sunshine area, northeast of Helena, has 45 miles of groomed trails and spectacular views of the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. Meanwhile, downhill skiers will revel in Great Divide Mountain, just 20 miles away. Great Divide offers more than 60 runs, half of them for the advanced skier. (406) 449-3746. Last but not least, cross-country skiers can enjoy many different trails in the Helena area, including four groomed loop trails at MacDonald Pass and Stemple Pass.