Top 10 Things to Do in Helena, Montana
Located in southwest Montana, Helena is a beautiful getaway spot—a capital city that embraces its past but gives travelers lots of new things to do, too. USA Today recently called Helena one of Montana’s top 5 interesting places to go, praising the destination for its modern vibe while maintaining its historic Gold Rush heritage. “A modern city, Helena also has hung onto a lot of its past with the preservation of many of the old buildings and attractions that made it popular during the post Gold Rush years, when it became a haven for those who struck it rich,” the USA Today story says. “You can take a variety of tours that give you insight into the area's history.” Get ready to start your adventure: Here are the top 10 things to do in Helena, Montana.
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1. Tour Montana’s Most Historical Mile
Hop aboard the Last Chance Tour Train to marvel at Montana’s history and explore Helena’s essence. You’ll travel through historic Last Chance Gulch, named after the successful “one last chance” taken by four prospectors in search of rich deposits of placer gold. Along the way, you’ll see Pioneer Cabin, the oldest documented home in Helena, constructed by miner Wilson Butts in 1864. You’ll also have the chance to admire the Cathedral of St. Helena and its magnificent twin spires, which architect A. O. Von Herbulis modeled after the Votivkirche in Vienna, Austria. Come back for Last Chance Gulch’s local vibe after the tour for a leisurely craft beer at Ten Mile Creek Brewery, or even better, stop by on Sundays for “Downdogs and Draughts,” the brewery’s collaboration with Loft Studio yoga. If you’d like to explore on your own, download Helena’s free walking app here.
2. Experience Untamed Nature
The expansive Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest totals just under 3 million acres of gorgeous, pristine woods ranging from lowlands to mountainous peaks. Admire the local wildlife including mountain goats, elk, moose, deer and bald eagles, or visit Montana WILD. At this education center, you’ll find exhibits and other resources highlighting the area’s fish and wildlife. The center is conveniently located across from Spring Meadow Lake, a family-friendly natural spring surrounded by hilly landscapes complete with its own beaches and docks.
3. Follow in the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark
Nestled 20 miles north of Helena halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, Gates of the Mountain is a canyon on the Missouri River. The spot received its name as Lewis and Clark toiled on their expedition upstream. Surrounded by limestone cliffs, Meriwether Lewis journaled, “I shall call this place: GATES OF THE MOUNTAINS.” Travel this breathtaking route aboard a tour boat on which you’ll have the chance to glimpse native dwellers including bald eagles, mountain goats, otters, deer, beaver and many others. You’ll also hear the story of the Mann Gulch fire along the ride and admire indigenous pictographs painted on rock walls long before Lewis and Clark’s expedition.
4. Find a Singletrack at the End of Every Street
Helena offers hikers and mountain bike riders over 80 miles of trails that originate in the downtown area. Plan an afternoon for hiking a local favorite, Prairie Trail, and take in its scenic view of cliffs and wildflower-painted north-slope landscapes along Mount Helena. Pack a picnic dinner and linger for a remarkable Big Sky Country sunset. From May through October, catch the free Trail Rider shuttle from the Women’s Mural, located on Broadway, to hike or bike the Mount Helena Ridge Trail, 2006 Trailhead/Arrowroot Drive or MacDonald Pass accessing the Continental Divide Trail. Stop by any Helena outdoor store to buy an area trail map. Or, borrow a loaner map during your trip from Visit Helena Montana/Bike Helena at 105 Reeder’s Alley. You can find more information on mountain biking here.
5. Fall in Love with Fly Fishing
Helena is surrounded by blue-ribbon fishing destinations, including sparkling lakes and rivers. Ovando, approximately a 1-hour, 20-minute drive northwest of Helena, provides the perfect quiet solitude to fish for trout in the fabled Blackfoot River. It’s the fly fishing water made famous by the award-winning 1992 film based on Norman Maclean’s autobiography, A River Runs Through It. You could also cast your line on the Missouri River in the town of Wolf Creek. It’s nestled in the heart of the Big Belt Mountains just a 40-minute drive north of Helena. You’ll find fly shops, shuttles and guide services there.
6. Marvel at Montana's Capitol
The Montana State Capitol on East 6th Avenue is known for its stunning architecture. The Greek neoclassical building with a large copper rotunda at the center dates back to 1902. It remains an iconic staple in Helena, and visitors can join a guided tour (offered regularly during the summer months) to see the immaculate interior details that include wood carvings, paintings and stained glass. The building’s art beautifully illustrates Montana’s storied past and its central developers.
7. Play at the Great Northern Town Center
For an activity that’s sure to please your little ones, check out Great Northern Town Center’s ExplorationWorks Science Center. Inside this children’s science Center, kids can step inside a colorful kaleidoscope at “Lights, Mirrors, Action!” or splash at the water table at the “WaterWorks” exhibit. Let them experiment like real scientists with various other hands-on activities. Take the kids outside to enjoy a history lesson as they traverse the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Trail. Along the trek, they’ll experience places like Pompey’s Pillar, Gates of the Mountains, Three Forks of the Missouri and Clark’s Canoe Camp. At the nearby Great Northern Carousel, children can ride hand-carved Montana-themed animals like bison, grizzly bears and rainbow trout.
8. Visit the Montana Historical Society
If you love history, explore the Montana Historical Society Museum. The space offers a variety of rotating exhibits featuring the many aspects of Montana history. Most famed is the Mackay Gallery’s Charlie Russell collection. When it comes to capturing the spirit and adventure of the Old West, no one did it better than Montana’s Cowboy Artist, Charlie Russell. Through its world-class collection of Russell’s oil paintings, watercolors, drawings, illustrated letters and sculptures, the Montana Historical Society offers visitors a rare opportunity to experience the past as only Russell could have expressed it. The museum also houses rare taxidermy animals, like the white bison, and artifacts that highlight Montana’s rich history including the chronological lifestyle of the Blackfeet, Sioux and Salish Indians, and the colonization of early settlers on the frontiers.
9. Be Artfully Inspired
Helena’s performing arts scene is unlike any other. The Myrna Loy Center, named after Montana’s First Lady of Film, offers film, live performances and an art gallery. It features its productions in a variety of venues, and in the past 40 years, has sponsored over 650 live performances. You also can’t go wrong with Helena’s Grandstreet Theatre, whose mission is “to brighten Helena, Montana, and elevate the human spirit through live theatre and theatre education.” Book a show or make an evening of listening to a Helena Symphony Orchestra concert.
10. Get Creative at the Archie Bray
If you’d like to become an artist in addition to admiring from the sidelines, look no further than the world-renowned Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts. The institute is internationally recognized as a gathering place for emerging and established ceramic artists. Community classes at Archie Bray offer the opportunity for you to learn about ceramics and build skills in the artistry or refine your ability. Enjoy the mountainous backdrop and register for a class or workshop designed for everyone ranging from beginner to expert. The facility provides children and young adult classes, too.
Helena, Montana, is one of the state’s best travel destinations, with lots of things to do whether you’re interested in history, outdoor recreation or spending time with family. Download or request a visitor guide now for more information on one of the most interesting destinations in Montana and beyond.