Updated: Sep 24
Halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, under the shadows of Mt. Helena and Mt. Ascension, lies Montana’s picturesque gold rush city Helena.
Helena’s gold rush gulches have been transformed into a scenic downtown area, with lively parks and a walking mall dotted with interesting shops. Meandering down the middle is a man-made stream, right where the mother lode was discovered. The nearby mansion district stands in stately homage to the past, a tapestry of adventure, grit, debauchery and charm.
There are over 400 miles gold rush trails leading through town and into the surrounding mountains that can be explored on foot or by mountain bike. Start off in historic downtown and work your way to the peaks all in one day!
Helena makes for a great weekend trip, especially for those road tripping their way to either Yellowstone or Glacier National Parks.
There is a lot to experience in Helena - here are our recommendations:
Helena Montana Outdoor Activities
Outdoor enthusiasts are now able to rock climb the face of Mount Helena, in addition to hiking the trails available around Mount Helena City Park. Mount Helena is the first city-owned park in Montana with established rock climbing. The climbing walls are located about 1-mile from the parking area above Reeder’s Village on the 1906 Trail. They provide a range of difficulties and heights from 60 to 120 feet. Click here for more information on climbing routes.
Gold Panning Adventure
Think you can hit the new mother lode? Well maybe you just might pardner. Capital City Prospecting allows you to experience real Montana gold prospecting and you get to keep all the gold you find. Rental equipment and instructed provided. $40 will rent you a Gold Pan, Scoop, and Snuffer Bottle. ($30 kids under 12) At the conclusion of your Gold Prospecting adventure, you will receive a $15 reimbursement for returning the equipment, or you can simply keep it. This is not a pan in a trough experience. To experience a real prospecting adventure, they take you to an unclaimed stream not far from Helena, and you dig your own material to pan. They show you how to use a Sluice Boxes to increase your chances of finding Gold too!
Helena, Montana offers over 80 miles of trails that you can access right from Downtown. These trails are part of the South Hills Trail System and are managed by the Prickly Pear Land Trust cooperatively with the City of Helena, Helena National Forest and Bureau of Land Management. Beyond Helena, there are hundreds miles more of trails that are ready for you to explore on your Montana day hiking experience.
Mount Helena City Park is Helena’s most noticeable landmark and features numerous trails of various levels of difficulty across the park’s 900+ acres. Maps of this area are located at the base of the mountain in a kiosk. Trail maps are available for purchase at all the Helena outdoor stores including Base Camp, Bob Wards, Capital Sports & Western and Montana Outdoor Sports. Obviously, there are many different routes and trailheads, but this is one that we often recommend to Helena visitors. To reach the main trail head from Downtown Helena, head South on Park Avenue, then take a right on Carriage Lane at the Reeder's Village Subdivision Entrance. From Carriage Lane, follow the signs to the Mount Helena City Park Trailhead at the end of Reeder's Village Drive. An ideal loop if you have 2-3 hours, depending on your hiking level is to take the 1906 Trail to the Summit of Mount Helena and then come down the mountain via the Hogback Trail to the Prospect Shafts Trail, wrapping around the mountain to where you parked. Note: It looks quicker to take the Power Line trail down, but be warned this trail is really steep and tough to come down.
Another great hike is Mount Ascension is via the Beattie Street Trailhead and Parking Area. There are many different loops you can explore on Mount Ascension from this trailhead. Want to go to the top of the Mount Ascension Summit - elevation 5282 feet. Here's a route that you might enjoy to reach the top: From the Trail head take the Prickly Pear from the Parking lot, then turn right onto PayDirt. This will bring you to Trail Junction 14 (where things can get a little tricky - because you'll be at an awkward intersection, but it is well-marked). You will want to follow the signs to the 2006 Trail/Mount Ascension Summit. You'll take the 2006 Trail to the summit. You can head down the same way you came up or mix it up a bit by take the Mount Ascension Loop Trail around the city-side of the summit to the 2006 Trail.
There are literally dozens of great trails to ride in the Helena region with rental businesses right in downtown to accommodate any level mountain biker.
Helena Montana Attractions
Mount Helena City Park
At its peak is 5,468 feet above sea level and about 1,300 feet above the Last Chance Gulch Mall. Parking lot with information kiosk available at the trailhead. There are many trails on Mount Helena…including the following:
1906 TRAIL This well designed trail has offered the easiest and most direct route to the top of the mountain for over 70 years. It follows the base of the limestone cliffs for awhile, and passes the Devil’s Kitchen.
THE PRAIRIE TRAIL This trail was named for the beautiful prairie wildflowers that bloom along its length, and it is perhaps the best place to see the cliffs and to enjoy the park’s remarkably varied north-slope landscapes. The colors here are always beautiful, but especially when the wildflowers are in bloom and near sunset or sunrise.
THE BACKSIDE TRAIL An interesting trail passing through a typically open and grassy woodland of ponderosa pine. You’ll notice that the pines at the trail’s western end have a little fire-blackening at the base of their trunks. Quick burning grass fires are a frequent visitor to such woodlands, and the pines are well adapted to thrive in spite of it.
THE HOGBACK TRAIL A rather rough and rocky trail that leads from the peak of the mountain southward along the exposed Hogback Ridge. It is a lot more fun to go down this trail than to go up, but it offers spectacular views in all directions, and the closest thing to a wind-swept alpine experience to be had on our little mountain.
THE PROSPECTOR SHAFTS TRAIL Named for the prospector shafts about half-way along its length. This is a long and very interesting trail that winds through a wide variety of landscapes, and which makes a lot of unexpected twists and turns. A fine way to explore the recently acquired southeast quarter of the park.
THE WEST END TRAIL This is the most remote part of the park. The trail leads through a beautiful little meadow in the saddle between Mount Helena itself and the next prominent bump along the ridge. It is a great place to spend a lazy afternoon.
Helena only has one hotsprings and it is at Broadwater about 10 minutes drive into the mountains. Soak in the pools and enjoy big sky country. A tap room and grill is on site!
Original Helena Streetcar
With the arrival of the Northern Pacific in 1883, Joseph O’Neill began a taxi service using horse-drawn trolleys. For ten cents, passengers rode brightly painted trolleys between the Northern Pacific Depot, a mile to the northeast, and downtown. Today you can see an original Helena Streecar on display for free.
The Last Chance Train Tour
The Last Chance Tour Train offer historic tours of Helena aboard open-air tour trains in a climate controlled trolley. See the opulent mansion district, marvel at the Cathedral of St. Helena, and roll by our governor’s homes. Cruise by a restored miners’ village, enjoy the unique architecture along Last Chance Gulch, and catch a glimpse of the Old Fire Tower. It’s the fun way to see beautiful and historic Helena! In July and August, plan to purchase tickets and board the train 30 minutes prior to your desired tour time. The Tour Train departs from the Montana Historical Society which is just east of the Capitol Building at the corner of 6th and Roberts.
The Great Northern Carousel
The Great Northern Carousel in Helena, Montana is a modern hand built menagerie carousel reminiscent of the splendid, turn-of-the-century carousels. A spin around the Carousel and the opportunity to whoop it up will put a smile on everyone’s face. The Great Northern Carousel and Exploration Works Science Center are located right across the way from each other so one stop will make the kids happy! Most of the 37 animals and one chariot were hand-carved by Ed Roth of Long Beach, California and hand painted by Bette Largent of Spokane, Washington. Todd Goings built the mechanism in Marion, Ohio and also built the spinning tub for the carousel. And, local artist Mary Harris created the original glass artwork depicting Helena area landmarks and scenery on the Carousel rounding boards. Besides the traditional horses, frogs and rabbits, there are native Montana wildlife such as antelope, a grizzly bear, bobcats, a buffalo, and even a cutthroat trout! Connected to the 40’ carousel is the Great Northern Ice Cream Company featuring homemade ice cream and fudge.
Montana’s Museum at the Montana Historical Society
Montana’s memory starts here! Established in 1865, the Montana Historical Society is one of the oldest institutions of its kind west of the Mississippi River. The Museum offers visitors a glimpse into the state’s rich past. The Museum features a 2,000 square foot exhibit gallery displaying the art of Montana’s “Cowboy Artist” Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), celebrated artist and illustrator. This exhibit is comprised of approximately 80 art pieces – including major oils, watercolors, pen and inks, pencil sketches, bronzes, sculptures, and illustrated letters. Art and sculptures are regularly rotated for preservation, to provide an opportunity to explore various themes in Russell’s work, and to highlight themes in related temporary exhibitions.
Original Governor's Mansion
This stately Queen Anne style mansion has enjoyed both public and private roles in the history of Montana and its capital city. The history of the mansion is as much a history of the people who resided here as it is of a building. Montana’s Original Governor’s Mansion, built in 1888 by Helena entrepreneur William Chessman as a symbol of his wealth and influence throughout the Helena community. The next two owners, the Larsons and the Conrads, continued the pattern of affluent living. In 1913 the State of Montana acquired this handsome brick mansion as the first official governor’s residence for nearly half a century. Between 1913 and 1959, it was home to nine Montana governors and their families.
Last Chance Gulch
Downtown Helena and Last Chance Gulch are alive with activity year round. This area of Helena features a walking mall which gives residents and visitors alike a unique way to experience the history and the shopping in the area. The Gulch features a wide variety of merchants. There are custom art galleries, one-of-a-kind apparel stores, unique gifts shops, sporting good stores and entertainment venues. All business in this area are locally owned and strive to provide excellent customer service. Downtown Helena is a place to gather.
Reeder’s Alley is situated in the southwest corner of downtown, and is the oldest intact piece of early Helena. The property is a strong link to the beginnings of a settlement here, offering insights into the lives of miners, the Chinese influence, building techniques of the time, and life of the common men and women who came here seeking their fortune.
Gates of the Mountain Boat Ride
The evening of July 19,1805, was a hot one in the wilderness that would later become Montana. On the Missouri River, not far from present day Helena, the hardy members of the Lewis and Clark expedition toiled to move upstream. Rock embankments made towing from shore impossible, and the deep channel forced the men to row rather than pole their boats forward. Suddenly, there loomed before them towering rock formations unlike any they had ever seen. From both sides of the river, limestone cliffs rose to a spectacular height of 1200 feet. “In many places,” wrote Meriwether Lewis, “the rocks seem ready to tumble on us.” At each bend in the waterway, great stone walls seemed to block passage, only to open like gentle giant gates as the expedition drew near. In his journal, Meriwether wrote: “I shall call this place: “GATES OF THE MOUNTAINS“. The 120-minute cruise starts at the marina, just 3 miles off Interstate 15 in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains close to Helena, Montana. Aboard a comfortable open-air boat (covered in case of rain), you’ll glide through magnificent country Meriwether Lewis would still recognize if he could return.
Great towering walls of limestone still stand guard over the river. Bighorn sheep and Mountain Goats scamper in the rocks high above the water. Ospreys, eagles (bald and golden), vultures and falcons (peregrine and prairie) still soar on the updrafts. The canyon is also home to otters, deer, squirrels, ermine, beaver, mountain lions, black bears and other wild creatures. The life list for bird species is over 120 right now. From the picnic area you can hike to Mann Gulch, the site of the raging forest fire that killed 13 smokejumpers 50 years ago. This tragedy was the main subject matter of Norman Maclean’s book “Young Men and Fire”. The story of Mann Gulch Fire is just one of the stories told by the guide and pilot. Between Meriwether Picnic and Mann Gulch the pilot will hug the shoreline to give you a look at Indian pictographs painted on the rock wall. Proof that indigenous people lived here long before Meriwether named it the Gates of the Mountains. The tour’s main attraction, though, is the inexhaustible scenery – wooded slopes, rugged rock formations, and the placid beauty of the timeless Missouri. The minimum number of people for a private tour is 20.
Spring Meadow Lake
This urban, day-use-only park minutes from Helena fed by natural springs, is a popular spot for family afternoons of swimming, sunbathing, scuba diving, fishing, birdwatching, and pure play. When you tire of the beach, walk the park’s easy nature trail that circles the lake, home to a wide variety of birds and other wildlife. In winter, you can still stroll along the trail and, if it’s cold enough, ice-skate on the lake.
As you can tell there is a lot to see and do in Helena Montana. On our next instalment we will show you the best eats and where you can score the best sleep!