Montana, often labeled Big Sky country, boasts a state license plate with the motto “Treasure State.” After spending a few days in Helena, Montana, the capital, I can confirm there isn’t just a big sky out there, but Helena, Montana is an American treasure too.
And as with “the 5 series” I plan to highlight five “Montana Moments” I treasured on my travels with these 5 things to do in Helena, Montana.
Fly Fish Montana
If we played the word association game and someone said “Montana” I’d respond with “fly fishing.”
The movie, A River Runs Through It forever made it a mission of mine to fly fish on the rivers in Montana. On this adventure to America’s west, more than 20 years after my first trip, I did just that; I fly fished Montana.
As expected the early start began before dawn as we made our way to drop-in at Holter Dam (a short drive from Helena) and float our way to Wolf Creek Bridge and eventually Craig, Montana. (Yes, I love the name of that town)
We floated (in a small boat designed to drift with two paddles) and also “beached” or “docked” the boat on the shoreline at times to wade in the running water and fly cast in attempts to catch a fish. Although I did see fish, plenty of trout (the water was clear) and received multiple bites (I swear)… it was not my day for a catch. Nonetheless, I came back thrilled, not just because of successful casting (I am a novice and did cast quite a few good ones) but because of the beauty of being in nature and experiencing this American treasure, a bucket list item.
The natural setting of colors and contrasts filled with even some Montana summer snow made it more than just beautiful, but spiritual. Yes, the summer snow, the Caddis hatch is the amazing view of Caddis flies releasing from the water into the air. It essentially seems as if it is snowing.
An Adventure for the Ages
Helena is certainly an adventure for the ages, all ages actually. The city and all its activities are designed to be extremely family friendly. Plan to attend the “Alive at Five” on Wednesdays in downtown and listen to music outside? Decide to have a pint at the Louis and Clark Brewery? Well then you’ll notice kids playing, dancing and even notice a mom (or dad) doing a diaper change in the distance. The whole family is together.
What about adventurous activities you ask? Well, if you hike or mountain bike the many and intense trails before sunset in Mount Helena City Park you can expect to see entire families coming down the hillsides. I noticed this kid zooming down the trails behind his parents.
Stay Performing the Arts
A surprise to me was not just the focus on theater, but also the quantity and especially the quality of the arts. I discovered an intense enthusiasm at the Saturday Farmer’s Market where actors volunteered to get pies thrown at them in effort to raise awareness for the Montana Shakespeare Company. Plus the impressive performance of Rock of Ages at the Grand Street Theatre kept me singing and rocking out to 80s tunes for weeks (ok maybe I am still singing them).
Then the Helena Symphony held their annual Under the Stars event with over 10,000 people placing blankets down and essentially tailgating with wine, cheese, and everything else that can fit into a cooler for a themed performance in two acts until the stars shine. And did they ever shine bright.
History and the Capitol
Helena could have been just another ghost town today if not becoming the state capital. After the gold rush days many similar towns in Montana emptied, but Helena transformed into a stop on the important northern railroad line and became the state capital with a bit of political “lobbying.”
The city with its own interesting history described on the hour long Last Gulch Train Tour, also serves as a center of history for all of the state with the Montana Historical Society (Big Sky. Big Land. Big History.) Inside the building exhibits change and are open to the public.
Across the street from access to both the train tour and the historical society visitors will find the elaborate capitol building. Although I missed the official guided tour, I took the self-guided tour available at all times when the capitol is open to the public. This notable edifice complete with lavish architecture and grandiose paintings truly showcases Montana. It is certainly on par with the Pennsylvania’s Handsome Harrisburg Capitol Building as one of the nicest s in the country.
The Gates are Open for Visiting
Although I had my issues finding a kitchen open and serving dinner after 9pm, (thank you the Hawthorn for serving to 10pm and for your exquisite wine selection) Helena, Montana certainly isn’t about an “open” urban scene. No, it is open and accessible to the great outdoors.
Perhaps the biggest symbolic aspect of this openness is the Gates of the Mountains. Meriwether Lewis (Lewis of Lewis and Clark) navigated the Missouri River outside present day Helena and one day discovered what seemed to be a closed passage, but the “Gates” to the mountains opened visually as they approached.
Today part of the National Forest system it offers camping, boating and riverboat tours to explore the unique limestone rock formations, learn about the birthplace of modern day forest fire fighting, the adventures of Lewis and Clark and the ecology of the region.
In the photo above, you can see the Gates are open, just like Helena, Montana is open. It is open for visitors and adventure(s) await those who venture off and explore it.
Stay adventurous, Craig
I was a guest of the Helena Chamber during my visit to Helena, Montana, but all the opinions are my own. To see more of my images and descriptions of them, follow me on instagram @StayAdventurous and search the hashtag #StayHelena