In the middle of the summer of 1805, the Corps of Discovery were following the Missouri River, when they found striking limestone cliffs that prevented access to the Rockies. Captain Meriwether Lewis named this area “the Gates of the Mountain”, and this beautiful scenery is just one highlight when you explore Helena. Helena is also near the site of an important part of the expedition. It was near Helena where the Corps of Discovery was provided horses by the Shoshone Native American tribe, due largely to the efforts of Sacajawea. These horses were able to aid the Lewis & Clark Expedition reach the Pacific Ocean.
Since the Gold Rush, Helena has been a lively city, and is currently the state capital. Once home to gold miners seeking fortune, Helena now offers travelers the opportunity to learn about the rich history of Montana, as well as to explore the same scenery that stunned Captain Meriwether Lewis. Helena is also home to a vibrant arts culture, and incredible restaurants. Offering experiences for every traveler, Helena is not to be missed during your journey along the Lewis and Clark trail. This blog will provide an overview of how to explore Helena.
How to Get to Helena
Helena is accessible via flight, bus, and train. Most major cities, including Seattle and Denver, offer direct flights to Helena. However, for the typical road trip experience, it is also easy to get to Helena by driving. Whether you are following the Lewis and Clark trail from the West Coast or East Coast, Interstate 90 will be the highway that takes you across Montana. Where Interstate 90 intersects with Interstate 15, go north on Interstate 15. You will reach Helena easily.
Dive into Montana’s History
Helena originated as a gold camp in the 1860s, and has been lived in continuously since. The Lewis and Clark expedition is only one aspect of the city’s history, which has been home to Native Americans, settlers, miners, and millionaires. History is celebrated in Helena, and the city contains numerous well-preserved buildings dating back to the 1800s. The lives of the pioneers and miners that established Helena feature prominently across the city. Additionally, Helena’s status as the capital of Montana ensures that visitors can learn about all of Montana’s history, beyond Helena. Helena boasts several museums that showcase both state and local history for everyone to enjoy!
1. Montana Historical Society Museum
The Montana Historical Society Museum displays a variety of artifacts from Montana’s history. The Museum features several long-term exhibits, including the Mackay Gallery of Russel Art, which showcases the artwork of Montana’s famous Cowboy Artist, and Neither Empty nor Unknown, an exhibit that delves into the history of the Native people of Montana during the time of Lewis and Clark’s expedition. The Montana Homeland exhibit offers an overview of the way of life in Montana throughout history! And, all visitors to the museum can see Big Medicine, a rare albino bison that was world famous for its unique condition in the 1950s!
2. Explore Helena’s Historic Downtown Pedestrian Mall
Want to shop while exploring Helena’s history? Or perhaps enjoy a craft beer? Then the Historic Downtown Pedestrian Mall is the right place for you! The mall was originally the site of a prospector’s camp in 1864. It served as a home for those searching for fortune during Montana’s gold rush. In modern times, visitors to the Pedestrian Mall can explore custom art galleries, drink locally-brewed beer, and purchase gifts from local vendors! The mall also features wonderful sculptures that honor Helena’s history.
3. Explore Helena’s history at Reeder’s Alley
A great place to get an overview of Helena’s early history while you explore Helena is to visit Reeder’s Alley! It is the oldest area of the city. The buildings located in Reeder’s Alley are red-brick tenement style and were originally constructed in the 1870s. Visiting is a fantastic way to see how the first residents of Helena lived. Additionally, visitors can enjoy a pioneer cabin that has been reconstructed to highlight the lives of the early American settlers.
Explore Helena’s Incredible Nature:
Another highlight of when you explore Helena is the incredible scenery that surrounds it! The limestone cliffs and the Missouri River that the Corps of Discovery traversed are just some of the amazing natural sights that you can visit when you explore Helena. Whether you want to enjoy a challenging hike or simply relax with a picnic surrounded by gorgeous nature, Helena has something to offer you!
Explore Helena’s Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park
Want to take an adventure underground? This state park near Helena provides visitors with the opportunity to admire limestone caverns. These caverns are some of the largest in the Northwest and contain numerous decorations for visitors to admire. If you wish to explore the caverns, you must pre-book a guided tour. Or, you can opt to enjoy the hiking and biking trails surrounding the cavern, and participate in activities such as canoeing and fishing. For full immersion, the park offers over forty campsites near the caverns.
Gates of the Mountains Wilderness
Explore Helena’s nature preserve that remains just as stunning as it was when the Corps of Discovery ventured through it. You can admire the stunning canyons and limestone cliffs. The powerful Missouri River carves its way through the center of this reserve. Beyond seeing the scenery, there are opportunities to hike nature trails, have a picnic, or camp.
Mount Helena City Park
While Helena was not named after it, Mt. Helena is still one of its most impressive landmarks. It is part of the Big Belt Mountains, which are a section of the Rockies. The City Park is a fantastic way to view the mountain. It features nature trails for hiking as well as trails for mountain biking, and stunning viewpoints of the mountain. If you are feeling particularly adventurous, you can follow trails to hike the mountain itself.
Enjoy Helena’s Art
When you explore Helena, it is important to delve into the local culture. Art is especially prominent in the city. Sites such as the Pedestrian Mall host a variety of locally-owned gift shops where you can purchase local art. In addition, Helena also features museums dedicated to the local art culture.
Explore Helena’s Holter Museum of Art
The Holter Museum of Art features 17,000 square feet of exhibitions to explore! The art displayed ranges from contemporary to historical art, all from the Northwest. The expansive collection is sure to showcase a style of art for every visitor to enjoy. In addition, you can also purchase local artworks from the museum, and support Helena’s artists!
The Myrna Loy
The Myrna Loy Center is an excellent site for fans of both art and history. The center is located in the historic Lewis and Clark County Jail. The historical building has been converted into a lively center for the fine arts. Several forms of art media are represented here, in a culturally enriching manner. Beyond the art exhibits, the Myrna Loy Center offers film screenings, and live music!
Visit These Unique Sites:
Helena is not only home to fascinating history and wonderful nature, it also features some distinctive sites for visitors to enjoy! Taking the time to explore Helena’s more unique landmarks can be very rewarding. Here are some of the more unique places near Helena that are well worth the visit!
Explore Helena’s Guardian of the Gulch
This twenty-five-foot-tall tower is impossible to miss! It was first built as a fire tower in 1876. While it is no longer functional, a hike to the tower is a great way to get a view of Helena! Visitors can hike the path up to the tower, and enjoy viewpoints of both Helena and the surrounding mountain ranges!
Canyon Ferry Lake Cemetery Island
This island is located in the center of Montana’s third-largest lake. Visitors can rent a boat to explore the island. It is home to a cemetery that was established in the 1860s, as well as a Catholic church that was constructed in 1875. A visit to this island is an opportunity to see history as well as nature! If you wish to explore the island, it is only possible to rent a boat between May to October.
Keep Exploring Montana’s Lewis and Clark Trail
While Helena offers numerous unique activities for travelers to explore, it is also in a great location. There are several day trips from Helena for those who wish to extend their trip. More incredible cities and nature are only a few hours away from Helena!
Bozeman is a skier’s paradise! It is approximately an hour and a half away from Helena, is located in the spectacular Rocky Mountains, and has two incredible ski resorts. Big Sky Resort is home to nearly 6,000 acres of skiable land. Bridger Bowl has been a popular ski location since the 1940s. If you don’t like to ski, don’t worry, Bozeman still has plenty to explore! For history buffs, The Museum of the Rockies houses the United State’s largest dinosaur fossil collection. If you want to immerse yourself in nature, a visit to Drinking Horse Mountain is necessary. It features a 2.5-mile hike and spectacular views!
Missoula is a great location to experience nature! Rattlesnake National Recreation Area & Wilderness stuns with the beautiful Rattlesnake Mountains and various outdoor activities. From horseback riding to hunting, there is sure to be an experience that you love! Another stunning mountain range is the Bitterroot Mountains, and the Bitterroot River is a popular fishing spot. Missoula itself also has a vibrant art culture, and museums such as the Montana Museum of Art and Culture, as well as the Dana Gallery, highlight both local artists as well as Montana natives. Missoula is approximately a two-hour drive from Helena.
Bannack Ghost Town & State Park
On July 28th, 1862, the first gold discovery in Montana occurred in Bannack. While the town’s population grew immensely during the gold rush, once the value of gold decreased, the residents dwindled. It is now a ghost town. Visitors to the state park can explore 50 buildings from the period, and see how gold miners in Montana lived. For further immersion, there is a campground nearby. On the 3rd weekend of July, be sure to see the historical reenactment! It takes around 2 hours and 30 mins to visit Bannack from Helena.
Great Divide Ski Area
While skiing is very popular in Montana, the Great Divide Ski Area is unique, as it allows skiers to ski near the Continental Divide! The ski area has been in operation since 1941. There are over 100 trails, ranging in intensity. From experienced to unseasoned skiers, Great Divide has perfect trails for everyone! It is only a 40-minute drive from Helena.
Where to Eat While Exploring Helena:
No trip is complete without a good meal! Helena has a variety of dining options, for travelers of any budget. Whether you are interested in fine-dining Italian or cozy cafes, an excellent restaurant awaits in Helena!
Shellie’s Country Cafe
For the classic American diner experience, look no further than Shellie’s Country Cafe! This diner is open 24 hours, with a variety of meal options. Offering delicious traditional American food, Shellie’s is the perfect way to begin your Helena adventure!
For lighter fare, the Creperie is a fantastic option! Both savory and sweet crepes are served in a cozy, French-inspired interior.
Cafe Zydeco aims to bring Southern food to Helena. The menu features Louisiana classics such as beignets and gumbo. The restaurant also offers a wide variety of po’boys, as well as specialty sandwiches.
Steffano’s Pizza and Sub Shoppe
This family-owned pizzeria has been a Helena staple for nearly 40 years. Diners can enjoy pizza and subs, in the historic Last Chance Gulch.
Lucca’s was named the “Best Restaurant in Montana” by Business Insider. It offers Italian food in a fine dining setting. Reservations are encouraged.
Benny’s Bistro is perfect for diners looking for local, fresh ingredients. The entire menu is farm-to-table, and all ingredients are sourced from Montana farmers. The menu is expansive, featuring Indian, Italian, and Spanish cuisine.
Coffee and Sweets
Since 1922, this confectionery has served sugary treats to Helena. It is located conveniently in downtown Helena. Travelers can enjoy hand-dipped chocolates and wafers. There is also an original soda fountain to try!
1889 Coffee House
Enjoy delicious coffee at 1889 Coffee House! All of the coffee beans are brewed locally in Montana. It is also locally owned and operated! Along with the coffee, 1889 offers breakfast sandwiches, soups, and pastries.
Where to Stay While You Explore Helena:
If this guide has convinced you to travel to Helena, the next step will be looking for the perfect place to stay. Here are some great, locally-owned options to enhance your time in Helena!
This gorgeous bed and breakfast allows you to immerse yourself in history. It is located in a turn-of-the-century home, in the historic district. Staying here gives travelers easy access to the historic district, and the opportunity to stay in historic rooms!
Oddfellow Inn & Farm
If you would prefer to spend time in nature, this inn is located on a 41-acre working farm. It was originally built in 1928. The farm itself practices regenerative farming. The property has numerous nature trails for guests to enjoy, as well as spectacular views of Mt. Helena!
This hotel is another opportunity to live in history! It is a restored mansion that was originally constructed in 1875. The Sanders is within walking range of both the historic district and local shops.
As the capital of Montana, Helena offers an array of experiences for every kind of traveler! Whether you have an appreciation for history, art, or nature, Helena is an amazing place to visit. The rich culture, delicious food, and cozy lodging ensure that a trip to Helena is a wonderful way to spend your vacation! While you are traveling the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, be sure to add Helena as a destination, because the capital of Montana is rich with amazing opportunities for all travelers.
Looking for more ideas for future trips? Be sure to browse our other blogs.