48 hours in Helena Montana: Visit Helena an unheralded treasure
Located between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, Helena is the state capital of Montana. The picturesque city began as a gold camp during the Montana gold rush in 1864. More millionaires lived here in the late 1800s than any other city in the country. You’ll want to spend at least 48 hours in Helena Montana to truly appreciate the city.
There’s a lot about Helena, Montana, that deserves a closer look. During my 48 hours in Helena, I spoke with numerous tourists, most coming from or heading to Yellowstone National Park or Glacier National Park. Everyone was genuinely surprised at how cool Helena was. Count me among them. I knew Helena was the capital of Montana, but sure didn’t expect the capitol building to be one of the most visually attractive I have seen in the United States. Nor did I anticipate the overwhelming friendliness and hospitality of locals, eager to share the wonderful history and natural beauty that is Helena.
Plan to visit Helena, and not just as a quick pass-through on your way to somewhere else. Trust me on this – you need 48 hours at least to appreciate all that is Helena, Montana.
What to see in your 48 hours in Helena
Last Chance Tour Train — I know it might sound corny but start your visit with a faux train ride. The ride lasts around an hour, and the narration by the driver is entertaining and educational. You will learn a lot about Helena in a very short time and get a feel for the where the key sights in the city are. The ride begins and ends at Montana’s Museum run by the Montana Historical Society, just across from the state capitol building. Oh, and be sure to hang onto your ticket since it brings discounts and freebies to places you will likely visit during the rest of your stay in Helena. The train does not operate Sundays.
Montana’s Museum – Either before or after your train ride, plan on a couple of hours to enjoy this relatively small 67,000-square-foot museum. Inside, you will gain an understanding of and glimpse into a Montana’s rich past through a number of excellently curated exhibits. Don’t miss the “Big Medicine” exhibit on the second floor featuring a display of a white buffalo. It is quiet a story abouat the birth of this white buffalo calf in 1933 and, after it died, the promise by the Montana Historical Society to preserve the buffalo. For me, though, my favorite part of the museum was in the Mackay Gallery of Russell Art where approximately 80 pieces of original art from famed “cowboy artist” Charles M. Russell are housed. If you are plan to also visit the original Governor’s Mansion (which I do highly recommend), be sure to ask about a combo ticket to save money. The museum is not open Sundays.
Montana State Capitol Building – Fit in a visit into the Capitol before or after your train ride and museum visit – you’re right there. It is open every day of the week (check the website for hours) for self-guided tours. Be sure to pick up a tour brochure from the information desk on the first floor. If you would like a preview, Montana’s Secretary of State of has put together a virtual tour of the Capitol. Plan on about 30 minutes here, and don’t miss the Charles M. Russell painting hanging in the House of Representatives.
Original Governor’s Mansion – Built by Helena Montana entrepreneur William Chessman in 1888, this Queen Anne style mansion has quite a storied history, eventually becoming the official residence of the governor of Montana in 1913. I enjoyed a one-hour tour, and my guide was full of stories and wonderful information about the families that lived there. The mansion is only open for tours Tuesday through Saturday, and tours are offered each hour on the hour from 12-3 p.m. Check the website for complete information.
Cathedral of St. Helena – Do not miss taking a peek inside this amazing cathedral. The cathedral was built thanks to a generous contribution by Thomas Cruse in 1905, and the architect commissioned to design and build the cathedral was chosen because of his extensive knowledge of European cathedrals. If you have been to Europe, you will immediately see a resemblance to cathedrals there, both outside and inside. The Cathedral of St. Helena is open to the public anytime other than during regular Mass.
Lewis & Clark Interpretive Experience – Enjoy a fun outdoor exhibit at the Great Northern Town Center not far from downtown Helena and the Last Chance Gulch walking mall. Designed in cooperation with the Lewis and Clark Trail Commission, you can follow Lewis and Clark’s progress through Montana in the 1800s with interpretive signs to guide you. In the Great Northern Town Center, there are restaurants, a carousel (fun for the family), and the Best Western Premier Great Northern Hotel, where I stayed.
Take a walk around downtown when you visit Helena
Last Chance Gulch – This is downtown Helena where much of the area is pedestrian only (other than the occasional delivery vehicle or the Last Chance Train which does make its way through here). You’ll find it is a fun place to wander, sit a spell, shop a bit, or grab a bite to eat. From here you will also want to check out Reeder’s Alley and the Women’s Mural.
Women’s Mural – There’s not much street art in Helena at the time of this writing, even though the city has a rich art history. However, what is there, is impressive. The Women’s Mural, as conceived and created in 1979, represents the roles women have played in Helena’s history. The mural is on the side of the Livestock Building, where Broadway crosses Last Chance Gulch.
Reeder’s Alley – Built in the 1870s by Louis Reeder, and once offering housing for miners and prostitutes, Reeder’s Alley is the oldest intact piece of life in early Helena. The property and all of its buildings were donated to the Montana Heritage Commission in 2000. It is a fun look back at history that will take just 20 minutes to walk – a bit longer if the Pioneer Cabin is open. There is a visitor’s information center on site.
The Old Fire Tower – You can’t climb up the fire tower anymore (though there is talk of restoring it), but there is no missing this 25-foot-tall icon that stands guard over downtown Helena. There is a hiking trail up to the fire tower off Cruse Avenue, just above the Last Chance Gulch walking mall. At the top there is a simple little park with lovely views out over Helena and to the distant Sleeping Giant mountain range.
Holter Museum of Art – Entry is free. This art museum offers a wonderful venue for local and regional artists in Montana to display their work, and it is a good place to spend up to an hour wandering. It is closed Mondays.
Catch a sunrise or sunset from Mount Helena – Mount Helena, with an elevation of 5,460 feet, is a centerpiece of Mount Helena City Park. The trailhead parking lot and information kiosk is located just above the Last Chance Gulch walking mall. The summit is about an hour hike UP to a wonderful rocky vantage point with a 360-degree view (we’d recommend taking the 1906 trail — it is well signed). Sunset, sunrise, and the lights of Helena down below — all magical.
Two must-sees a short drive from Helena
Gates of the Mountains Boat Tour – This is a marvelous adventure and an absolute must-do if you are visiting Helena, especially if you are interested in the history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The marina from where the two-hour boat tours depart is located approximately 20 miles north of Helena, Montana. The open-air boats (covered if there is rain) cruise down the Missouri River and into the gorge with towering limestone cliffs on either side. You will see the famous Gates of the Mountains that Meriwether Lewis first wrote about in his journal. And you will also see Mann Gulch which is the site of the raging forest fire that killed 13 smokejumpers on Aug. 5, 1949. This tragedy was the inspiration for Norman Maclean’s book “Young Men and Fire.” The 10 a.m. tour will give you your best chance to see wildlife – potentially osprey, bald eagle, and bighorn sheep, to name a few.
Tizer Botanic Gardens & Arboretum – I must admit, I was not expecting a botanical garden (in the Montana mountains) to be a highlight of my time in Helena Montana, but Tizer Botanic Gardens & Arboretum surprised me. The place is amazing, even if you have little interest in gardens or botany. Located approximately 18 miles south of Helena, the gardens sit along Prickly Pear Creek and offer six acres and about a half-mile of trails to wander. If you are lucky, you will get to meet owners Belva Lotzer and Richard Krott, both a delight!
You’ll need to eat when you visit Helena!
If you are staying at the Best Western Premier Great Northern Hotel as I did, your breakfasts are covered – and they are very good and plentiful. But you’ll need dinner and perhaps lunch or a coffee break along the way. Be sure to check out the General Mercantile on Last Chance Gulch (before the walking mall) for a coffee or ice cream soda. This place is uniquely local with an eclectic display of gift items, not to mention tables and seating tucked into the displays along the way. For dinner one night, do eat at the Silver Star Steak Company, adjacent to the Best Western hotel. The steaks are oh so good!!!!