Harrowing stories of Old West explorers are experienced through Great Falls museums and pioneering historical sites.
Lewis & Clark Expedition
In 1805 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark encountered the Great Falls of the Missouri River on their epic expedition to find a northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The series of five thundering waterfalls covering almost 20 miles proved a daunting obstacle to the explorers. Additionally, along with impressive historical sites and museums, the falls continue to define much of the area that is now one of Montana’s largest cities.
A tour of Great Falls will surely include visiting an overlook at one of the five dams that harness the cascades into hydroelectric power. Comparatively, Ryan Dam is where the actual “great falls” of the Missouri River is located, with the spectacle most impressive in spring when the roaring falls run full.
The centerpiece of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, built into a bluff above the Missouri River, is a dramatic two-story diorama of the portage of the river’s five great falls. Exhibits on the Lewis & Clark Expedition also feature Plains and Northwest Indians who aided the explorers and the plants and animals they discovered. Ranger programs, introductory videos and interpretive trails round out the experience. The center is operated by the U.S. Forest Service and focuses on the Montana portion of the journey.
Capturing Great Falls Through Art
Explore a nationally renowned Great Falls historical site at the C.M. Russell Museum Complex. This top attraction honors one of Montana’s favorite sons, the famous cowboy artist Charles M. Russell. Any tour of Great Falls should devote some time to the galleries showcasing the watercolors, oil paintings and sculptures that capture his romantic visions of a vanishing era in the Old West.
Charlie Russell (1864-1926) came west as a teenager with a thirst for adventure and a longing to escape St. Louis city life. During his 11 years as a cattle wrangler, he made sketches of camp activities and Montana’s scenic grandeur. Russell later became a full-time artist who caught the attention of art circles on the East Coast and in Europe. Works also reflect his respect for the Northern Plains Indians, which he spent much of his life studying. Buffalo, wolves, elk and other wildlife provided more subject matter, hence his Old West themes. Besides viewing the world’s most extensive collection of Russell’s works, visitors can see paintings by other Western artists. Admire memorabilia in the adjacent Russell home (built in 1900) and log cabin studio (built in 1903 of red cedar telephone poles).
Today’s art scene is alive and well as many artists and artisans call Great Falls home. The festive First Friday Art Walk, held the first Friday of every month, features galleries and other stores that stay open late. Many galleries offer complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres.
History and Culture
Other museums include The History Museum, focusing on Central Montana, and the Montana Museum of Railroad History. The latter has operating scale-model trains, historic railroad artifacts and a full-size Burlington Northern Railway caboose. Malmstrom Air Force Base Museum and Air Park, located just inside the entrance to the base, spotlights the base’s history (established during World War II) and displays a variety of aircraft outdoors.
Another stop on the Great Falls tour circuit is Giant Springs Heritage State Park, which claims one of the world’s largest natural freshwater springs. Learn about fish-raising at the park’s hatchery for rainbow trout and salmon. The park is also a prime picnicking, bird-watching, hiking and fishing spot.
The Great Falls Historic Trolley provides a two-hour overview of the city. Highlights include several Lewis & Clark historical sites, historic districts and four out of the five waterfalls. A one-hour tour is also available.
Notable events in Great Falls include the Montana State Fair, an end-of-July fun fest held under the giant cottonwood trees at Montana Expo Park. Watch the Big Sky Pro Rodeo Roundup from the grandstand, see big-name entertainers in concert, enjoy carnival rides and feast on treats like Indian tacos and fried Twinkies.
Performing Arts in Great Falls
For entertainment options year-round, there’s the Mansfield Center for the Performing Arts located in the Civic Center downtown. The intimate venue hosts plays, concerts and other shows and is home to the 75-member Great Falls Symphony Orchestra.
The Montana Actors’ Theater is a regional theater with chapters in several other cities and produces a variety of plays. From cutting-edge works to the classics, Max/Center Stage Theatre undoubtedly entertains audiences of all sizes.
National Parks Near Great Falls
Also noteworthy is that Great Falls is within easy driving distance of two of America’s most famous national parks—Yellowstone (3½ hours away) and Glacier (2½ hours). Groups can encounter Native American culture in this part of Montana, and Blackfeet and Rocky Boy’s Indian reservations are within two hours of Great Falls.
For touring Montana, Great Falls makes a great base of operations. Download the current issue of Leisure Group Travel for more historical destinations.