Located in the foothills of the Montana Rockies, the bustling capital of Helena features numerous parks, museums, an active arts community and outdoor activities. Starting as a rowdy mining town in 1864 with the discovery of gold in Last Chance Gulch, it soon became the banking and political center of the Montana territory.
Last Chance Gulch now runs under Main Street, a four-block-long pedestrian mall with ornate, brick-and-granite buildings. Interspersed with the shops are boutiques, restaurants, pubs and areas for kids to play. A highlight is Lasso the Moon, a classic toy shop with unique toys not carried by mass-market stores. For a peek into the past, explore Reeder’s Alley, a collection of miner houses and shops built in the 1870s.
The Montana Historical Society Museum is a library, archive and museum. It houses the Montana Homeland Gallery, outlining the history of Montana going back 11,000 years; the Mackay Gallery of Russell Art, a permanent display of Charles Russell paintings; and the Northeast and Haynes galleries.
Montana’s State Capitol, built in the late 1800s, recently underwent extensive renovations. Sitting on 14 acres, the building is decorated in the French Renaissance style with frescoes, a stained-glass dome and murals. It also features flower gardens that are a designated state park.
The Cathedral of St. Helena, completed in 1924, features twin 230-foot spires, Bavarian stained-glass windows, hand-carved oak pews and hand-forged bronze light fixtures.
A great way to see the sights is via the Last Chance Tours Train, a train engine on wheels that winds through Helena.
One of the premier art galleries in Montana is the Holter Museum of Art. Holding 10 to 14 shows each year in its 7,200 square feet, it specializes in contemporary art of the Northwest region.
The Great Northern Carousel, open 363 days a year, gives a Montana twist to a typical carousel. Hand-carved bison, grizzly bears, dinosaurs, otters and bighorn sheep define this unique carousel.
A trip to Helena is not complete without enjoying the activities from its setting at the foot of the Rockies. Mount Helena City Park is a 628-acre park around Mount Helena, whose peak reaches 5,468 feet. The park has nine hiking trails. The easiest trail, 1906 Trail, follows the base of the limestone cliffs past Devil’s Kitchen to the summit of Mount Helena.
Helena provides easy access to numerous lakes such as the Canyon Ferry Lake, Hauser Lake and Lake Helena, as well as the Missouri River. Gates of the Mountains Boat Tours features a 105-minute tour on the Missouri; the company is so named for the towering rock formations around every bend. Fishing, water sports and boating are also available.
Rising to prominence in the Gold Rush, Helena’s rich history and beautiful setting are the ingredients for a perfect trip. (406-447-1530, www.gohelena.com)