Montana, renamed Big Sky Country, is best known for its natural attractions (just think of the majestic Glacier National Park or the northern region of Yellowstone), but it also has much more to offer, starting with the numerous towns founded during the gold rush era (Montana Gold Rush). Some of these towns have become ghost towns westerns, real open-air museums where it is possible to fully breathe the most authentic atmospheres of the Far West (just think of Bannack or Nevada City), others have instead continued their growth towards modernity, without severing their ties with history.
Helena is certainly part of the latter: born in 1864 from the discovery of a gold field (il Last Chance Gulch), quickly became so rich that it could boast about fifty millionaires after just twenty years from its foundation, a prosperity that no doubt also contributed to the proliferation of its refined Victorian buildings and to get it elected Capital of Montana.
The city rises at the foot of the homonymous mountain (Mount Helena), and is usually included in the Real America itineraries they include Yellowstone e Glacier. The reasons for visiting it are essentially 3:
- its architectural beauties
- its history that has its roots in the gold rush
- accessible nature excursions in the surrounding area
So let's find out what to see in Helena and how to organize a visit, with some advice on climate, where to eat and sleep.
- Climate and temperatures
- What to see in Historic Downtown Helena
- Reeder’s Alley
- Last Chance Gulch: la Main Street di Helena
- Montana State Capitol
- Cathedral of St. Helena
- Original Governor’s Mansion
- Hiking on Mount Helena
- Helena Museums
- Surroundings of Helena
- Gates of the mountains
- Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild
- Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park
- Where to eat
Climate and temperatures
Il climate of Helena it is characterized by long, snowy winters, dry summers and rather short mid-seasons. The summer period is certainly excellent for visiting the city not only for the absence or sporadicity of snowfall between May and September, but also for the temperatures: the average for the month of August, for example, is in fact around 20 ° celsius, with highs that touch 30 ° and lows around 11 °. The rains are generally scarce and are concentrated mostly in spring.
What to see in Historic Downtown Helena
The historic town, formed in the second half of the nineteenth century, can be retraced through some fundamental stages. Here I will limit myself to mentioning the main ones but if you want to make the complete tour without tiring too much you can opt for the Last Chance Tour, a train with guided commentary that will take you for a walk around the main historical places of Helena.
At the origins of the city of Helena there was, as already mentioned, the discovery of a gold deposit and around it flourished a first settlement that was decidedly unusual by American standards. If you expect the usual agglomeration of western city-style houses you will be surprised: the Pennsylvania architect Louis Reeder built a series of houses for the miners in brick and stone creating in the second half of the 800th century a very picturesque small village, which represents a today one of the most interesting historical testimonies of the region.
Along this characteristic alley you will find the old miners' houses, as well as the buildings that housed the shops and the undertaker's house. Today these ancient buildings are occupied by cultural associations, cafes and shops of various kinds that carry out their activities without affecting the original spirit of Reeder’s Alley. To reach it, put this address on your navigator: 212 S Park Ave, Helena.
Last Chance Gulch: la Main Street di Helena
A few steps from Reeder's Alley our search for Helena's mining origins continues along what is effectively the town's Main Street. Last Chance Gulch is, as already mentioned, the name of the gold deposit at the origins of Helena, discovered in 1864. The main artery of the town was consequently routed along the mining claims which, starting from 1953, was no longer officially called Main Street, but Last Chance Gulch.
To take a short stroll down this historic street, cross the street from the entrance to Reeder's Alley and follow the red paved walkway, where you will encounter historic buildings, shops and restaurants.
Montana State Capitol
The Capitol (1301 E 6th Ave) is the seat of the political power of the state of Montana. Built between 1896 and 1902 (with further additions made between 1909 and 1912), this fine example of neoclassical architecture follows the style of many other American capitals (not only the famous Washington Capitol but also that of many other cities , for example Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, Providence etc ...) and can be visited for free.
After picking up the brochure at the entrance, head under the great dome of the building, where you will notice the 4 archetypal figures of the origins of the state: the Native American, the gold digger, the trapper and the cowboy. Each of these figures is inspired by people who really existed.
The most important work of art is found in the House of Representatives, just behind the President's session: it is Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians at Ross' Hole a large canvas (7,6 meters long) that Charles M. Russell painted in 1912 celebrating the meeting between the famous Lewis explorers and Clark and an Indian tribe from the region. In front of the entrance of the building you will find the equestrian monument dedicated to the Irish revolutionary and Union general Thomas Francis Meagher, while on the back, if you come at the right time, you could run into Capitol Square Farmers Market, a market where local farmers meet periodically.
Cathedral of St. Helena
The cathedral (530 N Ewing St) is one of the finest examples of architecture in the city. Built starting in 1908, it was inaugurated in 1914, and over time underwent some renovations due to the damage caused by the 1935 earthquake. The Gothic-style building is clearly inspired by the Votivkirche in Vienna, as clearly evidenced by the 2 spiers 70 meters high which represent the most characteristic element of the church.
The interior of the cathedral consists of 3 large naves characterized by numerous large windows, each dedicated to an episode from the Bible. On the outside, however, the church shows 29 statues of saints and other important figures. Usually the diocese also organizes guided tours of the cathedral, for more information you can consult the official website.
Original Governor’s Mansion
At 304 North Ewing Street, is another important milestone in the history of the capital of Montana. Originally, this Queen Anne-style residence commissioned in 1888 by the entrepreneur William Chessman was a private residence and only after 1913 became the property of the State of Montana, hosting as many as 9 governors between 1913 and 1959.
The villa boasts an excellent state of conservation with original furnishings of particular value. Guided tours are available for a fee, to learn more you can refer to the official website.
Hiking on Mount Helena
For nature lovers Helena also offers the Mount Helena City Park, a park with many hiking trails on the mountain that gives the town its name. If you want to reach the top (over 1600 meters) and enjoy the suggestive panorama of the valley, you can take the 1906 trail, 4,7 km a / r with an altitude difference of 312 meters.
To take the path you will have to leave your car at park parking, driving to the end of Reeders Village Drive, less than 5 minutes' drive from Reeder's Alley.
- Holter Museum of Art (12 E Lawrence St): inaugurated in 1987, this contemporary art museum has experienced a happy ascendant by increasing its exhibition spaces (the current size is 1500 square meters) and soon becoming an important point of reference among the museums of Montana . It is made up of 5 exhibition galleries, a research division and an educational center; each year it offers more than twenty exhibitions in rotation and organizes cultural events.
- Montana Historical Society Museum (225 N Roberts St): if you want to learn more about the history, culture and traditions of these lands, this museum may be for you. Its mission is to collect and preserve the art, historical, archaeological and ethnological artifacts of the State of Montana, and boasts a collection of 50000 artifacts, largely represented by Native American artifacts, as well as a small archaeological collection.
Surroundings of Helena
Here are 3 destinations to consider within an hour or so away from the town.
Gates of the mountains
During their historic exploratory expedition, Lewis e Clark they were incredibly impressed by the navigation of this stretch of the Missouri River. Surprising their gaze were the spectacular cliffs that emerged imposingly from the waters, so much so that they renamed them Gates of the mountains (3131 Gates of the Mountains Rd), gates of the mountains.
This natural beauty is just 25 minutes to Helena but it cannot be visited independently, you must book a boat tour of approximately 2 hours with the operator Gates of the Mountains Boat Tours. On the official website you will find more details on timetables and prices.
Blackfoot Pathways: Sculpture in the Wild
To visit this attraction you will have to grind a few more miles, as it is located in Lincoln County, a about 1 hour away from Helena (enter this address in the navigator: 1970 Sculpture Way, Lincoln), but the stretch traveled will amply reward lovers of daring artistic projects and why not, even those of nature.
In a wooded area called Wild International Sculpture Park, some international artists have created a series of installations capable of harmonizing with the surrounding environment, almost giving the illusion of being part of the forest itself. For more information, I refer you also in this case to the official website.
Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park
This important natural area includes one of the largest and most fascinating limestone caves of the American North West, which can be visited with guided tour in the period from May to September, although, in truth, the park also offers many outdoor trails for hiking or biking.
The Lewis and Clark expedition, to which the cave is named, did not actually explore its meanders, although it did cross portions of the natural area that now coincides with the park. The distance from the capital of Montana is approx 1 hour and fifteen minutes.
Where to eat
An integral experience of a leisurely stroll in the Last Chance Gulch is to stop for a coffee or tea at the General Mercantile (413 N Last Chance Gulch), the stop is not only worthwhile for the quality of the drinks but also for the particularity of the place, which can prove to be a boon for those looking for some strange or out of the ordinary gift.
For beer lovers the reference point in the city is Lewis & Clark Brewing Co. (1517 Dodge Ave, Helena, MT 59601), where you can sample a wide variety of local handcrafted beers, if you are looking for authentic American-style cuisine. BBQ complete with ribs, pulled pork and brisket, do not miss the succulent dishes of Bad Betty’s BBQ (812 Front St).
Sleeping in Helena will not be a problem given the number and variety of accommodations in the area. You can opt for accommodation in the city or in the countryside of the immediate surroundings. Here are 2 solutions that I recommend:
- Oddfellow Inn & Farm (2245 Head Lane, Helena): Do you want to sleep on a family-run farm nestled in an enchanting valley? To share the model of life in full harmony with nature pursued by this farm that makes biodynamic agriculture its mission, just move 6 km north of Helena.
- Best Western Premier Helena Great Northern Hotel (835 Great Northern Boulevard, Helena): The Best Western chain is always a guarantee and this hotel is certainly no exception. This is your typical understated American-style hotel, great service from the staff and all the necessary amenities, as well as some interesting extras such as an indoor pool, restaurant and hot tub. Finally, the excellent position allows you to reach the main places of interest in the city in a few minutes.
All of Helena's quarters