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'Queen City of the Rockies''Queen City of the Rockies'

Helena, MontanaHelena, Montana

“…in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that eventually a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it…”

  • Helena, Montana, can be your base from which to enjoy the fly-fishing trip of a lifetime. Photo courtesy
  • Even if you plan to fish on your own, stop by the CrossCurrents Fly Shop. These folks are the experts on fishing these rivers. Pick up your fishing license and choose from over 40 patterns of caddis flies alone—the Missouri’s caddis hatches are legendary. Photo courtesy CrossCurrents.
  • In western Montana, the Rockies give birth to the nation’s longest river, the Missouri, which runs 2,341 miles from the confluence of the Jefferson and Madison Rivers at Missouri Headwaters State Park until it empties into the Mississippi River in St. Louis. North of Helena, the Upper and Lower Holter reservoirs are connected by the Gates of the Mountains, named by Meriwether Lewis in 1805. Take a narrated boat trip north through the canyon and you’ll see how its walls almost appear to open and close like gates as they tower over the meandering river. Photo courtesy
  • You can hike along the Missouri River or from a trailhead just above downtown. In Mount Helena City Park, the 1906 Trail is the most direct route to Mount Helena’s 5,468-foot summit, about 1,300 feet above the Last Chance Gulch Mall. From here you can take the Hogback Trail down to the Prospector Shafts Trail. It winds its way through the recently opened southeast portion of the park, past a variety of landscapes and some old mining shafts; allow two to three hours for this loop. The parking lot has an info kiosk; trail maps available online and at Helena’s outdoor stores. Photo courtesy
  • The South Hills Trails System extends right from downtown. You can hike to the Guardian of the Gulch Lookout Tower and enjoy views of Helena and the surrounding Scapegoat, Little Belt, and Sleeping Giant mountains. Built in 1876 after a huge fire destroyed downtown, it was manned continually and is one of only five of its kind left standing in the United States. Planting projects have created a hillside park perfect for picnicking. Photo courtesy
  • A mountain biker enjoys one of the many easy-access trails available for hikers and bikers. The Cathedral of St. Helena rises in the background. The Gothic cathedral, modeled after the Votivkirche in Vienna, was built from 1908 to 1914. Its stained-glass windows were made in Bavaria. Photo courtesy
  • Helena, Montana, is a geocacher's dream. Travel Bugs, TFTC, First to Find, Bug Hotels—they know the lingo! Originally a mining town, GPS units have replaced sluice boxes. Helena is booming with modern-day prospectors, geocachers. Helena is no novice when it comes to treasure hunts. In July of 1864, four miners, down on their luck, gave it one “Last Chance” and struck it rich in Helena. The region, named Last Chance Gulch, grew almost overnight, producing more than $1 billion (in today’s dollars) in gold over a 20-year period. Photo courtesy
  • The Last Chance Tour Trains and Trolley offer historic tours of Helena aboard open-air tour trains and climate-controlled trolleys. You’ll see the opulent mansion district, Cathedral of St. Helena, and governor’s home. Cruise by a restored miners’ village, enjoy the unique architecture along Last Chance Gulch, and catch a glimpse of the Old Fire Tower. Especially for kids, it’s an easy and fun way to see beautiful and historic Helena. Photo courtesy
  • Unlike most gold rush miners, many of the men who worked the Last Chance Placer became rich. By 1888 Helena had about 50 millionaires, more per capita than any city in the world. More than $20 million in gold was taken in 20 years, most of it in the first four. Many citizens built fine Victorian homes that still stand today. Alex C. Johnson, dubbed “the dean of Montana bankers,” had this home built in 1892. It radiates the image he projected of his banks: strong, fortress-like, and invincible. Photo courtesy
  • The brick-red original Governor’s Mansion, with its stately columns, offers a glimpse into the lives of Governor Sam Stewart and his family, who occupied the mansion from 1913 to 1921. Children’s tours include entertaining stories about the young Stewart girls. Photo courtesy Montana Historical Society.
  • The Montana State Capitol’s Greek Renaissance architecture, massive copper dome, and magnificent artworks make it a must-see. Its most significant artwork is Charles M. Russell’s 1912 painting “Lewis and Clark Meeting the Flathead Indians at Ross’ Hole,” which measures 25 x 12 feet. Photo courtesy
  • At Helena Regional Airport, three runways diminish the chances of strong crosswinds. Airliners, military fighters, and transport aircraft as large as C-5s and C-17s may be in the pattern. The tower will direct you but be alert for crossing traffic on the runways. Photo by Jeff Wadecamper.
  • There’s also a manicured 1,800 x 75-foot turf runway parallel to the main Runway 9/27 and between Taxiways B and D. The GA ramp is on the airport’s south side. Photo courtesy Exec Air.
  • Locals fill up at Beck’s U-Pump at the base of the tower for some of the cheapest self-serve avgas in Montana; look for the little red roof with a miniature P-51 on top—free tiedowns nearby. Next door is Mustang Mickey’s pilot lounge, a treasured rest spot for backcountry pilots. Inside the FBO is an unattended home, basically, where you can spend the night in a bunk room with clean sheets that sleeps four, with TV, full kitchen, snacks, two bathrooms, pilot briefing room, and courtesy car, all provided free of charge. It was opened and maintained by Dr. Ted Beck, a local retired dentist, and his wife Vicky. They sold it to Exec Air, which also provides tiedowns, full-serve 100LL and Jet-A, heated hangar, Hertz rental cars, and other FBO services. Photo courtesy Exec Air.
  • Master CFI–Aerobatic Jeanne MacPherson has earned multiple state, regional, and national flight training and safety awards. Open up a whole new world of backcountry flying as you land on remote and beautiful grass airstrips or sharpen your mountain/canyon flight and short takeoff/landing skills. MacPherson also teaches Rich Stowell’s proven curriculum of Emergency Maneuver Training: how to react instantly and correctly should you become disoriented in the clouds or suffer an upset such as in a wake turbulence or wind shear encounter, and how to avoid stall/spin accidents. You’ll leave a much improved and safer pilot. Photo courtesy Jeanne MacPherson.

Any fly fisherman will recognize those timeless words from the classic Norman Maclean novel A River Runs Through It and the Robert Redford/Brad Pitt film of the same name. Fly to Helena and fish the rivers of your dreams: The Big Mo (the Missouri River), the Smith River, and the Big Blackfoot River, immortalized by Maclean.

The Blackfoot fishes well April through October; you might catch five trout species in a single day—native westslope cutthroat, bull, rainbow, brown, and brook. CrossCurrents specializes in guided fishing outings, from driftboats to jet boats. They have a store in downtown Helena, and another on the Missouri in nearby Craig, with a motel and other lodgings available for easy-access fishing. These folks are the experts on fishing these rivers. The Missouri is a big river with big, wise fish, mostly rainbows and browns—which you can keep, by the way. Here you can catch an eight-pound trout on a size 8 dry fly. The Big Mo is a year-round fishery; August through October are the most popular months, but the cooler seasons are rewarding as well, with fewer fishermen.

CrossCurrents also offers fishing trips to “Land of the Giants,” the Missouri River above Upper Holter Reservoir, where truly huge (30-inch!) trout, pike, and other lunkers lurk. Photo courtesy CrossCurrents.

The federally designated Wild & Scenic Smith River is accessible only via draw or outfitter permit. With no dam, its level fluctuates; the season typically runs late May to mid-July. CrossCurrents offers a permitted five-day rafting trip, during which you’ll camp, fish for cutthroat (catch and release only) as well as rainbow and brown trout, visit ancient pictographs, get your water from clear wild springs, and float through a beautiful wilderness canyon. With little pressure, the number of fish is high; 100-fish days on big dry flies aren’t unusual.

The surrounding mountain ranges offer unlimited hiking, but 75 miles of trails—also open to mountain biking—are part of the South Hills Trails System that extends right from downtown, with clear signage and a free summer shuttle. I admit I don't know much about geocaching, but Helena is one of the hottest spots in the United States for it. Helena is also big on disc golf, with at least half a dozen “folf” courses. Kids of all ages flock to the Great Northern Carousel, widely considered one of the world’s finest, with 37 unique hand-carved Montana animals.

The Sanders B&B was built by Wilbur Fisk Sanders in 1875. Enjoy a breakfast of orange soufflé, gingerbread waffles, or Grand Marnier French toast. Homemade cookies and sherry, tea, or lemonade are available in the afternoons. Swap fishing stories with other guests or just relax in a hot bath. Photo courtesy The Sanders B&B.

Last Chance Gulch Road is an excellent place to start your exploration of the city. Browse the General Mercantile, art galleries, and shops and check out the nearby historic Westside Mansion District. Next, head south to Reeder’s Alley, brick buildings constructed for miners in 1867. The Pioneer Cabin at the foot of Reeder’s Alley is really two cabins stuck together. The one in back dates to 1864 and is Helena’s oldest standing structure. On Helena’s eastside, history buffs can take advantage of the Montana Historical Society’s museum (Charles M. Russell paintings!) and tours of the original Governor’s Mansion. The Montana State Capitol’s Greek Renaissance architecture, massive copper dome, and magnificent artworks make it a must-see. The nearby Cathedral of Saint Helena can hold its own with any European cathedral; its 59 huge Bavarian stained glass windows capture moments from the story of Adam and Eve to the early 20th century.

Two bed-and-breakfasts in the Eastside Mansion District, The Sanders and The Barrister, are each unique, while offering elegantly furnished rooms with private baths, gourmet breakfasts, and luxurious beds. Last Chance Ranch offers wagon ride dinners and a lodge. For fine dining with live music, On Broadway has live jazz every Thursday. Windbag Saloon and Grill occupies the former bordello of Madam Dorothy Baker. Order well and you can eat healthy at the Mediterranean Grill. For fine Italian dining with a well-rounded wine list, select Lucca’s. And if your Western getaway has you hankering for a serious steak, Silver Star Steak Co. can satisfy that craving.

Now, I hope you want to fly to Helena! From Missoula, you can follow the Clark Fork River southeast and then cross MacDonald Pass to Helena Regional Airport. But in case you’re not yet convinced, there’s one more great reason to visit—Mountain Airdance, where pilots can get specialized tailwheel/mountain/backcountry flight instruction or Emergency Maneuver Training (see photos for more airport info and details on this highly recommended instruction). With numerous nearby mountain peaks topping 11,000 feet, this is the perfect place to hone your skills. Come explore Helena and you’ll agree her royal nickname is well-earned.

Next door to St. Helena Cathedral, The Barrister B&B was built around 1874. If you’re so inclined, you may play the baby grand piano or guitar in the parlor. Guests enjoy a full breakfast and complimentary afternoon hors d’ oeuvres, with wine or sodas. The inn is pet-friendly and offers a free airport shuttle. Photo courtesy The Barrister B&B.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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