“…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…”
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 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.
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.
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