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When local mining and land barons tagged Helena “The Queen of the Rockies” in the 19th century, they fully expected their boomtown to rule the west for generations to come. Although Denver has perhaps captured that title by becoming even grander in scale, visitors to this Montana town of 50,000 may quickly find her reigning as queen of their hearts.
As a fan of long summer days, I fell into that group. I noticed the first hint of dawn just before 5 a.m., with darkness finally draping the town around 10 p.m. To me, this meant plenty of time to take in the fine summer recreation offered by this southwestern Montana wonderland.
I also appreciated the way that downtown Helena is as friendly as the folks who live there. It’s a breeze to navigate — partially because it’s so small — with no building taller than seven stories. Therefore, I could always chart my course by using the landmark Fire Tower and Mount Helena City Park as my compass guides.
In addition to serving as a boundary marker, Mount Helena City Park brings recreation right to the heart of town. Equipped with hiking and mountain biking trails scattered across 630 acres — many of which reach from the base of the mountain to its peak a thousand feet above downtown — the city marries metropolitan options with outdoor recreation.
To get my bearings, I hopped aboard the Last Chance Tour Train that runs from June to September. The one-hour guided jaunt wanders past historical sites such as Reeder’s Alley, the opulent homes of the Mansion District, original and current Governor’s Mansions and the Cathedral of St. Helena.
The train departs from Montana’s Museum, best known for its Montana Homeland exhibit, which showcases an enormous collection of regional artifacts dating back 11,000 years. It is also home to a stellar collection of Charles M. Russell’s Western paintings and sculptures, heralded as some of the finest in the nation.
Just across the street is the Montana State Capitol. Dedicated in 1902 and restored a century later, this stately neoclassical structure exhibits its own collection of Western art, including an impressive mural by Russell portraying the Salish tribe’s welcome of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1805.
I couldn’t imagine visiting Montana without attempting its iconic art of fly-fishing. No doubt I envisioned pulling a poetic move or two a la Brad Pitt in “A River Runs Through It.” Although that prospect was far from the case, I am definitely hooked on this sport.
I set out with Garry Stocker, owner of Big Sky Expeditions and outfitter Montana Fly Goods Company. With unyielding patience that may only be surpassed by his extensive knowledge and skill set, Stocker had me casting and mending in no time. While I never quite hauled in any of my strikes, I felt that that day on the beautiful Missouri River will be one I’ll most certainly try to relive.
For those interested in discovering the beauty of this “Gold West Country” region, look no further Gates of the Mountains. This boat tour glides along the scenic Missouri in the Rockies’ foothills just north of Helena. Named by explorer Meriwether Lewis in 1805 for the illusion of steep limestone cliffs opening as you travel toward them, the dramatic waterway is unveiled and explored during 105-minute narrated excursions available between late May and late September.
Where to Stay
While you won’t find a Four Seasons, St. Regis, Hyatt or Hilton, Helena’s accommodations definitely complement the town’s ambiance.
There are currently 1,500 rooms in 16 properties, and an additional 300 rooms will come on line in three new properties by the end of 2011. No hotel has more than 101 rooms, with the Best Western Helena Great Northern Hotel in the new Great Northern Town Center district taking honors as Helena’s largest and newest.
Located smack dab in the heart of town on the Historic Downtown Walking Mall is the 71-room Holiday Inn Downtown Helena. Gaining a local following for its new Quarry Bar & Grille, this ultra-convenient property is just steps away from over a dozen restaurants and Pioneer Park.
Big Sky Expeditions800-466-9589www.montanaflygoods.com
Gates of the Mountains406-458-5241www.gatesofthemountains.com
Gold West Country800-879-1159www.goldwest.visitmt.com
Helena Area Chamber of Commerce Convention and Visitors Bureau800-743-5362www.GoHelena.com
Last Chance Tour Train888-423-1023www.lctours.com
Montana State Capitol406-444-4789www.his.state.mt.us/education/capitolandogm.asp