Founded as a gold camp in the mid-19th-century, Helena, Montana's capital city, quickly become known as "the Queen City of the Rockies." Now, the town is known for a grand state capitol, numerous museums, natural landmarks, art galleries, and an extensive trail system. Whatever your reason for visiting Helena, here are 12 fun things to do in town.
This Montana Historical Society museum is filled with interesting artifacts from the state's past and present. The "Montana Homeland" exhibit provides a timeline of interesting objects that take you through all phases of Montana history, while the museum's Mackay Gallery of Russell Art is an excellent collection of paintings, sculpture, and illustrated letters by famed Western artist Charles M. Russell.
Take a boat tour through a gorgeous river canyon, where you will see interesting geology and a variety of wildlife. Your trip follows the very path that Lewis and Clark covered during their exploration centuries ago. Now, the trip is handled by a non-profit organization that aims to protect this incredible natural landscape. Today, there's a marine with 150 private docks, in addition to the tours, which serve around 30,000 visitors each year.
There are a number of ways you can tour Montana's State Capitol campus: Self-guided tour booklets are available at the information desk on the first floor of the Capitol, while groups can make reservations for a guided tour. Scheduled tours are also available at the Original Governor's Mansion. If you want to sit back and relax, the Last Chance Tour Train will take you on a trip around the capitol area and past a number of other Helena highlights. The "train" departs from in front of Montana's Museum, on the east side of the Capitol building.
The Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts is a world-renowned artist residency program. Visitors can check out the Foundation's grounds, artist studios, and galleries on a self-guided tour; tour maps are available in a mailbox in front of the gift shop. The Foundation is located on the site of an old brick and tile factory, and visitors can visit the ruins of the old kilns. You'll discover the work of resident artists throughout Foundation's buildings and outdoor spaces. Strolling the grounds of the Archie Bray Foundation is a bit like being on the treasure hunt: You never know where you'll discover the next piece of ceramic art, or what it's going to be.
This 620-acre park includes miles of hiking trails that take you through a variety of terrain. Most paths lead around the mountain, whereas the Hogback Trail and 1906 trail reach Mount Helena's summit, situated at 5,468 feet. If you're hiking with kids in tow, the three-mile Trout Creek Canyon trail is an ideal outing.
Helena's Holter Museum of Art focuses on modern and contemporary art. Their collection of Northwest art includes the works of ceramic artists Rudy Autio and Peter Voulkos, as well as other artists associated with the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts. You'll also find paintings, ceramics, and sculpture from many other Montana and Northwest artists. The museum also features different national and international exhibitions.
Enjoy a Treat at the Parrot Confectionery
The Parrot Confectionery, operated by the same family since 1922, is an old-fashioned candy store and soda fountain. In addition to handmade chocolates, the Confectionery serves up homemade ice cream, cherry phosphates, and some awesome chili.
Construction on this Gothic-style cathedral, inspired by the Votive Church of the Sacred Heart in Vienna began around 1908. Guided tours are available or you can visit on your own daily year-round, but beware that there may be mass taking place. The cathedral is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Tizer Botanic Gardens have the distinction of being the state's only full-time operated botanical garden. At Tizer, gardens are divided into a variety of different sections, including a fairy garden, a children's garden, a perennial garden, and a half-mile nature trail. You'll find charming sitting spots and a creek winding through the garden, making it a great place to relax and reflect.
ExplorationWorks, a museum of science and culture, is one of Helena's newest attractions. Located in the Great Northern Town Center, Exploration Works features hands-on and interactive exhibits that focus on such topics as energy, health, and the natural world. Afterward, enjoy a treat at the Great Northern Carousel and ice cream parlor located next door.
Depending on what time of year you visit, Helena hosts many special events that are truly unique. If you're visiting in June, runners can participate in the annual Governor's Cup Run, a Boston Marathon-qualifying race, set against the town's scenic views. In July, Helena hosts the Last Chance Stampede, a professional rodeo with food, musical performances, and plenty of activities for kids.
Take a Day Trip
You don't have to venture far from Helena to find many more fun things to do. Head to Philipsburg, about two hours away, to explore a ghost town or try your luck mining for famous Montana sapphires. About an hour south, near Cardwell, you can visit the Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, Montana's first state park. Here, you can tour spectacular caves filled with stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and helictites.