Codger Tour #2

Early in the summer of 2006, I had two small epiphanies.

Epiphany One: Bozeman is a great place to live and my garden is very satisfying, but if I’d stuck it out as a federal bureaucrat, I could afford a nice garden in, say, Washington, D.C. Resolution: Get out and have an “only in Montana” experience at least once a week.

Epiphany Two: My 86-year-old mother has lived in Montana all her life, and there are lots of places she’s never seen. Resolution: Take her along on my weekly adventures. Thus was born the Codger Tour. Most readers of Outside Bozeman are so spry they climb waterfalls and rappel down cliffs, but they may have a mobility-challenged friend who would like to get out into the Montana backcountry. Last fall we brought you the Back Door to Lincoln tour; this summer, we go to Helena.

There are lots of reasons for Bozemanites to go to Helena. There’s the recently renovated state capitol building, the Montana State Historical Museum, the Holter Museum of Art, the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, the Myrna Loy Center, and for sports fans, an occasional athletic event.

We all know how to get to Helena, right? Head west on I-90, get off just past Three Forks and take U.S. 287 past Toston, through Townsend and East Helena. When the state capitol dome appears, you’re there.

But there’s a more scenic route that takes you through the lower Boulder Valley, behind (west of) the Elkhorn Mountains, which are those steep, brown, wrinkly hills that loom to the left side of 287 when you head north from Three Forks to Townsend. (The Elkhorns, incidentally, are full of little back roads and old mines and at least one ghost town, which we codgers will have to explore one of these days.) The back way to Helena is only a few miles longer than the usual route, but at the height of the construction season you may save time as highway workers widen U.S. 287.

Instead of getting off the Interstate for that cinnamon roll at Wheat Montana, stay on until the Cardwell exit, #256, and take Montana Route 69 north. The Boulder Valley is lovely agricultural country, almost unpopulated.

There’s a souvenir of the valley’s more populous 19th century about 12 miles before you reach the town of Boulder: St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church. This tidy little building stands alone beside its graveyard in the quiet valley. Built in 1880, it must be one of the oldest churches still in use in the state—according to the “Montana Gold Country” tourism website, Mass is still celebrated here on Memorial Day and once a month during the summer.

Just three miles south of Boulder, watch for the signs on the left for Boulder Hot Springs. The first buildings were constructed in 1863 (even miners needed an occasional soak). Between 1880 and 1910, various entrepreneurs constructed and improved upon the facilities until Boulder Hot Springs boasted a grand 52-room Victorian hotel that was—at least according to local legend—visited by Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Warren Harding, and FDR. In recent years, the facility has had various incarnations—it’s run now as a bed-and-breakfast and conference center. Check the website ( or phone (406) 225-4339 to see if the dining room is open.

Continue on to Boulder, the seat of Jefferson County. First established in the 1860s as a stage station on the Fort Benton-Virginia City route, Boulder later became a trading center for mining and agricultural areas. It even had railroad service beginning in 1888. It’s now one of those small, as-yet-unspoiled mountain towns with a few great old buildings (check out the Jefferson County Courthouse and the Jefferson County High School) to remind many of us of the Montana that once was. The town’s population is under 1,500, and it doesn’t take long to wander around and get a feel for it.

Then all you have to do is find your way onto Interstate 15 East and zip on in to Helena with a new-yet-old bit of Montana stored in your memory bank. Happy Codger-touring!