A weekend of outdoor adventure in Helena.
A short drive from Bozeman is Montana’s state capitol, Helena—a perfect weekend destination for mountain biking, geocaching, hiking, trail running, fishing, water sports, and a plethora of other outdoor activities. With dozens of miles of buffed singletrack, local rivers, mountains large and small, and one of the largest lakes in southwest Montana—all within minutes of a vibrant and historic downtown, great restaurants, and modern culture—Helena makes an ideal two-day getaway close to home.
Drive I-90 west from Bozeman and make your first stop at Wheat Montana for one of their ridiculous (in a good way) cinnamon rolls, then cruise Hwy. 287 to Helena past rolling wheat fields, the amazing Bleu Horses sculptures created by Bozeman artist Jim Dolan, and Canyon Ferry Reservoir near Townsend.
Arrive in time to catch the 8am free shuttle on the Trail Rider mountain bike bus up to the Mt. Helena Ridge trailhead. Yes, it’s cheating, but it’s free so enjoy the lift. Ride 7.9 twisting, turning miles (mostly downhill) on some of the area’s legendary singletrack back to town—this is one of the finest trails in the state. In fact, with easy access to 75 miles of buffed singletrack, there are plenty of options to make it a full-day (or weeklong) ride, so it’s no surprise that Helena achieved International Mountain Biking Association’s (IMBA) Bronze-Level Ride Center status in 2013. Simply put, mountain biking rules in Montana’s capitol. After your ride, cool off on the open-air Last Chance Tour Train, which showcases some of Helena’s rich history and mining legacy, or drive a bit and take a scenic boat tour below the 1,200-foot cliffs that line the Missouri River where Lewis and Clark famously named the Gates of the Mountains.
Finally, enjoy a pint or four on the deck of the Blackfoot River Brewery and dinner at one of Helena’s downtown restaurants like Lucca’s, Silverstar Steak Co., or the Mediterranean Grill. For dessert, sample a chocolate or two from the Parrot Confectionary, which has been operating downtown since 1922. Camp at nearby Cromwell-Dixon campground—near MacDonald Pass and on the Continental Divide—for a relaxing end to the day without a long drive or hotel bill.
Helena was named Best for Geocaching by Rand McNally and Geocaching.com, so it’s definitely worth experiencing this modern-day version of treasure hunting. After a breakfast burrito at Firetower Coffee Roasters, download a geocaching app on your smartphone or rent a GPS unit for $5/day from the Base Camp outdoor store, where you can also learn about the area’s other recreational opportunities. Not only will you get to check out attractions like the Capitol and historic Walking Mall, you’ll also discover areas outside of Helena like the trails of Mount Helena and Two Camps Vista. Since the capitol was originally a mining camp, it only makes sense to hunt for treasure in them thar’ hills.
After exploring Helena on foot, grab a famous clubfoot sandwich at the Staggering Ox, and head to the water for the afternoon. Wet a line on Canyon Ferry Lake for some of the best walleye and northern pike fishing in the state (plus plenty of trout, if that’s your thing) with great views of the nearby Big Belt Mountains. Other water sports, including wakeboarding, waterskiing, and jetskiing, are surefire ways to beat the heat—which can get pretty intense since Helena is about 1,000 feet lower than Bozeman—and public boat launches abound. For a more relaxed approach, stand-up paddleboard the shoreline and keep an eye out for congregations of bald eagles, pelicans, and terns.
In the evening, round out a multisport day with some rock climbing at Blue Cloud crag, just a few minutes from downtown. Sport and trad routes from 5.6 to 5.11 ascend clean granite in a beautiful setting—a fitting place to wind down after this 48-hour burst of adventure. After climbing ‘til your fingers are raw, drink a cold one at Lewis and Clark Brewing Company’s delightful tasting room and tap your toes to one of their regular live-music performances before pulling out of town and driving home.
On Sunday afternoon, call in sick and spend another night under the stars. The next morning, grab a cup of coffee on the way to a local fly shop like CrossCurrents, where they’ll fill you in on Missouri River fishing conditions. The stretches below Hauser and Holter dams are legendary tailwaters and you’re virtually guaranteed some action. Once the temperatures start rising, stow the rod and head to Refrigerator Canyon for a shady, breezy hike or trail run through limestone outcroppings. Finally, take the scenic route home and stop at Boulder Hot Springs for a soothing soak before returning to Bozeman.
Helena Mountain Biking; Will Harmon
Central Montana Rock; Jake Mergenthaler
Fly Fishing Montana’s Missouri River; Trapper Badovinac
With Helena’s diverse system of trails and water activities, be sure to stop into a local outdoor shop like the Base Camp for advice, conditions updates, and area activity maps. And don’t forget your folf discs! Helena has six courses to enjoy.