2021 Helena Visitors Guide
If you ever thought that small cities, especially those outside the media mainstream, were backward backwaters, just visit Helena, MT. It’ll change your mind; Helena is hip. Besides being the state capital, Helena lives up to its name as the Queen City of the Rockies, and this queen of Montana rocks.
At one time Helena was home to more millionaires than anyplace else in the U.S. That was during its day as a mining boomtown; gold, silver, and copper made many Helenans wealthy.
While it has fewer than 30,000 people, Helena has some of the amenities that cities two and three – maybe four – times her size only wish they had. Besides the natural beauty of its setting, the city has a thriving arts community, all the outdoor recreation anyone could ask for and a vibrant downtown. Plus, as the state capital of Montana, Helena has a firm employment base with government workers and those who want to do business with the state.
It’s easy to see why Helena was rated the most viable micropolitan area (small city) in the Rockies in a survey by Colorado College.
- Location: in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in the west-central part of the state; about 175 miles south of Glacier National Park, and 185 north of Yellowstone National Park
- Area: 14 square miles
- Population: 25,780
- Housing Units: 12,133
- Average Annual Rainfall: 11.6” rainfall and 47.1” of snow
- Average Annual Temperature: 44 degrees F
Helena has a rich past and much of it is on display at the Montana Historical Society. With more than 50,000 artifacts, the museum in downtown tells the story of the state from its earliest days. In addition to the displays, it’s possible to board the Last Chance Tour Train (a wheeled tram, actually) and taking a driving tour of the city. The hour-long tour exposes riders to all of the many historic sites in the city.
One of the richest of these sites is the city’s Old Mansion District. This was where the mining millionaires built their massive homes.
Reeders Alley is the other side of the boomtown that Helena was in the past. Reeders Alley began life in the 1860s as housing for miners. Today it is home to specialty shops, offices, restaurants, and even a restored miner’s lodging.
One of the premier attractions of Helena is its unique shopping district, the Walking Mall. The three-block-long strip of shops is along the original path of the Last Chance Gulch. A fountain runs the length of the shopping mall – which includes a variety of shops, clubs and restaurants – to recreate a modern gulch.
And, for kids of all ages, you can ride the Great Northern Carousel, a recreated old-time wooden carousel. If you want to try your luck, there are still places where you can pan for gold or seek sapphires.
Helena is smack in the middle of where many Americans come to recreate. It is an outdoor sports enthusiast’s dream come true. It has four seasons filled with things to do.
This part of Montana is one of the true American destinations for fly fishers. It has numerous rivers and streams providing opportunities to catch rainbow, brook, brown, bull and cutthroat trout. In the winter, brave anglers fish for perch through the ice on the many lakes around Helena.
But, winter truly belongs to those who ski. Helena is close to Great Divide Mountain, which has 60 slopes, and the Showdown Ski area. There also is cross-country skiing at McDonald Pass and Stemple Pass. If you like winter, but don’t want to experience it hurtling downhill, Helena has three large snowmobile trail systems.
When the snow melts and the ice goes out, the reservoirs formed along the Missouri River provide Helenans with plenty of recreational opportunities. These large impoundments (Hauser, Holter and Canyon Ferry lakes) offer camping, fishing, swimming, windsurfing, boating, and water skiing.
Hikers and other nature enthusiasts can take advantage of the trails at Spring Meadow Lake a few miles west of downtown Helena. Or, if they want more space, they can visit the 1.5 million-acre Bob Marshal Wilderness Complex and hike 1,800 miles of trails.
Mountain bikers have similar opportunities. There are many trails in and around the city.
Golfers will not feel left out. There are numerous courses, public and private, in Helena.
Helena MT Arts
Few cities of fewer than 30,000 people have the kind of art community that makes Helena attractive to many of its residents. There are no squares unfilled in the quilt that is the arts in Helena. But, beyond performances and exhibitions, many of the arts organizations in the city also have education as part of their charters.
The centerpiece is the Myrna Loy Center for Performing and Visual Arts. Named for Montana’s First Lady of Film, who played, among other roles, Nora Charles in the Thin Man series of movies, the center is host to a variety of performances and exhibitions. These include drama, dance, films and music.
Less than 20 years old, the Holter Museum of Art has become one of the leading centers of contemporary arts in this part of the country. It has five exhibition galleries and attracts shows by international and national artists. It also fosters regional and local artists.
Unique to Helena is the Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramic Arts. The foundation exhibits ceramics and has an active instructional program.
The Grandstreet Theater is a venue for theater, with a strong schedule of musicals.
Helena also has a symphony orchestra, a chamber music singing group, dance company, and ballet company.
And, the city is alive with live music. It is home to the Mount Helena Music Festival, held each July in Women’s Park in downtown. Many of the bars and coffee shops in town have live music as well.
The proof of Helena’s cosmopolitan nature may very well be found at, of all places, the Green Iguana. It bills itself as providing “juice and joe”. But, way beyond refreshing drinks and coffee, the Green Iguana offers a mammoth menu of smoothies. Dozens, in fact, as well as gourmet sandwiches.
Visiting the Staggering Ox just to read its menu is worth the trip. It tells you what dishes aren’t as much as what they are. For example, the Staggering Ox goes to great lengths to explain that its chili is not Tex-Mex and that it is hot. If you don’t like either of those things, “don’t order it”. It offers the same advice on many of its dishes. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the Staggering Ox also offers what it calls its Chernobyl Melt Down, a sandwich with turkey, salami, and cheese, several greens, and some things to heat it up.
The Last Chance Wagonside Dinner is old-west style grub. Following a wagon ride to what it bills as the largest tipi in Montana, this unique eating experience provides prime rib and all the fixin’s in an outdoor setting. There are cowboy songs and a campfire.
But, Helena is not just food from off the mainstream. The city is blessed with a variety of places to find good food reasonably priced. Helena also boasts several coffee shops and brewpubs, all of which excel at making an impression with what they serve and how they serve it.