Capital cities sometimes get a bad rap about not having a whole lot to see and do. Sure, they’re the seat of state government and are usually historically significant. But they’re often not the largest or most popular cities to visit in a state. However, I recently had the pleasure of spending a couple weeks in Helena, Montana, and the things to do here and laid-back vibe took me by surprise. Here are eight recommendations of fun things to do when you visit Montana’s capital city.
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Hike to the Summit of Mt. Helena City Park
Most cities have a city park, but the one in Helena is unlike any park you’ve seen. Rising to heights of 5,468 feet above sea level, this park makes you feel far from city life but is an easy park to get to if you’re staying in a hotel in town. The 1906 trail is the most popular route to the mountain summit and offers awesome views of the town down below, a cave called Devil’s Kitchen, and a rock climbing area if you’re feeling adventurous. If you have time, also come back to hike the Prairie Trail, Backside Trail, the West End Trail, and the Prospector Shafts Trail. In total, the park spans about 620 acres and is a fun way to experience the local landscape without venturing out into more remote areas.
Check Out the Local Breweries
Montana is a great state to be in if you love craft beer. There are breweries everywhere you look, the prices are just right, and brew spaces serve many purposes for local communities. For example, the Ten Mile Creek Brewery hosts yoga sessions on Sunday mornings and paint-your-own-pottery events on Saturday afternoons. Meanwhile, the Lewis and Clark Brewery has an awesome outdoor space, stage for live music, small art gallery, and lots of beers on tap. Another brewery in town worth visiting is Blackfoot River Brewing Company, which has around 10 beers on tap, free popcorn, growlers to go, and live music and community fundraisers scheduled throughout the week.
Sample the Local Distillery Too
If spirits are more your style, you’re in luck because there’s also a great distillery in Helena. Gulch Distillers is the only micro-distillery in town, and it’s located at the north end of the historic gulch area. You can visit the tasting room between 4pm and 8pm on weekdays and on Saturdays from 2-8pm. When you get here, make sure to try the Fruition Apple Brandy, Perpetuity Gin, and Flintlock Bourbon Cask Spiced Rum. And you’d better bet that only Montana-grown grains are in the distillery’s grain-based spirits.
Bouldering at Stonetree Climbing
To get you ready for the outdoor climbing area at Mt. Helena City Park, spend some time at Stonetree Climbing to work on your skills. This is an indoor climbing gym in town that has something for everyone – from true beginners to technically demanding routes for more experienced climbers. It’s also a fun place to take your kids while visiting Helena because there’s a climbing/playroom that’s great for entertaining little ones year-around. The gym is open from noon to 8pm on Sundays and noon to 9pm every other day of the week. An adult day pass is $12, which is considerably less than many bouldering gyms around the country. If you’re local, you can also join a climbing clinic or host a birthday party at Stonetree Climbing.
Go Boating at a Local Lake
Summers in this part of Montana are hot and dry, so it’s nice to cool off on a lake with some water activities. The Helena area is a great place to take out your kayak or fishing boat on a hot summer’s day. One popular boating spot is Hauser Lake, which is a 3,200-acre reservoir on the Missouri River. You can also head out to Canyon Ferry Lake, where this adventure dog photo was taken, for fishing and kayaking too. Holter Lake is a nearby option with campgrounds available, Lake Helena is nice for day-use, and Park Lake is ideal for non-motorized boats that you can carry in.
Get Off the Beaten Path on a National Forest Road
The Mt. Helena City Park is popular and tends to get busy, especially on weekends in the summer. So, if you’re looking for a bit more peace and solitude on your hike, the Helena National Forest is a great place to go for a hike. As you drive out of town going southeast to Townsend on Highway 12, you’ll see quite a few brown and white signs that indicate national forest access. You may encounter some friendly resident cows along the Pole Creek Trail in the Helena National Forest see some remnants of the old mining industry along Weasel Creek Road in the Elkhorn Wilderness District.
Photograph the Wildflowers
Lots of places boast of beautiful wildflowers in the spring, but the wildflowers in the Helena area are blooming well throughout the summertime too. This is another reason to take a hike on the national forest trails around town because this is where the native wildflowers have plenty of space to flourish without being trampled on. With bright purple, yellow, pink, and blue colors, this area is a photographer’s dream destination. Whether you have a professional camera on a tripod or just an iPhone, plan your photography trip for spring or summer.
Go to a Local Rodeo
It wouldn’t’ be a complete trip to Montana if you didn’t check out a rodeo, and there are lots of rodeo events in various towns throughout the summertime. If you’re in the Helena area in July, make a point to go to the East Helena Rodeo. Tickets are only $6 at the gate, the event is rich in local flavor, and you can try a local favorite snack called a Hey-Stack from the concession stand, which is essentially a taco inside a bag of Doritos. The events you can watch on Friday and Saturday night include bareback riding, steer wrestling, ladies barrel racing, bull riding, and sheep riding with the cutest four-to-six-year-old cowboys and cowgirls you’ve ever seen.