Lake Helena lies in the Helena Valley of Lewis and Clark County, approximately 10 miles from the city of Helena. The lake sits at an elevation of 3,647 feet and is a popular destination for birdwatching and fishing.
Branching out from Prickly Pear Creek, the lake first originated from the completion of the Hauser Dam on the Missouri River in 1907. The dam created Hauser Lake, which then flooded eight miles of Prickly Pear Creek to form Lake Helena.
Remnants of a bridge remain over the lake, which was originally built in 1945 to separate Lake Helena from the flooded parts of Prickly Pear Creek. The bridge was eventually discarded in 1952 and sold for scrap metal.
For decades, the water from Lake Helena supported a commercial fishery featuring carp. The lake is fed by water from Tenmile Creek, Prickly Pear Creek, Silver Creek, and the Helena Valley Irrigation Project.
Lake Helena Stats
- Size: 2072.6 acres/838.75 hectares
- Season: Year round
- Number of campsites: 0
There are many things to do around Lake Helena, MT, which lies in the state’s southwest.
Lake Helena Wildlife Management Area
The Lake Helena Wildlife Management Area spreads across 157 acres (63.5 hectares) and offers access to the lake.
The aim of the area is to improve the local waterfowl production, however, there are seasonal hunting opportunities for ducks, geese, mourning doves, sandhill cranes, and swans.
Visitors can hunt muskrats in the area, though this requires a permit in Montana, along with white-tailed deer provided that they’re antlered.
The area boasts wonderful opportunities for wildlife viewing and bird-watching, particularly from spring through fall. A variety of birds pass through the area, including swans and eagles.
Access to the wildlife management area is free, and there are a few facilities available for the convenience of visitors. These include an information kiosk and map.
The Lake Helena Wildlife Management Area also offers fantastic mountain views and is ideal for relaxing walks and picnics.
Lake Helena is a popular location for fishing, particularly for walleye in the spring. However, there is a wide range of cold and warm-water fish in the lake, some of which are native and some which have been introduced.
The species that reside in the lake include brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout, carp, fathead minnow, mountain whitefish, northern pike, white sucker, and yellow perch.
Boating is also a popular pastime on Lake Helena’s calm waters, though there are no facilities nearby to rent boats or other water equipment.
The Montana Blue Jewel Mine
The Montana Blue Jewel Mine is a living tribute to the state’s rich mining past.
It’s fittingly located nearby in Helena, Montana’s capital city, where several buildings were constructed from Montana-mined materials. The mine first opened in 2003 and has generated thousands of carats of sapphires during its operation.
Typically open from mid-April through winter, the mine offers guests the chance to pan for gold and search for sapphires. Reservations must be made in advance to secure your place, as the mine fills up quickly during the summer months.
Visitors are asked to wear covered shoes and bring sun protection, plus drinks and snacks, as gravel screening can take hours and there isn’t ample shade.
Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest
The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is one of Montana’s treasures. It sprawls 2.8 million acres (1.1 million hectares) across the central and north-central portions of the state, spanning over six ranger districts: Lincoln, Townsend, Judith-Musselshell, Rocky Mountain, Belt Creek, and of course, Helena.
The forest is intersected by both the Missouri River and the Continental Divide, which is a short distance away from Lake Helena. It serves as a gateway to the great outdoors that Montana is famous for, offering visitors the chance for camping, hiking, and wildlife viewing.
The Helena National Forest and the Lewis and Clark National Forest were once separate entities, before being combined in 2015.
There are multiple mountain ranges to explore within the massive forest, including the Big Belt Mountains, the Crazy Mountains, the Elkhorn Mountains, the Little Belt Mountains, the Snowy Mountains, and the Rocky Mountain Range.
Black Sandy State Park
Lake Helena is one of Montana’s stunning lakes, but it’s far from the only lake, even in the southwest. Nearby Hauser Reservoir is another popular destination for those looking to fish or enjoy water sports in the area. Black Sandy State Park lies on its shore, providing the best access.
The park is open year-round, though it only operates as a campground on select dates, usually providing limited amenities during the winter.
Pets are allowed in the park, which also has established fire pits, electricity, a public restroom, car parking, an RV dump station, and trash removal.
Park guests have plenty of opportunities for boating, fishing, hiking, ice fishing, ice skating, swimming, water skiing, picnicking, and wildlife viewing.
Fox Ridge Golf Course
Swap the rugged Montana wilderness for the manicured lawns of Fox Ridge Golf Course, which offers 18 holes to the public. There are also golf lessons available for those who want to sharpen their skills.
The course spans around 200 acres and is surrounded by the scenic beauty typical of the region, boasting sights like Mount Helena, the Sleeping Giant, and the green hills that roll gently through the valley.
There’s also a restaurant on the grounds offering fine dining and banquets.
Originally a ranch, the course was converted between 1991 and 2003. Every hole, tree, road, and pond on the course was completed by the Hoff family, whose vision was to create a successful golf course.
The historic Downtown Helena is a must for out-of-town travelers.
A short distance from Lake Helena, the downtown area is home to a quaint pedestrian walking mall. Here you’ll find unique gift shops, clothing stores, entertainment venues, restaurants and microbreweries, and a selection of art galleries.
The winter is an especially great time to visit Downtown Helena, as art walks and holiday strolls take over the city streets. If you visit in the summer, there are free weekly concert series to look forward to, along with music festivals and craft fairs.
Elsewhere around Helena, there are plenty of other highlights to enjoy. These include visiting the Original Governor’s Mansion Museum and the Cathedral of Saint Helena, viewing the Montana State Capitol, riding the Great Northern Carousel, and strolling through Spring Meadow Lake Park.
While the Lake Helena Wildlife Management Area doesn’t have any substantial trails, there are several trails in nearby areas that hikers can explore during a trip to Lake Helena.
Two Camps Vista Trail
The Two Camps Vista Trail is an easy trail that starts near the Devil’s Elbow Campground, near the Missouri River. It stretches for just over 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) in length and, with elevation gains of only 196.8 feet (60 meters), doesn’t require any serious skill as a hiker.
Most people use this trail for hiking or walking and complete it in about 35 minutes. Dogs are permitted on the trail as long as they remain on a leash.
The trail is considered to be child-friendly, however, it offers little shade, so it’s best to check the weather before heading out.
The trail offers wonderful views of the river and the surrounding natural landscape. It’s a great hike if you’re looking for a quick and easy way to absorb the pretty local scenery.
Missouri River Walk
Another quick and easy trail, the Missouri River Walk stretches for around 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers). With an elevation gain of a mere 49.2 feet (15 meters), it’s not strenuous at all to complete and can usually be finished in under half an hour.
One of the best aspects of the Missouri River Walk is that it’s a lesser-known route in the area. Particularly when visiting outside the summer months, it’s likely that you won’t run into other hikers.
The quiet trail also tends to attract birds and wildlife, which makes for great photography opportunities.
The flat trail gives hikers great views of the Missouri River. In some parts, there’s limited shade, which can make the trail uncomfortable in hot weather. Still, this is considered a child-friendly route.
Helena Reservoir Loop
If you’re looking for a longer and more well-known trail near Lake Helena, try the Helena Reservoir Loop. At 5.5 miles (9 kilometers), it takes around an hour and 43 minutes for most hikers to complete and has elevation gains of 121.3 feet (37 meters).
At quieter times of day, the loop offers some opportunities for solitude. But most of the time, it’s a popular trail where you’re likely to encounter other hikers walking, running, and even bird-watching.
The trail boasts particularly scenic views and pockets of wildflowers that blossom in spring.
The trail is bumpy and doesn’t offer much shade, even though the incline isn’t great, so it can also be a good trail to improve fitness and stamina. Horseback riding is also welcome on the trail.
Big Log Gulch Trail
Big Log Gulch Trail is another trail that you can explore when visiting Lake Helena.
Located on the other side of the Missouri River, the trail is generally considered a challenging route at 4.7 miles (7.7 kilometers). It has an elevation gain of 488.8 feet (149 meters) and takes most hikers nearly two hours to finish.
The trail is quieter than other trails in the area and is great for hiking, backpacking, and even camping. It offers views of the gulley but doesn’t offer any river or lake views.
Some areas of the trail are rocky and slippery, particularly in wet weather. In the summer months, there is shade from the trees lining the path.