The Helena National Forest in the western-central region of Montana surrounds the state’s capital, Helena. The forest comprises almost one million acres and is one ten in Montana. The Helena National Forest is a federally-managed area of public land typical of the region’s inherent natural beauty, with distinctive landscapes and amazing opportunities for outdoor pursuits.
The forest contains 67 named mountains, the highest being Mount Edith, which reaches elevations of 9,495 feet. Some of the peaks in the national forest form part of the central Rocky Mountain Range while others are parts of various others including the Elkhorn Mountains, the Boulder Mountains, the Lewis Range, and the Big Belt Mountains.
The national forest also contains the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness and parts of the Scapegoat Wilderness, managed as part of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
The terrain contains stretches of both the Blackfoot and the Missouri Rivers which are ideal for fishing, and there is an abundance of wildlife and big game in the area. The region has historic links to the state’s Native American inhabitants a well as the early explorers and prospectors of the boomtown mining era.
Helena National Forest Stats
Aside from the plethora of outdoor activities that the region offers, some of the other main attractions may bear the name of the famous explorers. This is because the Helena National Forest was merged with the Lewis and Clark National Forest in 2015, making them technically one area.
This 25,000 square-foot facility offers all kinds of information related to the area and is usually visited by tours and visitors to the region. It contains an exhibit hall, an educational facility, a theatre, and a retail area.
On the border of the national forest overlooking the Montana capital, this park gives you access to another set of trails and some great views of the city, as well as easy access to some of its historical buildings. The park is actually connected to a trail that leads into the national forest by way of the Mount Helena Ridge Trail.
Recreational Activities in the Area
In the warmer months, there are plenty of water sports activities to enjoy including swimming, boating, and fishing, to name a few. If you prefer dry ground pursuits there are thousands of miles of trails for hiking or biking, as well as OHV riding, and horseback riding.
Winter provides a different range of activities by way of the trails for skiing and snowboarding, or snowmobiling. Seasonal hunting is also an option in Helena National Forest, or you might just want to take advantage of the many great campgrounds that are open all year, many of which are great gateways to some of the other activities.
You can literally be spoiled for choice when it comes to camping options in the Helena National Forest. Here are 3 examples of decent campgrounds that are all operated on a ‘first-come-first-served’ basis.
This campground is in Lewistown and has 28 spacious campsites with picnic tables, fire pits with grills, and space for relaxing. There are portable water supplies and a few vault toilets scattered around the park. The lake is 100 acres and is well-stocked with rainbow trout, and boating is allowed. There are three hiking trails between two and eight miles long, and pets are allowed – but look out for bears.
This campground is near Lincoln and has 19 campsites across eight acres of land at an elevation of 4,800 feet. The sites have picnic tables, fire rings and grills, and a cleared space. The parking pads are big enough for an RV but you’ll still need to get there early.
You’ll find drinking water supplies and vault toilets around the campground, and you can enjoy fishing, swimming, floating, and boating in the Blackfoot River from this site. There aren’t any designated trails as such, but there are plenty of paths for exploring the woods. Again pets are allowed and bears are common in the area.
Benchmark Campground is near Augusta and has 25 sites with picnic tables, large fire rings, grills, and large parking pads. There are drinking water supplies and vault toilets, and you’ll need to look out for bears again in this spot, which is surrounded by the Rockies. This campground is ideal for families and fishing and floating on the nearby creeks is popular activities.
Trail Routes in Helena National Forest
Helena National Forest contains almost a hundred hiking trails to explore, all with varying degrees of difficulty. Although the trails are managed by the Forestry Commission, the level of difficulty is not designated but rather left up to individual preference which is subjective. So here just a few are a few pointers towards what you can find.
At just under 8 miles long, this wilderness-style trail is suitable for all skill levels It starts out near Kading Campground and ends up over the Beaverhead-Deerlodge boundary. It has elevation gains close to 1000 feet, and is best used between June and September.
The Hanging Valley Trailhead is just over 10 miles and is quite challenging with elevation gains of up to 3000 feet. It starts at the Vigilante Campground and ends at the Hanging Valley Overlook in Helena, and offers wildlife-viewing opportunities.
The forest is in the vicinity of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail which can be reached from the Helena area and stretches for 67 miles. There are three common main access points, namely Flesher Pass, Rodgers Pass, and Stemple Pass. The highest and lowest points of elevation on the trail are between 5600 and 7200 feet. The terrain is varied and is more suited to a longer backpack than a straight hike.