Helena is home to around 40,000 people and continues to be supported by gold and lead mining. Despite being the State’s capital Helena has a lot of history, and plenty of activities and things to do, thanks to its proximity to both Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, which makes the city a hub for tourists all year through.
The 9 Best Things to Do in Helena
1. Helena National Forest
In the central-western region of Montana, Helena National Forest stretches 976,000 acres, and the Continental Divide passes through it. It also touches on the Big Belt, and the Elkhorn Mountains, and near the center of the forest, The Missouri River passes through. You’ll find more than 1,000 miles of trails along with 1,600 miles of forest roads in this scenic outdoor expanse.
The forest offers plenty of camping opportunities along with picnic grounds, and wilderness hunting and fishing, and in the summertime, there are lots of water sport activities, as well as biking and horseback riding. Winter offers plenty of quality skiing and snowboarding, and you’ll even find historic sites including a few ghost towns among the forest’s attractions.
2. Elkhorn Ghost Town State Park
Here is the chance to see the remnants of a 19th– century mining town which serves as an example of the frontier architecture of the period. From the surrounding backcountry roads, you will approach the Fraternity Hall and various other buildings which are all within the boundaries of the now privately-owned Elkhorn Park. This is a relic of one of the earliest mining towns, and the structures are listed in the Survey of Historic American Buildings.
3. Check out the Gates of the Mountains
Halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, 20 miles north of Helena, you can find the historic natural beauty of the ‘Gates of the Mountains’. This ranks high up in Montana’s ‘must see’ destinations, and for more than a century visitors have followed the path of explorers Lewis and Clark who discovered it.
The area is managed by the Helena National Forest, and the main boat tour from the marina is operated by the Gates of the Mountains Inc.
4. Local art and culture at the Myrna Loy
The local arts center the Myrna Loy presents culturally inspiring arts experiences of all kinds. The center supports local and regional artists in their work and contains its own gallery called the Jailhouse Gallery. It also presents various educational projects, workshops, and exhibitions, as well as playing host to live performances, films, and other events.
5. Lewis & Clark Caverns
Take a day trip out to the Lewis & Clark Cavern and State Park and you’ll be able to experience one of the most highly decorated limestone caverns in the region. You can also hike and even camp in the park, but you must witness some of the impressive geologic wonders of the caves. Guided tours around the caves are offered by the park, usually between late May and September, for which you need to get tickets first.
6. First Peoples Buffalo Jump
This is one of the largest buffalo jump sites in the country, and the huge visitor center contains exhibits, classrooms, a gallery, and a bookstore. The trails tell the story of the people, animals, and landscape of the buffalo culture. This is a National Historic Landmark and also an archaeological site with one of the largest bison cliff jumps in North America.
Native peoples frequented this area for around a thousand years before Lewis and Clark passed through, and the bison jump site consists of a mile-long sandstone cliff from which you can get some incredible and expansive panoramic views of the Rocky Mountain Front, the Missouri River valley, and the surrounding buttes and grasslands. The park comprises an interpretive trail with plenty of picnic tables, as well as a black-tailed prairie dog town to help visitors understand the historical hunting past of these plains.
7. Get on a Mean Moose Board
If you fancy cooling off with a paddle along the Missouri, or maybe take a day out on the lake, then why not get yourself fixed up with a Mean Moose paddleboard. Moose Boards are top-quality, safe, and fun paddle boards that you can pick up or have delivered anywhere in or around the Helena region. Floating along the river is a great afternoon’s fun and if you need any training beforehand, classes can also be provided at various locations.
8. Mount Helena City Park
Head out to Mount Helena City Park for some great hiking trails. The peak is 5,468 feet above sea level, and just to give you some further idea of the local geography, it is about 1,300 feet above downtown Helena’s Last Chance Gulch Mall. There is a parking lot at the park with an information counter, and you just need to bear in mind that the trails are for multi-use and can get quite busy.
9. Limestone Rock Climbing
you can easily access a spot of limestone sport climbing within walking distance of the downtown Helena region. The climbs are done with permission from Helena Parks. No other climbing routes are permitted, as this is the only project authorized by the City of Helena. Climbing is a relatively new addition to the busy park, so be sure to follow the rules.
Free Things to Do in Helena
10. The Montana State Capital
The State Capitol is a prominent feature of the city and has overlooked Helena for over a century. With its tall dome, granite columns and other Greek-style architecture it is a striking feature, although the interior is even more impressive.
Anyone is welcome to tour the space during daily operating hours, and you can see the Old Law Library, the Capitol Rotunda, and the various statehood paintings that line the whole place if you drop by. It is open seven days a week, and admission is free, with limited hours on weekends.
11. Wander up Reeder’s Alley
You can find Reeder’s Alley at the bottom of Mount Helena towards the southwest region of downtown Helena. The Alley is actually the oldest existing section of the original Helena, having been built in the 1870s by a stonemason named Louis Reeder.
It offers various insights to the original beginnings of the early settlement with its links to the lives of miners, the Chinese influx, and the architecture, and the buildings in Reeder’s Alley are registered as a historic district.
12. The Cathedral of St. Helena
If you take a wander around the downtown area near the Old Governor’s Mansion, you will notice the twin spires of the Cathedral of Saint Helena that have been a prominent feature of the city for over a century.
The impressive, Gothic-style cathedral has undergone its fair share of restorations and improvements over the years, and the architecture today is well worth witnessing. Anyone is welcome to attend public services at the cathedral, and guided tours are available during the week, but simply walking around the building and checking out the manicured green grass and stained glass is worthy of a visit.
10 Best Tours in Helena
13. Gates of the Mountains
This 2-hour cruise on an open-air boat takes you through the magnificent and scenic river journey first made famous by late 19th-century explorer Captain Meriwether. The tour begins at a Marina between Helena and Great Falls, close to the Rocky Mountains.
14. Mountain Biking Tour
Local guides will show you some of Helena’s best mountain biking and hiking trails and ranges. From the southern hills up to the continental divide of Helena, taking in the Big Belt and Elkhorn Mountains. Tours are designed by the guides to suit your individual levels of fitness, skill, and required activity.
15. Last Chance Train Tour
Take a tour of Helena from an open-air tour train which will take you up to the mansion district, and show you a few landmarks like the Cathedral of St. Helena. You’ll get to see a restored miners’ village and be amazed at some of the unique architecture along Last Chance Gulch, long with a few other impressive sights.
16. World Museum of Mining
This is one of the few mining museums in the world actually located in a mine yard. The Museum contains exhibits from over a hundred years’ worth of American history, with 50 structures or more. This includes many buildings of Hell Roarin’ Gulch, a former local mining town turn-of-the-century mining town.
The exhibits relate to local mining and the associated culture and ethnic groups that contributed to it, and you can take an underground mine tour 100ft below the mine. Reservations are required, even though the museum is open seven days a week for most of the year, depending on the weather.
17. Craft Beverage Tour
Like many of Montana’s finest towns Helena has an impressive range of award-winning craft beverage establishments, some of which you get to visit on this 3-hour brewery and distillery tour. You can join a scheduled public tour or even charter the shuttle for your own private group.
The South Hills Tour covers 2 breweries and a distillery while the Prickly Pear Valley Tour takes in 3 breweries, giving you the chance to sample some of their quality wares.
18. Helena Scuba
If you are visiting Helena in one of the warmer seasons you can take the time out to dive into some of the most impressive underwater scenarios you are likely to find anywhere. Helena Scuba runs trips to local spots ideal for scuba diving, and they also teach scuba diving, and rent and sell equipment. They run classes covering all different levels if you want to do a bit of training beforehand.
19. History Hikes & Walks
This tour includes guided history hikes and downtown walks that give visitors insights into Helena’s past. There are 2 different tours, namely the History Hike on Mount Helena, which is a 2-mile guided hike to check out Mount Helena’s landscape and its various historical aspects.
The other option is the Breweries & Brothels tour, which focuses on Helena’s historic south side which was once filled with miners – hence bars and brothels — and even a Chinatown. Advance reservation is recommended for any of these tours.
20. Steinmetz Fishing Charter
This company offers guided fishing trips on Montana’s Missouri River, as well as the Canyon Ferry Lake. The specialty is trout and walleye fishing, and anglers of levels from beginner to expert are catered for. Ideal for anyone who fancies a spot of dry fly fishing in the stunning scenarios that Helena and its surrounding areas have to offer.
21. Scavenger Hunt Tour
Let’s Roam is the tour company behind this particular activity, and they offer adventure tours with the intention of helping curious explorers discover new things in the area, as well as connecting with other like-minded individuals.
The tour involves digitally-guided scavenger hunts, virtual games, team-building activities, and custom events that can also be tailored. An altogether more exciting and interactive way to find out about the area.
22. Napa Valley Balloon Ride
If you have a head for heights you might consider taking in the world-famous wine country from high up in the air on a hot-air balloon ride. Take to the skies early in the morning as the valley below begins to stir, and enjoy an amazing perspective of the surrounding views including the expansive vineyards and elegant estates prevalent in this region.