In 1888, the Helena and Livingston Lead Smelting Company constructed a large lead smelter on the banks of Prickly Pear Creek in the Helena Valley.
A decade after that the 160-acre site was bought out by the American Smelting and Refining Company, which operated the smelter until 2001.
The initial establishment of that particular industrial enterprise was responsible for the development of the East Helena community, as the smelter processed large volumes of lead bullion every year and provided a livelihood for thousands of families.
The downside of the operation was the large amounts of toxic contaminants that it was responsible for like most of the smelter plants back then, which left its mark on the local environment.
With that in mind, in 1984 the Environmental Protection Agency designated the former industrial site in East Helena as a Superfund Cleanup Site.
All smelting operations had ceased by 2001, and in 2009, the stacks were demolished by dynamite charges. These days the former smelting area has been completely transformed with the help of the Prickly Pear Creek Greenway community effort.
Today East Helena is a part of Montana that may often be overlooked, as many assume it to be a mere suburb of Helena.
However, there is a distinctly unique character and pride inherent in the community that makes East Helena an interesting stop-off on any visit to the regions of Southwest Montana.
East Helena began its days as a stop on the stage line known as Prickly Pear Junction. It blossomed into a fuller community along with the commencement of the lead smelter operations, and today the area remains a vibrant community worthy of checking out.
With the Canyon Ferry Reservoir, the Holter Reservoir, and the Hauser Reservoir all on the Missouri River just a few miles from town, East Helena is an ideal spot to visit and explore and is surrounded by some of the best recreation likely to be found anywhere in the state.
Main Cultural, Historic, and Outdoor Attractions in East Helena
Aside from the rather obvious surrounding attractions like the reservoirs near East Helena, the community also has three of its own prominent parks, namely the John F, Kennedy Memorial (JFK) Park off of Main Street, where you can find the East Helena City Pool.
There is also the Schiller Park Baseball Field on Kalispell Avenue, a first-come-first-serve baseball field. All areas feature playgrounds and pavilions with plenty of outdoor space.
Recreation Activities in East Helena
Located within some of the prime regions of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest—which is close to 3 million acres of public land—this entire area is ideal for all kinds of recreation.
The national forest manages many miles of designated trails which are diverse in terms of terrain and opportunities for alternate pursuits.
You can check out an impressive list of day hikes in and around the region HERE.
The Hedges Mountain via Cave Gulch Trail covers a challenging route over 17.3 miles of out and back terrain.
The trail takes the majority of hikers an average of 9 hours to complete and is considered quite a challenge. The route covers rolling terrain that leads through woods and can get quite steep in some stretches.
The Beartrap Gulch Trail is another option by way of an excellent single-track descent containing long carving turns but without too much severity when it comes to steepness.
The trail starts at the top of a ridge to the left of a big log in the middle of the road. Occasional sections of trail wind through open meadows, and there are some fine views to be had along the way.
The lower section of the trail ducks back into the forest then winds through a series of tighter turns leading to the valley bottom and finishes up on a nice, well-maintained, and graded section through tall grasses.
The Big Log Gulch Trail is a moderate, 12-mile route with some nice views and a few wildflowers within the scenery.
The trail starts out six miles west of the small town of Nelson along the Missouri River. It climbs steadily from the recesses of the gulch and heads through several mountain meadows, finally topping out at a saddle with great views into Meriwether Canyon.
Some hikers decide to turn around at this point while others continue on to either Meriwether Canyon or Refrigerator Canyon.
The Trout Creek Canyon Trail is a wide, well-groomed, and reasonably flat route that is moderately trafficked and serves as a decent early-season hike.
There’s no shortage of shade in the valley and the first mile or so takes you across crushed gravel terrain before moving to a slightly better-defined dirt trail.
This is an easy trail down an old forest service road along a wide and flat trail that winds along Trout Creek.
If you are looking for something a bit more on the difficult side of challenging with views from the top of the canyon creek that more than compensate–check out the Hanging Valley Trail.
This route will lead you in the direction of Vigilant Overlook where you can see the canyon floor down below you.
You can try your luck from one of the few public parks on the shores of Hauser Reservoir. Black Sandy State Park is a very popular spot with locals and visitors alike, especially on weekends for fishing and boating.
Picnicking, bicycling, and mountain biking are also available here, as is camping at the 29-site facility.
The Vigilante Campground is almost 25 miles to the northeast of Helena in the region of the Big Belt Mountains. The facility is accessible via Highway 280 across the Missouri River and into the small community of York.
From this small community, you will drive Road #4 straight to the 7-acre campground which provides access to both the Hanging Valley National Recreation Trail and the scenic Trout Creek Canyon Trail.
Amenities include vault toilets and potable water, and the campground usually opens around October time.
The Riverside Campground is 30 miles east of Helena below the Canyon Ferry Dam, at the northern end of the reservoir.
This is a popular campground and day-use area and contains 27 paved campsites with access to a picnic pavilion, a boat ramp, and a fishing dock.
The Jo Bonner Campground is also close to the Riverside Campground at the northern end of the Canyon Ferry Reservoir 30 miles east of Helena.
The 17-site facility offers year-round access and various amenities such as picnic tables and fire rings.
Accommodation – Hotels and Lodging
Special Events in East Helena
- July—Fourth of July Fireworks— fireworks show really has no equal to sheer pyrotechnic prowess
- July—East Helena Rodeo—the rodeo that rivals any in the state when it comes to fun-filled rodeo action
Activities and other Points of Interest near East Helena
Forests/State/National Parks/Wilderness Areas
- Helena National Forest
- Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest
- Black Sandy State Park
- Spring Meadow Lake State Park
- Gates of the Mountains Wilderness