Montana Road Trip: Main Street Adventures

See Montana past and present on this approximately 380-mile loop through the central and southwest part of the state, in and on the edge of the Rockies. Modern Montana is found in two cities—Great Falls and Helena, the state capital. The best view of the past is through the artwork of Charlie Russell, the premiere chronicler of cowboy and Native American life at the end of the 19th century. Along the route, stop to take a dip in hot springs held sacred by Native Americans for thousands of years, explore nature at state parks, follow your taste buds along the Central Montana Pie Trail, and see the world’s shortest river. And make your own discoveries on the Kings Hill Scenic Byway, where trails and side roads lead to pristine places ideal for hiking, camping, skiing, and more.

Great Falls > U.S. 87 > U.S. 89 to White Sulphur Springs > U.S. 89 > U.S. 12 to Townsend > backtrack to MT-284 to Helena > I-15 > U.S. 287 > U.S. 89 to Bynum > U.S. 89 to Great Falls.

Shortcut: To cut off the Bynum section, take I-15 directly from Helena to Great Falls.

Great Falls International Airport, Great Falls

Great Falls’s premiere attraction is the 70,000-square-foot C. M. Russell Museum, a tribute to Charlie Russell, the Western artist who captured cowboy and Native American life in paintings and sculptures from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Tour Russell’s original house and log cabin studio, which holds more than 2,000 Russell artworks, personal objects, and artifacts—the largest collection of such items in the world—plus the works of other artists. Best Bet: Time your trip to the museum to coincide with Western Art Week, a series of blast-from-the-past art showings held annually in March.

On this road trip, take advantage of the Montana state parks located along the way. First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park in Ulm is the biggest and best preserved spot in which Native Americans herded buffalo over a sandstone cliff to their deaths for food and skins. Below the cliff are as many as 18 feet of compacted buffalo remains. Giant Springs State Park near Great Falls has one of the largest freshwater springs in the country, releasing 156 million gallons of water a day into the Missouri and Roe Rivers. And Sluice Boxes State Park in Belt boasts a limestone canyon that's home to abandoned mines, an old railroad, and historic cabins.

Families will enjoy the route’s two children’s museums: Great Fall’s Children's Museum of Montana and Helena’s ExplorationWorks.

Soak your cares away at the Spa Hot Springs Motel and Clinic in White Sulphur Springs. Travelers have dipped in the sulphur-rich waters for hundreds of years to help conditions such as arthritis, rheumatism, and muscle and joint pain. The springs are now tamed, and the motel drains and refills its three concrete pools every night. Inside Tip: The waters are open to those not staying at the motel. A soak is seven dollars for adults.

Experience a Great Falls treasure: the 55-mile-plus River’s Edge Trail, a biking, hiking, running, and walking path along the shores of the Missouri. Best Bet: The 2.1-mile Giant Springs Loop, which offers views of Black Eagle Falls, Steamboat Island, Giant Springs, and the Roe River. Also, plan to spend at least three hours exploring the 25,000-square-foot Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretative Center. Inside, learn about the Corps of Discovery’s epic 8,000-mile journey across the uncharted West . Outside, participate in any scheduled ranger programs, and walk the trails overlooking the Missouri River.

See art creation in action at Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Helena. The 26-acre ceramic-residency area is celebrating its 65th anniversary in 2016 with special exhibits, events, and installations.

Helena is known for its network of 75 miles of classic single-track mountain biking trails. Inside Tip: The city offers the Trail Rider—a free shuttle for mountain bikers and hikers—from June through mid-September (check their website for a detailed schedule).

Go ’round and ’round on Helena’s Great Northern Carousel.

A two-hour boat tour down the Missouri through the Gates of the Mountains near Helena delivers an optical illusion. It appears as if the up to 1,200-foot-tall cliffs—with caves, outcroppings, spires, and natural bridges—are blocking the way. Then the "gates" magically open up to reveal a route down the river.

While traveling from Bynum to Great Falls, take a detour to Freezout Lake near Fairfield, the place to see countless birds, especially during the spring and fall migration seasons. Best Bet: The best time to bird-watch is early morning, when the animals are active and the lighting is perfect to photograph wildlife against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountain Front.

The newest downtown lodging in Great Falls is the Hotel Arvon, opened in September 2015 in the oldest commercial building still standing in the city. The hotel’s name is a contraction of Robert Vaughn, nicknamed the Celtic Cowboy (see Eat and Drink below) and the first European to settle in the area. Vaughn constructed the building in 1890 as a livery stable, boardinghouse, and vegetable stand. He also wrote the book Then and Now: Thirty-Six Years in the Rockies, 1864-1900. The hotel pays homage to the book by mixing “then” in the public areas, which are all original décor, and “now” in the sleek modern guest rooms. Inside Tip: There is no check-in desk; instead, baristas at a coffee bar handle guest services.

Great Falls’s O’Haire Motor Inn is the home of the famous Sip ’n Dip Lounge, a tiki bar with a view of mermaids swimming in a pool. The hotel itself is also retro cool (built in 1962), and the staff has a funky-friendly attitude. Bonus: Complimentary rubber ducks are offered in each room.

The Rocking Z Guest Ranch in Wolf Creek is all about horses and horsemanship, while the Missouri River Ranch and the budget Ranch at the Dearborn in Craig cater to anglers.

If you're into primitive camping, head to Hellgate Campground and Group Use Shelter Area, located east of Helena on the banks of the Canyon Ferry Reservoir, between the Big Belt and Elkhorn mountains.

Helena has the usual mix of chain hotels. For a more personalized stay, try intimate inns such as the Sanders B and B, co-owned by Bobbi Uecker and her husband, Rock Ringling (great-grandson of one of the Ringling Bros. Circus founders). Best Bet: Ask for the main-floor Sanders Suite, decorated in circus memorabilia. Other bed-and-breakfast options include the turn-of-the-century Carolina in the heart of historic Helena and the Barrister. Inside Tip: Book the Barrister Suite, Garden Room, or Lilac Room for views of St. Helena's Cathedral.

Get your fill of sweets along the Central Montana Pie Trail. You’ll pass several of the route’s 19 pie-slinging shops, including 2K’s Kafe in Great Falls (popular pie: Strawberry Rhubarb), Truck Stop Cafe in White Sulphur Springs (popular pie: Harvest Peach), Lazy B Bar and Cafe in Augusta (popular pie: Sour Cream Raisin), the Log Cabin in Choteau (popular pie: Peanut Butter Cream), and Cozy Corner Cafe and Higher Grounds Espresso in Fairfield (popular pie: Four Berry).

Great Falls’s eclectic eatery options include Faster Bassett—a crêperie, burger restaurant, and coffee shop; Celtic Cowboy Pub and Restaurant, housed in one of the city’s oldest buildings; and Mighty Mo Brewing Company, home to, among other craft brews, Dam Fog American Style Hefeweizen, named for the misty fog the Missouri River produces when it's running rapidly through Great Falls.

Between soaks in White Sulphur Springs' medicinal pools, eat at the Branding Iron Cafe or Bar 47. Best Bet: Order the pulled-pork nachos.

The Highlander Bar and Grill in Canyon Ferry sits on an 80-acre ranch on which Scottish Highland cattle graze (and, eventually, make it onto the grill). Glamping (glamorous camping) tents are for rent a hundred yards from the restaurant; buy a bottle of fine wine and enjoy the Montana night sky. Inside Tip: Say hello to and take a pic with Pork Chop, the property’s thousand-pound, six-year-old pet pig.

For breakfast in Helena, head to the Vanilla Bean Bakery. For lunch, try Benny's Bistro, specializing in locally raised meat and produce. For dinner, make reservations for the fine dining at Lucca’s, named the best restaurant in the state by website Business Insider. End the day with a hand-dipped sweet from Parrot Confectionery, a Helena staple since 1922.

The top places to gear up for adventures such as hiking, biking, climbing, skiing, and more on this road trip are Bighorn Outdoor Specialists in Great Falls and the Base Camp in Helena.

Dragonfly Dry Goods in Great Falls is the largest specialty boutique in Montana, with more than 10,000 square feet of shopping space. Billed as an “updated house-on-the-prairie store,” the shop sells Montana-made items and other merchandise.

For beautiful handmade and handblown art, visit Goose Bay Handblown Glass in Townsend, southeast of Helena. Stop in and watch glassblowing in action. Inside Tip: Order a custom glass piece made by owners Terry and Jim Gundersen.

At Frayed Sew in Helena (look for the big yellow trolley in front) most everything is handmade by more than 70 primarily local artists. Shop for clothing, jewelry, housewares stationary, art, pottery, and more. Inside Tip: The store is in a former bank building, and the old vault has been converted to a dressing room.

Stop in Augusta on the way from Helena to Bynum and browse the latest selections at Latigo and Lace, which features art, bronzes, books, jewelry, clothing, glasswork, and children's items crafted by local and regional artists. Also, check out the old-fashioned Allen’s Manix Store: The Trading Post.

Celebrate the first expedition to map the way through the mountain west region to the Pacific at the weekend-long Lewis and Clark Festival in Great Falls. Friday and Saturday are for festival activities such as the Weapons of the Corps review (with a black-powder shoot) and Native American dancers. Sunday is for hikes and float trips along Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery route.

Pull on your boots and head to the rodeo at the official Montana State Fair. Held at Montana ExpoPark in Great Falls each summer, the granddaddy of all Big Sky festivals also includes carnival rides, food, concerts, contests, and more.

At the July Red Ants Pants Music Festival in White Sulphur Springs, people from far and wide gather in a sweet clover cow pasture for four nights and three days of music, community, and awe-inspiring sunsets. Past performers have included Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Taj Mahal, and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Best Bet: Take a break from the music to learn about ranch horsemanship, blacksmithing, and timber skills (step in and try using a crosscut saw).

Helena’s Symphony Under the Stars attracts more than 17,000 people for a summer night of music and fireworks—2015’s concert celebrated Frank Sinatra’s centennial birthday with performances of his songs.

Take high-tech tours through Helena. First, there’s a free app for Apple or Android devices detailing several walking tours throughout the city. Or go treasure hunting and see the sights on a geocaching tour. Use your phone or GPS device to take 38 tours around Helena in search of hidden objects, or “caches.” Some caches come with a challenge to retrieve them, such as pouring 40 ounces of water into a tube to get the cache to rise to the top of a cylinder. Inside Tip: Helena received Rand McNally’s Best of the Road, Best for Geocaching title.

Take in the spectacular views along the Kings Hill Scenic Byway (U.S. 89). This is a 71-mile drive from Belt Creek, 25 miles southeast of Great Falls. It runs up through Kings Hill Pass—at just under 7,500 feet, the highest pass in Montana that's open all year—then continues through the Lewis and Clark National Forest down to White Sulphur Springs, with the Big Belt Mountains to the west and the Castle Mountains (named for granite outcroppings resembling castle turrets) to the east. Best Bet: Stop and take the easy, half-mile Memorial Falls Trail to two scenic falls.

Get a taste of life in the past in tiny Martinsdale (population 92). The town is about 72 miles round-trip from White Sulphur Springs via U.S. 12, then MT-294. Visit the Bair Museum, a three-structure complex founded by the Bair family. The 11,000-square-foot Historic Bair Family House showcases French and English antiques, silver pieces, Edward Curtis photogravures, and original Charlie Russell and Joseph Henry Sharp paintings, among other items.

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View a Forest Service YouTube video on Kings Hill Scenic Byway.

Winter is snow time, and the best place on this road trip to savor the white stuff is near Niehart on Kings Hill Scenic Byway (U.S. 89). Go downhill at Showdown Ski Area on its 36 runs careening down 1,400 vertical feet. For cross-country skiing, hit the Silver Crest Trails, which feature nearly ten miles of groomed trails, or, for a real challenge, take on ungroomed backcountry trails—Ranch Creek Ridge Trail/Mizpah (ten miles), Deadman Ridge Trail (seven miles), and O’Brien Creek Trail (seven miles). Finally, off a parking lot near Kings Hill Pass are 325 miles of groomed trails for snowmobilers.

Roe River, which runs between Giant Springs and the Missouri River in Great Falls, once held the title of World’s Shortest River according to Guinness World Records (the category was eventually retired). Measured at its longest constant point, the river is only 201 feet.

Day One: Great Falls

Day Two: Great Falls to White Sulphur Springs

Day Three: White Sulphur Springs to Helena

Day Four: Helena

Day Five: Helena to Great Falls

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