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Helena — Montana’s gateway to adventure

Helena, MT is the capitol city of Montana, and fondly nicknamed The Queen City of the Rockies.  This city of approximately 60,000 people is nestled in a valley in the heart of the Rocky Mountains in the western region of the state.  Located halfway between Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park, and surrounded by mountains and lakes, Helena is a choice destination for active RVers, whether their interests are nature, history, or just experiencing new people and places.

Helena has a rich mining tradition, and its best attractions reflect that heritage.

If you enjoy history, then be sure to make time to hit the road on the Last Chance Tours tour train.  On this mock locomotive, someone else gets to navigate while you enjoy a one-hour narrated tour through the historic districts of Helena.  The tour is filled with interesting information about the founding and growth of the city, including how it became the state capitol.  This is a tremendous first activity that can help you to determine which areas of town you would like to investigate more time on (such as the original governor’s mansion).  Plan to arrive at least half an hour before tour departure. www.lctours.com/tour-train

After your jaunt on the tour train, saunter next-door to the Montana Historical Society, where you will find three stories filled with engaging exhibits about local and state history.  Displays showcase Native American history, gold panning and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, as well as other unique aspects of the area.  Exhibits also include an extensive collection of Charlie Russel’s famous wild west paintings.  When you check out the admission prices, don’t forget to take note of free times, as well as their combo pricing when paired with tickets to the original governor’s mansion.  http://mhs.mt.gov

After visiting the Historic Society, step across the street and visit the Montana State Capitol building.  Free tours are offered Monday through Saturday, on the hour from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.  Your tour guide will walk you through both chambers, point out the recent renovation projects, and show you the immense, priceless Charlie Russell cowboy painting that hangs in the building.  No reservations are required, and the tour lasts approximately 50 minutes.  Tours begin on the ground floor level at the security desk near the main entrance. visit-the-capitol.mt.gov

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If exploring the vast outdoor opportunities around the Queen City is appealing to you, you may wish to try these local activities:

  • The Gates of the Mountains boat tour follows a short portion of the actual river route that Lewis and Clark took.  You will see for yourself why Meriwether Lewis named this beautiful section of the Missouri River “The Gates of the Mountains.”  The tour is easy access off of I-15 just north of Helena.  Allow at least two hours for your tour, be sure to bring a jacket and sunscreen, keep a watch out for wildlife, and don’t forget the camera!  www.gatesofthemountains.com/home
  • Hiking Mount Helena is a popular outdoor activity for the locals.  With several different routes available, and easy access from the main trailhead, this is a great way to view Helena from a whole new perspective.  You can find information and directions, under Mount Helena City Park at www.helenamt.com/content/hiking-helena-montana-trails
  • While you are on Mount Helena (or really, anywhere in town) gaze at the north hills and see if you can spot the “sleeping giant.”  If you can’t find him, turn and ask the person closest to you to point him out; he’s quite an icon!
  • Sapphire mining is a memorable (and addicting) enterprise that is popular with locals and visitors alike.  Digging, sifting, and sorting through buckets of dirt in search of the elusive, transparent, blue-hued stones is surprisingly enjoyable – to the point of addiction.  You never know, the perfect sapphire may just be in that next bucket of dirt!  Check out Spokane Bar Sapphire Mine for some close-to-town gem hunting.  www.sapphiremine.com

Do you enjoy geocaching?  It should be noted that Helena, MT is rated as one of the top geocaching locations in the nation!

If you are visiting Helena with kids in tow, the Great Northern Town Center offers a fun stop beginning with a visit to Exploration Works.   This hands-on science museum is a member of the Association of Science and Technology Centers, so if you have an ASTC membership, you get in free.  With rotating exhibits, and tons of hands-on activities, there is always something to keep your little ones busy.  www.explorationworks.org

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After a few hours spent at Exploration Works, head out the front door and across the court for a special treat at the Great Northern Carousel.  Believe it or not, little Helena, Mont., is home to one of the finest carousels in the world.  All mounts are hand carved, and the ride features 37 gorgeous animals.  Most are fashioned after native Montana wildlife, with a few traditional carousel horses mixed in.  If you’ve always wanted to ride a bison, a mountain goat, or even a cutthroat trout, here is your chance (don’t try this in Yellowstone).  After your wild west ride, head on over to carousel’s ice cream counter where you can choose from more than two dozen luscious frozen flavors.  The carousel offers a gorgeous setting that is perfect for celebrating birthdays, taking fun photos, or just getting out from under that big Montana sun, which can get a little warm in the summertime. www.gncarousel.com

Wondering where to stay in Helena, MT?  Unfortunately, the town boasts just one ‘real’ RV park. Located just north of Helena, and easily accessible, Lincoln Road RV Park is a 10-minute drive from the city, nearby lakes, and numerous destination attractions.  This big rig friendly park has concrete pads, picnic tables, and 30/50-amp at each site.  The park does fill up during the summer, so reservations are recommended.  It is also advisable to call to confirm rates, and if you are traveling with a large family, you may find that sites are not available for your party.  www.lincolnroadrvpark.net

The local Lewis and Clark Fairgrounds has a no-frills RV camping area that offers 22 electric-only sites.  Big rig friendly, this area offers vault toilets and a nearby dump station.  What the fairgrounds lack in atmosphere, it makes up for in location.  Located on the northwest edge of the city, these sites are great for setting up a base camp while touring the city and learning about its rich gold panning history.  Sites are $20 per night with a 7-day limit.  Arrangements must be made by calling the fairground’s office.  www.lewisandclarkcountyfairgrounds.com

If camping close to nature is more your speed, then Helena is the place for you!  There are multiple state and federal campgrounds nearby; all are seasonal, generally May 1 through October or November, depending upon weather.

Devil’s Elbow BLM Campground is located just 15 miles east of Helena right on Hauser Lake and offers great fishing in a dry camping atmosphere.  With fire pits, picnic tables, and vault toilets, it’s a great location for either enjoying the peaceful surroundings, or day-tripping into Helena. www.blm.gov/mt/st/en/fo/butte_field_office/recreation/devils_elbow.html

Nearby White Sandy is similar to Devil’s Elbow, though not as well maintained.  Also 15 miles out of the city, but northwest and on the other end of Hauser Lake, this campground offers the same amenities as Devil’s Elbow.  White Sandy also offers a day use beach with covered picnic areas, and a large boat ramp/parking area.  www.blm.gov/mt/st/en/fo/butte_field_office/recreation/whitesandy.html

Black Sandy State Park is an additional alternative if you are needing an electric hookup, though be aware that sites are situated quite close together.  Located next door to White Sandy, with sites right on the banks of the lake, it is a very popular destination for those RVers with a boat.  Sites can accommodate RVs up to 35 feet in length.  Non-resident electric sites are $34, with discounts available for Montana State Parks pass holders.  Reservations are required.  stateparks.mt.gov/black-sandy

Helena has a vast and eclectic mix of eateries!  Some of the best, and most unique locations are:

  • The Dive Bakery is a great place to begin your day.  Specializing in baked goods and crepes for breakfast, it’s also a quick stop for lunch offering salads, sandwiches, and soups.  Inside and outside seating is available, and it is located just a few blocks from the tour train/historic museum/capitol building. www.thedivebakery.com
  • Karmadillo’s — If you enjoy a good southwestern meal meal, Karmadillo’s is the place to be.  Set in Reeder’s Alley, which is a great little walking mall steeped in history (fun atmosphere, but not a destination in itself), you can enjoy gluten-free burritos, rice bowls, and enchiladas.  Before you arrive, check out their Facebook page for the code-word of the day to get free chips and salsa for your table. www.facebook.com/pages/Karmadillos-Southwestern-Cafe/614094801942545?fref=ts
  • Nagoya has excellent steak, seafood, and chicken, but what they are really known for is their sushi.  A fun and memorable dining experience awaits as your food is cooked “hibachi-style,” right at your table, by a friendly, skilled chef.  Open for lunch and dinner during Saturday and Sunday, and dinner only during the week, this popular location is sure to please with their extensive menu. www.nagoyahouse.com

You can read more about Helena, as well as find other destinations, eateries, and activities for the area, on the Helena Visitor’s Bureau website, which is located at www.helenamt.com

Montana’s capitol city is an excellent stop on your route between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.  Plan to spend some time here; no matter your interests, there is sure to be something that will tempt you to love the area and extend your stay.

About Dana Ticknor

Dana Ticknor and her husband, along with their tribe of 8 gypsy kids (they also have 4 more grown and flown) have been calling the road home for seven years. Traveling with a highly modified toy hauler, their passions are discovering local history and culture, as well as volunteering with disaster relief efforts across the country. You can follow their journey at OurTravelingTribe.com, where they write about fulltime RVing and the family friendly destinations they discover during their travels.

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