"Rows and flows of angel hair,
and ice cream castles in the air,
and feathered canyons everywhere,
I've looked at clouds that way . . ."
Hummed that Judy Collins song the whole time in Montana, Big Sky Country. The mountains and fields of this great land ("God's Country," the locals call it) are beautiful enough, but the sky, the massive, constantly changing sky -- sometimes a solid sheet of cobalt blue, sometimes a subtle backdrop for the dominating purple and pink puffy clouds -- gives the state's mountainous landscape a colorful canopy.
STATE TOURIST INFORMATION: (800) 541-1447
In 1875 Helena beat out the famed gold rush town of Virginia City to win the title of territorial capital, and later, state capital when Montana attained statehood in 1889. Surrounded by mountains, and hilly streets, Helena still has remnants of its mining past in Reeder's Alley, Last Chance Gulch, and millionaire's row (at the turn of the century, Helena had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the nation).
Statehouse (406) 444-4789
To tour this statehouse is to witness the heavy hand of 1970s "updating." All the other statehouses so far have been beautifully restored, bearing no vestige of their 1960s and 1970's intrusions. But we got a rare treat with this statehouse, which still bears the so-called improvements of the day. For example, beautiful vaulted ceilings are replaced with bland, but more efficient, dropped ceilings (possibly to counteract the oil crisis); solid color paint hides the previous elaborate stenciling; kitchen-like wallpaper disturbs the Senate Chambers and its original skylight is replaced with a ceiling of light fixtures. The beautiful statues and paintings, of course, remain untouched and magnificent. In May 1999, the Capitol will undergo a major restoration. Throughout the building are "before" photos of the original interior and its lavish furnishings, showing today's tourists the stunning beauty that will return when the restoration is complete.
Check it out . . . The biggest draw to the Capitol today is the oversized C.M. Russell painting, "Lewis & Clark Meeting Indians at Ross Hole." Many tourists all over the world pile in everyday just to see that one painting, which dominates the entire front wall of the House of Representatives.
Tip: In May 1999 the Capitol will be closed to the public for 18 months during its restoration activities.
Montana Historical Society Museum (406) 444-2694
Montana Homeland is a grand collection of over 2000 artifacts and photographs arranged in scenes of Montanan life from the end of the last ice age to WWII. Weave your way through this meandering exhibit and see the homes and lifestyles of the Indians, miners, ranchers, homesteaders and others who contributed to the fabric of Montana today.
Mackay Gallery presents one of the largest and most fascinating exhibits of "cowboy artist" Charles (Charley) M. Russell. This collection of C.M. Russell's works includes oils, watercolors, pen & ink drawings, sculptures and a fun peek at some of the artist's personal letters to friends and business acquaintances in which he drew colorful illustrations to make his point.
F.Jay Haynes: Photographer is an exhibit of the photographs, camera equipment and artifacts belonging to the official photographer for the Northern Pacific Railroad from 1884 to 1904. Railroad paraphernalia and other artifacts provide a "You Are There" feeling.
Last Chance Gulch Tours (406) 442-1023
From the Montana Historical Society you can catch the "Last Chance Gulch" tour train and get a preview of all the sites in Helena, such as: the Capitol building's Greek architecture; the gothic St. Helena Cathedral with its two 230-foot spires; the mansion district of Helena's mining millionaires; a tiny miner's village from gold rush days called Reeder's Alley; and of course, the train's namesake, Last Chance Gulch, the area where four destitute and discouraged miners from Georgia finally discovered gold. Trains run daily from April to September, but the tall tales run forever.
Helena National Forest (406) 449-5201
Pass by brown hills and golden farms and enter into a mountain range of green pines in this 976,000-acre forest on the Continental Divide. More than 700 miles of trails pass through this forest of Douglas Fir, Pine and Spruce trees. The scenes and scents are refreshing and exhilarating.
Check it out . . . Rumors are that the forest is peppered with ghost towns but didn't have time to check it out. Maybe you can.
Gates of the Mountains Boat Tours (406) 458-5241
On July 19, 1805 when the Corps of Discovery arrived at this section of the Missouri River, Capt. Lewis wrote in his diary, 'I shall call this place: Gates of the Mountains," describing his passage through these 1200-foot limestone cliffs, which, depending on the curve of the river, appear as opening and closing gates. Today visitors can experience this same feeling on this splendid, well-documented boat tour. Almost 200 years have passed, yet, as you retrace their river path, you can almost feel the overwhelming esprit de corps that permeates the entire area.
The Hidatsas Indians forewarned Lewis & Clark about this place, where they would have to portage 18 miles around the Great Falls. Five waterfalls in a row. Today you can follow the 7-mile River's Edge Trail (and growing!) that follows the Missouri River past the five falls. Four of the five falls have been dammed by the Army Corps of Engineers, nevertheless, the trail is very worthwhile, with beautiful views and historic markers along the way.
Tip: Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it along with the best water you'll ever taste at Great Springs, the "largest fresh water springs in the world." This lovely, peaceful park of shady, grassy picnic areas sprawls along the shore of the Missouri River and Roe River, "the shortest river in the world."
Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center
Everywhere we saw signs and read newspaper articles boasting the brand new Interpretive Center just completed in August. We were thrilled that we finally timed something right. Couldn't wait to experience this 5,500 square foot gallery that retraces the Expedition's route, supported by a feature film and an enormous collection of artifacts. Thought this would be a great beginning to our tour of Great Falls. But to our amazed disappointment this brand new center is closed on Sundays. (Hmm, isn't Sunday the biggest museum day of the week? But this place is closed.) The sign on the dark building reads "Winter Hours Tues.-Sat." Winter? It's a hot, sunny day, 85 degrees on September 13th. Fall hasn't even officially begun yet. We missed the exhibit.
OUR CAMPSITE FOR THE WEEK:
Lincoln Road RV Park, Helena (800) 797-3725
Reasonably priced. Modern. Immaculately clean and well-heated bathrooms and showers. Right off the interstate, it's close to all the sites in Helena, as well as Gates of the Mountains and Great Falls.