You’ll find one of the West’s most vibrant storytellers in Great Falls, Mont.
But you won’t be able to hear his stories. The great artist Charles Marion Russell died in 1926. Instead, you’ll discover evocative scenes from the 1800s and early 1900s depicted across his broad canvases with splashes of bright-colored paint at the C.M. Russell Museum. You’ll find herds of boisterous elk and the haunting sunlit faces of three Native Americans witnessing a steamboat on the Missouri River for the first time.
“I like to say that the more you dig into Charlie Russell and his art and writings, the more you are drawn into his world,” says Duane Braaten, the museum’s director of art and philanthropy. “You find you'd like to sit around a campfire with him and hear his stories. A visit to the museum is about the closest we’ll ever get to that.”
While artists of Russell’s era like Thomas Moran and Frederic Remington traveled to the West periodically, Russell stayed, carving out a rich life in a corner of the West where the Great Plains roll up to the Rocky Mountain front. The museum, his home and log-hewn studio sit on the city block where Russell, his wife Nancy and son Jack lived.
Befriending native tribes, he earned the nickname "Ah-Wah-Cous" for "antelope" because of the buckskin patch on the rear of his wool pants. A quiet community leader, locals continue to revere him because he captured the real lives of earlier generations.
"A few of his paintings are almost like photographs," says Rebecca Engum, executive director of Great Falls Montana Tourism. "My husband's grandfather's favorite piece was one of cowboys roping a bear [the 1916 Loops and Swift Horses]. He always said, 'Son, that's one of the things we probably never should have done.' He captured things people actually did, which is what endears him to the community."
But there’s more art to be found in Great Falls, and you’ll find it in an unusual place: the River’s Edge Trail. Spanning nearly 60 miles on either side of the Missouri River, this paved and dirt single-track trail weaves past a state park, five waterfalls, a museum, evidence of the town’s mining history and large public art pieces like a big metal Tyrannosaurus Rex and a goose made of old wrenches, nuts and bolts.
From the C.M. Russell Museum, take 15th Street north and turn east onto River Drive to get to the Caboose trailhead marked by a historic caboose in the park. Hop on the trail to walk, bike or rollerblade to Giant Springs State Park, home to one of the world’s largest natural springs. Walk across the bridge with no railings to watch water flow at a stunning rate of 156 million gallons per day. Also in the park, you’ll find Roe River, one of the world’s shortest rivers.
Along the trail is the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center where once inside, you can pull a canoe (made from the wood of a hollowed tree) against the Missouri River’s strong current to see what Lewis and Clark were up against when they passed through the area. But the center is unique in that it covers the entire 1804-06 journey the two men and their team took. It also tells the stories of their experiences with Plains and Northwest Native Americans. Discover more on an outdoor ranger tour.
Sip a drink in a tiki bar while watching live mermaids swimming underwater on the other side of the bar's glass windows at the legendary Sip n' Dip Lounge in downtown Great Falls. It's been ranked by GQ as the number one bar on Earth worth flying for.
"You have not experienced the Sip n' Dip until you have sung Sweet Caroline in Piano Pat's [bar piano player Pat Spoonheim] style," says Engum.
For more information:
Great Falls Visitor Center
C.M. Russell Museum
400 13th St. N., Great Falls, MT
Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center