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 it's in its water. When Lewis and Clark traveled through Great Falls on their journey to the Pacific Northwest Coast, it took them 31 days to portage around five waterfalls along the Missouri River.
Today, you can enjoy splashing around the area without any of the hard work Lewis and Clark endured. Go on a guided scenic float or rent and do it yourself down a number of rivers, including the Missouri River, seeing the landscape as the two intrepid explorers did 200 years ago.
In town, head to Big Bend Fishing Access on Wilson Butte Road, put in at the Missouri River and float 12 miles to Broadwater Bay boat ramp. Forty-five minutes from town, you can head to the extremely popular Holter Dam area where you can float 7 miles to Craig or go beyond Craig an an additional eight miles to Mid Canon. Be sure to rent your gear in Great Falls before driving to Holter Dam.
Or explore River’s Edge Trail, a paved and dirt single-track trail spanning nearly 60 miles on either side of the Missouri River. It weaves past Giant Springs State Park, five waterfalls, a museum, relics of the town’s mining history and large public art pieces. Throughout Great Falls, you can find environmental installations like a big metal Tyrannosaurus Rex and a goose made of old wrenches, nuts and bolts. The trail system offers a variety of options for hiking, walking and biking.
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 open bridge 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. In one location, you can stand near North America’s longest river, the world’s shortest river and one of the world’s largest springs.
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 when you go on the center's outdoor ranger tour.
If you want to hike, head to the North Shore of the River’s Edge Trail. On a 6-mile portion of the North Shore Trail, the ups and downs on this trail equate to around 27 flights of stairs and you get vistas of the Missouri River, Highwood Mountains and Little Belt Mountains. The trail provides a natural turning around point at three miles to head back, making it a perfect trail for people of all ages.
“Great Falls is all about being outside, regardless of the season, if you like to do anything outdoors from hiking to hunting to snowmobiling, snowboarding, rodeo and road races, you need to visit us in Great Falls,” says Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly.
Then head indoors and sip a drink in a tiki bar while watching live mermaids swimming underwater. The mermaids are on the other side of the 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 local Rebecca Engum.
For more information:
Great Falls Visitor Center
C.M. Russell Museum
400 13th St. N., Great Falls, MT
Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center