In Helena, locals like to say there’s a trail at the end of every street and a brewery at the end of every ride.
Mountain Biking and Hiking in Helena
While every town is prone to some hyperbole, Helena truly offers an extraordinary range of mountain biking for beginners all the way to experts. There are 80 miles of trails accessible from the downtown area and more than 400 miles of trails in the greater Helena area. The International Mountain Biking Association has even designated it as a prestigious silver-level riding center. What’s that mean? Helena’s trails are the real deal.
And to make it even easier to plan a ride, this community of 59,000 provides a free shuttle service during the summer to take you to the trails beyond downtown. Shuttles run Wednesday through Sunday. On weekdays, shuttles depart town at 5:30 p.m. On weekends, shuttles depart between 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., dropping riders off at designated trailheads. That means you can go on a killer ride and drop into town on your bike where five microbreweries await.
It’s a subtle window into this vibrant capital city, which celebrates its rich Gold Rush history but is just as eager to swing its lasso at trends sweeping across the nation. Catering to mountain bikers is one of those things. Didn’t bring your bike? Rent one at Big Sky Cycling.
If you’re interested in hiking Mount Helena or biking the Grizzly Gulch trails, stop for breakfast at Park Avenue Bakery just up the hill from downtown. You’ll literally feel like you’ve walked into a Parisian bakery when you enter this European-style eatery. From dark chocolate-filled croissants to caramel pecan rolls, each pastry is handmade and baked to perfection.
For a great hike, take the 1906 Trail up the 5,468-foot-high Mount Helena, which sits in Mount Helena City Park, the second largest city park in the country at 620 acres, right behind New York City’s Central Park. It’s about an hour to an hour-and-a-half hike to the top, and the views of the entire valley are gorgeous. The same city park is home to a popular mountain bike ride, the Mount Helena Ridge trail that leads to Show Me the Horse trail, a six-mile, moderate ride that drops you into Grizzly Gulch right near the Last Chance Gulch mall in downtown Helena.
“At Last Chance Gulch [the historic downtown], there’s The Hawthorn Bottle Shop & Tasting Room and Ten Mile Creek Brewery, so you can ride and then sit back and relax and enjoy a cool one,” says Mike Mergenthaler, Helena Area Chamber of Commerce vice president and director of the Helena Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Ride the Last Chance Tour Train in Helena
Get an open-air tour of Helena’s top sights on the Last Chance Tour Train that will bring you past the mansion district, the picture-perfect Cathedral of St. Helena, restored miners’ cabins and Last Chance Gulch, a historic area with shops, restaurants and breweries. Many of the sights sprouted up in the 1800s when more than $3.6 billion worth of gold was extracted in the Helena area, helping it lay claim to one of the richest places on Earth. Buy tickets at the Montana Historical Society at the corner of 6th and Roberts where the train departs.
It’s also worth getting a tour of the original Governor’s Mansion built in 1888, initially built as a private residence. From 1913-1959, it was home to nine governors. It’s just a couple minutes from the Montana State Capitol and Steve’s Cafe known for its stuffed French toast topped with huckleberry sauce, among other dishes.
“Helena is a big enough town where we have nice stores and shopping,” Mergenthaler says. “But it’s small enough to have that small-town feel.”
Afterwards, head south to the six-acre Tizer Botanic Garden & Arboretum filled with meditation, begonias and butterfly gardens in Jefferson City, Mont.
Go on a Boat to See Gates of the Mountains
Then get some fresh air and head to Gates of the Mountains, 20 minutes north of Helena. This scenic area marks where Lewis and Clark entered Montana, traveling up the Missouri River looking for its headwaters.
The duo named it “Gates of the Mountains” in 1805 because the imposing limestone cliffs appear as if they are opening up as you approach them. Take a boat tour to see the area on the water, a great way to cool off and experience this area from a different point of view. Keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep, mountain goats, eagles, bears and more as you listen to the narrated tour.
“You can really visualize Lewis and Clark back then and see how the rocks look like they are opening,” Mergenthaler says. “It’s a great thing to do on a hot summer day.”
For more information:
Helena Convention & Visitors Bureau
25 Cruse Ave., Helena, Mont.