Queen City of the Rockies
  Describing a city as both "laid-back" and "bustling" may appear paradoxical, but it’s a perfect description of Helena, Montana. The serenity of the surrounding mountains, fresh air, cleanliness, beautiful historic architecture and friendly citizens make Montana’s capital feel very casual and laid-back. It’s thriving economy, abundant pedestrians and active historical district lend to its bustle. Helena was to be little more than a quick lunch stop on the long drive between Billings and Glacier National Park, but we were running ahead of schedule, so we took a few hours to explore this quaint little city... and I’m quite glad we did.

Helena (pronounced HEL-uh-nuh) is a small city (pop. 25,000), but it is large enough to have plenty of conveniences and comforts such as abundant restaurants, shopping and lodging. It is built at the base of a mountain, so the city is quite hilly and has a wide range in elevation. I-15 traverses the eastern edge of the city. Exit 192 (US 12 / Prospect Avenue) will take you to the city’s main attractions.

Our first stop was the Montana State Capitol Building at the corner of Montana Avenue and Sixth Avenue. Oddly, the front of this beautiful structure is located just across the street from a residential area. We parked on the street next to a house where a man was watering his flowers. This large, attractive building is constructed of sandstone and granite. Its most prominent feature is its large dome made of Montana copper. A large, 40-foot wide flower garden in the shape of Montana, emblazoned with the name "MONTANA" in flowers is located on an embankment next to the street in the building’s front lawn. Although we did not go inside, the building is open to the public Mon.-Sat from 9-5 and Sun. 12-5. Tours are given on the hour.

We traveled about another mile up the hill to Helena’s historic district, Last Chance Gulch. We easily found a place to park to explore this area on foot. We walked about a block uphill to take a look at the Cathedral of St. Helena. Aside from the State Capitol, this majestic neo-gothic structure is Helena’s most prominent piece of architecture. Its enormous twin steeples tower 230 feet above the street. Its interior is decorated with marble statues, gold leaf and huge stained glass windows. The Cathedral of St. Helena is located at the corner of Lawrence and Warren Streets and is open to the public from 10-4 each day from Monday through Saturday. Guided tours are provided on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

We proceeded back down the hill to Helena’s downtown historic district. It’s named "Last Chance Gulch" in recognition of the city’s original name. A large portion of Last Chance Gulch is a pedestrian mall featuring many quaint gift shops, clothing stores, art shops and entertainment venues. Although visitors are walking among 19th century architecture, Last Chance Gulch is very clean, nicely decorated and well maintained. Since we visited in the late-morning, the area was not crowded and many of the businesses had yet to open for the day. During the summer of 2004, downtown Helena displayed a collection of "Last Chance Bears", an art-deco project. Dozens of 3-foot-tall fiberglass (I believe) bears were painted and decorated by local artists and then scattered throughout the downtown area. The Last Chance Bears are gone now, but the project is presented here as an example how the city government and retail community strive to keep the area fresh and lively. However at the time of this writing, city government was considering re-opening all or part of the pedestrian mall to vehicular traffic.

The Civic Center is located at the corner of Neil and Park. This odd-looking structure is an example of Greek Moorish architecture. The structure’s facade is virtually symmetrical with one major exception. On the right is a small onion dome. And on the left is a very tall minaret. Although this building is quite old, it looks curiously out of place in Helena. The Civic Center is used extensively for community events.

I seldom attempt to characterize the entire population of a city, but I am quite comfortable characterizing Helena as an extremely friendly town. Pedestrians actually make eye contact with you and often greet you with a hearty "good morning" or "hello". Shop owners will engage you in friendly conversation. The convenience store clerk was far more cordial than those you’d find in the average community. We were made to feel very welcome.

Other Helena attractions include...

Montana Historical Society Museum, Library and Archives - As the name implies, this museum chronicles the beautiful state of Montana’s rich history. This museum has received AAA’s prestigious "Gem" designation and is noted for its collection of Montana paintings, sculpture and photographs. Admission is $3 for adults and $1 for kids under 18.

Last Chance Tour Train - This trackless train takes visitors on a one-hour tour through the streets of scenic Helena and provides information on the area’s history and architecture. It departs from the aforementioned Montana Historical Society and Museum. Fare is $5.50 for adults and $4.50 for kids under 12.

Gates of the Mountains Recreation Area - This gorgeous area is located about 20 miles north of Helena. Those traveling north on I-15 toward Great Falls will pass through it. There are a few places on I-15 to pull over to snap some pics, but they come up quickly. This beautiful area is not well known beyond the local area, but it should be. The narrow Missouri River winds its way between the Big Belt Mountain Range beneath 1200-foot cliffs. The river is known for its good fishing and boat trips down the Missouri are available.

We all greatly enjoyed our brief visit to Helena. I don’t know that I’d recommend Helena for a week-long vacation... or even a whole weekend, but if you’re passing along this stretch of I-15, I definitely recommend taking a few hours to explore the "Queen City of the Rockies".





Read my reviews from our 2003 travels on epinions.com:

Helena, Montana

The Oregon Coast

The Bend Area - Central Oregon

Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

The Mall Of America - Minneapolis

North Dakota (Don't Laugh!... There ARE some things to see here!)

Science Fiction Hall of Fame - Seattle

Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming