Montana’s capital city straddles one of history’s richest gold strikes: Last Chance Gulch. Unlike its contemporary boomtowns, Helena (pop. 26,353, elev. 4,124 feet) managed not only to survive but to prevail through good times and bad. Like a snake swallowing its tail, Helena transformed itself from seething gold camp to trade center, then to capital city, and finally into a cultural and tourist center.
In Montana, only Butte can approach Helena in sheer historicity, but history has left Helena a richer legacy of monuments and architecture. From the elegance of the State Capitol and the Cathedral of St. Helena to the stone shacks on Reeder’s Alley, the highs, lows, and middlings of the state’s history each have their testimony here. Excellent museums and galleries present and preserve the best of Montana’s past and present.
People in Helena are both insiders and outsiders. The state is by far the city’s largest employer, and Helena’s bright friendly character derives in part from internalizing the lessons of political life. Citizens greet you as if they seek to be popularly elected.
But at the weekend, the insiders go outside. Helena is unbelievably well-situated for recreation. With fishing and boating on nearby The Upper Missouri Lakes, hiking and skiing in Helena National Forest, and exploring old ghost towns and other reminders of the past always just nearby, the Helena area tempts the traveler with a rich brew of history and outdoor activity.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition