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The Best Day Trips from Helena, Montana

We live in Helena, enjoy exploring the area, and would love to share with you what we think are the best day trips from Helena.

Whether you are an outdoor lover, a history buff, or a sports fan, this list of day trips will have something for you.

Happy exploring!

10 Best Day Trips from Helena, Montana 

1. Downtown Helena, Montana

Reeder's Alley on a day trip in Helena
Reeder’s Alley Historic District – Things to do in and around Helena

Ok, technically this is not a day trip from Montana, but if you haven’t explored the city itself yet, we think you should start here.

In 1864, as the discovery of gold was taking the west by storm, four Confederate ex-soldiers were in the Prickly Pear Gulch packing their things, about to leave the area for good. They decided to give panning one last chance and one of the men cried out, “Just one last chance before we leave!”

The “Four Georgians” as they came to be known, struck gold in their pans that day, and after that the rush was on.  The gulch where the gold was found is now called Last Chance Gulch, and shares a name with one of the main roads through downtown Helena.

Many parts of Helena today remain to be cultural hubs of the long-ago gold mining town. One of the
best examples of that is the neighborhood known as Reeder’s Alley, located on Last Chance
Gulch in the heart of downtown.

Reeder’s Alley is a series of one-room brick shanties that were built on the mountainside in the 1870s to house the bachelors of the gold camp. Today, the shanties house several local businesses. We love seeing this unique glimpse into life during the gold rush era.

A short distance away from Reeder’s Alley and overlooking downtown stands Guardian of the Gulch fire lookout tower. The original tower was built in 1876 after a fire destroyed downtown Helena and was manned 24/7 to keep eyes on the gulch and the city. We love going to the park that “The Guardian” sits on and take in the views of the city.

Our day tour then moves to one of the most prominent and iconic buildings in Helena – the Cathedral of St. Helena. The Gothic cathedral cannot be missed as it sits upon a hill and has beautiful twin spires.

The cathedral sustained significant earthquake damage during the 1935 Helena earthquake, but still houses amazing stained glass windows, marble, and genuine gold leaf as well as hand-carved oak pews and woodwork throughout.

The cathedral overlooks Helena with such prominence that it’s hard not to be in awe of it when you see it.

Montana State Capitol Building
Montana State Capitol Building

Next on the historical tour of Helena is of course the Capitol building. The building was opened on the fourth of July, 1902. Today, after a few additions, it still serves to be an icon in the city and the grounds offer a park and a sprawling yard for the residents of Montana to gather and enjoy its beauty.

Another beautiful place located only 20 minutes from Helena is Great Divide Ski Area. The roughly 7,000 ft mountain offers great skiing and snowboarding for every level. Plus, it is incredibly affordable and even has a few ski hill dogs that are always looking to get pet.

After skiing, you can head to the Broadwater Hotsprings, located right in Helena, and relax after a day on the slopes.

Helena also offers a wide variety of restaurants, coffee houses, and breweries. There is something for everyone.

One of our favorite places to eat (we are huge fans of breakfast food) is The Bagel Company. They have two locations, several great food options, and also serve coffee and other drinks.

In downtown Helena, there are a number of streets filled with great book stores, parks, local shops, bike paths, yoga studios, and more. There’s even a pedestrian shopping street where you can enjoy a nice stroll through the city and see all the historical buildings while you shop.

If you’re a fan of beer, The Lewis & Clark Brewing Co. and Blackfoot River Brewing Co. are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to breweries in Helena and are great places to enjoy a cold one. Cheers!

2. Bozeman

Big Sky Resort in summer and in winter
Photo credit: Ryan Dunfee & Big Sky Resort

This is one of our favorite day trips from Helena, MT.

Located in Gallatin County roughly 98 miles from Helena, Bozeman sits in the Rocky Mountains,
and gives all types of visitors a wide variety of activities year round.

For skiers/snowboarders during the winter months, the Bozeman area is home to two world-class ski resorts, Big Sky and Bridger Bowl. Both ski resorts have terrain for all skill levels.

For all adventurers alike, the Hyalite Canyon Recreation Area has over 500,000 acres of beautiful mountain terrain to hike and mountain bike, which showcase views of spectacular waterfalls.

The Hyalite reservoir offers fishing year round, and during the summer months you can see paddleboarders and boaters enjoying the reservoir.

For the history fanatic, the Museum of the Rockies houses the largest collection of dinosaur remains in the United States, and has exhibits ranging from planets to crocodiles and everything in between. It’s only $14.50 for a general adult ticket, and the museum offers multiple discounts.

3. Missoula / Bitterroot Valley

Bitterroot River & Bitterroot Mountains on a day trip from Helena
Bitterroot River & Bitterroot Mountains – image taken at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge

The Missoula area makes for a great day trip from Helena. It’s about an hour and a half away
and there are plenty of great things to see and do here.

One of the first things you see when you come into Missoula is the University of Montana. If you’re a sports fan, you can’t miss the Montana Grizzlies football games or other sporting events that are held at the Division I school.

Right next to the campus is Mount Sentinel and the “M” hike. This hike offers moderate switchbacks to the M that is on the side of the mountain and from there are several other trailheads that give a hiker a panoramic view of the surrounding ranges.

Moving towards downtown Missoula you’ll find the Clark Fork River that winds throughout the city. You can enjoy the river’s waters from several different parks.

Downtown Missoula offers a variety of great restaurants, breweries, and coffee shops as well. The most recent one we have eaten at was Hob Nob (another breakfast place). We enjoyed a great meal and even better camaraderie with the barista.

Before heading south on our tour of Missoula, Snow Bowl Ski Area is a great stop if you are a skier or snowboarder. The mountain offers runs for every skill level and is right outside of Missoula.

Continue through Missoula and turn south towards the Bitterroot Valley and mountain range. The Bitterroots are some of the most photogenic and beautiful mountains we’ve seen.

If you’re looking for a leisurely walk or bike ride, the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to see wildlife, connect with nature, and even enjoy fly fishing in the Bitterroot River.

4. Butte

A day trip from Helena to Butte
Picture by Tracy – Day trip from Helena to Butte

Did you know that Butte is considered Montana’s first major city and once supplied over 25% of
the world’s copper?

Now, Butte has some major attractions which make it a perfect day trip from Helena, and it is only 1 hour away.

The World Museum of Mining immerses visitors into “Hell Roarin Gulch,” which is a recreated mining town with over 50 structures and a variety of interactive exhibits and displays to educate visitors.

The museum offers 2 tours, one which takes you underground into the Orphan Girl Mine and the other which takes you through the yard and explains the day-to-day of a miner. Tour space is limited and reservations are required.

If museums are not your thing, Our Lady of the Rockies, a 90 foot statue, is seated on the Continental Divide over 8,000 ft tall, and overlooks Butte. There are tours offered in the summer and even a wedding chapel at the top.

Another unique site to see is The Berkeley Pit, a former open-pit mine which is now filled with 40 billion gallons of acidic water and home to microscopic lifeforms.

Both Our Lady of the Rockies and the Berkeley Pit offer incredible views of the city and surrounding mountains.

Besides the rich mining history, Butte is home to the Dumas Brothel, located in the heart of the old Red-Light district in Uptown Butte.

Dumas Brothel was built in 1890 and served as a house of prostitution for 92 years until its closure in 1982, making it America’s longest running brothel. Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures crew has also done a paranormal investigation here, and it’s perhaps one of their more famous places to find evidence.

Tours of the brothel are given in the summer.

5. Deer Lodge

Montana Prison Complex
Looking from the theater towards the courtyard of the Montana Prison Complex

If you are looking for a full day of history, the Deer Lodge area is the right spot for you.

The Old Montana Prison Complex, located in the heart of Deer Lodge, will take you on an intimate
self guided tour through the grounds of an original Wild West prison, where you will visit 29 plaques detailing the history and life inside the prison.

The Ghost Adventures crew has also done a full paranormal investigation there, so if you are a paranormal fan, this is a great spot for you to explore.

Additionally, the Montana Auto Museum is attached to the prison museum and showcases a wide range of classic automobiles.

Garnet Ghost Town
Garnet Ghost Town

Lastly, just outside of Deer Lodge is Garnet Ghost Town and State Park, which is considered to be Montana’s most well preserved ghost town. You can take one of the many hiking trails, which start from the parking lot, to explore the early mining operations of Garnet.

If you are fortunate enough to visit in June, Garnet Days are held to immerse visitors in what daily life was like in Garnet during those times.

6. Bannack Ghost Town & State Park

Old school house and current freemason temple
Old school house and current freemason temple
Main street view of Bannack, MT
Main street view of Bannack

If you’re a fan of rich history and the paranormal, this is the spot for you.

Bannack State Park or more commonly known as Bannack Ghost Town was Montana’s “First Best Place.”  In 1862 gold was discovered here and it was the first major gold rush in what is now Montana.

Bannack quickly gained popularity and became a contender for the first territory of Montana.

Unfortunately, over time, and with the start of World War 2, all non-essential mining was banned,
meaning jobs and the population of Bannack began to dwindle and quickly disappeared.

Today, thanks to a number of preservation efforts, there are over 60 buildings that visitors can walk through showing the dark history of this once booming town.

Bannack is notorious for having some of its residents still linger in the old buildings and has been investigated by Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures (season 9, episode 4).

7. Elkhorn Mountain Range

Things to do around Helena, MT

Less than an hour away from Helena, the Elkhorn Mountain Range offers visitors a full day of outdoor activities.

For hikers, the stroll up to Strawberry Cabin and the U.S. Forest Service lookout tower is roughly 1.5 miles long and provides great views of the Elkhorn Mountains and beyond. During the summer months, the Strawberry Cabin can be rented.

For history lovers, Elkhorn State Park is a must-visit. The remnants of the 19th century silver mining ghost town have been well preserved, with the historic Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall still standing. Both structures showcase the early frontier architecture which was left behind.

For the relaxer, Boulder Hot Springs (Inn, Spa, and Retreat Center) would be a great last stop after a long day of being outside. Whether you’re looking to take a plunge in the geothermal pools, kick back
and relax with astounding spa service, or are planning to stay for a night at the inn, Boulder Hot
Springs is the perfect ending to a day adventuring.

8. Gardiner / North Yellowstone

The Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner
The Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner – a perfect weekend trip from Helena

If you’re planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park, visiting Gardiner and going through the north entrance of the park is something you won’t want to miss.

Gardiner is just under 3 hours south of Helena, making it possible for a day or a weekend trip.

The old western town has plenty of wildlife to see roaming through its quaint streets and is also home to the Roosevelt Arch.

During the time of America’s first national park, Gardiner was the original entrance into Yellowstone, so it was decided that an arch needed to be built to express the grandeur of the park. It also happens to be the only entrance that is open year-round.

Just 5 miles away from Gardiner is Mammoth Hot Springs where visitors can view the beautiful formations of the natural hot springs and their mineral deposits. *Soaking in these is prohibited.*

There are endless amounts of activities to do once in Yellowstone. Some of those include seeing the vast
varieties of wildlife that call this area home, countless outdoor activities, and most importantly
enjoying the wonder that is “The World’s First and Greatest National Park.”

9. Three Forks

Buffalo Jump
Buffalo Jump

Surrounding the Three Forks area of Montana are several great historical, artistic, and natural attractions. For the history and nature lover, this is one you won’t want to miss.

The Madison Buffalo Jump State Park located an hour and a half from Helena offers an incredibly unique glimpse into the people’s past. This area was used by the Native Americans for over 2,000 years to drive herds of Buffalo off a cliff. They used the Buffalo for food, shelter, clothing, and other resources.

Today, there are several trails to the top of the cliff that offer a spiritual visual as to what it was like when several hundred Buffalo were raining down and tumbling to their final resting place.

There is a total of 18ft of compact Buffalo carcasses and many bone fragments that can still be seen.

Bleu Horses
Bleu Horses

For the artist or art appreciator, the Bleu Horses, located on HWY 287 about 10 minutes north of Three Forks are a hidden gem one could easily miss. From the highway, these incredible sculptures simply look like a herd of horses, but upon further inspection, they are actually several beautifully crafted life-size metal horses.

A small pull-off from the highway makes it easy to get out and hike up a grassy hill to reach the horses. There are about 30 in total, made with a variety of materials. They are all painted blue and include an array of horses of all different ages.

Missouri Headwaters
Missouri Headwaters

For nature and history lovers, the Missouri Headwaters State Park is another great location to visualize how life was during the Lewis and Clark era. Back in 1805, this area was used by Lewis and Clark as a camp and it is the beginning of the Missouri River.

The mighty Missouri begins at the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers and winds 2,341 miles from Montana to St. Louis, making it the longest River in North America.

The park offers several spots to view the river and there are even trails for some leisurely hiking or running. There are more glimpses into history throughout the park as well, such as a prehistoric drawing in one of the rocks.

The last stop on our tour of Three Forks are the Lewis and Clark Caverns. Located about 20 minutes east of Three Forks, the caverns were discovered in the 1800’s and may have been known by the Natives long before that.

It wasn’t until 1898 that the limestone caverns were actually explored, however. The caverns were named after Lewis and Clark because of their extensive expedition in the area.

Today, there are several different tours that are offered of the caverns and the park offers camping and many outdoor activities. Tours are offered May-September and can be reserved here.

10. Helena National Forest

Refrigerator Canyon inside Helena National Forest
Refrigerator Canyon inside Helena National Forest

For the nature and outdoor lover, the Helena National Forest provides a jam-packed day of recreating, just about 30 minutes north of Helena.

One of the most picturesque spots is “Gates of the Mountains,” which offers views to a beautiful lake.

There is a summertime boat tour that has been in operation for over 125 years. The 2-hour long boat tour follows the path that Lewis and Clark took through the towering limestone rock formations down the Missouri River.

Along the boat tour, a range of wildlife has been known to make an appearance from the 28,000-acre undeveloped wilderness that “Gates of the Mountains” is surrounded by.

If you would instead prefer some hiking, the Refrigerator Canyon Trail, deep in the Helena National
Forest is a trail with rewarding views. The trail is 16.6 miles long, but if you are not that ambitious,
the 1.5 mile hike up to the narrow canyon is well worth it as well.

Besides these, located off the Hauser Reservoir, Black Sandy State Park is a top recreating spot in the area. During the summer months boating, hiking, biking, fishing, and camping are very popular.

The park has 35 campsites in total, and can be checked for availability by calling the park office at 406-458-3221.

Honorable Mention: Glacier National Park

Lake McDonald inside Glacier National Park
Lake McDonald inside Glacier National Park

Although we would not consider Glacier National Park to be a day trip’s distance from Helena (roughly 3 ½ hours to West Glacier), it is still a very doable weekend trip from Helena and will leave you wanting to stay longer.

Depending on the time of year there is limited travel through the park on Going-To-The-Sun Road, which is the main road that gets you through the park. During the spring months, more than likely the MacDonald Lodge will be open to parking and you have plenty of trails within the short distance from the lodge like the Johns Lake Loop, which is a casual trail for hikers of all levels, or the Sperry Trailhead which can take you deep into the wilderness to experience the Sperry Chalet and active Sperry Glacier.

Remember your bear spray, as this is an active grizzly bear habitat.

During the summer months, Going-To-The-Sun Road to Logan Pass Visitor Center offers incredible views of the mountains and valleys in the park.

From Logan Pass, you can see Bird Woman Falls and have access to the Highline Trail and Hidden Lake Trail. Along these trails, you can see a wide variety of wildlife including mountain goats with their offspring and even grizzlies.

For the history lover, there are plenty of lodging options in Glacier itself including the Village Inn at Apgar, Lake McDonald Lodge, and Many Glacier Hotel that showcase beautiful woodwork and craftsmanship from the early to mid 1900’s.

Be sure to book a spot far in advance for the lodges can fill up quickly.

A lesser known treasure of visiting Glacier is traveling along Camas Road to Polebridge, which is located on the very west side of the park, only 22 miles away from the Canada border.

There are only a few buildings in Polebridge, however, the Polebridge Mercantile is famed for its Huckleberry Bear Claw pastries which we highly recommend taking the drive for.

The mercantile also offers a computer for visitor use, several Montana knickknacks, and other great food options, all homemade in the back kitchen of course.

Enjoy Exploring Around Helena!

We hope that our list of the 10 best places (with an honorable mention) to visit from Helena, Montana, will help you to get inspired to explore again!

As always, be safe when traveling to these places and take the appropriate precautions when in bear country or places that you are unfamiliar with.

Please respect the wildlife and clean up after yourself while you enjoy mother Earth and these beautiful destinations!

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the best day trips from Helena, MT

The Best Day Trips from Helena, Montana

Author: Isaac and Maria
Isaac and Maria started Explore Unlimited to document their road trip experiences, travel tips and photography with the world. They are currently based out of Helena, MT, and are traveling around the United States searching for America’s hidden gems.

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