Located in the north-central plains of Montana, Great Falls sits on the banks of the Missouri River and takes its name from one of the nearby five waterfalls on the mighty Missouri River. Known for its rich heritage including a considerable influence from the Lewis & Clark expedition of 1805-06, Great Falls is home to the CM Russell Museum Complex, the Lewis & Clark Festival, the shortest river in the world and the largest freshwater spring in the United States, offering a true basecamp to art and adventure for guests. The true western charm of the area is readily evident in the area’s festivals, restaurants, and breweries. Here are 10 unique ways to explore Great Falls.
1. Go Local at the Annual Lewis & Clark Festival
Each June, the rich area history of Great Falls is celebrated at the Lewis & Clark Festival. With reenactments, hands on learning, live music and a glimpse into the past, the Lewis & Clark Festival celebrates the tenacity of the expedition. A perennial favorite of the Festival’s events is the river boat cruise at the Gates of the Mountains, a stunning site of historic significance south of Great Falls on the Missouri River. Meriwether Lewis waxed poetic about the area in his journals, writing, “In many places, the rocks seem ready to tumble on us. At each bend in the waterway, great stone walls seemed to block passage, only to open like gentle giant gates as the expedition drew near. I shall call this place: Gates of the Mountains.” The cruise is led by a local Lewis & Clark scholar, who provides a rich area narrative throughout the two-hour ride.
2. Take in Western Art Week
Each March, western artists, enthusiasts, and art buyers descend upon Great Falls, making this community the Western Art Capital of the World! Oil, watercolor, sculpture, and contemporary art—all celebrating the rich cultural heritage of the West—are placed on display throughout town. Visitors can interact with artists in various showrooms, watching them create new works of art in a live setting, and “quick-draw” events challenge the artists to creative custom works of art in a short timeframe. Experience the famed First Strike Friday Night Live Auction at the Russell, which always draws a lively, passionate crowd, then relax at one of the many after-show venues throughout town.
3. Gaze at Mermaids at the Famed Sip ’n Dip Lounge
Great Falls may seem an unlikely location for a bar voted by GQ Magazine as the “#1 Bar in the World worth flying for,” but one visit to the Sip n Dip Lounge makes the reasoning quite clear. Clear as water, that is. Sit back and enjoy your drink at this Montana legend while watching live mermaids swim in a pool built into the wall behind the bar; the glass wall makes viewing easy. The bar’s infamous lounge singer, Piano Pat can often be found playing at the Piano Bar, and from June to September an outdoor patio offers the opportunity to soak up Montana sunshine and sip on Montana’s Best Tiki drink
4. Cowboy Up at the Montana PRCA Circuit Finals Rodeo
Perhaps nothing is more innately western than rodeo. From the thrill of bull riding to the precision and speed of barrel racing, these ranch-rooted events draw in visitors from around the globe. Every January, the Montana PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association) Circuit Finals Rodeo comes to Great Falls inside the Pacific Steel and Recycling Four Season’s Arena, bringing in its wake a host of cowboys, cowgirls, horses, cattle, and western celebration. Watch as contestants pit their skills, wit, and competitive ability against each other in a series of heart-stopping events. The Miss Rodeo Montana pageant, an auction, and a dance round out the busy week of activities.
5. Explore Giant Springs State Park, the Largest Freshwater Spring in the US
Discovered by the Lewis & Clark Expedition in 1805, aptly named Giant Springs flows at an impressive daily rate of 156 million gallons of water. The water comes from the Madison Aquifer in the nearby Little Belt Mountains, taking approximately 26 years to reach the springs. Water temperature remains at a steady 54 degrees year-round, resulting in stunning steam during the winter months. The most-visited state park in Montana, Giant Springs draws more than 300,000 visitors a year and offers 4,500 acres for exploration, including more than 20 miles of singletrack trail to hike and bike. Miles of paved trails offer a relaxed option for those so inclined, and visitors often spend their time fishing and viewing the diverse, dramatic landscapes.
6. See the Shortest River in the World
The Roe River, flowing a mere 200 feet between Giant Springs and the Missouri River, is recognized in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s shortest river. Originating from the largest freshwater springs in the U.S., the Roe becomes surprisingly deep as it enters the Missouri, gaining depths of six to eight feet. The river competes with Oregon’s D River for the title of world’s shortest, but a campaign by Great Falls schoolchildren in 1988 resulted in the Roe taking the title. Ironically, the world’s shortest river flows directly into the longest river in Montana, the Missouri River.
7. Explore the CM Russell Museum
The vast plains and open country surrounding Great Falls served as powerful inspiration for famed cowboy artist, and humanitarian, Charles M. Russell. A visit to the C.M. Russell museum affords travelers the opportunity to explore one of the nation’s largest collections of Russell’s paintings, sculptures, drawings, and illustrated letters. The complex includes the artist’s original house and log cabin studio, which were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965. The museum also features five permanent galleries, each dedicated to celebrating Russell’s love for documenting the daily life of local cowboys and Plains Indians. Even a quick visit will grant a new appreciation for the region’s impressive history.
8. Sip Local Brews at Local Microbreweries
Housed in a renovated historic building in downtown Great Falls, Mighty Mo Brewing Company is the perfect place to refuel after a day of adventure in north-central Montana. The energetic atmosphere showcases the pride these local brewers take in their craft, and lead brewers Casey and Reanna can be seen working throughout the day. The name Mighty Mo comes from the nearby Missouri River, running through the middle of town. The company’s beer is brewed using Missouri River water. Beer names are all related to the river itself, including the flagship beer “Dam Fog,” coined after the fog-like mist that rises from the Great Falls of the Missouri River when the water falls from the dam. Other options for beer-lovers in town are the Front Brewing Company, Black Eagle Brewing, and Harvest Moon Brewery. For those looking for locally brewed beer, the barley used in the brewing process is grown and malted in this region—making the beer in this area about as locally grown as possible.
9. Hike the River’s Edge Trail
The award-winning River’s Edge Trail runs a vast 58 miles (and growing) along both sides of the Missouri River, offering spectacular views of local parks, waterways, hydroelectric dams, reservoirs, and the surrounding prairie. Walkers, runners, and bikers can pause to explore stops including Giant Springs Heritage State Park and Fish Hatchery and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and rest stops are dotted along the length of the trail. Paved urban trails, including a 3.5-mile loop in the heart of the city, are all wheelchair accessible and make up about a third of the total 58 miles. Dog and skate parks offer opportunities for those so inclined, and the riverside picnic areas are popular for lunch and dinner breaks.
10. Enjoy a Sunset at Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Covering an impressive 12,383 acres just 12 miles north of Great Falls, Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge is not a lake per say, but actually a 5,000-acre shallow wetland—and an oasis for water birds. Well-known in birdwatching circles, the area draws up to 150,000 ducks, 2,500 Canada geese, 40,000 snow geese, 5,000 tundra swans and as many as 50,000 shorebirds during the impressive spring and fall migrations. More than 28 species of mammals also call the area home, including badgers, squirrels, white-tailed and mule deer, and pronghorn antelope. The refuge offers vast views in every direction, making it the perfect place to sit back and take in a western sunset.
Originally written by RootsRated Media for Great Falls.
Featured image provided by Great Falls Montana Tourism