For history lovers, Great Falls is synonymous with Western heritage. The Lewis and Clark expedition spent more than a month portaging around a series of waterfalls on the Missouri River (the same falls that give the city its name) and famed cowboy artist Charles M. Russell spent his days in surrounding Great Plains, immortalizing area cowboys and American Indians. And thanks to a history rich in industry and commerce, the city itself is home to a variety of historic architecture and districts. Individual travelers, families, and couples will find plenty to tickle their love of history while visiting Great Falls. Here are a few of our favorite stops:
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center
Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark blazed their way into American history during their expedition across the continent from 1804 to 1806. When the expedition reached the Great Falls of the Missouri River, they were forced to portage around 18 miles of impressive waterfalls, a remarkable effort that consumed an entire month. It’s hard to visit Montana without delving into the well-documented history of the expedition’s travels, and the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center offers exhibits and ranger programs that bring the explorer’s feats to life.
Start your immersion into the expedition by watching a video in the center’s roomy theatre, then listen to a ranger program or experience many of the hands-on exhibits. A large, self-guided exhibit hall lets visitors absorb the story at their own pace, and the more adventurous can undertake a variety of challenges, including pulling a boat against the Missouri River’s impressive current. Neighboring trails, an immersive children’s program, and stunning prairie overlooks make this a must-stop for travelers.
Walking Through Historic Great Falls
Great Falls’ rich historic district is best explored on foot. Brochures outlining four different walks can be found at Tourism’s Basecamp or the City Planning Center.
• Exploring the Great Falls Railroad Historic District imparts a new appreciation for the importance of the railroad throughout the town’s history. Trace the route of railroad tracks through city center and explore the Great Northern Depot, Milwaukee Depot, and the Vinegar Jones Cabin, the first permanent house built in Great Falls.
• Stroll through the Central Business Historic District, taking in large commercial buildings and learning about the development of the town’s architecture through the decades.
• The River’s Edge Trail is a source of pride for Great Falls. A walk along sections of the 60-mile trail leads visitors past Black Eagle Falls, Crooked Falls, and Rainbow Falls. Giant Springs Park and the world’s shortest river, the Roe, are also popular stops, as is the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.
• Architecture aficionados will want to stride through the Historic Home District, home to 216 major structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the photogenic churches and homes were built between 1885 and 1945 and feature a broad array of historic design aspects.
Take in City History from a Trolley
What better way to explore the city’s history during the summer than from the comfort of an air-conditioned trolley? The Great Falls Historic Trolley runs June through August and offers both one-hour “Urban Tours” or two-hour “Historic Tours.” Guests around Christmas can take in “Christmas Luminaria” light tours December 1 through 30 (reservations required). Reservations are required in summertime for groups, but not individuals.
Art History of the West
Art lovers will find the Charles M. Russell Museum well worth a stop. A variety of workshops and tours are available, and art admirers can take in a wide variety of sculptures, paintings, and illustrated letters that Russell used to immortalize area cowboys and Native Americans. As part of the museum, Russell’s log studio and home are open for tours and educational programming.
The Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art, housed in what was once a schoolhouse, features a variety of modern and historic artwork. The museum is “dedicated to fulfilling the artistic needs of the general public” and constantly hosts community-engaging events. Downtown, a host of art galleries feature current and historic Western artists, and First Friday Art Walks, held on the first Friday of every month, offer an intriguing evening spent wandering through studios.
The Great Falls History Tour “Hit List”
Thanks to the dedicated walking tours and summertime historic trolley tour, downtown Great Falls offers history buffs a wide selection of diversions. Spend a morning strolling through the Historic Home District, a locally made coffee in hand, before traveling to the nearby Charles M. Russell Museum for a look into authentic regional art history. An afternoon stop by the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center gives a greater glimpse into the area’s bold history, then grab a light dinner and local brew downtown before cruising through art galleries. Thanks to its diverse background, Montana’s Basecamp for Art & Adventure is an important stop for history lovers.
Other options for those who enjoy learning more about the region include the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. Just 15 minutes west of Great Falls, the park is home to one of the largest buffalo jump sites in the country. For hundreds of years, Indians stampeded buffalo over the mile-long cliff, and at the state park you can learn more about this culture at the 6,000-square-foot visitors center. At the cliff, you can see the amazing panoramic views of the Rocky Mountain Front, the Missouri River Valley, and the buttes and grasslands of the high plains.
About 45 minutes northeast of Great Falls, visit Fort Benton, which was instrumental in the opening up of the northwestern United States and Canada. Established in 1846 as a trading post for the American Fur Company, it became an important overland connection. Known as the “the birthplace of Montana,” the fort is the only trading post that was built in the 19th century to still serve as a town today.
Want a little excitement? The Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River is a great place to travel in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark expedition with a float trip that’s sure to thrill. Choose from a wide variety of trips, but the most popular takes in the scenic White Cliffs. Local outfitters can organize and plan a trip to fit your level of experience. Don’t miss out on one of the more magical ways to view this part of the country.
Originally written by RootsRated Media for Great Falls.
Featured image provided by Road Travel America