Offering incredible access to what Montana is famous for—that unpopulated wilderness and world-class fishing—the town of Great Falls provides a genuine Montana experience along with a healthy dose of arts, entertainment, and Native American history. It sounds too familiar, but this is truly a destination where no matter your interest, you can find something worthwhile and memorable to do.
Here, you can star gaze without the interference of city lights. You can play golf in the summer, then return to go skiing in the winter. You can enjoy river sports and amazing day trips, and you can visit a quirky local bar that GQ Magazine called the No. 1 bar on Earth worth flying for. Great Falls can be your base camp for exploring the state, from Glacier National Park to Yellowstone National Park and beyond. From Great Falls, no destination is more than 3.5 hours away.
“Great Falls is a nice blend of outdoors and big city, with live music, monthly art walks, and great restaurants,” says Scott Reasoner, general manager for the Great Falls Voyagers baseball team. Throughout the summer, the Voyagers play baseball at Centene Stadium, where you can enjoy fun, weekly promotions and 40 different beers. Reasoner rattles off some of the other local highlights here in Great Falls that he often recommends to friends, including local breweries, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and all the things to do and see along the Missouri River.
And if you’re planning a family trip, you can find plenty of things to entertain pint-sized explorers, too. “There’s the Children’s Museum, Flipping Family Fun, the parks and water park, or the library and CM Russell Museum Kids Exhibit,” says Jolene Schalper, a musician who plays with Eklegein Jam Band, Eden Bridge and the 49th Street Blues Project.
This town is bursting with educational and recreational opportunities for both kids and adults. A lot of destinations claim to be best-kept secrets, but Great Falls delivers on that promise time and time again. Here’s a look at some of the best reasons to put the Great Falls area on your travel destination list this year.
Wonderful Water and the Great Outdoors
Craig Madsen, owner of Montana River Outfitters, says the outdoor recreational opportunities in Great Falls are among the best in the state—or the country for that matter.
“There is arguably a greater variety of game, fish and birds within an hour’s drive from Great Falls than anywhere else in the lower 48,” he says. “With a river and a trail running through it, one can enjoy a taste of the outdoors without even leaving town.”
Madsen says the opportunity to catch a wild trout on the Missouri River or travel the river by paddleboard or kayak as it flows through town are a couple of those “best-kept secrets” that travelers might not expect in Great Falls. “Not only do we have a great variety of outdoor activities, but the uncrowdedness of our area makes it even more appealing,” he adds.
Exceptional fly fishing has made Great Falls a Montana fly fishing capital, while the Missouri River offers multiple activities, from canoeing to speedboats.
And of course, there are the falls. The Great Falls of the Missouri, from which the town derives its name, is actually only one of five total falls that span a 10-mile stretch of the Missouri River near the town of Great Falls. The falls were first seen by explorer Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark) on June 13, 1805. These falls roar each spring, and create interesting winter ice formations in the winter. The five falls of the Missouri include Black Eagle Falls, Rainbow Falls, Colter Falls, Crooked Falls and The Great Falls. As quoted by Lewis, the Great Falls are “the grandest sight I ever beheld.”
“Great Falls is all about being outside, regardless of the season,” says Mayor Bob Kelly. “If you like to do anything outdoors, from hiking to hunting, snowmobiling to snowboarding, rodeo to road races, you need to visit us in Great Falls.”
An Epicenter for Spectacular Parks
Great Falls is home to two fantastic state parks. One is the First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park, home to one of the largest North American prehistoric bison “pishkuns,” which are cliffs where Native Americans forced buffalo to their death during hunts. It is one the most significant Native American heritage sites in North America—without question. Another must-visit state park is Giant Springs State Park, full of breathtaking beauty and the world’s shortest river, the Roe River, which is only 201 feet long. The park has one of largest freshwater springs in the world, with water flowing at a rate of 156 million gallons of water each day, and it’s the most-visited state park in all of Montana.
While most of Montana can claim “outdoor recreation” as a great feature, not every city has a park-and-trial system quite like the River’s Edge Trail in Great Falls. Traversing the 57-mile urban trail along the Missouri River is an absolute must-do in Great Falls, says local historian Norma Ashby. The trail connects city parks, the downtown area, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and Giant Springs all along the river. You can hike and bike this trail in warm weather, or explore in snowshoes during the winter.
Becky Nelson, River’s Edge Trail board member, shares a few of the trail’s most important stats.
“The trail system is more than 57 miles long and over 21 miles are paved in asphalt or concrete,” she says. “There are 22 miles of single track trails along reservoirs east of town, with 19 trailheads, 15 bridges, six tunnels and 13 underpasses.” You can see freshwater springs and a trout hatchery, fish and access motorized or non-motorized boat launches. In addition, travel past hilltop gazebos and a baseball stadium, playgrounds and public art, horseshoe pits and tennis courts—all without ever leaving the trail.
City parks can be found throughout town, 57 of them in fact, including two golf courses, Eagle Falls and Anaconda Hills, and one of the top five skate parks in the northwest United States. The free Riverside Railyard Skate Park comprises 27,000 square feet and ‘bowls’ whose largest depth is more than nine feet. At Electric City Water Park, Mitchell Pool is the state’s largest heated outdoor pool. Kids love the winding 20-foot slides and bodyboarding in deep channels. Soccer fans enjoy Siebel Soccer Park too, Montana’s top soccer facilities, with 15 fields across 65 acres.
Other amazing parks to visit outside of Great Falls but within easy driving distance include Glacier National Park, where drastic landscape changes characterize the dramatic eastern entry for this popular Montana park. Another park, the Waterton Lakes National Park, is connected to Glacier and is one of Canada’s national parks. It’s offering free admission in 2017.
Finally, encompassing more than 1.5 million acres, Bob Marshall Wilderness is a hiking-and-backpacking paradise, where the ‘Chinese Wall’ is a gorgeous, 22-mile-long escarpment and part of the Continental Divide, averaging more than 1,000 feet tall.
Exploring the Arts in Great Falls
Great Falls is rich in arts offerings, from live music and entertainment to special events. “Our community has museums and interpretive centers that beautifully depict the history and character of the region,” Mayor Kelly says. “Our symphony has hosted Yo-Yo Ma, Midori and Itzhak Perlman.”
Home to 10 distinct museums, Great Falls is Montana’s Museum Capital. Works of art by the late resident and artist Charlie Russell capture the spirit of Great Falls and the surrounding area, and the CM Russell Museum has been called Montana’s “museum worth traveling for.”
“One of the greatest painters the country has ever known, [Russell] lived the history of the West,” says Mark Robinson, the museum’s marketing director. “It’s almost like recorded history. His house and studio are still part of the museum complex, and he was the highest-paid artist of his time; one piece sold for $5.6 million.”
The 25,000-sq.-ft. Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center contains North America’s most extensive depiction of the expedition, with interactive displays and special attention to their portage around this area’s many waterfalls. “The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center hosts approximately 50,000 people per year, making it the most popular museum/interpretive center in central Montana,” Nelson says.
Paris Gibson Museum of Art fills a historical building with contemporary art, and is the home of the Great Falls Trolley. Round out your museum visits at the Children’s Museum of Montana, Malmstrom Air Force Base Museum & Air Park, The History Museum, and Trinity Gallery at the University of Great Falls.
Great Falls’ rich tapestry of music and culture includes Metis Indian Fiddlers, Blackfeet drummers, blues, and Irish and world-class symphonic music. Enjoy Municipal Band summer concerts in Gibson Park, and world-class performances at the intimate Mansfield Center for the Performing Arts, home of the Great Falls Symphony. In the heart of downtown, The Mansfield offers shows, productions, concerts, and performances, year-round.
“We have a pretty tremendous nightlife, from Broadway plays to local theater groups to more non-traditional expressive entertainment,” local musician Schalper says. “Our art scene is very powerful, too. Our First Friday art walk has classics to western to contemporary art…and most venues include live music.” Great Falls also has a number of local microbreweries that support live entertainment, she adds.
Eats, Drink and Be Merry
Speaking of microbrewies, local eateries and bars have garnered enormous praise from various outlets. Celtic Cowboy has been named Montana’s best Irish pub, and Crooked Tree Coffee and Cakes was named Montana’s best coffee shop.
But the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge has received the biggest kudos. “It’s a step back in time to an authentic 1960’s tiki bar,” says Sandra Johnson-Thares, the lounge’s general manager. “It’s retro and cool.”
That’s a bit of an understatement for a bar that GQ Magazine called No. 1 bar on Earth worth flying for and a bar that came in second in the 2016 National Trust for Historic Preservation’s tournament of America’s favorite historic bars. Here, Piano Pat has been the pianist and organist for 45 years, and mermaids swim around in the hotel pool in front of the window in the bar. On Tuesdays, you can see Mermen instead of Mermaids, and any day of the week you can order a Fishbowl, which Delish.com called Montana’s best tiki drink. Retro and cool, indeed.
Great Falls hosts a number of noteworthy events each year, including one of the most treasured Western art auctions and events in the world. In March, around Charlie Russell’s birthday, Great Falls becomes the Western art capital of the world during Western Art Week. Thirteen shows display works by more than 700 artists and numerous events engage art lovers. Original oil paintings, bronzes, photography, furniture, sculptures, and jewelry are only the beginning of diverse art displayed. Locations all through town host art shows, and people fly in from across the globe.
“There are auctions all over the place, and we get work consigned to us from galleries and private owners,” Robinson says. “The artist community is growing all around us, and in the city. Certainly Charlie Russell is an inspiration for that and artists come from all over. It’s a giant celebration of all things Western.”
Another event every June, the Lewis and Clark Festival, draws thousands of attendees to Great Falls. “Along with a bluegrass concert, Native American dancers, tipi encampment and cooking buffalo, there are children’s educational programs,” Nelson says. “In conjunction with the festival, the River’s Edge Trail co-hosts a Luminaria Walk. [Local school children] color the white bags [before] we scoop sand inside with a candle.” The free family event is a three-mile walk with music along the trail and 1000 luminarias glowing in the dark.”
You can get a taste of Montana’s ranching and agricultural heritage during the Montana State Fair each summer. From the Big Sky Pro Rodeo Roundup to country music performances and horse racing, this action-packed event includes games, rides and festival food, too.
Finally, each January the Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit Finals takes place. Celebrating 38 years, in 2017, it includes terrific horsemanship, and crowning of Miss Rodeo Montana as well as a Kiddie Rodeo and lively Cowboy Auction.
Winter is a great time to enjoy outdoor activities here. The nearby Little Belt Mountains and Showdown Ski Resort feature some of Montana’s most consistent natural snow, and is Montana’s first ski hill. Down the mountain, Silver Crest Ski Trail is one of the only mixed-use winter sport areas in Montana. Nordic skiers, snow-shoeing enthusiasts, snowmobilers and dogsledders all enjoy their travels through these highly accessible US Forest Service lands.
During wintertime, the local hockey team, the Great Falls Americans, plays at the Great Falls IcePlex, and when the pond freezes at Gibson Park, you can find skaters perfecting their craft, whether it’s hockey or figure skating, you will find kids of all ages enjoying the pond.