“Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far.” | Thomas Jefferson
Wise words and so true. Walking is easy on the frame. It frees and opens the mind to calm the mental chatter—like a reset button for your brain. Walking builds stamina and exerts muscles and lungs on an upward path. Trek far enough and you will go to unbelievable destinations. Great Falls, Montana, offers many amazing places for you to renew your spirit, and they’re all within walking distance.
“One may walk over the highest mountain one step at a time.” | John Wanamaker
The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex (commonly known as the Bob) is a paradise if you’re an outdoor enthusiast. This federally preserved 1.5 million acres hugs the Continental Divide and reaches elevations above 9,000 feet. You could wander its trails for weeks, though many are only a short drive and a day hike away. Here a few to get your journey started:
Devil’s Glen via Dearborn River Trail is 5 miles round trip, but don’t be fooled by the name; this little meadow is heavenly. Maggie Carr, co-owner and guide at Dropstone Outfitting, describes it as a “nice summer hangout with rock pools, narrow canyons and a well-defined, moderately difficult trail.” Prepare your day’s pack for a picnic so you can relax as the waters of the Dearborn River rush by.
Blackleaf Trailhead immediately parades you past incredible sceneries as 800-foot canyon walls stretching toward the blue sky surround you. Call out a greeting—the rock faces are sure to echo your sentiments. These limestone walls near the trailhead also beckon to rock climbers, offering routes from beginner to advanced. Explore the canyon for an easy jaunt or continue to Blackleaf Pass for a 1,500-foot ascent (7.4 miles round trip).
For an overnight getaway, hike a mile north of South Fork Sun Campground to historic Kenck Cabin and settle in like Dr. Kenck did. The nearby South Fork Sun Trailhead provides access to the South Fork Sun River and the Continental Divide Trail among others, including those that lead to the epic Chinese Wall.
The Chinese Wall is a 1,000-foot-high limestone ridge that spans 12, 15, maybe even 22 miles, depending on who you ask. But everyone agrees, you’ll have to hike at least 18 miles just to get there. Thankfully, it’s a jaw-dropping journey past dense woods, alpine groves, grassy meadows, waterfalls, creeks, rivers and wildlife. This multiday backpack adventure starts at South Fork Sun Trailhead, but don’t sweat the details, hire an expert outfitter to get you there.
“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.” | Wallace Stevens
You might forgo the walk around Our Lake after traversing the steep 3.1-mile trail that gets you there. You’ll forget the breather when you see the pristine lake, waterfalls, wildflowers and maybe a herd of mountain goats. Plus, it’s pretty much all downhill from there. Take 89 west from Choteau toward Eureka Reservoir, then left to the end of South Fork Road to find the Headquarters Creek trailhead.
Updated May, 2020: Lost Lake was previously open to the public by the generosity of the landowner, however, misuse and abuse has caused the location to close to the public. Lost Lake is the correct name for this hidden gem near the Highwood Mountains, formed during the last glacial period when volcanic activity forced melting glacial lakes and river runoff into a drainage known as the Shonkin Sag. Over time, these prehistoric floodwaters cut through laccolith rock forming huge waterfalls rivaling Niagara’s. After a short wander through an ethereal prairie dotted with boulders, you’ll arrive at the precipitous dry falls. Peek over the ledge, 300 feet down, at the small, reflective lake and marvel at land that was once part of the ice age. From Highwood, take MT 288 North to Shonkin Road; continue on Shonkin to Lost Lake Road and follow it to the parking area just past Sand Lake.
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” | John Muir
Memorial Falls Trail loops past two waterfalls and Belt Creek on a well-maintained but steep and narrow 1-mile trail. This jaunt offers a wonderful hiking opportunity, no matter your skill level. After the hike, spend the day up Highway 89 at Sluice Boxes State Park, where wide ranges of habitats converge along Belt Creek. The area was home to prospectors and railroaders during the late 1800s. Discover their remnants and wander through the small ghost town of Albright to get a sense of their daily lives. Back in Great Falls, get another feel for the lifestyles of times gone by on the Historic Lower Northside Residential Walking Tour.
Experience a day in the life of another community at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. Along the 3.5-mile Loop Trail is the site where Native Americans drove bison over a cliff for hundreds of years. As you stand at the edge of the cliff, it’s easy to conjure images worthy of a Charles M. Russell painting. See one for yourself at C.M. Russell Museum. Or participate in your own modern-day Buffalo Hunt as you locate 26 life-size bison replicas throughout Great Falls.
Back when buffalos were plentiful, a towering rock formation marked the entrance to the native peoples’ rich hunting grounds. As Meriwether Lewis and William Clark encountered the 400-foot tall landmark on July 16, 1805, Captain Lewis was compelled to make an entry in his journal. Today, Tower Rock State Park celebrates the historical importance of this place. Walk the short trail to the base of its saddle and enjoy the view.
While Sacagawea was aiding the Lewis and Clark expedition, she became deathly ill. Fearing her death, Lewis administered an elixir from a sulfuric spring. Her recovery is credited to those waters. Visit the site via the Sulphur Springs Trail, an easy 4-mile prairie loop along the Mighty Mo.
Continue your exploration of significant historical sites on the River’s Edge History Walking Tour. Included on that tour is a stop at Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, where you’ll learn more about discoveries and challenges of the famed expedition. The History Museum chronicles the pastimes of people, places and events that characterize Great Falls.
“A line is a dot that went for a walk.” | Paul Klee
Anytime you venture into the wilderness, be prepared and plan ahead. USDA Forest Service maps of Bob Marshall, Great Bear and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas; the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness & Recreation Area; and the Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest can be purchased online. The Montana Wilderness Association’s online hiking guide lists more than 300 trails.
Discover the Rocky Mountain Front by Tom Kotynski, provides detailed descriptions on 32 hikes and several side trips with maps, photos and invaluable information from a local who’s been hiking the area for more than 40 years. “Montana State Parks: Complete Guide & Travel Companion,” by Erin Madison and Kristen Inbody, includes both at-a-glance and detailed information for every Montana state park. Or let expert outfitters take care of it all.
Also, remember wild animals live here. Carry bear spray, watch for rattlesnakes and know what to do if you encounter dangerous wildlife.
“It is not what we have that will make us a great nation; it is the way in which we use it.” | Theodore Roosevelt
Enrich your life. Visit Great Falls and go for an unforgettable walk.