Halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, under the shadows of Mt. Helena and Mt. Ascension, lies Montana’s picturesque capital city.
“Helen-a,” as locals say it, was born in the gold rush of 1864. She was dubbed the Queen City in the late 1800s, when more millionaires lived here, per capita, than anywhere in the nation. The leather-clad Montana Club, with its exclusive brotherhood of men who were millionaires, registered a cool 140 members.
Today, Helena’s gold rush gulches have been transformed into a scenic downtown area, with lively parks and a walking mall dotted with interesting shops. Meandering down the middle is a man-made stream, right where the motherlode was discovered. The nearby mansion district stands in stately homage to the past, a tapestry of adventure, grit, debauchery and charm.
And the old prospector trails, lacing up the foothills, now hold claim to arguably the best multi-use trail system in the Rocky Mountains. Totaling 400 miles, 80 of which start smack-dab downtown, the system of trails has earned Helena the notable distinction as a “Silver Ride Center” from The International Mountain Biking Association. It’s the only such designation in Montana, and one of only a dozen worldwide. A local motto claims the end of every street is a trailhead, and a brewery sits at the end of every trail. With five local breweries, it’s not far from the truth.
Visitors quickly learn this is not just a perfect layover spot, three hours between the geyser-to-glacier route, but a destination worthy of an extended stay. The Gates of the Mountains river boat tour, Broadwater Hot Springs, internationally accredited Tizer Botanical Gardens and Arboretum, Last Chance Ranch—with its covered-wagon ride and cowboy dinner experience—and Montana’s opulent capitol building and historical museum entertain visitors for days.
But the city’s crowning glory is the Cathedral of St. Helena. Modeled after the gothic-styled cathedral in Vienna, Austria, and commissioned by a millionaire Irish-Catholic goldminer, this focal point and its magnificent stained-glass collection will have you questioning what continent you’re on.
Helena charms, just like the state she is capital to. The city lures visitors to return, for a modern-day romance with the American West, as it was, and still is—only better. As novelist John Steinbeck gushed, “I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana, it is love.
Written by Karen Weik
Top photo: Cathedral of St. Helena
Photo by Jason Savage