Although it’s only 168 miles from Missoula to Great Falls, the change in terrain and topography along the way is amazing. Going east on Route 200, the look of the land goes from forested and green to drier and prairie-like with tall mesas rising mightily out of the landscape.
Missoula tourist consultant Jim McGowan suggested I stop at The Resort at Paws Up a few miles out of town for a look at a high-end luxury resort surrounded by awesome landscapes. At Paws Up, vacationers can do all the dude things—like shooting clays, ATV touring and going horseback riding, fly fishing or cattle driving—then pamper themselves with gourmet dining, spa treatments and luxury accommodations.
For a taste of Montana-raised beef, I later took a short diversion down Highway 83 to Seeley Lake where Lindey’s serves burgers from a Bayburger wagon right on a beautiful lake. In season, you may be able to catch a seaplane landing or taking off while munching away on a juicy burger made of locally raised beef.
Cross over the Continental Divide near Lincoln and the landscape changes pretty rapidly as you descend onto the high plains. Then, at Great Falls, the Missouri River takes quite a tumble over a 20-mile stretch—which proved a challenge for Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery. Expecting to find a single waterfall at the location, the explorers encountered a series of five falls with a stretch of rapids in between.
Today, the river, which drops 500 feet in 20 miles, has been tamed by five dams that generate abundant electric energy. Visitors can still get a good look at the river from a high bluff at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, a large modern museum located on the River’s Edge Trail, a 48-mile long jogging and biking route that lines both sides of the Missouri.
That evening, I got a good look at a cross-section of Montana residents at the annual State Fair, where cowboys meet farmers and urbanites in an exuberant festival of local entertainment, rides, livestock, produce exhibits, an incredible array of foods, and a Big Sky Pro Rodeo Roundup.
Across from the fairgrounds, The Front Brewing Company gets its name from the area of the state where the mountains and prairie meet. The brewers extend the convergence theme even further by using water from the mountain streams and barley from the flatlands. The brewery’s expansive dining and bar area serves hand-crafted foods and hand-crafted coffees along with (also) hand-crafted ales and beers. For a beer place, the wine list is surprisingly varied.
Evening entertainment took me to the Sip ‘N Dip Lounge where 79-year-old Piano Pat has tickled the keyboard and sang for over 50 years while lovely ladies dressed as mermaids swim around in a 21,000-gallon pool behind the bar’s glass windows and wave to the customers inside.
Another exotic hot spot, Celtic Cowboy, is housed in one of the few remaining buildings from Great Falls’ early days. Once a livery stable, freight transfer office, hotel, and vegetable market, the building now serves as a lively pub and restaurant with a mixed menu of Celtic favorites (Shepherd’s pie, Scotch eggs, and bangers and mash) and fusion selections such as “Irish Spring Rolls” (with corned beef, radish and carrot roiled in cabbage leaves) and “Irish Nachos” (house made potato chips, topped with corned beef, Dubliner cheese, onions, tomatoes, smoked jalapeños, and roasted garlic). To slake any thirst, the bar offers 29 beers and two ciders on tap.
The live band that performed the evening of my visit—called Government Cheese—was surprisingly avant-garde and polished, and some of the lyrics to the songs were downright risqué and ribald. Add a spirited audience, and you get a night to remember.
For history lovers, Great Falls has a number of walking tours that explore the historic railroad district, the central business district and the Lower North Side residential district. The guided ghost tours are history-based, as are the brothel tours that peek into the town’s bawdy past. Cowboy artist C.M. Russell made his home in Great Falls, and his two-story frame house and log studio are open for public touring. They sit adjacent to the 70,000-sq-ft C.M. Russell Museum, one of the finest museums of Western art in the nation with 12,000 objects in its permanent collection. Five galleries hold hundreds of Russell’s paintings, sculpture and drawings and are arranged to chronicle the way the artist evolved with time.
Tip: The admission ticket is good for two days, so you might want to break up your visit into museum and house/studio segments on subsequent days.
About three miles east of town near Ulm, First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park is believed to have been used by 13 different Native American tribes before the arrival of the horse. Used at least a thousand years before the white settlers arrived, the jump is a mile-long sandstone cliff over which the indigenous population stampeded 50 to 100 buffalo at a time to their death. Most of the harvested meat was turned into jerky, and a 12-foot bed of bison bones remains to this day at the foot of the cliff, testifying to the scope of the kill.
At the modern visitor center, ranger talks explain how the jump was ingeniously carried out, and a long hiking trail leads 400 feet up to the top of the cliff The vista at the top is expansive and takes in the Rockies, 60 miles to the west. If you’ve got the time and stamina, the hike is well worth the effort.
For more information on Montana tourism, check out visitmt.com or call 1-800-847-4868.
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